The following review appeared 22 February 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
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Early in 1995, David S. Reynolds published his Walt Whitman's America: A Critical Biography (New York: Knopf), in which Reynolds noted Whitman was a product of a "performance culture" in which theater, dance, poetry readings, political speeches, lectures, sermons, and musical presentations occurred together on the same platforms. Before the Civil War, Reynolds observes, no distinctions existed between "high and low culture" and classical music took much from both popular literature and folk music forms just as touring singing families included operatic melodies in their repertoire. During Whitman's middle years, the "performance culture" became "carnivalized" with no boundaries creating a democratic, egalitarian atmosphere fostering audience/performer relationships that were personal and intimate and, for Whitman, anti-European in temperament (166-193). This long lineage, combined with Whitman's ears tuned to the music of America's singing families, minstrel shows, Stephen Foster, the popular tours of operatic vocalists and the more eclectic Jenny Lind, as well as the tunes sung on the streets celebrated in "I Hear America Singing", along with his love and use of popular oratorical styles, added texture, American themes, and freshness to New World verse providing both power and unity to American culture.
On a number of levels, Randall Knoper's study of Mark Twain and performance culture is the companion piece to Reynold's work, although much of Acting Naturally has more to do with Twain's interest in metaphysics than overt connections to nineteenth century performance culture. While the contexts of these two studies are generally similar, with obvious regional distinctions=FEthe authors who were shaped by nineteenth century on-stage performers were strikingly different, so it is no surprise that the emphasis of each book revolves around what performance meant to each individual writer, exploring their distinct responses to their particular milieus. Both books offer widely differing definitions of what "performance culture" entails, with Reynolds being far more descriptive and detailed in fleshing out the theatrical realm of his subject.
Of course, Mark Twain's theatrical nature has been oft explored, and Knoper quickly states his study is part of a long tradition of critical works, paying particular homage to the work of James Cox. Knoper then states his thesis of examining Twain as a dramatic Realist who attempted to "act naturally" by using dramatic devices to convey an authentic representation of his culture. Twain's series of poses and unveilings, Knoper asserts, came from an attempt by a white, middle-class male to find his concept of self in the midst of gender, class, and racial identities in a largely unstable social environment. Like Reynolds, Knoper sees Twain's culture as a merging of high brow and popular cultures, but emphasizes the bourgeois tendencies of an America wanting to see performances mixing caricature with pathos and resonating orality with deadpan humor.
Throughout his study, Knoper charts Twain's direct and indirect relationships with American theater, noting Twain wrote numerous theater reviews in San Francisco, wrote fragments of plays as well as complete productions, and used stage conventions in his fiction.
Knoper demonstrates how these interests can be seen early in Sam Clemens's career, beginning with the "Historical Exhibition" sketch where the divide between high and low culture and the practice of male rowdiness superseding the desire for information are harbingers of things to come. As Knoper reminds us, in Hannibal, Clemens was aware of an obvious class structure epitomized by his father's call for lectures and the popularity of Shakespeare on one side and the river shows of bawdy burlesques and minstrel shows on the other that Hannibal's city government attempted to ban in 1845. Knoper believes the central social conflict of that era, reflected in Clemens's apprentice works, was between the desire for middle-class respectability vs. male primitivism and showmanship that subverted realistic fidelity, as in the carnival shows of the likes of P.T. Barnum.
"The Historical Exhibition" and other sketches, Knoper asserts, were acts of cultural clashes showing Clemens's propensity for exhibition and theatricality that were part of a social context that gave Clemens the conventions integral to his later work. Twain's mimicking of these conventions, Knoper claims, helped sustain the white male cultural dominance over marginalized groups, although Twain's bohemianism created an ambivalence that led to Twain's testing of class and gender distinctions in his fiction. Knoper sees Twain as reacting to the feminization of American culture that challenged male prerogatives and marginalized traveling journeymen like Sam Clemens whose company was primarily male. For Knoper, Clemens was part of a boarding house bachelor subculture that attended music hall shows as a male rite of titillation and viewed sporting events, notably pugilism, on the same stage as their other entertainments. This point parallels Reynold's description of performance culture but adds an added emphasis on gender interests integral to Knoper's thesis.
For example, Knoper believes the romantic, rowdy actor Edwin Forrest captured Clemens early imagination because Forrest's roles were not gentile or bourgeois, but were more attuned to the taste of tavern performers than to quiet readers. Again underlining Reynold's points, Knoper notes that in viewing performances like Forrest's, the spectator is not divided from the performer, as working class audiences identified with onstage= competitiveness.=20 This masculine concept, Knoper explains, was reflected in the public feuds between posing frontier journalists such as Mark Twain and the= "Unreliable."
