5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Adam Klasfeld

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Michael Graves as Samuel Clemens in The Report
of My Death
. Photo by Mike Lemmerling.

Do high schools still teach Mark Twain? One might imagine so, but one fears that English literature in the classroom is more of a frill today than an expectation. Still, one might also simply turn to Adam Klasfeld’s docudrama The Report of My Death as a way to introduce young people to one of the nation’s most enduring and irrepressible writers. Featuring rare, previously censored and posthumously published Twain letters, stories, and historical artifacts, this one-man piece follows Samuel Clemens from his bankruptcy through his worldwide lecture tour, personal tragedies, unlikely recovery and fiery opposition to the Philippine-American War. The description of Clemens as an “American radical and dark prophet” is particularly intrigued.

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Michael Graves — the actor, not the architect — stars as Clemens, speaking to the audience from the afterlife in this One Armed Man production.

Here for your viewing delectation is a YouTube clip of the show, filmed before the current run:

The Report of My Death runs Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, July 22 to Aug. 15, on the Lilac Steamship at Pier 40, the Hudson River and Houston St. For tickets, call (212) 352-3101 or click here. For more information on the show, visit www.onearmedman.org.

And now, 5 questions Adam Klasfeld has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Before one of this show’s workshop performances, I was interviewed on Radio WBAI, and the host asked me what truths I would be able to express in death that I could not in life. That question nearly floored me because it got straight to the heart of the play and the reason that I was fascinated with the subject matter. But I had a very hard time answering it — on a live broadcast! I tried my best, but my most revealing answers probably sounded like studied evasions to the listeners. It would take an extraordinary sense of bravery and self-awareness for anyone to answer that question honestly.

If Sam Clemens, one of the most articulate and outspoken human beings to walk the planet, had such a hard time expressing his most private thoughts in life, what chance do the rest of us have?

Twain said that only the dead have free speech. With every edit of the script, I asked myself, Is this true? What have I learned about him through my research that he had not uncovered about himself already in his life? As it turned out, the answers were “yes” and “quite a lot.” His most revealing writings, almost without fail, came from journal entries, private letters to trusted friends and books whose publication he had instructed people to delay until decades after his death. And the thoughts that his editors, publishers and family repressed as too incendiary for its time are ones that still resonate and largely continue to be censored from our historical memory of him.

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Obviously this is a one-man show about Mark Twain, which I would not have been working on for three years if I did not find him incredibly fascinating. But ultimately I will feel that I will have done a better job as a playwright if audiences ask themselves what truths they would tell rather than only the truths Twain told.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I plead the Fifth. I’ve done a lot of Q&As with this show and I have a nagging, paranoid feeling that somewhere the author of that question will read it — and his feelings will be hurt. This is more evidence that Twain’s argument was true.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Whenever we do this show in a small town, the residents of that town ask me whether Twain has visited a particular landmark in that town. This has happened in Madrid, New Mexico; Valdez, Alaska; Dumont, N.J.; and Keene Valley, N.Y., where we had a preview performance on the July 4 weekend.

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While Michael Graves, my actor, and I were in Keene Valley, for example, one teenager asked me whether it was true that Twain hiked with Theodore Roosevelt to the top of Mt. Marcy, which is the tallest peak in New York and located in that town. I told him I doubted it. Twain hated TR and thought he was a warmonger because of the Philippine-American War. Roosevelt, in turn, coined the word “muckraker” as an insult to journalists like Twain, whom he thought were too gloomy. (Good reporters have since taken it up as a badge of honor.)

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Still, it was theoretically possible that the hike happened. I later had it confirmed that both of them were in the Adirondack region around the same time and they had a few polite interactions in life. I’m always surprised by the Twain folklore and apocrypha in small towns.

4) With Hal Holbrook’s performance as Mark Twain about as legendary as anything gets in the American theater, you’ve written an interesting take on him: speaking to audiences from the great beyond. How did you go about digging through-to quote your publicity materials-“rare, previously censored and posthumously published Twain letters, stories, notebooks and historical artifacts”? What did you discover about Twain that the rest of us never would have imagined?
I started out spending months researching at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, where they have his letters and original manuscripts (in his own handwriting); first editions and newspaper articles (very well-preserved); and photographs and other documents for which limited copies still exist (identified by a number).

