The following review appeared 14 February 1995 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1995. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
R. Kent Rasmussen <email@example.com>
Thousand Oaks, CA
Several years ago I became immersed in a project that required reading all
Twain's major works several times each. As I inevitably found myself
almost every available minute of the day and night, I soon began resenting
that I spent commuting. Eventually, it occurred to me that I might salvage
lost time by listening to books recorded on tape. I was aware that such
existed, but had never actually listened to one and was not sure what to
Aware that my local library had a good selection of taped books including
looking sets of unabridged Mark Twain recordings I took the plunge by
having a cassette
player installed in my car. Two years have now passed and I have listened
equivalent of about 60 full-length books while driving my car. About half
of these recordings
have been of Mark Twain works. The rest have been an eclectic sampling:
Kipling, Vonnegut, Verne, Stevenson, Wodehouse and many others. All this
"reading" I consider pure gain: dozens of books in time that
would otherwise have been largely
lost. One can, after all, listen to NPR only so many hours a week.
It is a fair assumption that most people reading this review are already well familiar with Mark Twain's writings. Anyone who approaches recorded readings of them for the first time is likely to make some interesting discoveries. Recordings of Huckleberry Finn provide a case in point. Exactly how should that book be read aloud? Should it be read in the voice of its ostensible narrator a mid-19th century Southern boy? And if the book is to be read aloud in Huck's own young voice, then how should the dialogue of other characters be read? As the characters themselves might speak? Or as Huck would impersonate them? Alternatively, should the book be read in the voice of its (then) 50-year-old author, Mark Twain? Or perhaps in the voice of a 70-year-old Mark Twain (as Hal Holbrook recites excerpts from the book)? Or, finally, should the book be read in a natural 20th-century voice, with only such minimal accents and tonal changes as are necessary to differentiate among characters?
As you can imagine, there are many possible ways to approach reading a book aloud. Since many people are familiar with Hal Holbrook's impersonation of Mark Twain, it is worth a few words to consider how what he does differs from what professional book readers do. Holbrook does not "read" in the same sense that someone like Michael Prichard of Books On Tape (BOT) does when he records books. Holbrook deliberately impersonates Mark Twain himself; his performances mix excerpts from Mark Twain's speeches and lectures with passages from his books (usually condensed and partly reworded). A regular feature of Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight! show, for example, includes a recitation of the opening paragraphs of Huckleberry Finn. It consists of Holbrook impersonating a 70-year-old Mark Twain, who in turn is impersonating the 14-year-old Huck. More interesting for what it might say about Mark Twain than what it says about Huckleberry Finn, this kind of multi-layered "reading" has little to do with what one typically finds in audiotape books. Holbrook's delivery of the passage is very moving, and I think that even Mark Twain himself might admire Holbrook's skill in timing his pauses; however, I doubt that such a "reading" would hold up well for the duration of the book. For reasons that I hope will emerge in this review, I think that such a reading however well it is done would distance the listener too far from the text to make the experience rewarding.
I will get into Prichard's reading of Huckleberry Finn later. For now, I will merely mention that he sounds as if he is middle-aged in his recording of the book and he makes no attempt whatever to impersonate either Huck or Mark Twain in his reading.
If one wants to appreciate any book fully, it may be a mistake to listen to it on tape before reading it oneself. Although I have not actually done that myself yet, I suspect that the phenomenon is much like seeing a movie before reading the book on which it is based. On the other hand, if one merely seeks information or pure entertainment, and not literary insights, there is no reason not to start with the tape just as one might see a film without having read the book. Reading a story several times seems to inoculate a reader against falling under the spell of someone else's reading. I have, for example, heard Matt Dooley read Connecticut Yankee (on a Cheevers Audio Books recording) three times, from start to finish. I have enjoyed his reading so much that I can actually hear certain passages play back inside my head much as one mentally replays favorite songs. Nevertheless, I can put his reading out of my mind when I read the novel myself. I suspect that this is so because I had read the book many times before I ever heard Dooley read it. As strong as my impressions of Dooley's reading are, my impressions from my own prior readings are stronger.
