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The Other Mark Twain

In a documentary on PBS, Ken Burns looks beyond the humor and finds a tormented side to Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

January 13, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"He was considered the funniest man on Earth--a brilliant performer on the lecture circuit who could entertain almost any audience--and a spectacularly inept businessman whose countless schemes to get rich quick threatened again and again to bring him to ruin."

This inviting phrase commences Ken Burns' new two-part, four-hour documentary "Mark Twain," which airs Monday and Tuesday on PBS. Burns' documentary offers a portrait of the complex man born Samuel Langhorne Clemens but known the world over as Mark Twain, the author of such landmarks as "Tom Sawyer," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Prince and the Pauper." Twain was not above causing controversy in his day, criticizing organized religion and politics. And he drew the ire of many when he decided to explore race relations in "Huckleberry Finn."

"Mark Twain" is also an exploration of heartache. Though Mark Twain's writing is full of humor, Clemens' life was full of tragedy. At one point, he even contemplated suicide. Though Clemens and his wife built a big, beautiful mansion in Hartford, Conn., he nearly lost everything in bad investments. He had to tour the lecture circuit to get himself out of debt. A devoted family man, he lost three of four children and his beloved wife.

Narrated by Keith David, "Mark Twain" features the voice of Kevin Conway as the author. Among those interviewed in the documentary are Russell Banks, Dick Gregory, Hal Holbrook--who has performed the one-man show "Mark Twain Tonight" for more than 50 years--Chuck Jones, Arthur Miller and William Styron.

Burns, 48, has been making documentaries about America for 20 years, including "Brooklyn Bridge," "Thomas Jefferson" and "Frank Lloyd Wright." He's best known, though, for "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz."

The award-winning filmmaker recently discussed "Mark Twain."

Question: Is this the first time you have ever done a documentary on a writer?

Answer: Yes. We dealt with text with Jefferson, but not to the extent we have done here. I must say I am as proud of this film as anything I have ever done just because it is really a dual biography, if you think about it. It is about the rise and rise of Mark Twain and the rise and fall of Sam Clemens. Who knew there was such a dramatic roller coaster of a private life to sort of contrast the funny guy that Twain really is and the great writer he is?

Q: Did you know a lot about Clemens' personal life before you began this documentary?

A: A little bit. That's what I like about these projects. They are processes of discovery, so instead of telling you what I know, I share with you what I discovered. It is a big difference. I think the two biggest surprises were just how dark Sam Clemens' life was and how great a writer Twain is. You know, they don't give Oscars to comedies; they think they are not worthy of them. And in so many ways our full appreciation of Twain is always checked by the first awareness that he is a humorist. So we get stuck on "Tom Sawyer" and some funny lines that we like. But if you are as old as I am, you remember when "Letters From the Earth" came out in the '60s, and you saw kind of a radical, angry, bitter side [to Twain].

But you forget that he is the beginning, as Ernest Hemingway said, of all American literature. He was willing to confront race before anyone else was, to put a human face on an African American for the first time in all of literature and to then confront, with unbelievably great writing, every aspect of human behavior. At the same time, he's utterly American, and he travels well. He's universal. Czars and kaisers loved him and so did ordinary people. He touched something universal about human nature.

That's why, for me--who is curious about how my country ticks, who is interested in the nature of American creativity and American identity and has had race as a sub-theme running through many of my films--Mark Twain is heaven.

Q: It seemed, though, at the end of his life that he allowed Mark Twain to completely overshadow Sam Clemens.

A: He had to, because being Sam Clemens was so lonely and painful. Can you imagine? I am the father of two daughters. Can you imagine losing three of your four kids, your wife and your beloved father-in-law, your own father and three siblings?

Q: With his suicide attempt and his mood swings, it sounds like Clemens could have been a manic-depressive.

A: I was talking to William Styron and Arthur Miller about it, and they [think so]. You can't make a diagnosis from 150 years away, but he had to have been. So many creative people have that manic-depressive streak.

Q: It must have been amazing to film at Clemens' house in Hartford, Conn.

A: It was so great. I have been to a lot of different historical sites. This is the house where the ghost of its owner is there. You feel his presence, in a way. They have done a great job in Hartford of restoring it. So you just go in there and say, "Oh, my god, he's here." You expect when you walk up the stairs to see him moving from one room to another.

"Mark Twain" airs Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on KCET and KVCR. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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