Along the way, I’ve gotten other stuff from private collectors by email; transcripts of unpublished notebooks held by the University of California at Berkeley; and even great, forgotten passages in his widely-published books.

What do most people not know about Mark Twain?

For one, he recorded dreams in his journal and once dreamt that he was added to the Trinity — “as Suggestor.” He decided at one point to create a new God with qualities “the present one lacks,” a pretty detailed list.

His last written statement of the 19th century was a pamphlet he wrote as vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League (a now-defunct left-wing organization), a brutal satire of “Christendom” as well as American and British imperialism. The piece was accompanied by an illustration of the Statue of Liberty covering herself in shame, shocked by her own reflection.

He wrote a satire of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that started, “Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the sword…”

I’d tell more, but I want to save some surprises for the play.

5) How banal is it when people refer to Hal Holbrook and Mark Twain Tonight!-or have they? To what degree and in what way does The Report of My Death introduce (or maybe reintroduce) Twain to a new generation? (After all, you characterize him as an “American radical and dark prophet.”
You’re right. I do get the comparison a lot, but it’s probably a fair question. Truth is, I never saw Holbrook’s show until two years after doing mine. I heard people ask me about his performance so often during workshop Q&As that I finally rented it. It was a wonderful matching of great writer and great actor, but I was in no way inspired by it for my own play.

The main difference between Holbrook’s show and mine as I see it is that he makes no attempt at a narrative. Hal performed selections of Clemens’ works that best suited his purposes as a performer. For the most part, they are not linked chronologically, dramaturgically or always even thematically.

The Report of My Death, on the other hand, tells a specific story: Twain has come back from the grave, forced to relive a part of his life that he has never been able to talk about, according to his autobiography.

Today, many people still think of Twain as a “humorist” (a reputation that he resented in life) and his writings as “Americana” (although the reactionaries of his time thought he was anti-American). But his satires were so brutal and dangerous to his time that one wartime general that Twain lampooned actually tried to get him incarcerated or hanged as a traitor for publishing them.

That’s the radical.

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The “prophetic” Twain that I was talking about came to light especially in his writings about the Philippine-American War, which was, like Iraq, a short war followed by a long, bloody insurgency. Twain called it a “quagmire,” and I suspect created the metaphor that came to be used in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. He criticized a torture scandal of the time called the “water cure,” arguing that the evidence of tortured prisoners could not be trusted.

His travel writings about Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India and South Africa, in my opinion, predicted the eventual downfall of colonialism.

I think it’s a side of Twain that recent generations might finally be ready to accept, but I think his words are still shocking enough today that they would continue to be sanitized in venues less accepting than the Off-Broadway theater circuit. This Twain is probably too hot for TV, except HBO. After all, they have broadcasted the late, great George Carlin, the often-censored recipient of the Mark Twain Prize.

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6) What’s the most interesting, curious or scandalous thing about Twain that you learned from your research that didn’t make it into the play?
Here’s what he wrote about Roosevelt, which was found and printed after he died:

“Astronomers assure us that the attraction of gravitation on the surface of the sun is 28 times as powerful as is the force at the earth’s service.

For seven years, this country has lain smothering under a burden like that, the incubus, representing, in the person of the President [Roosevelt], the difference between 217 pounds and 6,000.

Thanks be, we got rid of this disastrous burden — day before yesterday, at last, forever? Probably not.

Our people have adored this showy charlatan as perhaps no imposter of breed has been honored since the golden calf: so it is to be expected that the Nation will want him back again.”

I originally wanted to include this in the play because it so perfectly echoes the transition from Bush to Obama. We have this idea that a seismic political change already has happened. While he’s done some great things in office, Obama simply rebranded our misguided “War on Terror” to “Overseas Contingencies Operations,” a forgettable euphemism. We continue to drop bombs on Afghan villages by remote control in the southwest; our oil companies recently swooped in to seize (excuse me, “privatize”) Iraq’s petroleum wealth at auction; and everyone expects that another “showy charlatan” from Alaska will run for President in 2012 on the same “god and country” platform Twain detested.

But I couldn’t fit the passage in the play because the timeline didn’t fit: Roosevelt left office years after the play ends. And the story was much more important than my political editorializing.