On the other hand, there are times when I hear a reading so powerful that I cannot easily put it out my mind. Such is the case with several episodes in Norman Dietz's reading of Roughing It (for Recorded Books, Inc.). His readings of the Scotty Briggs and Ned Blakely episodes (chapters 47 and 50) are particularly powerful probably because he happens to bring these blustering characters to life exactly as I imagine them. As he reads Briggs's or Blakely's dialogue, he becomes the character so thoroughly that I can no longer read those parts of Roughing It without hearing his voice. (Dietz does a similarly powerful reading of Pap Finn's drunken tantrum in the Recorded Books production of Huckleberry Finn.) Michael Prichard's readings of the same chapters for BOT are perfectly good but not particularly memorable. This is not necessarily a criticism, however. There are doubtless people who would prefer Prichard's reading style as being less intrusive on their own ideas about the characters. Prichard does not develop individual character voices and dialects to the same extent as Dietz. In this regard Prichard is to Dietz as a flavored mineral water is to a soft drink. Prichard may not transport one as fully into a scene as Dietz does; however, he equally does not carry one off in a direction that one may not wish to go as might happen if one's own conception of Scotty Briggs or Captain Blakely differs from that of Dietz.
Mark Twain texts available on tape
Since it has recently been brought to the attention of Forum members that
connected with the Mark Twain Project are looking into producing authentic
of Mark Twain's writings, this may be a good place to say something about
already available on tape. Books On Tape (a registered trademark, by the
way), which has
been in the business for 20 years, currently lists 15 Mark Twain titles.
the tapes under review here (Huckleberry Finn,
and Roughing It), BOT's Mark Twain titles include Connecticut Yankee
; Innocents Abroad
; Life on the Mississippi
; The Prince and the Pauper
; Tom Sawyer, Detective
; and Tom Sawyer Abroad
(all read by Michael Prichard); Joan of Arc
(Wolfram Kandinsky); The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other
(Walter Zimmerman and others); Pudd'nhead Wilson
(Jim Roberts); and The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories
(Jim Killavey and Walter Zimmerman). BOT also offers Kandinsky's reading
of Mark Twain's Own Autobiography,
edited by Michael Kiskis.
I have not systematically tried to track down every available recording of Mark Twain's writings, but I have found that at least five other companies also offer unabridged recordings of his books. These include Blackstone Audio Books (Pudd'nhead Wilson, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Joan of Arc, Prince & Pauper, Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg ); Brilliance Corporation (Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer ); Cheevers Audio Books (Connecticut Yankee ); Dove Audiobooks (Connecticut Yankee, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn ); and Recorded Books, Inc. (Connecticut Yankee, Huckleberry Finn,, Life on the Mississippi, Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg, Notorious Jumping Frog etc., Prince & Pauper, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Roughing It, and Tom Sawyer, all read by Norman Dietz). Many other companies, including the Mind's Eye (discussed below), offer selections of short stories, as well as abridged and dramatized recordings.
The three BOT titles under consideration here provide a representative sample of what is available. With a 1977 copyright, Prichard's recording of Huckleberry Finn is the earliest. It is also the least polished of these three readings possibly because Prichard was comparatively inexperienced when he recorded it (I have no idea how long he has been in this business). In contrast to the two later recordings, his Huckleberry Finn reading sounds rushed. In fact, it is comparatively rushed. According to BOT's catalog, the entire reading lasts 10.5 hours, for an average of about 178 words per minute (this number conforms to figures that I got from timing several chapters myself). By contrast, Norman Dietz's recording of the same novel lasts 11.75 hours a rate of about 159 words per minute. There is much to be said for a recording that gets one through a text more quickly; however, there is also a price to be paid. Prichard not only reads Huckleberry Finn faster than Dietz, he lacks the latter's mastery of the pause a technique which, of course, was of special interest to Mark Twain. Where Dietz often pauses to allow tension to build, or to allow a point to sink in, Prichard tends to barrel on.
Prichard's readings of Tom Sawyer and Roughing It both quite different kinds of narratives are noticeably slower and more controlled (he reads these books at about 153 and 160 words per minute, respectively). Narrated as it is by the youthful Huck, Huckleberry Finn poses a special challenge to readers. By contrast, Tom Sawyer is narrated by an anonymous and nearly omniscient adult. Although one might argue that this narrator is an indulgent and sympathetic Mark Twain himself, virtually any voice used to read the book might be valid. In any case, Prichard's reading strikes me as perfectly fine; it is certainly an improvement over his Huckleberry Finn reading.
