Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Splittin’ The Raft by Scott Kaiser

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Splittin’ the Raft. By Scott Kaiser. CreateSpace, 2017. Pp. 110. Paperback. $11.99. ISBN 978-1-981954162.

The genre of plays is one of the least-explored offshoots of Twain’s legacy, perhaps with good reason. He did have one unqualified success in the format, “Colonel Sellers,” based on characters from The Gilded Age (1873), co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner. It had a run of over ten years and earned Twain more in royalties than Tom Sawyer or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, enticing Twain to make at least two more attempts to repeat its success. The first, Ah Sin (1877), co-written with Bret Harte, had a run lasting a month, and Is He Dead? (1898), titled after the repeated joke line in The Innocents Abroad (Twain likely “borrowed” the line from Artemus Ward), was unpublished until 2003. There are also snippets of other plays in Mark Twain’s Satires and Burlesques (University of California Press, 1967), suggesting that, whether for lucre or “littery” reasons, Twain had as much difficulty relinquishing a self-perception of a writer adept at all literary forms as he did giving up any presumptions regarding his investing prowess.

There have been many sound film versions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, dating from a 1931 version starring Jackie Coogan, largely devoid of any hints of Twain’s crafted clash between a “sound heart and a deformed conscience.” More notable is the 1985 musical, Big River, with songs and music by Roger Miller, a surprisingly entertaining, insightful and serious treatment of Twain’s work. In a more literary vein, Jon Clinch’s Finn (2007), shows what an imaginative writer is capable of when he tackles some of the same themes of racism and violence, with a completely different focus, in this case, Pap Finn. As Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen noted in his Mark Twain Forum review of Finn in 2007, “Huckleberry Finn is the sacred scroll of the Mark Twain world, and true believers do not take kindly to seeing their scriptures tampered with.” Scott Kaiser, in his play, Splittin’ the Raft, dares to tamper with scripture in what he describes as an “entertaining whirligig of a play,” which “melds Mark Twain’s humor, Frederick Douglass’ brilliant language, traditional spirituals and provocative ideas about race relations in America . . .”

This distilled two-act version of the Huck Finn saga features scenes from Huck’s tribulations under Widow Douglas, Pap’s abuse and Huck’s escape, meeting Jim on Jackson’s Island, the rattlesnake incident, the Huck-in-drag meeting with Mr. Loftus, an introduction to the King and Duke, the “All right then, I’ll go to Hell” declaration, meeting Jim and Tom Sawyer at Phelps’s farm and the convoluted “freeing” of Jim. Even in this truncated version, this is a lot to tackle in a 110-page play which takes about two hours to perform. WorldCat database entries indicate at least one film production of the play was made in 2005 running 116 minutes.

Omitted are many of the book’s episodes such as the Shepherdson-Grangerford feud, the mob confrontation with Colonel Sherburn and the attempted swindle of the Wilks family. The unique twist in Kaiser’s play is the appearance of historical spokesperson, Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and a personal friend of Mark Twain who “tries to set the record straight” about Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Kaiser attempts to do this by scripting portions of Douglass’s own published works into the play as asides and short lectures to the audience. The book features no bibliography but Douglass scholars will likely recognize these passages such as this one from an 1852 speech on the subject of religion and slavery:

I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is not only indifferent to the wrongs of slavery, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. Many of its most eloquent Divines have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity (17).

Douglass’s frequent interjections are certainly relevant and informative with respect to slavery and racism, but this technique, which at first glance seems ingenious–a grafting together of two famous writers–quickly becomes ponderous in the reading of the script. If a reader stitched all of the Frederick Douglass asides together, one would have a brief lecture on the history of American slavery. However, what appears to be most lacking is a dramatic depiction of slavery that allows the audience to extract its own emotionally-laden conclusions that are more likely to endure.

…continue reading Martin Zehr’s review on the Mark Twain Forum.

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