For a few hours next month, Dr. Dennis Maher will do more than don prosthetic makeup and a wig to bring celebrated American author and storyteller Mark Twain to life: Maher will channel the very controversial and inspirational spirit of a man still making headlines 100 years later.
Maher, Associate Professor of Theatre Arts, will perform “The Trouble Begins at Eight,” an original one-man show set for Feb. 12-13 and 19-20 in the Studio Theatre of the Fine Arts Building on the UT Arlington campus. It’s a performance he has adapted from Twain’s writings and speeches over the past 40 years.
“Like most theatre people, I was kind of a strange kid,” said Maher. “Instead of reading what I was supposed to, I was reading Robert Benchley and Mark Twain. I liked the way they wrote and felt they had the same take on things. I started doing [the Twain show] and decided it would be a good showcase for me.”
Maher became interested in Twain during his high school years in St. Louis, Mo., and took his passion with him to college at Saint Louis University. There, he met Robert Krebs, a protégé of Hollywood makeup artist Dick Smith (“The Godfather,” “The Exorcist”), and the two transformed the 22-year-old Maher into the aged Mark Twain most would recognize in archive photos. Years later, backstage at a St. Louis theatre following a 1976 bicentennial celebration performance, Maher met one of Twain’s cousins, Cyril Clemens, who, Maher said, paid him the highest of compliments:
“He told me, ‘Next to the original, you’re the best Twain I ever saw,’” said Maher.
Three decades later, Maher said little of the content for his upcoming show has changed. But as the long-time UT Arlington professor celebrates his 60th birthday, the perspective on what Twain had to say about life may have shifted a bit.
“The context and subtext of all of this is different,” Maher said. “I can understand where he’s coming from when he talks about becoming 70.”
Recently, Twain’s name has popped up in headlines around the nation. Last year, his autobiography, written more than 100 years ago and delayed in release because it had choice words about politics, religion, God and relatives and friends long since passed, appeared on bestseller charts. And at the beginning of this year, news surfaced that Twain’s seminal works, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer,” would be edited and the N-word replaced with “slave” in future publications. Maher feels mixed reaction to the changes.
“On the one hand, Twain was very specific on which word would go into a book. Twain would say, ‘leave it in,’” Maher said. “But also, by leaving in the N-word, the book becomes about something other than it is. Twain was one of the very first to take the abolitionist standpoint and stand firm on equality for all people regardless of who they were. If the book becomes something that it’s not, I think he would have suggested you could do the book without using the word.”
[The announced changes caused a stir among American literature teachers and critics alike, sparking emotional outcry on both sides of the debate. Dr. Desiree Henderson, Assistant Professor of English, offers a more rational view: “Twain’s frequent use of the N-word provides an opportunity for addressing America’s racial history and the lingering effects that slavery has had on contemporary race relations. Rather than trying to sanitize the book, I believe we do Twain more credit by engaging directly with his language and with the meaning behind his language. Doing so also gives us a chance to reflect on how language can both preserve historical beliefs and evolve to reflect new social realities.”]
Were Twain alive today, Maher thinks he would have enjoyed the ongoing debate on his work since the author “loved being the center of attention.” Maher said Twain saw similar debate in his own lifetime when there was a growing movement to have “Huckleberry Finn” banned because it was thought to encourage bad behavior in young boys. Twain, Maher said, met his critics head-on and argued there were more popular works with much more salacious content sitting on the shelves of U.S. libraries and homes.
As a performer and dramatist, Maher said he was drawn to Twain’s view of an audience and stage and often times emulates the author’s feisty spirit.
“Twain said he didn’t see an audience; he saw a bunch of empty holes,” Maher said. “In his head, he had a bunch of different shaped and colored pegs to fill the holes. Twain would offer up his performance, and then say, ‘when the holes are all full, it’s time for me to go home and take a smoke.’”
Tickets for the show are $10 for the general public, $7 for senior citizens and UT Arlington students, faculty and staff. For reservations or additional information, call the Theatre Arts Box Office at (817) 272-2669.