Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Mark Twain a Hit in Melbourne

Mark Twain embarked on a round-the-world lecture tour in 1895.  Here is the Melbourne Argus’s report (28 September 1895) of his lecture there:


The author of the Innocents Abroad was “At Home” at the Bijou Theatre last night.   The celebrated humorist was at home in more senses than one. He strolled on to the stage in a manner that showed he felt himself among friends, and was   met with such a greeting from a crowded    audience as must have made him glad he did not in reality stay at home. To say that the audience represented even more in good feeling and enthusiasm than in dollars is to say a great deal, and yet preserve that close adherence to actual fact which has always distinguished Mark Twain himself and imparted to his books their most endearing element—trustworthiness. One touch of humour makes the whole world kin, and this was illustrated in the audience last night. That gentleman in the higher stage-box, who laughed   till his face was scarlet and banged the end of his walking-stick on the floor, was an archdeacon, and close to him  was a rural dean, backed by a number of the minor clergy, all cackling like school- boys. Beneath them sat an aged senator leaning over the rail of the dress circle, and swaying to and fro in most painful enjoyment. Down below a bookmaker led the laughter with an unceasing metallic roll. He was always in time for the good points, for he never stopped. The clergy was the most notable element in the assemblage. The Church of England Assembly had evidently adjourned to the theatre in a body, and the Catholic priests had come to take the first steps towards that union of which so much is heard. There were several Presbyterians laughing really hard—they were evidently not of the subjects requiring surgical operations. One burly Wesleyan exploded at  regular intervals in the gallery—in fact, white cravats and black coats were dotted all over the building. It is suspected that there were even some particular Baptists present, but on such a point one must speak with reserve. Everybody in Melbourne who could get into the building seemed to be there, and there never was an audience that seemed more convinced that it had got the worth of its money. For two hours there was a continuous roar of laughter, with the exception of a seven minute interval, and one or two places where the humorous and the pathetic met, and people did not quite know whether to laugh or cry. To a student of Mark Twain’s writings there was little that was new in the lecture, but all his odd, quaint turns were presented in their proper setting, so that for the first time one really realised what American humour actually is. There was the quiet, lazy drawl, the half closed eye. the confidential manner, leading one slyly away from the point of the story, so that it might be thrust in unawares amongst the small ribs by a sort of addendum or afterthought. And then a patient, resigned silence until the laugh was over, as if it was all an annoying interruption which had to be endured, though why they laughed the lecturer did not know. All this one had, of course, tried to imagine many times, but here was the real thing, only one felt that instead of a trim figure clad in regulation evening dress there should  have been a man in the costume with which caricatures have made us familiar, whittling a stick. The acknowledgment of the first burst of applause was drawled out in a nasal accent—anyhow, as it seemed—  and yet, on listening, it proved to bea sentence or two of most polished, perfect English, such as the Archdeacon himself might have been proud to utter. And just a little joke at the end as an afterthought. Someone from the gallery cried out twice, “Is he dead,  Mark?” The lecturer did not catch the remark the first time; the next time he   heard but did not understand. After the lecture he made special inquiries what that interjection meant. And yet the explanation was simple. It was an admirer paying back on him the mystification he inflicted on the poor guide who showed him the statute of Christopher Columbus. “Is the gentleman   dead?” For nearlv two hours the humourist went lazily onward, telling over again many of his best stories as only he can tell them. What a mixture of the terrible and the grotesque, the tale of the boy who discovered that the weather was too bad for school—just the sort of weather for fishing; who went fishing and returned to sleep in his father's office along with the corpse of a man killed in a street row; how he went away from there—not hurriedly, but still he went—through the window, taking the sash with him. What unutterable pathos in the voice of the man in the Jumping Frog who said, “I ain’t got no frog.” What real pathos in the struggle of the better nature of the loyal Huck Finn with the conscience which told him he would go to perdition if he did not betray the escaping nigger, “Jim.” It was Mark Twain, interpreted by Mark Twain. The same entertainment will be repeated tonight.  

I take this from a project by the National Library of Australia to digitize long runs of newspapers.  They digitize the articles, and anyone may proofread the digitized versions and correct errors.

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