Mark Twain: Wild Humorist of the West.
Performed by McAvoy Layne.
Auburn, CA: Audio Partners Publishing Corp., 1995.
Recorded live at Auburn, CA, 22-23 June 1995.
Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes. 2 cassettes. $16.95.
Mark Twain Tonight! Performed by Hal
Auburn, CA: Audio Partners Publishing Corp., 1995.
Originally produced by CBS on two record albums. Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. 2 cassettes. $16.95.
Mark Twain for President. Performed by Bill
Washington, D.C.: Macklin/Clemens Corp., 1988. Time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.
Order from: 1 3rd Street NE, Washington, DC 20002.
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The following review appeared 7 February 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Grayson County College
Whenever a performer brings a Mark Twain text to audiotape,
whether a recording of
a live performance or an in-studio reading, the listener can always expect
script. What varies is the vocal interpretation of Mark Twain's words,
by the performer's art and personality, or more archival in less
In 1995, Audio Partners Publishing released three projects of very
and the difference has very much to do with the readers' energy,
enthusiasm, liveliness, and gift for acting.
Firstly, the audio event of 1995 was the long-awaited re-issue of Hal Holbrook's first two Columbia record albums of his Mark Twain Tonight impersonations. Simply stated, the two- cassette set of Mark Twain Tonight and More Mark Twain Tonight is pure classic gold, a nugget not likely to be superseded by any other performer. For four decades, these recordings have largely been available only on scratchy vinyl records in personal collections, secondhand book stores, or school libraries, and so the first great joy of the new recordings is to hear them in clean audio, digitally re-channeled for stereo effect. The experience is enhanced by the age of these recordings, still carrying the cavernous echoes of small auditoriums electrified by Holbrook and the interplay with his live audience. No other performer brings Mark Twain alive like Hal Holbrook; not for one moment does the listener realize an actor is on stage. You are in the presence of Mark Twain from beginning to end, and the sound of the performance, still carrying the ambience of 1960s primitive miking, lends an air of authenticity to the sound. These tapes sound old, authentic, timeless.
Holbrook's choice of material has set the standard for many subsequent impersonators, from Twain's reminiscences about his experiences in the West and Hawaii, to the rendering of "An Encounter With an Interviewer." On both tapes, the tour de force is Holbrook reading from Huckleberry Finn , playing a seventy-year-old man playing a young boy and the other characters in the chosen passages. This set is a delight not to be missed. We can hope that Audio Partners will also re-issue Holbrook's third album, Mark Twain Tonight (Highlights from the CBS Television Special) in an augmented format, as the original length was dictated by the limitations of vinyl recordings. Better yet, we can hope for a video of that special to complete the series, and hope Holbrook will record further performances including such items as "The Golden Arm," which are part of his live shows but are not yet available on recorded media.
On the other end of the spectrum is McAvoy Layne's Mark Twain: Wild Humorist of the West , a two-cassette set that seemingly chronicles a single performance longer than Holbrook's, but it is far less satisfying. The problem is not the material. On side one, Layne works from The Autobiography and Life on the Mississippi . Sides two and three are drawn largely from Roughing It , and side four combines some of Twain's somber essays with a question and answer session with the audience.
The obvious problem is Layne's solemn, humorless voice and approach. From the outset, it is clear we are in the presence of an actor playing Mark Twain. We are never in the illusion Mark Twain himself is speaking. Layne makes this distance clear in several ways, one of which occurs in the question and answer section when he responds to the query, "Who are the three most important men in history?" In true Twain fashion, he admits himself to this circle, then claims Abraham Lincoln (an unlikely choice for Twain), and finally Toni Morrison, author of Beloved . Whether this is a nod to political correctness or simply an attempt to modernize Twain's opinions, this reference is clearly one of Layne's own choice, not Twain's.
Throughout most of the live performance, Layne seems to be reading a text rather than performing it, and the half-hearted audience response underlines his lack of energy. This is most obvious on side one as he warms to his subject slowly. He becomes more energetic in the Roughing It passages, but, again, Layne seems to be remembering his lines, not acting them. When he reads from Twain's essays on side four, his deep, sonorous voice seems more attuned to these more solemn texts.
Somewhere between Holbrook and Layne is Patrick Fraley's unabridged reading of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , a fine five-cassette set designed for (and appropriate for) any young, first-time reader of the book. Fraley's purpose is far different from the live impersonators' as his production is entirely within a recording studio. But his acting is excellent, energetic, and enthusiastic, clearly conveying the enjoyment he is having with the text. Of particular interest is his rendering of Ben Rogers' impersonation of a steamboat, the voices of Injun Joe and Huck Finn, and the distinct intonations and dialect he gives each character's voice. Noel Webb's music, primarily brief violin solos at the beginning of each chapter, are mostly time markers but often set the tone for the ensuing chapter, occasionally humorously commenting on them.
All in all, Fraley brings St. Petersburg to life convincingly, and readers already well familiar with the book will find this set enjoyable and entertaining, and will certainly want to pass it along to young readers who haven't yet experienced the adventures without the modern touches of Disney and the like.
Even though Twain impersonator Bill McLinn released Mark Twain for President in 1988, it is a topical tape Twainians might especially enjoy this election year. McLinn has a voice like Holbrook and Will Geer who read Twain's Autobiography for Caedmon Records craggy, warm, wise, in character all the way. In the live performance on side one, he goes Holbrook one better by answering audience questions on political issues in Twain's own words both credibly and in the rhythm of a man familiar with his subject. He mixes topical issues of his day, building from his "anti-doughnut" political platform, with responses to modern issues appropriate for Twain. For example, when asked his thoughts on abortion, McLinn/Twain responds that's not something he thought about in his life, so he shouldn't comment on it now. But his comments on the political parties and economics seem timeless and perceptive regarding more modern congressional conflicts. The interaction between performer and audience is lively, believable, and very entertaining.
Side two contains a studio recording of excerpted readings from a series of Twain's political essays, and McLinn here deserves credit for his editing as well as his performance. These passages are largely solemn pieces on the political party system. It's an interesting if not profound selection, certainly material not available on other audiomedia. While Twain may not have been a political prophet, he certainly reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the recycled same.