Roughing It poses a different set of challenges. It is a first-person narrative of a naive greenhorn in the Far West. Most of this unnamed narrator's experiences are based on Mark Twain's own experiences; however, the narrator (who is not necessarily Mark Twain himself) so distances himself from these events that he is scarcely the same character as his younger self. In contrast to Huckleberry Finn, it seems difficult to conceive of how the reader should sound. What makes Roughing It particularly difficult to read convincingly, however, is not the main narrator's voice, but those of the book's many strong vernacular characters. In addition to Scotty Briggs and Captain Ned Blakely, whom I have already discussed, it has such colorful characters as Ollendorff, Simon Erickson, and the Old Admiral each of whose stories stands to lose something if read in an unconvincing voice.
For my taste, Prichard's readings of Briggs and Blakely do not touch those of Norman Dietz, but he does have his own high moments as a vocal caricaturist. In the Buck Fanshaw funeral episode (chapter 47), for instance, his reading of the young preacher's dialogue strikes me as so nearly perfect that it is intriguing to imagine him and Dietz (as Briggs) reading the chapter together. Likewise, Prichard reads Old Abe Curry's voice just as I imagine it in the wonderful "Genuine Mexican Plug" incident in chapter 24.
Another of Roughing It 's great vernacular characters is Jim Blaine (chapter 53). I do not mind that Prichard's reading of Blaine's old ram's tale does not sound much like a wizened old Western miner, but he could have made more of an effort to convey the impression that Blaine is drunk during his bizarre recitation. The closest that Prichard comes to conveying Blaine's inebriation is slowing down a bit toward the end somewhat like an old phonograph running down.
Much more successful is Prichard's characterization of Simon Erickson (chapter 70). Here he conveys the pathos of Erickson's situation so convincingly that he made me appreciate for the first time that Erickson viewed his correspondence with Greeley as "the talk of the world." These words appear in the very first paragraph of chapter 70. My eyes have seen the words many times, but their full import simply did not register on me until I heard Prichard read them.
Unexpected benefits of listening to taped books
The point about Simon Erickson that I just made may not in itself be
however, it illustrates an important benefit of listening to recorded
time I listen to someone read one of Mark Twain's books, I notice something
I have missed before just as I find something new each time I read the same
book myself. Whether
the kinds of things that one notices while reading and listening are the
am not sure. I suspect, however, that they may be different because of the
different ways in which the texts penetrate one's consciousness. When one
on a page, one's eyes move down the lines at constantly changing rates of
However much one tries, it is difficult to maintain a uniform level of attentiveness;
details and nuances thus inevitably slip by. Listening to someone else
read the same
text alters the pacing and rhythms. Professional book readers tend to read
uniform rates of speed, thereby delivering the words to the listener's ears
almost certainly different from those at which one would read them directly
off the page.
One effect of this is to make it more difficult for listeners to skip over
as one might in reading the book.
Having to listen to every passage in a recorded book has often helped me to notice details that I have previously overlooked. A minor example occurred while I was listening to Tom Sawyer 's chapter 26, in which Tom and Huck hide in the haunted house while Injun Joe and his partner are inside. It was not until I listened to Prichard read the novel that I caught the detail that the "chinks" in the walls of the log-house are big enough for Tom and Huck to look through the gaps and see Joe and his partner as they leave the house.
On a more substantive level, listening to Prichard read Tom Sawyer set me to thinking about an apparent flaw in the plot that may merit closer attention. You may recall that when Tom and Becky escape from the cave after getting lost, they emerge at a point about "five miles" downriver from the cave's main entrance at Cave Hollow. It is near this spot inside the cave that Tom spots Injun Joe (whom Prichard gives a commanding voice that recalls Jay Silverheels as Tonto in "The Lone Ranger"), and where he and Huck later find the gold hidden by Joe and his partner. Meanwhile, Injun Joe is found starved to death just inside the cave's main entrance, which Judge Thatcher has ordered sealed shut with an iron door. It was not until I listened to Prichard read these chapters that it occurred to me what an unlikely hiding place Joe and his partner had chosen for their gold. Until that moment, I suppose that I had somehow assumed that the criminals got in and out of the cave through either the same opening that Tom found or another opening nearby. Only when I last listened to Prichard's reading did it occur to me that if Joe knew about another entrance to the cave, he would not have remained at the main entrance until he died. Therefore, he and his partner must have used the main entrance to get to their hiding place. They therefore would have had to walk about five miles through pitch-black and labyrinthine passageways and would have needed at least four hours to get in and out. Furthermore, using the cave's main entrance would put them in danger of being seen by other people. Now, I cannot imagine that I am the first person to notice this problem in Tom Sawyer, but I can say that I may not have noticed it myself, had I not listened to the tapes.
