Joe Baer as author, journalist, humorist and adventurer Mark Twain makes an amiable companion and speaker. In his own original one man show entitled Samuel Clemens: Tales of Mark Twain, written by Baer with excerpts taken from the more famous works of Mark Twain, he is both entertaining and enlightening. While his leisurely approach is amusing rather than hilarious, he also sets Twain’s life in the context of his times, the turbulent 19th century. At times poetic, at other times hyperbolic, this is a diverting show about a real person who was quite a character – besides creating a few memorable ones of his own.
Dressed entirely in white and with snow white hair and mustache, Baer looks a good deal like photos of Mark Twain. However, he uses a regular voice rather than the theatrical one used by Hal Holbrook in his Mark Twain impersonations. The only furniture on stage is a Windsor armchair and a podium which Baer uses alternately in the course of the show. However, a screen high up above the stage has an historic slide show created by Cynthia Baer with revealing views of the places that Twain describes in his talk. The format of the show resembles the autobiographical lectures that the author used to give on his famous tours.
Starting from his birth in Florida, Missouri, in 1835, the show continues up until Twain’s 75th year. The family then moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where he fell in love with steamboats which came by twice a day, and it was there that he got his first job on a newspaper, the Hannibal Gazette which eventually led to a famous career as an author of humorous articles and sketches. Twain travels to St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. His brother Orion who started a newspaper (which failed) in each city he lived in, moved the family to Muscatine and then Keokuk, Iowa. Twain discovers that his brother was publishing his letters home as a sort of travelogue which led to his success as a newspaper correspondent. Among the pen names he used include Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Rambler and Ensign Fathom, before he decided on Mark Twain after becoming a steamboat captain, from a boating term which refers to two fathoms or 12 feet deep, a measure of the depth of the water.
After a ten day stint in the Civil War, he joins his brother, now the Secretary of the Nevada Territory, in Carson City, to be his secretary. Next Twain tries his hand at prospecting, and then writing for the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise. This leads to a trip to the Sandwich Islands in the South Seas for the Sacramento Union where his letters home make him famous. As a result, on his return to San Francisco he gives his first public lecture which led to yet another career. A great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land had caught the American imagination, and Twain arranges with the California Alta to sponsor his inclusion in turn for weekly letters chronicling the trip. When both the noted clergyman and social reformer Henry Beecher and General Sherman dropped out, Twain becomes the de facto celebrity on board. This leads to his first published book, The Innocents Abroad, the first of five famous travel books.
On his return he becomes engaged to Oliva Langdon of Elmira, New York whose wealthy family disapproved of his dissolute lifestyle and hires a Pinkerton detective to investigate him. When her parents confront him, he reminds them that he had met her through her brother Charley (a member of the Holy Land expedition) who had an equally dissolute life. Marriage causes him to need a bigger home which he builds in Hartford, Connecticut, as well as the means to keep it up. This results in his books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and after a 17-month tour of Europe with his ever-growing family, A Tramp Abroad. When his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was denounced by the Concord Massachusetts Public Library as “flippant, irreverent and trashy,” the book which had been a failure until then becomes a runaway best seller. Other books like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court follow. When bad investments lead to financial ruin, Twain undertakes an Around the World Lecture Tour which not only covered his debts but led to another travel book.
All of this is told by Baer in Twain’s humorous and inimitable style filled with anecdotes both true and untrue. As we are told from the author himself, “I have never been a man to allow the truth to stand in the way of a good lie.” The presentation also includes sections from travel letters in Twain’s own words besides a large section of Huckleberry Finn’s adventures down the Mississippi. The presentation also sets Twain’s life in the context of the growing America of those days, events like the Gold Rush, the transcontinental railroad, the election of Abraham Lincoln, the burgeoning of literacy and the press, etc. Even if you know a good deal about the life of Samuel Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain, Joe Baer’s one-man show fills in a great many gaps with fascinating adventures of a world traveler who had a keen eye for the ridiculous and the satiric. In Samuel Clemens: Tales of Mark Twain, he remains good company throughout the evening.
Samuel Clemens: Tales of Mark Twain (Saturdays and Sundays through June 25, 2023)
Baerhands Theater & Television, Inc.
Actors Temple Theatre, 339 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes including one intermission