Mark Twain: Telling Tales


David Houston as Mark Twain

  — in a lecture on the nature of comedy and wit, with notes on Twain's early development as a writer — taken from the essays and stories of the great American humorist, including: "An Encounter With an Interviewer," "My First Literary Venture," "How to Tell a Story," and "The Turning Point of My Career," with fully dramatized readings of the short stories "The Golden Arm," "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," and the famous white washing scene from the Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The program runs about 65 minutes.

Contact Information
 David Houston (516) 293-2693; e-mail
$300 package includes actor in costume, small stage setting, period music,
and travel
(Long Island and Queens; for other locales, contact David Houston)

Scroll down, or jump with these links:

Literary Sources, Bibliography  
Contact Information  |  Suggested Program Bio and Photo  |  Publicity Photos
Reviews and Comments  |  Mark Twain Lifeline  |  Scheduled Performances 
Classroom Study Guide

Suggested Program Biography  

         DAVID HOUSTON      

David Houston is an actor well known to New York regional theater patrons.  His many leading roles include Sir, the aging Shakespearean actor in The Dresser, Senex in Sondheim's Forum, Major Bouvier in Grey Gardens, Friar Lawrence in Romeo And Juliet, Horace Giddens in The Little Foxes, Uncle Ben in Death Of A Salesman, Tony (the murderer) in Dial M For Murder, Craddock (the detective) in A Murder Is Announced, Sir John in Me And My Girl, Sir Evelyn in Anything Goes and Uncle Willie in High Society.  David first appeared on stage in his early twenties in a Dayton, Ohio, summer stock production (where he was resident set designer) of Father Of The Bride, with Pat O’Brien.  His diverse training in art, theater and literature started in Texas and continued in New York City, where he studied acting with Rose Schulman of the Hedgerow School, Set Design at Lester Polikov Studios, and voice-over technique with The Voice Bank.  A published author, his books include Jazz Baby, a biography of Joan Crawford (St. Martin’s Press), science-fiction novels Alien Perspective, Gods In A Vortex and Wingmaster (Belmont-Tower), and a mystery, Shadows On The Moon (Leisure Books).  He wrote screenplays for the documentaries Voyage To Darkness and They Went to the Stars.  His original stage plays, including Let's Do It!, The Dickens!, Great Scott and Zelda,  Fred and Adele Astaire The Last Dance, and A Rodgers and Hart Audition, have been presented at a number of Long Island schools and libraries. 

      Publicity Photos: David Houston as Mark Twain



             Reviews and Comments

East Hampton Library, Steven Spatero, Head of Reference: "Nice set, nice suit, many good comments from participants. I would recommend this program to other libraries.

Oceanside Library, Michelle Young, Program Director: "Excellent. An enjoyable, charming, and witty performance."

Institute for Learning in Retirement, SUNY Farmingdale, Walter Chaskel, Lecture Series Coordinator: "The largest audience ever to attend a Friday lecture [retired educators and professionals] responded in rapt and enthusiastic attention to David Houston's warm and affectionate portrayal of America's most famous humorist. When Mark Twain stepped into the bland college lecture hall in his snow-white suit and glistening silver hair, his captivating presence instantly transformed the setting into an imaginary Chautauqua platform, with his resonate voice, twinkling eye, charming accent, and the sly wit for which he was famed."

Port Washington Public Library, Jessica Ley, Program Coordinator: Another wonderful performance.  David Houston's Mark Twain was convincing and thoroughly entertaining. The unusual biographical and essay material was delightful.  Again, it was the perfect kind of literary entertainment for a library or school.  

Farmingdale State College, Barbara Minerd, Artists and Lecturers Program Coordinator: "David Houston makes my job as a program coordinator a pleasure with his talent and reliability . . . current and appropriate topic selections at a budget-conscious price."

Cold Spring Harbor Library, Mona Bergman, Adult Program Coordinator: "There was a very favorable response which I will pass on to other program coordinators."

Mineola Memorial Library, Charles Sleefe, Director: I was very impressed by the performance and the selections for reading."    

Locust Valley Library, Kathy Jones, Program Coordinator: “Your program on Mark Twain was wonderful.  The audience commented on your professionalism and appreciated a very entertaining evening. Thank you!" 

Scheduled Performances

Planting Fields Arboretum, Coe Hall, Oyster Bay, Sunday, September 18, 2016, 2:00 p.m.

Bronx Library Center, Saturday, April 18, 2015, 2:30 p.m.
Planting Fields Arboretum, Coe Hall, Oyster Bay, Sunday, September 20, 2015, 2:30 p.m.
Planting Fields Arboretum, Coe Hall, Oyster Bay, Sunday, August 7, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
Community Club of Garden City and Hempstead, Wednesday February 1, 2012, 1:30 p.m.