As one of the myriad of people who despises the "evasion" episode at the end of Huckleberry Finn, I generally find myself plowing through these chapters when I read the novel. Listening to the novel on tape forces me to slow down and pay attention to every word. As a consequence, I notice details that I seem to have missed in many previous readings of the same pages. Likewise, the trial chapters of Joan of Arc hold my attention as poorly as Huckleberry Finn 's "evasion" chapters and I find it difficult to keep my attention from wandering when I read them. Just over a year ago, I listened to the late Wolfram Kandinsky's reading of Joan of Arc (on BOT) during a long auto trip and I had a revelation: as my car moved along the dreary landscapes of central California's Highway 5, those same trial chapters seemed almost riveting. Well, "riveting" may be too strong a word, but it is true that the trial chapters are far more palatable on tape than on the page. Long stretches of featureless countryside also help to keep one's mind from wandering.
Some general remarks about unabridged book recordings
The BOT cassettes under review here came to me with almost no printed
(what I received may not represent all the printed information that the
provides). The individual cassettes provide only Mark Twain's name, the
books' titles, and cassette numbers. After side one of the first cassette,
sides rarely begin
with a fresh chapter, making it difficult to find individual passages; it
be useful to have the chapter numbers printed on each side.
Every BOT recording to which I have listened opens with a long explanation of how to handle the cassettes that is as monotonous as an airline attendant's explanation of what to do in an emergency (no other tapes that I have heard subject listeners to a similar ordeal). The tapes also generally include the reading of the published book's dustjacket blurb or introduction; in the case of Mark Twain's works, these introductions are often merely irritating and occasionally inaccurate (for example, the introduction to Roughing It calls Simon Erickson "Hank Erickson"). Oddly, nothing on the tapes themselves identifies the readers.
The fact that BOT and other companies offer dozens of unabridged Mark Twain titles reflects both his general popularity and the popularity of listening to recordings of his books. Most of his contemporaries fare less well. The catalogs of Books On Tape and Recorded Books, Inc. the two biggest distributors of unabridged recordings provide useful indicators of what today's public listens to. Neither catalog contains a single title by Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Aldrich, George Washington Cable, Mary Mapes Dodge, Joel Chandler Harris, W. D. Howells, Joaquin Miller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Charles Dudley Warner. Bret Harte is represented only by The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Stories in both lists. Other writers who were contemporary or nearly contemporary to Mark Twain include the following. (Figures within parentheses indicate the total numbers of recorded sets that both BOT and Recorded Books list; note that many individual titles are issued by both companies):
Fenimore Cooper (4)Neither company lists any titles by humorists who were contemporary to Mark Twain, such as Artemus Ward and P. V. Nasby. I suspect that this is because few modern readers can abide their dreadfully dated cacography. Who has the patience today to struggle through a sketch such as Artemus Ward's "Women's Rights"? It opens thus:
Stephen Crane (5)
Charles Dickens (25)
Rider Haggard (2)
Henry James (12)
Sarah Orne Jewett (2)
Rudyard Kipling (10)
Jack London (11)
Edgar Allan Poe (7)
Robert Louis Stevenson (15)
Jules Verne (6)
I pitcht my tent in a small town in Injianny one day last seeson, & while I was standing at the dore takin morey, a deppytashun of ladies came up & sed they wos members of the Bunkumville Female Reformin & Wimin's Rite's Associashun, and thay axed me if thay cood go in without payin.Would it be possible, I wonder, for the popularity of Artemus Ward and some of his contemporaries to enjoy a modest revival if their works were available on tape? Perhaps BOT or another company might consider offering selections from Mark Twain's Library of Humor, which contains a large cross-section of 19th century American humorists. (Likewise, imagine what an interesting experiment it would be for a company to record a selection of Mark Twain's speeches with each read by a different person.)
The recordings published by the Mind's Eye are fundamentally different from
book recordings that we have just considered. Its taped dramatizations of
and Connecticut Yankee
raise different sets of questions about what we should expect to hear. Originally
made for radio, both of these productions are performed by ensemble casts
enhanced by light sound effects.
