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Twain meets Shakespeare

Merry Thomas, Sun News Service

INCLINE VILLAGE – At first glance, modern-day readers and audiences might not pair William Shakespeare with Mark Twain.

But MacAvoy Layne is no ordinary reader. Sometimes called, “the ghost of Mark Twain,” Layne is looking forward to leading folks to a greater understanding of Shakespeare – through the eyes of Twain as well as from a contemporary perspective.

The structure of his workshops through Truckee Meadows Community College will feature Layne speaking alternately as Twain and as himself in a point, counterpoint format, depending on which would offer the most relevant perspective. He also will lead students through some of the plays’ scenes, encouraging them to listen to the language.

As Twain, MacAvoy tells says he heard Shakespeare read aloud “under the tutelage of George Ealer” as he learned the art of piloting a river boat.

Twain says he played the devil’s advocate, arguing against his mentor Ealer who believed Shakespeare penned the renowned plays.

For instance, he says he baited Ealer by telling him, “Because Shakespeare was not a lawyer, he could no more have written those plays than someone from the Sandwich Islands could have written, ‘Life on the Mississippi.’ Where Stratfordians versus Baconians, I am a Brontosaurian.” He continues the verbal sparring, endorsing Francis Bacon as author of the enduring plays.

As himself, Layne says, “Shakespeare is to literature what opera is to music. In opera when someone gets stabbed, instead of bleeding, they sing. In Shakespeare’s plays, when someone gets stabbed, they die but live long enough to go mad”

Layne explores Shakespeare’s wide range of content – everything from phallic humor in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” to the role of religion in Shakespeare’s plays.

“Fortunately the two plays this season, ‘A Comedy of Errors’ and ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ are comedies,” Layne said. “Otherwise Twain wouldn’t go near them.” These are among Shakespeare’s earliest plays, he said.

“They’re simple. They have no subplots, no war and no one goes mad.”

The English have comics, the French are witty and Americans have humorists, he explained. Although humor is universal, its use is colored by the context of various cultures and historical eras. Unexpected details attracted both writers, Layne explained.

For example, both men spoke of hoop skirts. The garment known in the 1500s resurfaced in the American west 300 years later by an entirely different name, but equally appreciated by men.

Conceptually, both writers enjoyed language, Layne said. They were great storytellers, relishing the right choice of words as they took rapt listeners on fascinating journeys.

Modern audiences need to step back and consider each writer’s work within the context of the era. Modern audiences also will get more out of the plays and the stories if they can tune into English as it was used several hundred years ago.

“Scholars credit Shakespeare with a 30,000-word vocabulary,” he said. “Ours is more like 10,000 words.”

Writing for the common man turns out to be another similarity between the two men. In Shakespeare’s day, it was the lower class of English society who came to see his plays, to listen to the poetry as well as to laugh and cry and scream in horror. Twain’s stories, portraying the lives of ordinary people living in a small town America, also were written for regular folks.

Shakespeare often spoke through servants and Twain’s major characters included children and alcoholics. Both writers revealed prevailing prejudice against minorities.

Layne, who has been portraying Twain in Virginia City, rubbed elbows with players in “Richard III” on stage with the Nevada Shakespeare Festival, as well as those at Tahoe.

Twain once asked, “Is Shakespeare dead?” Layne said. On the contrary, he said. “There seems to be a Shakespeare renaissance. I hope there’s also a Twain renaissance.”

Most of all, Layne wants students to know Shakespeare meant his plays to be performed.

“They are hard to read but they sound good,” he said.

The workshops strive to help people tune into Shakespeare as much as open their eyes to new perceptions.

To sign up for a workshop, or find out more about them, call TMCC at (775) 833-1809. Classes run through Aug. 21 from 6 to 9 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays at the TMCC office in the Centerpointe Building in Incline Village. The Backstage series runs on Saturday and Sunday from 5:30 to 6:30. Fee is $50 per person or $90 per couple.


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