Members of the Elmira College Community Perform A Revised Version of “A True Story”

Editor’s Note: In September 2019 members of the Elmira College community organized and performed a revised reading of Mark Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It (1874). The following are thoughts and reactions from faculty and students. CMTS has included the script of the stage reading, a slide show, and Karen Johnson’s rehearsal video in the “Resources for Teachers and Students” section of MarkTwainStudies.org.

The Script of the Staged Reading of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It”

Slide Show Accompanying the Performance

Karen Johnson’s Rehearsal Video

Facsimile of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It” from Mark Twain. Sketches, New and Old. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hannah Hammond, EC Assistant Professor of Theater (left); Karen Johnson, EC Vice President for Institutional Research, Planning, and Assessment/Title IX Coordinator (middle);
and EC student Sadie Kennett ’21 (right)

Jan Kather, Professor of Media Studies: Although we found Mark Twain’s 1874 “word for word” account of former slave and Quarry Farm cook, Mary Ann Cord, problematic because of the repeated inclusion of the N-word, colleagues Hannah Hammond and Karen Johnson, student Sadie Kennett ’21 and I decided to revise the story so that we could (with good conscience) host a staged reading of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” for several classes at Elmira College. We were not surprised to find that the students were unaware that Twain had written this story of a slave being miraculously rescued by her son, a story first told to Twain on the porch at Quarry Farm.  Many expressed appreciation that he gave voice to the illiterate Mary Ann Cord, who could not have written her story herself  (although we do know her descendants have their own, slightly different oral histories of this same incident).

The story of “Aunt Rachel,” as Twain renamed the character, was his first article published in the prestigious The Atlantic Monthly in 1874. Mark Twain scholar Shelly Fisher Fishkin notes that America would never be the same, nor would Twain, who later used this new and compelling emotional awareness of the brutality of slavery later (c. 1883) in the character of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Aside from substituting the word “negro” for the N-word, we decided to make the reading an all woman production. Elmira College’s new Assistant Professor of Theatre Hannah Hammond suggested changing Mark Twain’s recollection to that of his daughter Susy as fondly remembering her father talk about the scene. Hannah explains this revision before the reading, a revision that allowed for theatre major Sadie Kennett ’21 to be part of the production. Luckily Elmira College’s VP for Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment/Title IX Coordinator, Karen Johnson was enthusiastic about reading Aunt Rachel’s story. It was important to us that this story be read by an African American woman, as well as having an African American be part of our guided question and answer discussion where we addressed the substitution of the N-word and the re-imagined all-female cast.

The production was well received, as evident in the following quotes from students who had learned that most often, white men read this story in the voice of Mark Twain:

Ryan Reid ’23A live performance of a work lets you visualize it so much better. You can put faces to characters and the performance tends to stick with you longer when you have that experience. Personally I enjoyed the performance over the Q/A. I feel like the performance of it just dove into the story so much better. You feel apart of it, like you were a character in the story. I honestly don’t have any quarrels against women acting in men’s roles or vice versa, as I think the women did a great job. Would it be a more true representation if Twain was a man? yes, but doing it this way has a nice creative twist to it. To me, the portrayal of Aunt Rachel by a woman of color keeps the story true like I’ve stated before. Personally it gives me a feeling that the actors are truly the characters they portray. Growing up all you know about Twain is that he was a brilliant writer and really not much else. You may have read a few stories of his as a child but this story from Twain really presents something not often seen by readers.

Elmira College students watch the performance of “A True Story”

Kharisma Blake ’23: If “A True Story” were read by a man, it would be read the way it was written and have the original meaning. The change to being read by Twain’s daughter gives the reading more of a window to show women and their voice and place in history that isn’t often shown. With that being said, it was very important that the character of Aunt Rachel was read by an African American woman. It gives authenticity to the character and makes you feel like you are Mark Twain sitting on the porch listening to her story.

Alexander Taylor ’23: My reaction to the live performance was being able to imagine listening to Aunt Rachel say these words directly to Mark Twain. There was a certain tone and vibe in her voice, and as she read it there was a sense of realism, almost as if it was truly Aunt Rachel sitting in that chair. The questions and answers were very informative because after hearing the reading, the information gave more life and meaning to what we just heard. If the reading was by a man, the realistic feeling might be gone, and hearing it through the voice of the women made it sound like it was really Aunt Rachel talking.