The three-cassette Huckleberry Finn production was adapted and directed for radio by Bob Lewis (presumably in 1972, the copyright date on the tapes). The cast includes Lou Bliss (Huck), Chris Brooks (Jim), James Erington (Duke), Rick Cimino (Pap, the King and Silas Phelps), Fay De Witt (Sally Phelps), Lynn Preisler (Tom Sawyer). (I have guessed at the spellings of some of these names because the printed information accompanying the tapes is minimal.) The production's overall storyline is as faithful to the original novel as the fullest film adaptations that I have ever seen. Its script pays at least nodding attention to most of the story's main episodes, while cleaning up the book's language (for example, the word "nigger" never appears).
An advantage that audio dramatizations have over screen adaptations is that much of a book's original narrative can be recited unobtrusively. The tape of Huckleberry Finn, for example, begins with an actor (who sounds much like Hal Holbrook) reading the author's "Notice." The narrative then begins with Huck reciting the opening portion of chapter 1. Since this opening sets the tone for the rest of the narrative, it merits close attention. Here is the novel's first paragraph:
You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly Tom's Aunt Polly, she is and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book which is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before.Here is the same passage in the dramatized adaptation:
You don't know about me unless you have read a book by the name of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or t'other, unless it was Miss Watson, or maybe the Widow Douglas. The widow, she's the one who took me for a son . . .
Now, in view of the fact that this is presented as a dramatization, not a "reading," it is reasonable for some license to be taken in the text. One must wonder, however, about the nature of the modifications made in this first paragraph. I personally was dismayed halfway through the first sentence by the swapping of "unless" for "without" a completely unnecessary change that saps much of the vitality from Huck's language. For a moment, I assumed that the scriptwriters intended to correct Huck's grammar throughout, but the fourth sentence proves that this cannot be their plan, as they swap "or t'other" (a term that Huck himself does not use until chapter 19 of the novel) for "or another." The first change thus substitutes a grammatically correct phrase for Huck's dialect; the second change inserts a slang term for a grammatically correct term. Whatever the reasons for these changes, they cannot be consistency.
Farther along in the first paragraph, we find a more substantive change.
Twain writes "without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe
Mary," the adaptation
offers "unless it was Miss Watson, or maybe the Widow Douglas."
I assume that the
reason for this change is to stress Miss Watson's importance, especially
Polly barely figures in the novel until the concluding chapters, and Mary
really figure as a character in the novel. On the other hand, the liberties taken
in the radio play's opening are trivial compared to the voice-over that
opens the recent
Disney film adaptation of Huckleberry Finn:
My name's Huck. Huck Finn! And this story's about me and a slave named Jim. And it's mainly the truth. Oh sure, there's a few stretchers, here and there. But, then, I never met anybody who didn't lie a little when the situation suited 'em. So, kick off your shoes, if you're wearing them, and get ready for spit-licking good time.
Note the transference from the original text, in which Huck calls Mark Twain a liar, to the film script, in which Huck implies that he himself is a liar. This radical shift reveals the scriptwriters' fundamental failure to understand Huck's character. Although it is true that Huck often lies within the context of his narrative, his narrative itself is completely honest.
But all this is taking us farther from the radio play. Immediately after
play's opening paragraph, the tape launches into its dramatization, with
dinner bell audibly calling Huck to supper. At this point, the adaptation
to supply freshly invented dialogue. What follows seems reasonably within
most of the speakers, though I wonder if the Widow Douglas would really
own sister as "Miss Watson." Here, of course, the scriptwriters
face a dilemma:
do they invent a first name for the character, or simply evade the issue?
A more unaccountable change in the radio play occurs in its adaptation of chapter 31, in which Huck is looking for Jim near Pikesville. In the novel, Huck meets a boy who tells him that Jim is being held prisoner at the Phelpses'. In the radio play, this child becomes a girl perhaps to widen the story's appeal to children?
In watching filmed versions of Huckleberry Finn, one cannot help wondering if certain episodes are omitted primarily in order to save production costs. The Walter Scott steamboat episode (chapter 12) is a case in point. The only film I recall that dramatizes that episode is Disney's Adventures of Huck Finn ; however, its treatment of the episode scarcely follows the novel. (It transforms the steamboat into a sailing craft and puts Pap Finn's corpse aboard it.) By contrast, the Mind's Eye radio play presents a nearly complete rendition of the steamboat episode. On the whole, this episode works well, though I think the scriptwriter was negligent in omitting one of the novel's best lines of dialogue. You might recall the moment when the criminal Jake Packard explains to his partner why he prefers to leave their prisoner Jim Turner aboard the steamboat so that Turner will die when the boat breaks up, instead of killing him outright: "'I'm unfavorable to killin' a man as long as you can git around it; it ain't good sense, it ain't good morals. Ain't I right?'" No, Jake, it ain't good morals, and it's a shame that your sage advice wasn't left in the tape for the edification of younger listeners.
