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Recreating Mark Twain

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Recreating Mark Twain

Michael Delaney to bring his 'portrayal' to Heron

ou never know when you’ll meet your destiny. For Michael Delaney, with his full head of white hair and bushy moustache, it happened in a car parts store in Hannibal, Missouri. “With a white suit and a cigar,” a man told him, “you could make a living in this town.”

Hannibal, of course, was the birthplace of Samuel Clemens, one of America’s most beloved writers and speakers under his pen name of Mark Twain.

“Time and gravity had given me the physical qualifications,” Delaney said, but the appreciation for Twain’s work had begun back in high school. “As a kid I had read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and they were good stories,” he said. “But in a high school literature class we read Letters from the Earth and I’ve been fascinated by Twain ever since.”

The man in the car parts store was right in his prediction; Delaney ended up serving as Mark Twain not just for the Hannibal Historic District for two years, but as an independent speaker as well in the years since.

Okay, you know Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn and maybe you have a slight memory of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court. But really, who was Mark Twain anyway and why should anyone be interested in seeing someone portray this character? 

Born in 1835 in Missouri, with Haley’s comet in the sky, Twain was the son of a judge and he started out his professional life as a printer’s apprentice and discovered he enjoyed writing. As a young man, however, he had a young man’s dreams; with no NBA or NFL to spur him on, he set his sights on becoming a riverboat captain, piloting mighty paddle-wheel steamers up and down the Mississippi River; a profession that gave him his well-known pen name. A “Mark Twain” means a boat can be navitated safely through the water, with at least two fathoms (12 feet) underneath it. 

During the Civil War, he formed a short-lived militia, and traveled to Nevada to work as a miner. Soon enough, however, he was back to work as a reporter, and began his climb to fame. In all, he would write 28 books, numerous short stories, and dozens of letters that would become a part of the Mark Twain canon.

By the 60s, Clemens was also in demand as a speaker, despite the stage fright that so many of us are familiar with feeling if called upon to speak in public. He wrote of his first experience, “I thought of suicide, pretended illness, flight ... I was very miserable and scared.” That didn’t stop him from being a success, and he was much in demand for his speaking appearances for the rest of his life.

Twain remained a delight to Americans up until his death in 1910—with Haley’s Comet once again crossing the sky.

“As a man he is really difficult to describe,” said Delaney, who has spent years researching and studying the character he now portrays. “He was a most interesting character, but very volatile and unpredictable. [Twain] was one surprise after another.”

His popularity, Delaney believes, has to do with “his insight into the human existence. It is not only very perceptive, but timeless. Whatever is going on in the world today, 120 years ago he had something applicable to say.”

Brought to Heron under the sponsorship of the Grandview Museum, and the aegis of  the Montana Speaker’s Bureau for the Humanities, Delaney will portray Mark Twain to a delighted audience on Saturday,  April 2 at 7 pm MST at the Heron Community Center. While the doors will open at 7, by the way, don’t expect the event to be 100 percent true to Twain, whose advertisements for performances promised “The doors will open at 7 o’clock, and the trouble will begin at 8.”

The Sierra College Press reported on the ‘Wild West’ feel to some of Twain’s performances. “In the Grass Valley Daily Union ad for his Grass Valley appearance, Twain promised that, after the lecture, he would perform a series of “wonderful feats of SLEIGHT OF HAND, if desired to do so.” His “wonderful feats” involved drinking multiple shots of whiskey, leaving town suddenly without paying his hotel bill, and, as he put it, to “at any hour of the night, after 10, … go through any house in the city, no matter how dark it may be, and take an inventory of its contents, and not miss any of the articles as the owner will in the morning.” 

Performer Michael Delaney has no intention of taking his portrayal of Twain quite that far.

Consider this Heron performance, a presentation of Twain in Montana, to be a portrayal, by the way, and not an impersonation, as Delaney says that impersonators bring to mind a “fat guy in a gold lame suit” à la Elvis—not a good preview for what’s in store.

Of his own presentation, Delaney writes on the Humanities in Montana website, “In the early 1860s, en route from St. Joseph, Missouri to Carson City, Nevada, Mark Twain had breakfast with the notorious Virginia City desperado Bad Jack Slade. Fortunately, Slade was sober at the time, and Twain survived the interview. Some three decades later, Twain came through Montana again, lecturing in five cities. I present an amusing view of these historical events from Mark Twain’s unique perspective.”

The program is free and open to the public. Don’t miss it—it’s a rare opportunity to ‘meet’ Mark Twain.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Heron, Mark Twain, Michael Delaney, Heron Community Center, Grandview Museum, impersonation, Montana Speaker's Bureau for the Humaniti

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