Saturday, September 08, 2012

Theatre Essay: What About Lil Lizabeth?

This originally appeared in the program notes for my play HUCK FINN an adaptation of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

I've been reimagining Twain's Tom/Huck stories since I was a little kid and my friend Laura and I wrote our own version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, inserting two new characters - a sister for Tom, modeled on Laura and a sister for Huck, modeled on me. Both girl characters hated Becky Thatcher since she represented everything Laura and I hated about how a good girl was supposed to behave. It’s interesting that Twain created the good girl character we despised in the same book as Tom Sawyer, whom Twain saw as an antidote to the idealized good boy character that he despised.

Tom Sawyer was certainly not a good boy. In fact, he was a big jerk. Here’s standard Tom Sawyer for you - he allows Aunt Polly to grieve for him for days - even spying on her in her grief, before he reveals he is alive.

That’s an incident in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," and that’s bad enough. What’s far worse is that the pernicious Tom invades Huck Finn’s story and very nearly ruins "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Ernest Hemingway’s remarks are often quoted in articles and commentary about the book:
"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."
The next three sentences are quoted much less frequently:
"If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim (sic) is stolen from the boys (sic.) That is the real end. The rest is just cheating."
I agree with Hemingway - although you have to wonder how well Hemingway remembered the book, since Jim is "stolen" from Huck alone, not boys, plural. The rest of the book which Hemingway refers to is commonly known as the Evasion section, and marks the re-appearance of Tom Sawyer. Tom neglects to tell Huck and Jim that Miss Watson has freed Jim in her will, and uses Jim’s imprisonment (while Uncle Silas tries to contact his owner) as an opportunity to play a weeks-long game of pretending to free Jim, and almost succeeds in getting Jim lynched - he does succeed in getting Jim abused by the local townsfolk. That lovable scamp.

The character of Tom Sawyer is a black hole into which the characters of Huck and especially Jim disappear. Although Huck continues to narrate the book after Tom shows up, he basically does what Tom tells him to, only once in awhile making a wry comment about Tom’s adorable idiotic hijinks. And Jim - Jim forgets who he is and why he ran away in the first place. He forgets entirely about his family.

The last paragraph of Huckleberry Finn is beloved and much-quoted:
But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.
But who exactly are "the rest" that Huck is going to light out ahead of? Tom Sawyer and Jim. When Huck talks about lighting out for the Territory, he’s referring to a few paragraphs before:
"And then Tom he talked along and talked along, and says, le's all three slide out of here one of these nights and get an outfit, and go for howling adventures amongst the Injuns, over in the Territory, for a couple of weeks or two;"
Here’s what Jim was like back on the raft as described by Huck in chapter 16:
"He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn't sell them, they'd get an Ab'litionist to go and steal them."
So thanks to the influence of Tom Sawyer, Jim is transformed from a man with a life-or- death mission to rescue his family, to the equal of two adolescents planning to spend a fortnight playing cowboys and Indians.

And that’s why it was necessary to remove Tom Sawyer from my version of Huck Finn - so Lil Lizabeth can get her father back.

That’s not entirely true - Tom Sawyer’s name does crop up from time to time in the play, as a symbol of the "good" people, the ones who don’t actively try to lynch black people, but who, through callousness and selfishness are able to live comfortably and conscience-free in a slave-holding society.

c. 2012 by Nancy McClernan