Naturally, the audio production does skip over several episodes. Few listeners are likely to object strongly to its perfunctory treatment of the early chapters concerning Tom Sawyer's gang. A more important condensation is its treatment of Pap Finn. Oddly, the radio play goes into loving detail about Pap Finn's drunken behavior in the cabin where he keeps Huck prisoner, while unaccountably saying nothing about Pap's efforts to gain legal custody of Huck and Huck's treasure money. Another significant truncation occurs in the play's adaptation of the important events in Bricksville. It treats the "Shaksperean Revival" and Royal Nonesuch performances fully (its addition of appropriate catcalls from the audience is a nice touch), but it reduces Huck's visit to the circus to a single line and omits Sherburn's shooting of Boggs and the subsequent lynch mob scenes altogether.
One notable divergence from the original novel that leads the radio play into a silly problem is its omission of the House of Death episode (chapter 9). Among the swag that Jim and Huck carry away from the derelict house in the novel is a girl's outfit, which Huck later wears when he sneaks back to town and encounters Mrs. Loftus. In the audio production, he wears a dress belonging to Jim's daughter. The fact that Jim's daughter should be too young to have a dress that would fit Huck is less problematic than the question of why Jim would be carrying his daughter's clothes with him when he is running away. Another gaffe occurs toward the end of the story, when Sally Phelps mistakenly alludes to her sister Polly as "Sid and Tom's ma." Polly is, of course, their aunt. The Shepherdson episode unfolds with enough attention to detail to include Buck's riddle about Moses, but there is no reference to Emmeline Grangerford, so we miss the chance to hear the "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd."
In general, the play's acting performances are fine. Lou Bliss sounds a bit young as Huck and tends toward breathless excitement, but otherwise maintains a consistent tone that makes him credible as Huck. Rick Cimino plays the King convincingly, and does an especially good job when he poses as Harvey Wilks and must speak with an English accent bad enough for us to share in Dr. Robinson's derision. As Tom Sawyer Lynn Preisler has a major role at the end of the narrative in the extended evasion episode, in which he comes across as altogether too "golly-gee-whiz." The fault may be less his, however, than that of the director who seems to be striving for an exciting boys' adventure.
Since Connecticut Yankee is one of my favorite Mark Twain novels, I approached the audio dramatization of it with special anticipation. I was not disappointed. In many ways, this production (which was made after the same production company's Huckleberry Finn production) is superior to the latter. I am equally familiar with both novels, but since I tend to regard Huckleberry Finn as more "sacred" than other Mark Twain texts, I am far more inclined to be upset by changes in its adaptations. To me, the omission of an episode such as the Walter Scott passage from Huckleberry Finn seems slightly profane. By contrast, omission of comparable episodes in other Mark Twain works does not bother me nearly so much. In any case, this radio play of Connecticut Yankee is much closer to Mark Twain's original story than any screen adaptation that I have ever seen.
As with the Huckleberry Finn production, the Connecticut Yankee radio play includes most of the original novel's major episodes many of which have never been dramatized in the many screen adaptations, which tend to favor the book's comic-opera elements. Through about the first half of the radio play, the adaptation follows the novel reasonably faithfully. Its reenactment of Hank's restarting of the fountain in the Valley of Holiness is particularly good particularly Hank's encounter with the fake magician who claims to know what distant kings are doing. Among the bits that I noticed missing through this section are Hank's descriptions of the hermits, the king's-evil, the examination of the West Point cadet and the appearance of the first newspaper. Soon after King Arthur arrives in the valley, he and Hank depart on their undercover tour of the kingdom.
The episode at the Smallpox Hut near Abblasoure (chapter 29) is treated particularly fully. Incidentally, the radio play adds just enough sound effects to enliven the production without overwhelming its performances. When Hank and the King escape the bloody chaos near Abblasoure, for example, we hear faint screaming in the distance. When Sandy finally leads Hank to the captive princesses, we can hear the pigs oinking just loud enough to establish an image in one's mind.
