On Stage: a fresh look at Twain's moral outrage | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: a fresh look at Twain's moral outrage 

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Peter Arnett could have saved himself some trouble if he'd remembered Mark Twain's words when his harshly satirical "War Prayer" was rejected by his publisher: "None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth." Twain's essay--written in response to the 1899-1902 Philippine Insurrection but not published until 1923, years after his death--includes an angel who helps a congregation enhance its blandly generic prayers for victory with descriptive passages such as "O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells...help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire."

"The War Prayer" will be recited by a different actor during each of the four weeks of Curious Theatre Branch's Mark Twain Invitational. During the festival monologuists, poets, actors, and musicians will celebrate the opening of the group's new Rogers Park venue with anticolonialist and antimilitarist works by Twain or works inspired by his views. It's a departure for the company, but cofounder Beau O'Reilly says he's been thinking about it for years. "Twain is one of those writers who cross so many boundaries for artists," he says. "I know people in a lot of different disciplines--from music to performance to fiction writing--who all look at his work for inspiration."

O'Reilly hasn't written anything for the festival himself, but he'll play a spectral Twain in Shove, a piece by Paula Gilovich and Melissa Walker. "What we've done is comb over several texts of Twain's and pull out the things we really loved," says Gilovich. "We built a narrative around that in several microscenes that are really about our response to Twain, the personal relationship we have with his writing. The thing we take on a little bit is how he lived his life. He was a real American archetype, in that he would spend wildly and go bust. He loved travel, and he had a scientific mind and just loved gadgetry. And that to me is one of the traps of Americanism--wanting every little toy. So he gets a little poked and prodded."

Longtime Chicago actor Richard Henzel, who's been doing a one-man Mark Twain show a la Hal Holbrook since 1967, hasn't decided what he's going to perform. "Maybe the whitewashing story from Tom Sawyer--that seems appropriate these days," he says, laughing. "It's difficult to do some of his later material--like 'The War Prayer' or 'Letters From the Earth'--as performance, because the key to them is that the narrative voice is very removed and impassive and not emotionally involved." He notes that many of Twain's most overtly political pieces came after the writer suffered tremendous personal losses and financial setbacks late in life.

"I don't think Twain was ever cynical," says Stefan Brun of Prop Thtr. "He suffered from real bouts of depression about the depravity of politics." Brun will be directing Scott Vehill in "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," in which a Mississippi riverboat captain discovers that the afterlife is every bit as dull and provincial as life on earth. Brun will also direct his wife, Curious cofounder Jenny Magnus, in Twain's "King Leopold's Soliloquy," inspired by the Belgian king's attempts to conquer the Congo, which led to the deaths of ten million people. Leopold, says Brun, "modernized genocide. As with any imperialist who comes a little late, he was in a hurry. So his methods to exploit were particularly horrific."

A native of Germany, Brun has long admired Twain. "It's an American voice," he says. "There's no mistaking that. He loved America and had a deep dislike of what 'European' meant at that time--the notion that things were better under kings and a strict class system. But he also knows how to hit the button about American hypocrisy, and he hits it with humor. When I hear generals say it is against our forces to criticize the war, well, that kind of thinking would make Twain grab at his locks and scream."

The Mark Twain Invitational runs from April 12 through May 4 at the Curious Theatre Branch, 7001 N. Glenwood. Performances begin at 8 PM on Saturday and Sunday; tickets are $10 or whatever you can afford. Call 773-274-6660.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.

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