- Last Updated on 07:04 AM 11/23/12
- BY Woodson Hughes/Special to The Gazette
Some writers are for a moment, some a generation, some lucky few for a much longer epoch. Precious and few are the ones who create works that help to lay the foundation for the literature that shapes the tastes and consciousness of a nation. Among that elite group would have to be the most American of American authors: Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), the man more popularly known as “Mark Twain” (a pseudonym taken from a riverboat term).
Clemens, a man whose life was famously framed by visits from Halley’s Comet, was a product of the U.S. heartland, having been born in microscopic Florida, Missouri and bred in prosaic Hannibal, Missouri during a time of great change, turmoil and expansion in the nation.
His early life was spent among the simple, decent people of the then new frontier, and he would find ways to filter the infinite variety of human experience in all its comedy and drama through tales of that place and time and the people who inhabited that space.
His life would encompass many early adventures, such as prospecting for gold (unsuccessfully) leading to his life changing stint as a journalist. Those adventures would turn into his early, greatly humorous stories such as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865) and would see him through the many years ahead when darker adventures would greatly rob him of his legendary humor and lead him to other, more complex works, mostly set in foreign lands, such as “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889) and the most atypical “The Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc” (1896) (Yes, he wrote a novel about Joan of Arc! Not that anyone much noticed.)
In between he found a perfect blend of humor and social commentary, most notably in one of the greatest of all American novels, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884). That work, a slyly savage comic satire on race relations and way “civilization” and cruelty are often bound up together, is today both celebrated and castigated (mostly for the shrewd way the author puts the reader inside the head of a racist, ignorant young man who, in the end, is really no villain at all but a sad product of time, place and social mores).
It isn’t at all unusual that an author as well known as Clemens/Twain would inspire interest from the dramatic arts, mostly in the service of bringing his novels and stories to life on stage and screen. There have been many versions of “A Connecticut Yankee” and Clemens’ popular juvenile adventure novel of 1881 “The Prince and the Pauper” and scattered other efforts involving other, lesser known works.
Alas, “Huckleberry Finn” has proven to be an elusive bird dramatically, for no one has ever found a way to replace the novel’s unique voice in dramatic form.
It doesn’t help that virtually every version approaches the work on a “boys own adventure” sort of level instead of what it is: a seriously adult work. Because of that, it should be no surprise that dramatist have had infinitely better luck with the novel that introduced Huckleberry Finn as a supporting character, a novel that was and is a true classic of family literature and one of the America’s true literary treasures: Clemens’ first solo novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876).
With the title character, the author seemingly discovered and enshrined an American archetype: the good bad boy (or is it the bad good boy?). Tom Sawyer is a young rascal in his pre adolescent years (though just a little bit pre) who is seemingly the bane of his guardian, the outwardly stern and puritanical but inwardly kind Aunt Polly (Tom and his siblings are orphans) while growing up in the author‘s native Hannibal, oddly enough during the same years in which the author grew up.
Outwardly, everyone praises his ultra-pious and showily virtuous half-brother Sidney while disparaging the lamentable way Tom pretty much does as ever he likes, no matter how many social boundaries he overruns.
Privately, though, everyone, including Aunt Polly herself, somewhat detests Sid and loves the lively, warm, enjoyable Tom and way that he…well, always seems to get away with it.
Whether finding one of the all time great ways of turning a punishment job greatly to his advantage, running away from home to enjoy uncivilized living and returning back to the most self-aggrandizing welcome home ever, or protecting his light-o-love, Becky Thatcher (daughter of the town judge!) during a thrilling adventure while lost in an eerie cave and being pursued by one mean half-breed, Tom is the boy everyone hates to love (in public, anyway).
The type is with Americans always, and it pretty much started right in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Is it not understandable that Tom was meant for the stage and screen? To date there have been around a dozen film adaptations dating from 1903 until the present (those coming up during the time the musical adaptation of 1973 will surely remember a very young Jodie Foster as Becky!).
As for the legitimate stage, it is almost impossible to count the various versions. There have been children’s theater versions, straight dramatic versions, (many) musical versions, a ballet version and even Bernard Sabath’s 1986 play “The Boys in Autumn” in which middle-aged Tom and Huck meet again and reveal that they turned out to be far bigger rascals than cuteness can overcome.
Perhaps the most prominent of these versions is the 2001 musical version by Ken Ludwig and Don Schlitz. How popular was it? Well, it opened in April of 2001 and closed in May of 2001 after 34 performances.
Broadway seems to be a mite jaded for Tom Sawyer anymore. However, there is a big world outside of Broadway, and that world, the world of regional theater, has embraced this show with the fervor that Broadway lacked for it.
Tickets are on sale now for the local adaptation by Halifax County Little Theatre. Season tickets, which save money and include all of the 2012-2013 theatrical season, are also still on sale, as Tom and friends open Halifax County Little Theatre’s season.
IF YOU GO
• “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” runs until Dec. 1, including Thanksgiving weekend shows on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at HCLT.org and at The Prizery at 572-8339.