Twain's frontier use of hoaxes, Knoper claims, reflected Twain's interest in mocking the effeminate, gullible mass culture that expressed passive feminized roles as opposed to male action depicted by actors like Forrest. These feelings, unlike those of Whitman in the east, can be seen in Twain's San Francisco reviews of operas that reflected his frontier male distaste for music sung in incomprehensible languages. Twain also deeply disliked sentimental domestic drama, praising instead the music of black minstrel shows. Knoper notes that Twain saw a fidelity to truth in black music that could not be found in dramas more for the head than heart, and this concern would become an issue throughout his mature writing career.
"Jim Smiley's Jumping Frog," Knoper states, signaled the beginning of Twain's deadpan delivery that would characterize his lecture hall appearances akin to the popular acting style of Joseph Jefferson. Both entertainers, Knoper claims, drew from the same sources, hitting a social resonance that resulted in their continuing popularity in the nineteenth century. In their deadpan hands, which allowed for both shielding masks and tools for deceit, popular entertainment merged the buffoonery of lowbrow performances with higher seriousness that gave the ludicrous depth. In Twain and Jefferson, caricature was subordinated and integrated into a deeper psychology that led to critical battlegrounds over taste and social realism. Twain's staging of Colonel Sellers, Knoper says, was one manifestation of this deadpan performing style later developed in Huckleberry Finn. Knoper states this cultural change brought working class rituals into the larger mainstream and helped Twain contribute a major shift in performance culture.
Here, Knoper travels familiar territory, notably the work of Paul Fatout, discussing Twain's onstage delivery and critical responses to it, territory Twainians can easily skim but those less familiar with this aspect of Twain criticism will find appropriate and useful in this volume. Still, the connections Knoper draws between the Sellers manuscripts and Huckleberry Finn provide new insights into Twain's creative process and are worthy of further exploration.
Also useful is Knoper's placing of Twain characters in the debate over imaginative, emotive acting vs. representative realism. In Twain's novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and The Prince and the Pauper, conscious role playing is seen not to work (as in Huck's failures in roles beyond his experience and the King's inability to be coached as a commoner). Credible role playing, Knoper says, relies on identification from personal experience, and the believable actor must strike a balance between detachment and absorption in his part, a concept Knoper explores in some detail. One notable idea is that the more multiple the layers of identity between the actor and his part, the less realistic his portrayal.
This issue is developed in Knoper's explication of Pudd'nhead Wilson where, for Knoper, Roxy overturns the failures of Huck and King Arthur by successfully teaching herself to treat the boys in the reality she has created. But to maintain her artificial role, she must ultimately make her false acquiesce real acquiescence, a dupe of her own deceptions, absorbing her transformed self. This issue was deepened, Knoper explains, by Twain's concerns with race and identity in the novel, exploring the conflict between nature and training.
However, Knoper's brief discussions on race are not as developed as his repeated emphasis on gender. His passages on race center on Twain's duality and his fascination with racial otherness that was condescending as a white male intrigued with the features of black dance that affronted middle-class sensibilities. Knoper believes Twain enjoyed black dialect's effect of mocking and providing disinformation, which gave Twain a complex model of language used later in transposing Chinese stereotyped "jabbering" in his Ah Sin. In this play, Knoper writes, realistic fidelity was lost in layers of disinformation and artificial constructs, a problem Knoper believes Twain would resolve in later works.
At this point, Knoper's study takes a major shift as he uses the advances (and popular fads) of psychology and science in the nineteenth century to develop his points linking science with performance culture, notably the precepts of William Archer and Charles Darwin, to show how auto-suggestion can alter conceptions of identity. For example, when Tom Driscoll learns he is Roxy's son, his behavior immediately changes, adopting the behavior associated with the slaves of his community. As his character is flimsy and easily subject to suggestion, his change is easier than characters such as Roxy whose, self is well-established and requires repeated practice to alter, a juxtaposition between character and characterlessness.
Knoper also points to science when he notes the scene in Connecticut Yankee when the condemned woman thanks a priest for saving her child. Her expression was "painted fire," the fire being the gratitude within. Knoper makes much of how body language is a performance that can be misinterpreted, but that it is natural and physiologically connected to identity, a notion Twain likely drew from his annotated Darwin. According to Knoper in one of his more convincing chapters, Twain's early interest in phrenology, mesmerism, palmistry, and mental telegraphy are reflected in many examples from his texts, as are the revelatory nature of involuntary gestures and physical signs throughout Twain's canon.=20 Knoper again notes a gender distinction in Twain's thinking, that women's faces naturally must reflect the truth without an ability to lie while males can easily assume masks, another reflection of Victorian values of= sexuality.