Gabby Smith ’23: This presentation was a retelling of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” based on the life of his cook, Mary Ann, who was a slave before being freed because of the Civil War. My reaction to the live performance was that I was able to visualize the story more when I was able to see it being acted out in front of me, compared to reading text. I think that the most informative part of the presentation was the reading itself because students were able to see the retelling of the story. I do not think that this presentation would have been effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as the storyteller. It was better with women performing all the roles. It was important to me that “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American because it led to more authenticity to the story rather than having a white woman (or man) reading the part.

Samantha Proseus ’23:  Personally, I really enjoyed the reading, and the live performance because it was more interesting and easier to understand what was going on. Also, I could see and feel the emotions of characters a lot more. In my opinion, if the presentation was read by a man in the role of Twain as a story teller, it would most likely not be as effective because hearing the story through an African American woman brought it to life, and seemed more authentic. Aside from the overall reading, I feel that the question and answer period was extra beneficial because I always get more out of discussion.  I enjoyed the way it was performed with the women, but I’m not exactly sure what it would be like if men were to perform it.  I feel like the performance came to life because “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American, and I feel like it definitely made the performance come to life. It also was really nice to see how passionate the lady who read it was, and how much it meant to her. I am extremely grateful to have been able to experience the reading and it meant a lot that the lady took time out of her day to learn how to speak as “Aunt Rachel” did in the past because I know how difficult it must’ve been. 

Elijah Jordan ’23:  The story told during our seminar is very comparable to our reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in one major way. In both stories the trepidation of slave mothers trying to reconnect with their children is shown. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass recounts that his mother would work a full day in the field, then proceed to walk an exhausting distance to see him for a few moments before heading back to the fields before sunrise. Mary Ann Cord was separated from all of her children as well as her husband, but through both her and her son’s initiative, they were able to come together after thirteen years.  

To me the most informative part of the reenactment was the story being told. Hearing it in such an authentic fashion really made the story resonate with me, and it gave me a whole new respect for Karen. I don’t believe that it would’ve been as effective if it were a man (who presumably is white as well) who read the story of an African American woman who survived slavery. There would be a major disconnect. To me it was extremely important that Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman. Manybstories of minorities are being told/taught by cis, white men so there’s no real authenticity.  

Jordan Holt ’23: Both the presentation of the reading and the question and answer period were informative, however, I believe that the actual presentation presented more ideas for consideration. This is due to the fact that is presented an accurate depiction of the challenging and heartbreaking life of a slave woman. In addition, it was more informative because it could be related to other notions and topics discussed in class. As a result, people in the audience begin to think about other aspects of slave life. After listening to this presentation, individuals may be able to obtain a better understanding of what it was like to be a slave and the terrible things in which these people had to endure. 

The presentation would have been less effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as a storyteller. This is due to the fact that it is better with women performing all of the roles. This is because it allowed the presentation to have a deeper and more effective portrayal. Furthermore, it allowed the audience to connect with the slave woman and understand her story in a more effective manner. 

It is immensely important that Aunt Rachel was performed by an African American woman. This story is one that many people should hear, as it is both informative and necessary to convey this story and this part of history to people. 

Brianna Costley ’23When watching the performance of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” you can compare it to the “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” in many ways. Both of the stories show just how cruel slavery was and depict how children were forcibly taken from their mothers at an early age. When reading and watching the two you get similar feelings. Both make you see just how wrong it was but also when listening to a woman of color read it, it seems all the more personal. The question and answer part of the presentation was very informative because it helped bring some things up from the presentation that we might not have noticed or thought about. An example is the impact of the presentation being read by all women instead of a man. The reading would not have been as effective if it was read by a man because it is regarding slave children being taken away from their mother; a white man has no idea what this might have been like. Having women readers makes the presentation more genuine. I think it was important that the role of Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman because there is more power behind an African American woman reading the story than a white reader who has never been oppressed. I think this performance will affect the way I see things like the Mark Twain Study because, before I might have thought of some of his other more famous pieces, but now I might think of this one first because of its powerful message.

