As the most influential poet in our language, Shakespeare was wildly popular in the United States of Twain’s era. He was read, memorized, and performed everywhere, from brothels to Broadway, from Western mining camps to Boston tea parties. He was treated as a fellow citizen by desperadoes and deacons, by raucous Irish stevedores and cultivated college boys. He even started a riot.
Twain was keenly aware of Shakespeare, and he devoted considerable energy to competing with him. He was determined to be for the United States (then a provincial backwater in the eyes of most Europeans) what Shakespeare was for England, and the world. So he adapted, distorted, twisted, and parodied the Bard. What’s more, he was among the earliest to ask whether Shakespeare could really be the author of all the masterworks attributed to him.
They came from similar backgrounds, from small towns where they received limited educations before setting out to make names for themselves. Each rose to the pinnacle of his literary world by dint of special genius and voracious reading. Each was fascinated by the human condition, and each explored it from multiple angles: moral, political, philosophical, and theological.
In our day Shakespeare is too often relegated to the lonely confines of highbrow, elitist entertainment. In his own day, and later in Twain’s, he was a man of the people. We hope that tonight’s revelry will help nudge the Immortal Bard from the pedestal we’ve erected for him, and bring him back to the real world, where he belongs.
Brought to The Players by John Andrews and the Speaking of Shakespeare series.
This presentation will last approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission. A panel discussion, chaired by John F. Andrews, will follow immediately.
LOIS RUDNICK is a retired professor of American Studies from the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she taught for 36 years, including a course on Mark Twain, one of her favorite American authors. She is best known for her books on Mabel Dodge Luhan and her circle, including Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds.
JONATHAN RICHARDS is an author, journalist, actor, and cartoonist. His most recent book, Nick & Jake, is an epistolary comic novel set in the McCarthy era. His political cartoons are seen regularly in the Huffington Post.