The following review appeared 30 April 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
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Grayson County College
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For the second time in a decade, The Missouri Review has issued a first-time publication of a Mark Twain work. In 1987, they printed "How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson" (10.1: 99-112), along with an essay by Louis Budd on "The Recomposition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (113-127). It is ironic that the Review's publication of "Colonel Sellers" almost exactly coincided with the first public appearance of "new" passages in the Random House Huckleberry Finn, which develops and illustrates the idea expressed in Budd's title. The publication of two new Twain works in one year holds great potential for both Twain scholars and the general reader, again able to read a new Twain text with the sense of discovery akin to reading his other works for the very first time.
Reading "Sellers," however, is different from encountering the Huck Finn "out-takes" or the set-aside gender-bender piece about Jackson and Wilson. "Sellers" was a finished piece intended for commercial appreciation, and is more polished and crafted than most of the "literary remains" published this century.
Yet evaluating drama on the printed page, of course, is something like critiquing a symphonic score without hearing the performance. It is also problematic determining literary values of a work that was clearly popular in its day--more lucrative for Twain than either Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer--and "Colonel Sellers" stands up well in the context of what appealed to the tastes of audiences during the run of "Sellers," from 1874 to 1886. The play is as good as any of its peers by Howells, James, Harte, and others. Like most plays of the period, from "Our American Cousin" to adaptations of novels like Uncle Tom's Cabin, "Colonel Sellers" was clearly a vehicle for simple light entertainment, with slices of benign satire added to give the story something beyond the familiar plot line of a damsel in distress.
"Colonel Sellers" has more to offer than other Twain dramas, primarily because of its mix of realism and humor, and the play should elevate Twain's modern reputation as a dramatist, which is obviously a relative judgement considering what was expected on the nineteenth century stage. But will modern audiences be interested in "Colonel Sellers"? Of course, Twainians will find the text valuable because of the playwright's use of material found in other writings, particularly The Gilded Age, and much will no doubt be made of Twain's use of race, gender, and political and judicial satire throughout the script. And this satire, I think, will be what makes this play of interest to modern audiences. For example, when Sellers beams with confident assurance over the large "size of government" being the means to solve his problems, new readers or viewers have a new perspective with which to appreciate this joke.
What is first surprising about "Colonel Sellers" is that the first two-thirds sound more like Howells than Mark Twain. The realistic dialogue reads like any number of other authors and, if not for the imagery and episodes drawn from Clemens' biography, the script would read like a pastiche of then-fashionable adventures of despoiled women. Not until the trial of Laura Hawkins do we feel the presence and distinctive voice of Mark Twain's style, and for some this may diminish the play's appeal. However, the very realism of most of the dialogue lends a credibility to this script, lost in such other plays as Ah Sin and the fragments published in Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).
The character of Colonel Sellers, of course, is the exception to this rule, and, as in The Gilded Age, he is not the central character but rather an offbeat figure who steals the show away from what Twain oddly intended to be a tragedy. It is well known that Twain disliked actor John Raymond's performance of Sellers as a "slightly preposterous visionary" (110), but, as Thomason and Quirk note in their short, two-page introduction to the script, reading the text leads one to suspect the actor had better judgement than the writer, who saw Sellers as a pathetic gentlemen (110). The plot of "Colonel Sellers" combines realistic dialogue, save for Sellers' comic wind-bagging, with a growing melodramatic love-lost, love-betrayed story offset by Sellers' Falstaffian comic relief. The comedy, however unintentional, is what gives the play its unique flavor apart from similar dramas. One suspects that any actor who followed Twain's wishes to have Sellers portrayed sympathetically and seriously would lose the most uniquely Twainian voice in this creation, and thus the humorous aspects of the play would be lost in the romantic soap opera of Laura Hawkins.
The story begins by introducing the Hawkins family discussing the Tennessee land they hope will be their financial salvation. It is clear that Laura and Clay Hawkins--the unrelated by birth, adopted children of Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins--are in love with each other but dare not pursue this interest. Laura is very much the character as portrayed in The Gilded Age, compared in the script to Twain's idealized woman, Joan of Arc. Colonel Sellers appears, scheming to buy mules in New Orleans to make his fortune, and tells the family he has invested their money in a steamboat. This short act ends with the sounds of the steamboat exploding.
The second act begins nine years later with the family still seeking to renew their lost fortunes by way of the Tennessee land. We learn that Laura has been secretly married to Colonel George Selby, whom her parents ban from their house believing he will destroy Laura's honor, as he has not proposed to her after a long relationship. Sellers appears with the scheme of selling the Tennessee land to the government to establish a black college on the land for newly freed slaves so "they can learn to take care of themselves," Sellers asserting the religious will leap to back his scheme. This episode is clearly one that modern scholars will find of particular interest, as it adds some new light on Twain's treatment of racial issues. Such discussions will include Twain's comic figure of the Hawkins' manservant, Uncle Dan'l (likely based on the Uncle Dan'l of Sam Clemens' childhood). Although but a supporting character, most evident in the first act, Twain's humane and realistic characterization of this servant should help reinforce claims of Clemens' considerably less than racist literary use of black characters.
After Twain repeats the turnip eating scene from The Gilded Age with the same comic effect, Laura learns Selby is a bigamist, and tension builds between Clay Hawkins and Selby, who begin to fight. However, they are interrupted by Sellers showing the heroic and gentlemanly character Twain wanted to emphasize. The action then moves to Washington, where we see how Laura has evolved and hardened. While Sellers, Hawkins, and a corrupt congressman negotiate the appropriations bill designed to save the family (but which loses its meaning in the congressional debate), Laura shoots and kills Selby.
The trial of Laura is the first act that has a more typically Twainian voice. Laura has entered an insanity plea, which is turned to comic purposes when Colonel Sellers takes the stand. He describes Laura's unlikely obsession for one-armed, peg-legged men, as her birth father supposedly had these deficiencies. Sellers' quick-witted maneuvering of the jury makes for the most memorable scene in the play, with a wildly funny satire of the judicial system that would appeal to any audience of any time. After his machinations--which put Johnnie Cochran to shame--the play ends with Laura being found not guilty.
It is because of such scenes that "Colonel Sellers" deserves a new life on stage as well as in print. There are major problems with the story, as in the unresolved loose ends of the love triangle of Laura/Clay/Selby--especially regarding Clay, who hovers in the background but never fulfills his dramatic potential. I can hear Siskel and Ebert complaining that the play doesn't know what it is--a comedy or tragedy--and the two tones do make for abrupt shifts, as the plot and subplot are as dissimilar as the personalities of Huck and Tom. Further, the conclusion of "not guilty" belies Twain's stated claims his work was meant to be tragic. Still, these shifts seemed to work the first time around, and--as drama is a collaborative art--how well they would integrate for a modern audience would depend on the staging and acting of both commercial and educational theaters.
The name of the playwright will certainly arouse interest in this "new" script, and the second life of "Colonel Sellers" will depend as much on the directors who choose to stage it as on the scholars who will comb it for new insights into the literary career of Mark Twain. (The editors have helped the latter group by providing a brief bibliography of secondary sources treating Twain as dramatist.) For both groups, the play offers its own rewards and makes for an entertaining evening. And as that was its purpose in the first place, "Colonel Sellers" is a success in the realm for which it was intended.