By Ryan D. Paul
Authors Note: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be . . .”
“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” Thus begins one of the most famous, controversial, loved, and maligned works in the canon of American literature. There are certain books that in the words of cultural historian Alan Trachtenberg, “accumulate an aura that possess the reader before he ventures into reading itself; it gives him a readiness to respond and a set of expectations to guide his response” (Alan Trachtenberg, Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas, [Hill and Wang: New York, 2007], 167). Such is the case with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Like the works of William Shakespeare, each time we experience Finn, we bring along with us our life experiences, our cultural understandings, and our changing world views. Literary and artistic voyages such as these are important to our developing humanity, our understanding of the world, and our place in it. This season, the Utah Shakespeare Festival takes us on such a journey, a story of two runaways, and a Big River.
Big River premiered on Broadway in April of 1985 and like the twisting, winding river that gives the musical its namesake, the trek from page to stage was just as circuitous. The story begins with Rocco Landesman, a Yale professor, mutual fund investor, racehorse owner, and lover of the music of Roger Miller. Sometime in the early 1980s Landesman and his wife went to see Miller perform at the Lone Star Cafe in New York City. Landesman recalls, “Heidi and I got to talking and she said we ought to have him to a Broadway show. We had never produced a show, so we didn’t know any better. And it was immediately obvious to me that the show ought to be a musical based on ‘Huckleberry Finn’ which is my favorite novel.” (http://www.davidowen.net/files/betting-on-broadway-6-13-1994.pdf). Later that night Rocco and his wife visited Miller backstage and made the pitch. Miller who had become famous with songs like “King of the Road” and “Dang Me” and had a pivotal role in Walt Disney’s animated feature Robin Hood, later stated that "he made me an offer I couldn't understand" (http://rogermiller.com/bio4.html). Miller’s wife seemed more intrigued by the concept and encouraged Landesman to write a letter explaining in greater detail his idea. Landesman began an intensive letter writing campaign to Miller that soon evolved into phone calls, seemingly to no avail.
After nearly a year of letters, calls, and personal visits, Miller finally agreed to write the music for what would become Big River. Landesmann hired William Hauptman, a former Yale classmate to write the book, and the creative team got to work. Landesmann recalls that getting Miller “to agree was not the same thing as getting him to do it, because it turned out he hadn’t written a song in ten years” (http://www.davidowen.net/files/betting-on-broadway-6-13-1994.pdf). Hauptman and Landesmann traveled to Miller’s home in Santa Fe and began the laborious process of creating the show. Hauptman later recalled, “Roger told me that when he was growing up, he spent a lot of time hitchhiking from Erick, Oklahoma, the town where he was born, to Fort Worth, Texas, which had a famous strip of honky-tonks along the Jacksboro Highway. When his money was gone, he slept in the back seat of a used car on a lot and hitchhiked back to Erick the next day. When I mentioned that this was a dangerous thing to do, Roger said, ‘All I know is, it’s real important to get to Fort Worth when you’re a kid.’ He continued, ‘As we talked, I began to see that roads were the rivers of the Great Plains, and while hitchhiking along them the young Roger Miller was thinking up his great hits, “King of the Road” and “Chug-a-Lug.” Not only was Roger the Jack Kerouac of country music—he was the real Huckleberry Finn. Born into a racist society, he had already learned to think otherwise by the time I met him” (http://www.playbill.com/article/why-big-river-writer-roger-miller-was-the-real-huckleberry-finn).
The issue of race certainly looms large in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Big River. The journey of young Huckleberry Finn and Jim, an escaped slave, floating along the Mississippi in a desperate search for freedom, a different kind of liberation for each of them, but freedom none the less, is well known to audiences. Critic Jesse Green writes, “But Twain was not writing about Huck’s awakening to fun. It was the moral awakening of the country to the sin of slavery that interested him, an awakening he traced in Huck’s changing attitude toward Jim. Well into the narrative, Huck still considers his adventures with Jim a lark, a vacation from the pressures of his own alternately sanctimonious and abusive adults. Jim’s humanity, let alone his equality, is only intermittently clear to him” (http://www.vulture.com/2017/02/big-river-and-why-its-never-coming-back-to-broadway.html. This of course will change as the musical reaches its conclusion.
One of the reasons Twain’s novel proved then, and continues to prove now, to be so controversial is the use of certain language to tell the story. Finn is credited as being the first American novel to be written in the American vernacular. Instead of using proper sentence construction and phraseology, Twain writes the way he heard the people of his youth speak. Paul Nedham, who authenticated some of Twain’s early drafts stated, “Twain revised the opening line of Huck Finn three times. He initially wrote, "You will not know about me", which he changed to, "You do not know about me", before settling on the final version, "You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter" (Phillip Young, Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration, [University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1966], 212).
Still, while Twain certainly experiments with dialect in his writing, it is the use of one particular word, the n-word, that has proven to be the most controversial. In the 1885 United States printing (it was first published in the United Kingdom in December 1884) Twain uses the n-word 219 times, and the novel was banned one month later as “not suitable for trash” (http://pagosacenter.org/big-river-tells-the-truth-as-mark-twain-told-it). Hauptman’s book for the musical Big River also utilizes the word as a way to communicate the harsh realities of slavery and race relations of the time period. In 2010 Hauptman stated, “I felt that Twain’s lesson has now been learned so thoroughly that even my selective use of the word seems excessive. It would not do to eliminate the [n-word] entirely—I have to be true to the world of Twain’s novel or we can’t have Huck’s conversion” (Ibid).
To this point, Utah Shakespeare Festival Executive Producer Frank Mack notes that, “Big River is a Broadway musical based on Mark Twain’s classic American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain used the ‘n-word” in his novel and so it also is present in the musical. One of the main characters in the story is a slave, and by telling this story we are forced to confront the inhumanity of the reality of slavery, which is far more insidious and toxic than the offensive language associated with it alone. By bringing these stories to life on stage we engage with the personal, human impacts of slavery and discrimination for the purpose of finding meaning. If we were to eliminate, or otherwise diminish the cruelty and offensive language, it would be harder to find such meaning and to discover the insights and genius of Twain and the Broadway musical creators.”
True to its mission to present relevant theatre to its audiences, the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of Big River challenges us to continue to think, discuss, and even debate the issue of race in a society that is becoming increasingly divisive. After all, that is the true power of this art form, to bring us together in a darkened theatre and have a conversation.