Literary theory usually has its limits. When critics try to directly link an author’s personal life to his creative output, the results seem maddeningly superfluous. The reader longs to consider the work alone and not get bogged down in the minutiae of what the author had for breakfast.
“The Shape of the River” stands that notion on its head. Television critic Mark Dawidziak has unearthed an amazing document about Mark Twain: a 1960 teleplay written by Horton Foote. Written for a Playhouse 90 production that aired on CBS, it focuses on Twain’s later years, when he faced personal tragedy during a global speaking tour designed to pay off debts. But while the book presents the teleplay as its centerpiece, the 50 or so pages that establish the context for it turn out to be a vastly more entertaining read.
Time has not been kind to the script. Foote is a gifted writer, the winner of an Oscar, an Emmy and a Pulitzer Prize, but the conventions of early television drama are apparent throughout. His portrait of a heroic man of letters struggling to settle his accounts and bond with his family has the makings of a classic. But Foote turns it into cut-rate Chekhov. The delightfully timeless wit of Twain is suddenly trapped in a mid-century terrarium thanks to lines like “We’ve never before been separated as a family for any length of time, but we know it must be done.” Or: “Come, massage my head, Katy. No one does it like you.” To his immense credit, Foote is self-effacing when contemplating his work, which was locked in a CBS vault until Dawidziak asked about it.
Dawidziak, who writes for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, imbues his Twainiana with down-home enthusiasm. He calls one appendix “Major Mark Twain Web Sites.” What also emerges is an illuminating portrait of Playhouse 90, a theater-like proving ground of many big names in Hollywood. The pace of the live-television era, now lost, and the previously underappreciated aspects of Mark Twain’s life and work ultimately provide a welcome distraction from the teleplay itself.