The Friends of Hillsboro Library held their Fall Literary Social Saturday evening and hosted a special event for the enjoyment of the public. The Friends provided a performance by Mark Twain presenter Doug Riley, who portrays the renowned author for the West Virginia Humanities Council. In addition to the performance, the Friends provided food, snacks and refreshments at no cost.
Twain (1835-1910), whose real name was Samuel Clemens, wrote several novels, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain also worked as a newspaper reporter, humorist and lecturer. He is regarded among the greatest American authors. Ernest Heminway wrote in 1935: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
To begin the presentation, Riley was escorted into the Library by Friends member Helena Gondry, who portrayed Twain acquaintance Queen Elisabeth of Romania. Following Gondry’s introduction, Riley portrayed Twain in a monologue, in which he expounded the author’s views on several topics, including fame, railroads, money, politics – and newspapers.
Riley, as Twain, talked about the author’s attempt at silver mining in Nevada.
“I first caught silver fever there,” he said. “I wanted to be a millionaire. I was against it in principle. I knew that the root of all evil was money – and I wanted just as much of it as I could get. I was
assuming that all you had to do was go up to the silver area and it would just be laying there on the ground and you just pick it up and stuff it in your pocket. Well, I got up to the mining area and they handed me a long-handled shovel. I had no use for a long-handled shovel. That was work and I didn’t want any part of anything I didn’t understand.
“So I did my best to get a job with the Virginia Territorial Express, which was one of the newspapers there in Virginia City, seeing as I grew up in that line of work. At the time, Virginia City was the largest city in the United States. It was larger than New York. It was larger than San Francisco. Every day, they had to add an extra street to take on all the people that were rushing there to the silver fields. The only problem was that it was on a hillside. To get from one street to another you had to walk through this house to get down to the next street.
“At the time I took on the assistant editorship at the Virginia Enterprise, we had six competing newspapers. Mr. John Goodman, the editor, after he had trained me up and felt that I was sufficient to handle it – he had family back east that he hadn’t seen in years – so he left me in charge. Well, I wanted to do a good turn for this gentleman who had given me a job and gotten me out the predicament that I was in. So, I started to add some color to my newspaper articles. Now, who could have guessed that people reading newspaper articles expect to only find facts? I had forgotten the principle that Mr. Goodman had told me. He said, ‘Sam, get your facts straight first and then you can distort them all you want.’”
Following the monologue, Riley came out of character and answered questions about Twain’s life and career.
Riley said the Humanities Council conducts auditions for historical presenters much like a stage production would do.
“Under the West Virginia Humanities Council History Alive Program, they currently have 15 different characters on the roster,” he said. “The process is – every two years, they put out a notice that they are willing to accept proposals for characters to be added to the roll. That comes out around September and, by January 1, you have to provide them a character statement and your plan to research your character.”
If the History Alive program is interested in a proposal, the applicant will be invited to an interview. In early spring, the program notifies successful applicants and provides $750 to conduct research on their character.
“I was notified in March or April that I had been accepted and given a stipend to go do research,” said Riley. “And your audition will be in August. So, that gives you some time to really pull yourself together and get ready for the audition. In the audition, they don’t want to hear five or 10 minutes of monologue. Your next 50 minutes, you’re being real, you’re being in character.”
The History Alive program ensures that presenters are not only good actors, but intimately familiar with the character they are portraying. Riley said the questions asked during the performance in Hillsboro caused him to draw strongly on his research work.
“These were some of the better questions that were asked here tonight,” he said. “They really caused me to think and draw back on my memory.”
Riley’s first work with the History Alive program was portraying Stonewall Jackson, a character for which the program solicited applicants. After two years portraying Jackson, Riley successfully proposed to present Mark Twain, the newest character on the History Alive roster. Other characters currently available for presentations include Osborne Perry Anderson, Clara Barton, Belle Boyd, Chief Cornstalk, Martin Delany, Robert E. Lee, Mary Lincoln, Ostenaco, Eleanor Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, David Hunter Strother and Harriet Tubman.
Mark Twain was born shortly following the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1835. In 1909, the author was quoted:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ ”
Twain died on April 21, 1910, one day after the comet’s closest approach to Earth.
More information on the History Alive program can be found at www.wvhumanities.org.