Mark Twain on Stage

Mark Twain did not read from his writings when he gave a lecture or speech. He spoke from memory. His hundreds of public performances from stages, podiums, and banquet tables were carefully crafted pieces, timed and rehearsed to fit the needs of a specific audience. They were designed to entertain.

In his lifetime Mark Twain was almost as well-known a public speaker as he was a writer, and lecture tours were a major source of his income. From early in his career, he could fill a lecture hall wherever he went. While he joked in 1868 that he was staying on in San Francisco an extra day “in order to lecture & so persecute the public for their lasting benefit & my profit,” by 1872 he was frustrated and exhausted by the demands of touring, and he hoped he could soon retire from lecturing.

However, he had learned that his public appearances helped promote the sale of his books, and so he returned to the stage again and again. In 1884-1885 he hired author George Washington Cable to accompany him on what became their “Twins of Genius” tour, which he used to promote his forthcoming book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Profits from his “Around the World” tour in 1895-1896 allowed him to clear the debts incurred by his investment and business failures.

Although he often complained about the rigors of life on the road, Samuel Clemens clearly enjoyed performing as Mark Twain. As a humorist, satirist, and social commentator, he took pleasure in working a crowd with his well-honed monologues and sharp wit. In 1998 the Kennedy Center created the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to “recognize people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist.”

“Mark Twain: America’s Best Humorist.” Lithograph portrait. Signed J. Keppler. Puck, New Series, Number 1, December 1885.
[zoom]

In 1881 the American periodical Puck began issuing large colored lithographs as monthly supplements called “Puckographs.” These portraits were done by one of the publication’s founders, Joseph Keppler. In December 1885 a new series was introduced with this portrait of Mark Twain on stage.

From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane

Mark Twain. A lecture in San Francisco. Autograph letter signed to Elisha Bliss of the American Publishing Company. One page, July 5, 1868.
[zoom]

In the spring of 1868 Clemens gave a series of well received lectures in several California locations. Writing to his publisher, Elisha Bliss, Clemens reports that he has delayed his return trip east for an additional day “in order to lecture & so persecute the public for their lasting benefit & my profit.”

From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane

Mark Twain. Autograph letter signed to Frank Bliss. Helena, Montana, August 4, 1895.
[zoom] | Additional images:

On August 3, 1895, Clemens gave a lecture in Helena, Montana, as part of Mark Twain’s “Around the World” tour. Writing to his publisher, he reports: “It has been blazing weather all along, but I always have good houses not withstanding & sometimes they are crowded—a very handsome compliment. In a number of instances we have had more people in the house than were ever in’t before, winter or summer.”

From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane

Mark Twain. Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World. Hartford, Connecticut: American Publishing Company, 1897. First edition.
[zoom]

Following the Equator was Mark Twain’s last travel book. It describes his “Around the World” lecture series from 1895-1896. As he struggled to climb out of debt post-bankruptcy, Clemens hoped that the tour and this book about it would generate much needed revenue.

From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane

View an image of this exhibition case: 1

Previous Page | Next Page