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Not even the cumbersome title and shared authorial credits reveal the true complexities and treasures to be found between the covers of Horton Foote's The Shape of the River: The Lost Teleplay about Mark Twain, with History & Analysis by Mark Dawidziak. This book, despite its brevity, is an astoundingly multiheaded beast: part dramatic play, part detective story, part literary analysis, part multimedia history, and part celebrity interview fest.
All of this is built around "The Shape of the River," a TV docudrama about Clemens's later life, covering the years 1895 (before embarking on his return-from-bankruptcy international lecture tour) to 1909 (the death of his daughter Jean, and the year before his own). Written by Horton Foote, it was performed, starring Franchot Tone as Clemens, as the penultimate presentation of the CBS dramatic anthology series "Playhouse 90" on May 2, 1960.
Foote's credentials alone--as the Oscar-winning adaptor of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and author of Tender Mercies for the large screen, the Emmy-winning scriptwriter for Old Man on the small screen, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist for The Young Man from Atlanta on the stage--make this a significant publication, especially since Shape of the River predates much of the lauded scholarship into the dark personal tragedies of Clemens's final years.
Yet this isn't just a reprinting; it's a rediscovery. Foote himself thought the production, like so many Golden Age dramas, was lost to the ages. Yet Dawidziak, after a query was posted on the Mark Twain Forum, was able to locate a copy languishing forgotten in the CBS vaults. Foote received a personal duplicate, made a copy for Dawidziak, and the real work began.
The Shape of the River, as published by Applause, includes not only Foote's complete teleplay (more on that in a minute), but an immensely helpful and readable array of essays and appendices putting the work in context. There are capsule descriptions of all people and places in the teleplay, as well as biographies of the 90-minute drama's cast and crew. There's a timeline of the life of Clemens, and an overview of the history of televised Mark Twain stories, dramas and biographies. Most important of all, there's a lengthy prelude to Foote's teleplay, in which the stories told--and told engagingly--include the detective work to locate the production, the behind-the-scenes story of its original production, and a critical analysis of both its biographical accuracy and dramatic merits.
That's a chunk of Mark Twain scholarship requiring a particularly unusual specialist--someone not only intimately familiar with the written works of Samuel Clemens, but equally at home regarding the history of television. Dawidziak, whose books include Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing, also has been a full-time TV critic for 20 years, currently with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Part of what Dawidziak does, when analyzing Foote's "Shape of the River," probably would be a simple parlor trick for many Twain scholars. He points out which passages of dialogue are lifted straight from Twain's Autobiography, which scenes are based in part on actual photographs, and which elements are extrapolated from other existing writings and biographies. The most helpful of these cross-references is an appendix reprinting, in its entirety, Twain's wrenching 1909 essay "The Death of Jean," which preserved, in a sort of literary amber, all the small details of his daughter's last days, even as she lay in state in a nearby room.
Much of the third act of "Shape of the River" comes from that source, capping a string of unexpected deaths and untimely tragedies so sadistic in their frequency, no self-respecting dramatist would dare concoct them, or lay them at the feet of a single loving family man. "Underscoring the heartbreak of these years," Dawidziak writes, "each act of 'The Shape of the River' ends with a death." In Act I, it's the death of Clemens's daughter Susy in 1896; in Act II, the death of wife Livy in 1904; at the end of the drama, the death of Jean.
The play's title is explained early, when Foote has Sam Clemens compare his unexpected bankruptcy, a result of a string of misguided business deals, to his experience as a cub riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, trying to learn "the shape of the river." (Parlor game players consider this a gimme: It is, of course, lifted from Twain's Life on the Mississippi.) The river kept changing, and Clemens remarks it was a good lesson to apply off the river as well.
"Every time I get used to something, get comfortable in a way of living and I think I've learned all the things that I need to know," he says, "I have to start in learning all over again and figure out a new way to do and get along."
When Foote, for dramatic purposes, deviates from fact, Dawidziak calls him on it (a scene set in Hartford actually took place in Elmira), but also explains and supports the reasons for the choice. In addition to being familiar with the various biographies, Dawidziak also takes note of when they were written. He gives credit to Foote's sources when they are due, but also gives Foote credit for latching onto and painting a complex portrait of the man known as Mark Twain long before many respected Twain biographers did the same thing.