Twain-inspired Video by Jan Kather finalist for Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Contest

Click here to see the “Mark Twain Jar: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” Project and Vote!

Jan Kather talks about her video being selected as a finalist in the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship’s 2019 Video Contest

Image from “Mark Twain’s Jar: Who Wrote Shakespeare?”

Mark Twain is among a long list of skeptics who pondered the age old question, “Who wrote Shakespeare?” In his book Is Shakespeare Dead? he humorously makes the case for the improbability of a young man from Stratford having the ability to write the plays and poems considered to be the greatest literature ever written in the English language. 

It was with this knowledge that I decided to enter the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship‘s 2019 video contest, repurposing some footage that was previously recorded for a 2017 collaborative video project with fellow artists Daniel Reidy, Wendy Taylor and Aaron Kather. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my two minute video “Mark Twain Jar: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” made the cut, and is now in an online competition along with seven other finalists. 

With their permission, I re-conceptualized and edited our original, collaborative “Mark Twain’s Ghost” videos to address the “Who Wrote Shakespeare” video contest question. I drew my material from three videos that were roughly edited from outtakes by Aaron, Wendy and myself. This original source material emerged from our multiple points of view, with extemporaneous dialogue and staging by Dan as ghost acquirer, interrogator and releaser. I re-interpreted Aaron’s title pun “MT Jar” (empty jar) to suggest the possible “jar,” or shock and annoyance one feels when reading Twain’s merciless lampooning of bardolatry. 

Mark Twain’s Ghost in the jar, before being released

I also wanted to use the MT pun itself, as homage to Shakepeare’s unrivaled ability at wordplay. By having Twain’s ghost speak abridged quotes from Chapter XI of Is Shakespeare Dead?, I intended to create an ambiguous denouement:

Am I trying to convince anybody that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare’s Works?  Ah, now, what do you take me for?  Would I be so soft as that…? It would grieve me to know that any one could think so injuriously of me….I haven’t any idea that Shakespeare will have to vacate his pedestal this side of the year 2209.  Disbelief in him cannot come swiftly, disbelief … is a very slow process.

If I have been successful, a skeptic will think the video supports their ideas. Simultaneously, a believer will think I agree with them. The ineffable answer has “melted into air, into thin air” as Twain’s ghost is released at his gravesite. 

Mark Twain’s Ghost escapes

For the most part, Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead? reads like a skeptic’s bible until reaching Chapter XI. I like to think at this point in his exposéTwain was expressing some misgivings about his disbelief that a young boy from the English countryside could have such an elegant way with words, fearfully imagining that in the future, people would similarly doubt that he alone, a young man born in Hannibal, could ever be considered America’s greatest writer. 

An interesting twist to this story was on the day I received notice about my video making it to the finals, I discovered the 2019 Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Conference would take place at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, on October 17-20. Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead? will be performed by Keir Cutler, with “tours of the inimitable Mark Twain House.” Focusing on Twain’s words in my video seems particularly fitting for this year’s conference setting.

The Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Video Contest Winners will be selected by the number of votes received by online voting. If you are so inclined, watch all eight videos and weigh in at this link between August 20 – October 10. Maybe Mark Twain Jar: Who Wrote Shakespeare will be your favorite?

Click here to see the “Mark Twain Jar: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” Project and Vote!

EC Actors Participate in Upcoming Theatrical Production at Quarry Farm

The spring portion of the 2019 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, concludes on Wednesday, May 29 with two events, a theatrical reading of Waiting for Susy at 5:30 p.m, followed by a lecture by Professor Bruce Michelson of University of Illinois at 7:00p.m. Both events will take place at Quarry Farm. Both events are free and open to the public.

Last fall Professor Bruce Michelson of the University of Illinois asked if there would be students interested in performing a staged reading of his one act play Waiting for Susy, a comedy about a famous, momentous, historic encounter between Mark Twain and “a bearded man” that actually never took place. Luckily enough, theatre students Alex Garey ’19 and Matthieu Marchal ’20 were recruited, and alumna Sarah Kaschalk ’17 agreed to take over as director and perform as Susy, Mark Twain’s daughter. 

