1870 | Boston

Schadenfreude

Mark Twain witnesses a lecture gone terribly wrong.

I began as a lecturer in 1866, in California and Nevada; in 1867 lectured in New York and in the Mississippi River valley a few times; in 1868 made the whole western circuit; and in the two or three following seasons added the eastern circuit to my route.

We had to bring out a new lecture every season now and explode it in the “Star Course”—Boston, for a first verdict, before an audience of 2,500 in the old Music Hall; for it was by that verdict that all the lyceums in the country determined the lecture’s commercial value. The campaign did not really begin in Boston, but in the towns around; we did not appear in Boston until we had rehearsed about a month in those towns and made all the necessary corrections and revisings.

This system gathered the whole tribe together in the city early in October, and we had a lazy and sociable time there for several weeks. We lived at Young’s hotel; we spent the days in Redpath’s bureau smoking and talking shop; and early in the evenings we scattered out among the towns and made them indicate the good and poor things in the new lectures. The country audience is the difficult audience; a passage which it will approve with a ripple will bring a crash in the city. A fair success in the country means a triumph in the city. And so, when we finally stepped onto the great stage at Music Hall, we already had the verdict in our pocket.

But sometimes lecturers who were new to the business did not know the value of “trying it on a dog,” and these were apt to come to Music Hall with an untried product. There was one case of this kind which made some of us very anxious when we saw the advertisement. De Cordova—humorist—he was the man we were troubled about. I think he had another name, but I have forgotten what it was. He had been printing some dismally humorous things in the magazines; they had met with a deal of favor and given him a pretty wide name; and now he suddenly came poaching upon our preserve, and took us by surprise. Several of us felt pretty unwell—too unwell to lecture. We got outlying engagements postponed and remained in town. We took front seats in one of the great galleries and waited. The house was full. When De Cordova came on, he was received with what we regarded as a quite overdone and almost indecent volume of welcome. I think we were not jealous, nor even envious, but it made us sick anyway. When I found he was going to read a humorous story—from a manuscript—I felt better, and hopeful, but still anxious. He had a Dickens-like arrangement onstage of a tall gallows-frame adorned with upholsteries, and he stood behind it under its overhead row of hidden lights.

Friar Pedro Shoots El Maragato as His Horse Runs Off, by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, c. 1806.

Friar Pedro Shoots El Maragato as His Horse Runs Off, by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, c. 1806. Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

The whole thing had a quite stylish look and was rather impressive. The audience was so sure that he was going to be funny that they took a dozen of his first utterances on trust and laughed cordially—so cordially, indeed, that it was very hard for us to bear, and we felt very much disheartened. Still I tried to believe he would fail, for I saw that he didn’t know how to read. Presently the laughter began to relax; then it began to shrink in area; next to lose spontaneity; and next to show gaps between—the gaps widened; they widened more; more yet; still more. It was getting to be almost all gaps and silences, with that untrained and unlively voice droning through them. Then the house sat dead and emotionless for a whole ten minutes. We drew a deep sigh; it ought to have been a sigh of pity for a defeated fellow but it was not—for we were mean and selfish, like all the human race, and it was a sigh of satisfaction to see our unoffending brother fail.

A difference of taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections.

—George Eliot, 1876

He was laboring, now, and distressed; he constantly mopped his face with his handkerchief and his voice and his manner became a humble appeal for compassion, for help, for charity, and it was a pathetic thing to see. But the house remained cold and still, and gazed at him curiously and wonderingly.

There was a great clock on the wall, high up; presently the general gaze forsook the reader and fixed itself upon the clock face. We knew by dismal experience what that meant; we knew what was going to happen, but it was plain that the reader had not been warned, and was ignorant. It was approaching nine, now—half the house watching the clock, the reader laboring on. At five minutes to nine, twelve hundred people rose, with one impulse, and swept like a wave down the aisles toward the doors! The reader was like a person stricken with a paralysis; he stood choking and gasping for a few moments, gazing in a white horror at that retreat, then he turned drearily away and wandered from the stage with the groping and uncertain step of one who walks in his sleep.

The management were to blame. They should have told him that the last suburban cars left at nine, and that half the house would rise and go then, no matter who might be speaking from the platform. I think De Cordova did not appear again in public.

© 2010, the Mark Twain Foundation. Used with permission of The University of California Press.

Contributor

Mark Twain

From volume one of his Autobiography. After giving his first organized lecture in 1866, Twain continued the lucrative practice of reading, speaking, and performing for audiences for thirty years while also publishing, among other works, Roughing It and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In 1895 he published the essay “How to Tell a Story,” in which he proffered, “The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”