That's one of the most striking things about reading Foote's teleplay: while an early montage of the Mark Twain lecture tour establishes the author's humorous and charismatic side, most of "Shape of the River" is devoted to private moments, intimate exchanges, and unalloyed grief. Another striking element, more typical of the period, was the patience and courage to hand lengthy chunks of dialogue to an actor. At several times in "Shape of the River" (recorded live on tape, not performed live, because of the cumbersome production elements required), Foote gives Tone several pages of dialogue to read without interruption.
For prime-time television in 1960, "Shape of the River" was an especially unblinking and unalloyed character study, and deserves to be thought of in the same landmark terms as such Golden Age TV triumphs as Rod Serling's "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight," Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" and Reginald Rose's "Twelve Angry Men." As this teleplay publication gains notice, and especially if the original CBS production is remastered and released on DVD, Foote's forgotten TV masterwork should be remembered, and revered, much more readily.
One appendix in this Applause publication, "Mark Twain on Television," is almost a separate book, and it's the place where Dawidziak the television critic really dives in and has fun. "Shape of the River" really had dried up, as a TV memory, before Dawidziak pumped new life into it, and much of his additional writing for this book is devoted, rightly, to that. In this chapter, though, Dawidziak takes on the entire output of Twain-related TV material, from obscure stuff that predated "Shape of the River" to the most recent and acclaimed multi-part PBS biography.
Even casual Twain fans should agree with, and be able to mention umprompted, the major tent-poles (in addition to "Shape") of Twain television as Dawidziak identifies them. One is Hal Holbrook's one-man show "Mark Twain Tonight!" as televised by CBS in 1967; the other is the 2002 PBS "Mark Twain" biography by Ken Burns and company.
Dawidziak, though, goes much deeper--and, some might say, much shallower. To Howard Duff playing Sam Clemens as a visitor to the Ponderosa on the fifth episode of NBC's "Bonanza" in 1959. To Ron Howard and Donny Most, both of the ABC sitcom "Happy Days," as Huck and Tom, respectively, in a 1975 telemovie version of "Huckleberry Finn." And everything in between, from such germane productions as the 1979 PBS drama "Mark Twain: Beneath the Laughter" (depicting some of the same real-life tragedies shown in "Shape of the River") to such modern tossaways as cable telemovies "Mark Twain and Me" (starring Jason Robards as Clemens) and "Roughing It" (starring, as the older Clemens, James Garner).
Making this more than just a TV laundry list, Dawidziak reaches back into his bag of interviews and actually talks to most of these people about their experiences dramatizing or playing Mark Twain. In the chapter about Foote's "Shape of the River," this meant tracking down not only Foote, but actress Shirley Knight (who played Susy), the now-late John Frankenheimer (originally scheduled to direct) and others. For the "Twain on Television" chapter, the celebrities interviewed include Burns, Holbrook, Robards, Garner--and even Duff, for his hardly seminal work as Twain on "Bonanza."
If there's a whiff of excess in this Shape of the River publication, it's here. There's no denying the value of tracing these Twain-related productions through TV history--and honestly, if Dawidziak hadn't done it, no one else could or would have. A few of the lesser interviews in this chapter, though, may have been included simply because they already had been conducted, and were handy.
But that's the most minor of quibbles regarding a major piece of research by Dawidziak, accompanying an almost shockingly literate and entertaining early work by Foote. The Shape of the River, as it is packaged in book form, is in great shape indeed.
(Full disclosure paragraph: Dawidziak is a friend, and I gladly wrote a positive blurb for this book after reading it in galley form. But since I, too, have been a practicing TV critic for decades, and a Mark Twain enthusiast even longer, my particular qualifications for reviewing this work seemed to outweigh concerns over cronyism. Besides, I've never even met Foote--and given the opportunity to slam Dawidziak for shoddy scholarship, were I ever to encounter it, I'd perform that task with perverse glee.)
David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News and for National
Public Radio's "Fresh Air."