As an undergraduate Sarah was often seen on stage, both acting and singing. She was the stage manager and directed a one act play in her senior year. It had been several years since she was involved in theatre, and she said, “I didn’t realize how much I missed directing! Michelson’s play has reminded me of the joys of directing. It’s been fun to work with Alex and Matthieu who both have worked with the EC theatre department.” 

Alex, who was last seen in Professor John Kelly’s play “Gra” as the character Conor Fitzgerald, said he enjoys playing the part of Mark Twain, especially because of Twain’s ties to Elmira College and his prominence in the local Elmira area. “It took awhile to find the right accent after learning an Irish accent for ‘Gra.’ Finally, I just imagined an over-the-top Southern accent because this comedy highlights Twain’s eccentric character.” 

Matthieu’s experience came from taking Acting I as an elective last fall. As an art minor, he is quite comfortable in the role of painter, and his command of the French language and proper pronunciation has been indispensable in bringing this play to life. He plays the mysterious “Bearded Man,” with a wry sense of humor that comically provokes Twain to spar with him in his own less than perfect French.

Waiting for Susy will be performed in the Quarry Farm Barn on Wednesday, May 29 at 5:30p.m. Following the performance at 7:00p.m., Professor Michelson will deliver the final Trouble Begins lecture of the season titled  “Mark Twain’s Homes and the Public Private Life.” The Center for Mark Twain Studies welcomes everyone to attend both events.

“The Obscenest Picture The World Possesses”: A Twainian Homage to John Berger, George Michael, David Bowie, Prince

On exhibit on the terrace level of Elmira College’s Gannett-Tripp Library is an oil painting titled Head of Titian’s Venus 2015 by Elmira artist Dan Reidy. The large scale oil painting references the famous Venus of Urbino, a 1538 oil painting by Italian master Titian that was described by Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad (1880) as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.” Unlike Twain, Reidy focuses on Venus’s gaze, rather than her overt sexuality. But does Twain’s quote simply suggest he held Puritanical beliefs about nudity and specifically in this case, about masturbation?

Head of Titian's Venus 2015 - Dan Reidy
Dan Reidy, Head of Titian’s Venus 2015, Oil on Canvas, 52″ x 60″

Twain’s further commentary in A Tramp Abroad is infrequently cited. His protest was less about the questionable sexual activity of Venus and more about his own envy of artists who had license to depict controversial subject matter. Twain harbored a lifelong fear of the public condemnation he might face were he to express all his uncensored opinions. Contrasting the prudish literary tastes of his own time with the perpetual admiration of Renaissance painting, he says,

If I ventured to describe that attitude, there would be a fine howl – but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat over that wants to – and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges. I saw young girls stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gaze long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged, infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her – just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world – just to hear the unreflecting average man deliver himself about my grossness and coarseness, and all that. The world says that no worded description of a moving spectacle is a hundredth part as moving as the same spectacle seen with one’s own eyes – yet the world is willing to let its son and its daughter and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words. Which shows that the world is not as consistent as it might be. (A Tramp Abroad )

Venus of Urbino (1538) - Titian
Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538), Oil on Canvas, 47″ x 65″ [Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy]
Twain’s judgment that “Art” legitimizes “the pathetic interest” we know today as “the male gaze” predates by nearly a century John Berger’s analysis of male privilege in his famous 1972 book Ways of Seeing. Twain exemplifies what Berger calls “the surveyor” as he not just looks, but judges the “surveyed.” Berger is at his Marxist best when he levels the hierarchy of the classical nude with images of women in girlie magazines. Specifically, he asserts facial expressions of women have not changed over time in imagery, describing the woman’s look, whether 16th century or 20th century, as “responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her – although she doesn’t know him. She is offering up her femininity as the surveyed” (55).

By focusing on Venus’s coyly inviting stare, Reidy has chosen not to exploit the sensational sexual suggestion of masturbation, as Twain does, but instead makes us grapple with thgendered submissive attitude seen in Venus’s facial expression. Berger advises us to be aware that men and women learn about gender expectations through this kind of depiction. He explains that this “way of seeing” women has a very long history:

The essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the “ideal” spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose…an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer. (64)

Contemporary applications of Berger’s test demonstrate that there may be shifting expectations. Women still overwhelmingly wear the “come hither” mask, but men are beginning to as well, as we see in comparing the following fragance advertisements.

