Mark Twain in Jomtien

Daniel Foley.
Daniel Foley.

A few weeks ago, I read Mark Twain’s splendid travel book again, The Innocents Abroad which was published in 1869. It was based on his letters to newspapers about what he called his “Great Pleasure Excursion” on board the chartered steamship Quaker City. Sponsored by a local paper, Mark Twain travelled with a group of assorted American tourists and visited Europe, Egypt and the Holy Land. The Innocents Abroad is a satirical and humorous account of the tour and the book repays a second reading because it’s a remarkable literary feat, full of the dry and often acerbic wit for which the author was renowned. It was Twain’s best-selling book during his lifetime and became one of the best-selling travel books ever. Mark Twain was yet to write his two great novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn both somewhat controversial classics of American literature.

And so it was with some interest that I went to Ben’s Theater in Jomtien to see an incarnation of Mark Twain played by the distinguished British actor, writer and director Daniel Foley. In the show An Evening with Mark Twain the audience was told of his childhood, his years on the Mississippi River, his travels abroad and his friendships, successes and failures.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in 1835 in the now uninhabited village of Florida, Missouri. He was brought up in Hannibal, Missouri – a port town on the Mississippi River which later provided the setting for both the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn novels. Daniel Foley (in the guise of Mark Twain) told of his apprenticeship to a printer and how he sometimes contributed articles to the Hannibal Journal, a paper owned by his elder brother. He told of his later work as a young pilot on the Mississippi riverboats; a prestigious job at the time, akin to that of an airline pilot today. Incidentally, the pseudonym Mark Twain comes directly from riverboat jargon. “Twain” is the archaic word for “two” as in the expression “never the twain shall meet.” As the riverboat chugged along, the pilot would regularly ask one of the leadsmen to sound the water depth. The shouted phrase to the pilot “Mark twain!” meant that the riverboat had two fathoms (or twelve feet) clearance and it was therefore safe to proceed.

Sam Clemens later moved west and Daniel told of the unsuccessful attempts at mining in the town of Virginia City, Nevada. It was around this time that Clemens published a short story about a jumping frog. It brought him national attention and success. It was also the first time he used the name Mark Twain.

In later life, Twain was in demand as a featured speaker and Daniel Foley gave a fine impression of the great writer. Daniel has a commanding presence on stage and confident speech and posture which reflected his vast experience of acting and theatre production. He trained for the stage at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama where he won The Percival Steeds Prize and Royal Lyceum Awards. In 1992 he studied the Indonesian traditional form of puppet shadow-play known wayang kulit with the great Pak Suleman and later trained in Japanese traditional dance with Yoh Izumo. With Performance Exchange, Daniel has appeared in more than a hundred stage productions in thirty-seven countries. He’s appeared at The European Arts Festival Berlin, The London International Festival of Theatre, The Shakespeare Festival Cologne, The Seoul Shakespeare Festival, The Edinburgh Fringe Festival and many more. He has directed more than fifty productions, ranging from the classics to stage works by modern writers and in 1982 and 1983 he won awards for Best Director.

In the second half of the programme Daniel read excerpts from some of the many letters that Mark Twain received from his international readership. It was a full house at Ben’s Theater and the audience clearly appreciated the entertaining evening which has also been presented in Manila, Vientiane, Phnom Penh and Bangkok.

Now here’s a curious thing. Mark Twain was born shortly after the appearance of Halley’s Comet which as you may know, shows up every seventy-five years or so. Mark Twain often quipped that he would “go out with it as well”. The comet returned in April 1910 and on the 20th of that month was at its closest to Earth. The following day, as the comet headed off back into space, Mark Twain died. Now I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a little bit spooky.