The Pittsburg Dispatch

1884: December 30

"Mark Twain" and George W. Cable Give Recitations from Their Own Works
Neither of Them Reads Well -- "Mark Twain" Losing His Ground

S.L. Clemens, better known as "Mark Twain," and Mr. George W. Cable recited selections from their own writings last night at the Cumberland Presbyterian church. The congregation was large, and there was an air of intellectuality about the people that betokened keen appreciation and accurate comprehension. One thing was noticeable among the listeners: Nearly everyone had a long nose. If those who were there will glance at each other's companion, this exceptional gathering of long and well-shaped noses will be easily discerned. The occasion was supposed to be a humorous one. Long noses indicate serious intelligence. It may be because the entertainment was a church performance, the true character of it was not suspected.

Mr. Cable, who has become known to the public as the writer of "Old Creole Days," "The Grandissimes" and "Dr. Sevier," was the first to appear. When he mounted the pulpit, he looked like an elf, save his big head, long pointed brown beard and Vandyke moustache. He was dressed in conventional black, with clawhammer coat. The forehead is fairly broad, and medium high; it has an blunt appearance. His sloping, narrow shoulders and diminutive height, set off by his big head and full face, give him a pompous air, which is increased by an assumed dignity of speech and put-on deepness of voice that tends to make the irreverent laugh.


He introduced himself to the audience in a labored humorous way, which he had evidently caught by association with his leading man and comedian, "Mark Twain" -- caught by inoculation from an imperfect virus quill. He began by doing a silly thing, which was followed by his co-partner in this enterprise of advertising each other's books. The silly thing was to announce that he would not read the piece announced on the programme but another, viz. "Narcisse's Visit to Widow Riley," a selection from "Dr. Sevier." The choice was not excellent, but it really could make little difference, for Mr. Cable soon proved himself not only a poor reader, but a positively bad reader, or reciter. He has no mimic power. When he attempted to interpret "Widow Riley's" part, which is given in the brogue of a simpering, coquettish widow, he failed dismally. His voice, utterly untrained and with but little compass, got to a pitch where it became simply ridiculous.

Mark Twain and Mr. Cable recited alternately. As Mr. Cable began the show, it is well to finish with him before speaking of the author of "Tom Sawyer." Mr. Cable's next effort was a visit from "Ristofalo" to the "Widow Riley." "Ristofalo" is a placid, unexcitable, unemotional being, whom Mr. Cable fairly represented in his courtship of the widow. His recital of the widow's lines were ludicrous -- not the lines, but Mr. Cable's recital. His want of elocutionary powers was wofully displayed here, and the thought could not be kept back that so far as Mr. Cable was concerned this scheme of his and Mr. Clemens's was an unwarranted hippodrome.

At Mr. Cable's next call he, instead of following out the programme, substituted two Creole songs which he said retained African barbarity, and he asserted that the latter part was all he retained of the songs. Mr. Cable spoke better than he knew in that. It was barbarous. Even though he rendered them true to life, there was no excuse for producing them, for they were neither instructive nor amusing. While he was chanting them the audience was craning their necks and looking in the direction of the "stage entrance," as if they expected every moment to see Mr. Clemens come out clad in a blanket with face painted and hair bedecked with feathers, waving a tomahawk, and dance a savage war dance. Mr. Clemens missed his opportunity.

The final appearance of Mr. Cable was when he recited "Mary's Night Ride," from "Dr. Sevier." This describes the race for life of a woman on horseback carrying her babe in her arms, as she tries to escape the "lines" of the Confederate soldiers. There is all possible opportunity for realistic declamation. Mr. Cable made many of his audience laugh by his shouting and ranting. He declaimed in a reckless manner, that showed he had no idea of either elocution or declamation. Whilst he points to Mary flying at a mile a minute out of danger, instead of following his pointed finger with his eye, he looks at the audience, who in turn glance from his eyes to his finger, and mentally ask "where is Mary?"


When the six-foot, raw-boned "Mark Twain," with his swallow-tail coat and white tie, stepped out, he looked 30 years older than he did when he appeared in this city 17 years ago. His kinky, bushy hair and his heavy moustache have grown gray. The face has become thin. The eyes are somewhat sunken. The square jaw bones cut a sharper line than ever. The humorist now appears a sad victim of his own jokes. Although he said he would not be introduced, "because he had been 17 years ago," many of his hearers who had heard him before, at that introduction, would have required another, to have known him.

His preliminary remarks were devoted to his change of programme. He then related or recited his adventures with a young lady in Switzerland, who made believe she knew him, and asked him all sorts of questions about imaginary beings, to all of which he had answered as though he knew the people. It was funny; and, although Mr. Clemens's drawling manner of speech, which of itself is quaint and laughter-provoking, has grown more marked and his words are not always heard, he succeeded in delighting his listeners. He recited most of the evening with his eyes closed, and in a manner of fact sort of way that was comical. Still he did not make his own writings half so laughable as they are made every day by elocutionists all over the land.

The next selection was from "Huckleberry Finn," a kind of sequel to "Tom Sawyer," and which is not yet published. It related the troubles of two prankish boys who freed a slave imprisoned in an old cabin. There were a hundred ludicrous incidents in it, which could but stir the risibilities of a very appreciative audience. In his second call he continued the story of the boys' comical tricks and perplexities, which in spite of his inanimate recital, kept the hearers in a smile all the while he spoke.

The last was a commonplace humorosity, built up, carpenter-like, out of the grammatical idiosyncrasies of the German language, a source of fun for alleged funnymen as general and as common as robbing the chicken coop and stealing watermelons. It was a painful production that must have cost its author much labor but gave little mental satisfaction. There is nothing very funny about it. It lacks that spontaneousness that is the real sign of pure mirth and humor. Besides, it was heavy and execrably read. In this recitation he seems to have taken lessons from Mr. Cable.

The whole performance was a hippodrome. Either's works shine better in books than when read by them. The unbecomingness and the charlatanism of an author's going around the country reading from the proofs of a book he is about to publish are degrading to literature. How Mr. Clemens could allow himself to do it is past comprehension. Still, viewed in the light of the miserable performance of Mr. Cable, he may feel that he is a benefactor, for his recitals are so much superior to those from "Dr. Sevier." At best it is very sad to see men who have done clever literary work, "barn-storming" the country with their own works. If the works are good, it is a lowering of the dignity of the authors that is anything but commendable, and if they are not good, to read them in public is almost a crime. It is true Dickens read his works on the platform, but it never added to his fame, and it did lower him in that he became general, common.