Rihanna Rogue Love Ad Campaign
Rihanna Rogue Love Ad Campaign

 

Yves Saint Laurent M7 Ad Campaign [Click Image to read about associated controversy]
Yves Saint Laurent M7 Ad Campaign [Click Image to read about associated controversy]
How do we account for this “feminization” in advertising that might be described in some quarters, using Twain’s sentiment, as “vile and obscene”? We could surmise that cosmetic corporations merely wish to expand their consumer base, seeing men’s vanity as an untapped source of revenue. Why not market the stereotypically feminine concern for “desirability” to the remainder of the population? Others may believe this gender-bending trend reflects a half century of pop culture flirtation with androgyny. PBS Newshour’s Corinne Segal notes in her memorial to David Bowie that “For a brief time, mostly in 1968, unisex was everywhere, and with it came a fair amount of confusion in the media.” “It’s not just the way we look; the whole male-female relationship is confused,” columnist Everett Mattlin wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1968. “In novels, plays, movies, TV — all, presumably, reflecting life itself — men are weak, fumbling, impotent, while women are strong, decisive, domineering…All is topsy-turvy in a neuter world.” Segal praises Bowie for transgressing the established gender norms, especially with his 1972 alien androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust. She writes that for Bowie “gender lines were unimportant in the face of a strong personal style.”

The music industry lost two other notable “gender transgressors” in 2016: Prince and George Michael. It is an easy task to visit Google images and find photos of these musicians wearing the expression of the “surveyed,” offering themselves up to us with the slightly coquettish tilt of the head. Compare their flirtatious expressions to Reidy’s and Titian’s Venus in the grid below.

Gender Bending Gaze
Clockwise from Top Right: Boy George, Titian’s Venus, Prince, George Michael, Reidy’s Venus, David Bowie

The ongoing relevance of the double standards identified by Twain and Berger, and interrogated by Bowie, Prince, and Michael, is further highlighted by recent controversies associated with Donald Trump’s regressive, objectifying “locker room talk.” In contrast to such blustering displays of male chauvinism, these gentle, contemporary examples of the “surveyed sans gender” do not evoke weakness in men, but instead express a “desirability” that is appropriate for people of all genders and sexual orientations. It seems like Twain would’ve viewed such changes in social mores not as obscenity, but as healthy free expression, and been envious of the permissive celebratory cultural environment which followed him.

Mark Twain & Controversial Art

Last year American artist Charles Ray created a stir with his commissioned figurative sculpture Huck and Jim. Originally meant to be permanently installed along New York City’s High Line in the public plaza outside the new Whitney Museum, art critic Jerry Saltz informs us that Ray’s proposal was declined because the work would “offend non-museumgoing visitors.” Saltz goes on to explain that Huck and Jim is “a 21st-century sculptural masterpiece…. a classically traditional Western figurative sculpture in the vein of the ancient Greek and Roman art widely worshipped as beautiful.…[T]he subject matter is totally familiar, even banal or boring: two large, naked figures, both male — nothing not already seen in probably 100 other American museums.”

The Whitney’s refusal to fund his proposal didn’t stop the determined artist. Ray later sculpted and installed Huck and Jim at the Art Institute of Chicago without controversy. Saltz suggests this is “Perhaps because it was inside a public institution called a museum, within the confines of rooms known as galleries, where people know to allow ambiguity, nakedness, sexual tension, and unstable subject matter, even around race.”

What would Twain think about this re-representation of his beloved characters Huck and Jim? Maybe he would be amused by it. When Twain heard that artist Lester Ralph’s illustrations depicting a naked Eve in his Eve’s Diary (1906) caused the book to be banned by the Charlton Public Library in Worchester, Massachusetts, he said, “But the truth is, that when a library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”

eves_diary_p42

Charles Ray’s Huck and Jim appears to be inoffensive, as long as it is housed in a museum, but maybe that attitude will change over time, as did the attitude of the Charlton Public Library. The problem is that it isn’t just about nudity in this case. Ray’s sculpture evokes an uncomfortable reminder of white privilege and the history of slavery and racism in America. I am not so bold to imagine Twain’s reaction would be amusement only. It might also astonish him to see his characters still playing starring roles in our country’s social struggle to heal the wounds left by slavery.