Friday, April 29, 2016

The Celebration of the Celebrated Jumping Frog

For many years, you've been able to list a number of disagreeable things about your favorite author's work, by no means the least of which is the limited use to which he puts female characters. Since you began keeping track of such things, your revisiting of his work allows you to add to the list. 

Nevertheless, Mark Twain remains to this day, April 29, 2016, your most cherished writer to read, your most steady equivalent of true North on the literary compass, the pole star you seek when you are lost, the person with whom you would gladly share such celebratory dinners when you had occasion to celebrate any small triumph.

Small wonder then, that you chose Twain's memorable sketch, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," for your reading at a program devoted to a young audience, most of whom were accompanied by one or both parents.

You took stage with your script in hand, marked to indicate places to pause for breath or effect, or to cue you to a particular gesture. Venues with numerous young persons tend to be a hive or excited noises of enthusiasm and impatience, of sudden bursts of self interest or jealousy, and waves of curiosity expressed in loud questions or exclamations of the complex amalgam of impatience, frustration, and awe associated with young persons. 

You've heard such ambient sounds at birthday parties, grammar school graduations, even at concerts for children, featuring Leonard Bernstein, who knew a thing or two about taking on the temperament of young audiences.

Your own venue was no less than you described, including one young person, probably a boy, who was fascinated with the sounds of a motor boat, and which extended even after your introduction had been completed.

By the time you'd completed your preface to the story you were about to read, lapsed into the two characters, one of the narrator and the other of his central character, a garrulous old sort, even the motorboat was silent. You could feel the intense, group interest, hunched forward in the growing chill of the evening, the only sound the occasional snap from the fire in the fire ring between you and the audience.

"The Frog" was one of Twain's earliest pieces, but even at that point in his career, his talent was assembling itself in all the right places. You did not need many of the marks and cues you'd noted on your script; they were present in the phrasing, the punctuation, and in the rolling, liquid dialogue, which even you could capture, not so well as you imagine Twain to have delivered it when he hit the lecture circuits years later, but well enough to sense the bond between the listeners and the text you read.

After a few more pages of script, you were on a kind of autopilot, where you read the words without thinking about them, aware your voice was raising or lowering, projecting to the back row or causing the audience to lean forward for a whispered phrase before jolting them into a laugh or lurch over some line of dialogue.

For the final pages, you noticed your voice filling once again with the pride and joy of loving a man and his work, even those passages of later works you had issue with, even some entire works you are not connected to.  

After you'd finished the story, you heard that remarkable sound of an audience that sounded as though someone had given it a collective heave about the waist. It was the group sound of a gasp of acknowledgment at hearing a story, the likes of which they wanted more of.

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