But a surprising and odd digression changes the scope and perhaps plausibility of the book when Knoper spends considerable time exploring mediums and mental telegraphy linking representation with electrical body impulses, discussing the unconscious mind as medium of expression and autoeroticism. It is surprising no credit is given to Sherwood Cummings's Mark Twain and Science in this section, and more surprising is that this extended discussion is included in this volume. While this material might have made for a useful article elsewhere, its connections with performance culture are tenuous, strained, and far afield from the thesis inherent in the book's title. Knoper does make some useful points, particularly regarding Colonel Sellers and Twain's use of mediumship in various novels (Jim's hairball, Joan of Arc's channeling of spirits), and that women writers often claimed to be mediums rather than being transgressors of the male dominated public stage. For Knoper, women writers exaggerated their passive roles as mediums, as their works actually tended to emphasize style and artifice over true realism.
Knoper's final chapters, devoted to performance in Twain's novels, perhaps contain his most original and most intriguing contributions to Twain studies. While these chapters reveal little about performance culture per se, they do provide fresh readings of the novels worthy of critical attention. Knoper devotes one chapter to the theatricality of The Prince and the Pauper, in which he compares the pageantry of royalty with the rowdy carnivals of the commoners and the social criticism inherent in the dramatic juxtapositions.
He develops this theme in his analysis of A Connecticut Yankee, exploring how realist representation is clouded by inverted role playing and Hank Morgan's marketplace performances that test the meaning of public spectacle vs. representative value.=20 The conflict between representation and meaning is further explored in the discussion of Joan of Arc, in which Joan's life is twisted and distorted in the dramatization of her trial. Knoper cites the novel as a part of the national theater of the nineteenth century, as Joan was a popular stage figure epitomizing cultural debates over faith, patriotism, and modern skepticism regarding institutional authority. Knoper maintains both mass culture and melodrama share a common symbol in Joan, who Twain portrayed as authentic because of her natural, unposed fidelity to self on the public stage. Her transvestitism merges masculine and feminine identities, while raising issues of duality and eroticism, and her mediumship is means for realist, unconscious truth.
Joan, for Knoper, is the opposite of No. 44 in The Mysterious Stranger, the bad boy who loves shows and spectacles. In The Mysterious Stranger, Knoper claims, Twain uses dream states to explore the mind/body dichotomy where dreams produce a closer representation of true fidelity than verbal contrivances or physical expressions can provide. In Mysterious Stranger, Knoper asserts, Twain resolves his issues of performance by merging idea and representation in the dream self where materialization disappears, erasing the duality of mind/body distinctions. Knoper points to interesting parallels between No. 44 and Mary Baker Eddy's principles of Christian Science that Knoper believes belie Twain's attacks on her.
Acting Naturally is a well-documented, profoundly thought out addition to studies on Twain's theatrical aspects, but must be considered but one contribution to studies regarding this side of Twain. Again, Knoper is clearly aware of this, and provides a helpful, annotated bibliography of secondary sources related to this multifaceted subject. Many previous studies, for example, explore aspects untouched by Knoper, notably those that explore Twain's interest in the pulpit and frontier storytelling. Knoper is most insightful when applying his conceptions of performance culture to Twain's novels, and his discussions on Colonel Sellers add new dimensions for appreciating the craftsmanship of that play. Knoper also contributes much to gender-oriented studies of Twain, though his attention to racial issues is primarily confined to discussing Pudd'nhead Wilson. But this "lapse" can be considered a flaw only because Knoper's introduction states that racial issues are central to his study, and he only sparingly follows up on this point.
While it would be inappropriate to call too much attention to the book Knoper didn't write, it is useful to observe that the subject of Twain and performance culture is far from exhausted in Acting Naturally, and Knoper's omissions open opportunities for young scholars to explore in greater depth. For example, David Reynold's study of Whitman examined in detail the importance of music in the culture of Walt Whitman, but Twain studies still await an important work exploring this facet of performance culture in the life and works of Mark Twain. Readers may need to look to Reynold's for a fuller and clearer definition of just what "performance culture" is, and look to Knoper for expanding these definitions and ideas for how they can be applied to texts that, on first glance, seem far removed from the stage. Knoper both provides new insights of his own and widens discussion possibilities, and deserves credit for both his scholarship and originality. All Twainians will find much of value in Acting Naturally.