Oct 14, 2012

Twain the Public Speaker

I have just finished the book CREATORS by Paul Johnson. There is a wonderful chapter on Mark Twain. In particular, Johnson puts a very nice exploration and celebration of Twain as a lecturer and story-teller. Since working on my original oration CYRANO A-GO-GO this summer I have taken a real interest in the format of the old-school lecturer... part education/part sales pitch/part dramatized entertainment. Here are some nuggets from CREATORS.

On his motivations for doing lecture tours:
Twain took to public speaking, both for money and to publicize his books, early in his career as a writer, and his lectures quickly become a major source of income and fame. Indeed it is hard to say whether, in his lifetime, Twain was better known as a writer or as a speaker - the two roles were inextricably mingled. His lectures were essentially humorous performances; they were dramatic, and he was acting. He came to this life on the coattails of Charles Dickens's readings, which were attracting enormous audiences all over the United States in the late 1860s, just as Twain was getting going. Dickens read from his books, and so did Twain. But whereas Dickens aimed to draw tears (with his "Death of Little Nell") or gasps of horror and excitement (with "The End of Bills Sykes"), Twain wanted laughs. He was essentially a stand-up comedian. Raising a laugh was at the heart of his art and his creativity.
On how he took the stage:
Twain's entrance, early on, went as follows. He would be behind a curtain, playing the piano. (He did this with some skill; and he was the originator of the western saloon joke, later purloined by Oscar Wilde during his American tour in the 1880s, "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.") When the curtain went up, Twain would be engrossed in his music; then, slowly, he would realize that an audience was awaiting his attention and would stand up and walk to the center of the stage. There would be a long pause, then he would begin to speak.
 On his signature look:
Twain dressed the part, or his part, as did Dickens and Oscar Wilde. But whereas Dickens used the male evening attire of early Victorian England, suitably embellished, and Wilde the velvet pantaloons, golden buckles, and greenery-yallery of the aesthetic movement, Twain devised his own attire. His black tailcoat gave place to an all-white suit, of linen or wool, according to the season, with a white silk tie and white shoes. At the time he became a favorite on the lecture circuit, his flaming red hair turned grayish, then a glorious white, or rather the color of foaming champagne, as did his bushy mustache. This white appearance became celebrated, and Twain was recognized wherever he went, in Europe as well as the United States. He basked in this glory and wore his white outfit everywhere, not just onstage.

Lots of food for thought. I particularly like that he developed a "brand" aesthetic to market himself, easy to caricature by cartoonists, long before contemporary technology could spread him image.

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