Beyond the unavoidable elisions and condensations, I noticed few alterations in the story. One perfectly understandable change comes toward the end, when Hank is on the lam in London and is trying to get a message to Camelot. In the novel, he stumbles upon a secret telegraph office, which he commandeers in order to telegraph to Camelot for help. In the tape, it is a telephone office so we can hear him speaking with Clarence instead of merely exchanging coded messages.
Morgan Upton, who plays the Yankee, does not quite sound right to me (perhaps I am biased because of my familiarity with Dooley's excellent recording), but he is by no means objectionable aside from a mild chuckle that he often adds to passages. It sees to betray a greater self-awareness of the character's hypocrisy and self-seeking nature than Mark Twain's novel suggests.
As King Arthur, John Joss strains to maintain an English accent. Why a character should need an English accent in the sixth century is another question. After all, American and British English not only derive from the same roots, the language of sixth-century England was not even English (a fact which Hank acknowledges in chapter 22, when he alludes to "standing in the awful presence of the Mother of the German Language"). The accents of other characters are even harder to swallow. The wife of Marco the charcoal burner, for example, speaks with a pronounced Cockney accent better suited to Eliza Doolittle. Bernard Mayes reads Merlin as a burlesque caricature rather as one might imagine Rowen Atkinson might read the part. Pat Franklyn does Morgan le Fay as a distinctly elderly woman (despite Hank's description of the character as physically young); her reading of the character might be suited for one of Macbeth's witches.
The Mind's Eye's Mark Twain package includes a "bonus" cassette with dramatizations of Mark Twain's jumping frog story and Stephen Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" and Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (the tape carries a 1972 copyright, but lists no credits). This jumping frog adaptation is an interesting example of inversion of Mark Twain's original intent. As I understand his conception of a "humorous story," the story's purpose is to demonstrate the monotony of garrulous old Simon Wheeler's recitation of an inherently remarkable story. The taped adaptation makes exactly the opposite point, as Wheeler cannot contain his amusement (he even laughs at what he is saying). This adaptation mixes original textual passages with fresh dialogue read by an ensemble cast, but it omits several important bits most notably the marvelous description of the bull pup Andrew Jackson.
In contrast to the dramatizations of Huckleberry Finn and Connecticut Yankee, this production is overloaded with sound effects, which include a loud audience at the frog-jumping competition. The stranger does not even pronounce "p'ints" properly, and to add insult to injury, the production ends with a horrible song (not so horrible, however, as that inserted in the tape's Stephen Crane story).
The jumping frog story represents the apotheosis of Mark Twain's definition of a "humorous story" one in which the manner of telling is more important than its content. Early in the story, the narrator describes the manner of Simon Wheeler's recitation about Jim Smiley quite clearly:
[He] reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph. He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned his initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm; but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity, which showed me plainly that, so far from his imagining that there was anything ridiculous or funny about his story, he regarded it as a really important matter, and admired its two heroes as men of transcendent genius in finesse. I let him go on in his own way, and never interrupted him once.
This description provides a clear yardstick by which to measure readings of the story. Neither of two straight readings of the unabridged text that I have heard on other recordings meets Mark Twain's criteria either. Of course, we could make allowances for the fact that the story is not being narrated by Wheeler himself, but by the anonymous frame-narrator (Mark Twain himself in the original version of the story), whose own enthusiasm may have gotten the best of him. On the other hand, this dramatic adaptation of the jumping frog story is not recited throughout by a frame-narrator. Much of the story is told in dramatic reenactments, many of which are recited by Wheeler himself. Does he, then, maintain the "monotonous" voice that Mark Twain describes? The answer is a decided no.
Although the dramatized recording has powerfully little to do with the point of Mark Twain's original story, it is a lively production that should hold the attention of modern audiences well enough. It is a shame, however, that it must do so at the expense of giving listeners such a distorted notion of what Mark Twain was all about.
About the reviewer
R. Kent Rasmussen lives in Thousand Oaks, California. Currently an editor at Salem Press, he was formerly an associate editor of the Marcus Garvey Papers at UCLA. He is the author of Mark Twain A to Z, a comprehensive reference book that Facts On File has scheduled for August publication. He is also the editor of Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls, which Contemporary Books has tentatively scheduled for fall publication.