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The following review appeared 28 May 2018 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The genre of plays is one of the least-explored offshoots of Twain's legacy, perhaps with good reason. He did have one unqualified success in the format, "Colonel Sellers," based on characters from The Gilded Age (1873), co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner. It had a run of over ten years and earned Twain more in royalties than Tom Sawyer or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, enticing Twain to make at least two more attempts to repeat its success. The first, Ah Sin (1877), co-written with Bret Harte, had a run lasting a month, and Is He Dead? (1898), titled after the repeated joke line in The Innocents Abroad (Twain likely "borrowed" the line from Artemus Ward), was unpublished until 2003. There are also snippets of other plays in Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques (University of California Press, 1967), suggesting that, whether for lucre or "littery" reasons, Twain had as much difficulty relinquishing a self-perception of a writer adept at all literary forms as he did giving up any presumptions regarding his investing prowess.
There have been many sound film versions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, dating from a 1931 version starring Jackie Coogan, largely devoid of any hints of Twain's crafted clash between a "sound heart and a deformed conscience." More notable is the 1985 musical, Big River, with songs and music by Roger Miller, a surprisingly entertaining, insightful and serious treatment of Twain's work. In a more literary vein, Jon Clinch's Finn (2007), shows what an imaginative writer is capable of when he tackles some of the same themes of racism and violence, with a completely different focus, in this case, Pap Finn. As Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen noted in his Mark Twain Forum review of Finn in 2007, "Huckleberry Finn is the sacred scroll of the Mark Twain world, and true believers do not take kindly to seeing their scriptures tampered with." Scott Kaiser, in his play, Splittin' the Raft, dares to tamper with scripture in what he describes as an "entertaining whirligig of a play," which "melds Mark Twain's humor, Frederick Douglass' brilliant language, traditional spirituals and provocative ideas about race relations in America . . ."
This distilled two-act version of the Huck Finn saga features scenes from Huck's tribulations under Widow Douglas, Pap's abuse and Huck's escape, meeting Jim on Jackson's Island, the rattlesnake incident, the Huck-in-drag meeting with Mr. Loftus, an introduction to the King and Duke, the "All right then, I'll go to Hell" declaration, meeting Jim and Tom Sawyer at Phelps's farm and the convoluted "freeing" of Jim. Even in this truncated version, this is a lot to tackle in a 110-page play which takes about two hours to perform. WorldCat database entries indicate at least one film production of the play was made in 2005 running 116 minutes.
Omitted are many of the book's episodes such as the Shepherdson-Grangerford feud, the mob confrontation with Colonel Sherburn and the attempted swindle of the Wilks family. The unique twist in Kaiser's play is the appearance of historical spokesperson, Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and a personal friend of Mark Twain who "tries to set the record straight" about Mark Twain's masterpiece. Kaiser attempts to do this by scripting portions of Douglass's own published works into the play as asides and short lectures to the audience. The book features no bibliography but Douglass scholars will likely recognize these passages such as this one from an 1852 speech on the subject of religion and slavery:
I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is not only indifferent to the wrongs of slavery, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. Many of its most eloquent Divines have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity (17).
Douglass's frequent interjections are certainly relevant and informative with respect to slavery and racism, but this technique, which at first glance seems ingenious--a grafting together of two famous writers--quickly becomes ponderous in the reading of the script. If a reader stitched all of the Frederick Douglass asides together, one would have a brief lecture on the history of American slavery. However, what appears to be most lacking is a dramatic depiction of slavery that allows the audience to extract its own emotionally-laden conclusions that are more likely to endure.
Kaiser employs only four actors who assume the various roles--a black male and female and a white male and female. A "white woman" plays Huck, a "black man" assumes the dual roles of Frederick Douglass and Jim and a "white man" fills no less than fourteen roles, including a slave trader, Mrs. Loftus, the king, Uncle Silas and Tom Sawyer. Jim's wife also makes a brief, silent appearance. In a "melding" and sometimes confusing melange of dialogue, the character of Douglass assumes a participant's role in the action of the play speaking dialogue that Twain originally assigned to Huck. The river is merely an implicit assumption, not an active component which has the promise of both safety and adventure. All of this is more than a qualitative divergence from the original, and, while qualifying as artistic license, will undoubtedly be experienced as somewhat discomfiting to some scholars of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The changes in costume which differentiate the play's characters "are accomplished quickly and easily by exchanging simple icons, like a hat, or a pair of glasses, or an apron, to represent each character . . . in full view of the audience." (13). Whether these transitions are easily followed by the audience cannot be determined from a reading of the script, but it certainly can be imagined that these changes, accomplished on a stage which contains all the props and costume articles, in addition to an accompanist responsible for the play's sound effects, has the potential to be disconcerting.
Kaiser does, for the most part, preserve the dialect in the speech which is a critically important element of Twain's original, except, of course, for Frederick Douglass, who "speaks with no discernible accent." Whether Douglass's appearance and speeches are disconcerting or inspiring cannot be reasonably determined absent an actual viewing of the play and judging the audience's reaction. However, his monologues and interspersed commentary serve as interruptions to the cadence when simply reading the script. Kaiser also, in deference to the original, includes the word "nigger," an important authorial tribute to Twain's attempt to confront the reader with the ingrained banality of racism. This is hardly a small point, especially, as noted in the included "Development History" of the play, it has been presented to high school audiences since its origin in 1998.
At the play's conclusion, Kaiser incorporates lines from a spiritual reminding the audience that "There's one more river to cross," much in the manner of the concluding chorus from a Greek tragedy. The lines are sung by the entire ensemble, including Jim and Huck, an innovation that seems to be disingenuous, considering Huck's tenuous relationship with religion and his determination to "go to Hell" if necessary to maintain his relationship with Jim.
Splittin' the Raft is an attempt to tackle the core conflicts and issues of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a concentrated, live format by dividing "the raft"--or stage--between Douglass's personality and words and Mark Twain's classic masterpiece. Kaiser implicitly assumes that his audience is generally aware of the basic Huck Finn story, its characters, and the racial issues which provide its moral impetus. Reading the script does not conjure up impressions of a "whirligig of a play." A whirligig requires a little wind for motion, and the start-and-stop rhythm forced on a reader by Douglass's interjections is a heavy-handed reminder that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn achieves Twain's goals through natural dialogue and credible storytelling that are anything but asides. The success of Splittin' the Raft on stage likely depends on the four cast members themselves, especially Douglass, and the ability to connect with the audience on an emotional and personal level.
Scott Kaiser is the Director of Company Development at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where he has been a member of the artistic staff since 1993.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Martin Zehr is a psychologist with the Marion Bloch Neuroscience Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. His novel, The Desplazados, (2017) was described by Kirkus Reviews as "A journey of reawakening and self-acceptance, well worth the trip."