And now a word from Mark Twain

Last week's unveiling of “The Right Brain Initiative,” as described by both Culture Jock and Art Scatter, gives me an excuse to post the text of a letter written by Samuel Clemens 100 years ago this month. He was writing in response to a newspaper clipping describing a performance of “The Prince and the Pauper” given by Chicago school children. I suppose if PowerPoint had been around at the time, he might have been able to boil the argument for children's theater down to a few bullet points and a couple of graphs. Personally speaking, the florid, turn-of-the-last-century prose pleasurably stirs me to my deepest deeps:

Dear Mrs. Hookway,

Although I am full of the spirit of work this morning, a rarity with me lately--I must steal a moment or two for a word in person: for I have been reading the eloquent account in the Record-Herald and am pleasurably stirred, to my deepest deeps. The reading brings vividly back to me my pet and pride: The Children's Theatre of the Eastside, New York. And it supports and re-affirms what I have so often and strenuously said in public that a children's theatre is easily the most valuable adjunct that any educational institution for the young can have, and that no otherwise good school is complete without it.

It is much the most effective teacher of morals and promoter of good conduct that the ingenuity of man has yet devised, for the reason that its lessons are not taught wearily by book and by dreary homily, but by visible and enthusing action; and they go straight to the heart, which is the rightest of right places for them. Book morals often get no further than the intellect, if they even get that far on their spectral and shadowy pilgrimage: but when they travel from a Children's Theatre they do not stop permanently at that halfway house, but go on home.

The children's theatre is the only teacher of morals and conduct and high ideals that never bores the pupil, but always leaves him sorry when the lesson is over. And as for history, no other teacher is for a moment comparable to it: no other can make the dead heroes of the world rise up and shake the dust of the ages from their bones and live and move and breathe and speak and be real to the looker and listener: no other can make the study of the lives and times of the illustrious dead a delight, a splendid interest, a passion; and no other can paint a history-lesson in colors that will stay, and stay, and never fade.

It is my conviction that the children's theatre is one of the very, very great inventions of the twentieth century; and that its vast educational value--now but dimly perceived and but vaguely understood--will presently come to be recognized. By the article which I have been reading I find the same things happening in the Howland School that we have become familiar with in our Children's Theatre (of which I am President, and sufficiently vain of the distinction.) These things among others;

1. The educating history-study does not stop with the little players, but the whole school catches the infection and revels in it.

2. And it doesn't even stop there; the children carry it home and infect the family with it--even the parents and grandparents; and the whole household fall to studying history, and bygone manners and customs and costumes with eager interest. And this interest is carried along to the studying of costumes in old book-plates; and beyond that to the selecting of fabrics and the making of clothes. Hundreds of our children learn, the plays by listening without book, and by making notes; then the listener goes home and plays the piece--all the parts! to the family. And the family are glad and proud; glad to listen to the explanations and analyses, glad to learn, glad to be lifted to planes above their dreary workaday lives. Our children's theatre is educating 7,000 children—and their families. When we put on a play of Shakespeare they fall to studying it diligently; so that they may be qualified to enjoy it to the limit when the piece is staged.

3. Your Howland School children do the construction-work, stage-decorations, etc. That is our way too. Our young folks do everything that is needed by the theatre, with their own hands; scene-designing, scene-painting, gas-fitting, electric work, costume designing--costume making, everything and all things indeed—and their orchestra and its leader are from their own ranks.

The article which I have been reading, says--speaking of the historical play produced by the pupils of the Howland School. The question naturally arises, What has this drama done for those who so enthusiastically took part? The touching story has made a year out of the Past live for the children as could no chronology or bald statement of historical events; it has cultivated the fancy and given to the imagination strength and purity; work in composition has ceased to be drudgery, for when all other themes fall flat a subject dealing with some aspect of the drama presented never fails to arouse interest and a rapid
pushing of pens over paper.

That is entirely true. The interest is not confined to the drama's story, it spreads out all around the period of the story, and gives to all the outlying and unrelated happenings of that period a fascinating interest--an interest which does not fade out with the years, but remains always fresh, always inspiring, always welcome. History-facts dug by the job, with sweat and tears out of a dry and spiritless text-book—but never mind, all who have suffered know what that is. . .

I remain, dear madam,
Sincerely yours,


shobiz said...

This is fantastic, thank you for posting! I wasn't aware of that particular letter. As an erstwhile children's theatre stage manager (at the wonderful Aurora Fox Arts Center in my perhaps overly maligned hometown of Aurora, CO), and as one whose life's course was largely plotted during many influential hours spent in my high school's theatre program, I was deeply moved by this.

MightyToyCannon said...

Your welcome. I ran across this little tidbit quite a while ago and have always thought it a great argument for the arts in the lives of kids.