Cold Spring Harbor Library and Environmental Center, Tuesday March 16, 2010, 2:30 p.m.
Institute for Learning in Retirement, SUNY Farmingdale, Friday, March 26, 2010, 12:30 p.m.
Oceanside Library, Wednesday, April 28, 2010, 2:00 p.m.
East Hampton Library, Saturday, July 24, 2010, 1:00 p.m.
Middle Country Public Library in Selden, Saturday, January 24, 2009, 2:00 p.m. 
Glen Oaks (Queens) Community Library, Saturday, March 14, 2009, 2:00 p.m.
English Department, SUNY Farmingdale, Tuesday, December 1, 2009, 11:00 a.m.
East Meadow Public Library, Monday, July 28, 2008, 12:30 p.m. 
West Babylon Junior High School, Thursday, January 18, 2007, 9:30 a.m.
Rosemont Middle School at Fraunces Tavern, NYC, Wednesday, April 18, 2007, 7:30 p.m.
Peninsula Public Library, Wednesday January 25, 2006, 1:00 p.m.
Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, Sunday, September 17, 2006, 2:00 p.m.

Contact Information

 David Houston (516) 293-2693;
$325 includes actor, small setting, period music, and travel (in Long Island and
Queens; ask about travel fees for other locales
); facility is asked
to provide an acting area of at least 8'x12' and amplification
if the space is large (a wireless clip-on)

Sources (and suggested reading)

Kaplan, Justin, ed. Great Short Works of Mark Twain, New York, Harper and Row, Publishers, 1967

Kiskis, Michael J., ed. Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review, Madison WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 1990

Meltzer, Milton. Mark Twain: A Writer's Life. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985.

Neider, Charles, ed. The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Including Chapters Now Published For the First Time, New York, Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1959

    Mark Twain: Life As I Find It, Garden City NY, Hanover House, 1961

    The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain, Da Capo Press, Inc., Perseus Books Group, 1996 (© 1961)

Pflueger, Lynda. Mark Twain: Legendary Writer and Humorist, Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1999

Twain, Mark.  The Unabridged Mark Twain (complete novels and stories), Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, 1976

The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1999

Ward, Geoffrey C., and Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, eds. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography (based on the Documentary Film directed by Ken Burns), New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001

Zall, Paul M., ed. Mark Twain Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes By and About Samuel L. Clemens, Knoxville TN, University of Tennessee Press, 1985

Audio Recordings:

The Best of Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight Sony/Columbia/Legacy, 2002

The Humor of Mark Twain, Falls Church, VA: Commuter's Library, 1997

Letters from the Earth, Auburn, CA: Audio Partners, 1996

A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, St. Paul, MN: HighBridge Co., 2001


The Center for Mark Twain Studies, Elmira College

Mark Twain in his Time

The Mark Twain Association of New York

Mark Twain Quotations A to Z

Selected Mark Twain Interviews

Mark Twain Life Line

1835—Born November 30 in Florida, Missouri.

1847—Works as apprentice in Joseph Ament's print shop.

1851—Works in brother's print shop as a journeyman and as a reporter in Hannibal, Missouri.

1853—Works as a printer in St. Louis, New York City, and Philadelphia.

1854—Visits Washington, D.C.; spends summer with mother and brother in Iowa.

1855—Joins family in Keokuk, Iowa, and goes to work for the Journal.

1857—Becomes Mississippi River cub steamboat pilot.

1858—Brother Henry killed in steamboat explosion in June.

1859—Receives river-pilot license on April 9.

1861—Civil War ends riverboat career; travels west with brother.

1862—Joins the staff of the Territorial Enterprise in August; Starts using pen name, "Mark Twain."

1865—Short story, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," published in February.

1866—Travels to the Hawaii on March 7.

1867—Leaves for Holy Land aboard the Quaker City on June 8.

1869The Innocents Abroad published.

1870—Marries Olivia Langdon on February 2; First child, Langdon Clemens, born on November 7.

1872Roughing It published; Daughter Susan born March 19; Son Langdon dies June 2.

1873The Gilded Age (written with Charles D. Warner), published.

1874—Daughter Clara born on June 8.

1876The Adventures of Tom Sawyer published.

1880The Tramp Abroad published; Daughter Jean born on July 26.

1881The Prince and the Pauper published.

1883Life on the Mississippi published.

1885—Forms company, publishes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Memoirs of U. S. Grant.

1889A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court published.

1891—Family moves to Europe.

1895—Family returns from Europe; begins world lecture tour.

1896Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc published; Daughter Susy dies on August 18.

1897Following the Equator published.

1904— Wife, Livy, dies on June 5.

1909—Daughter Jean dies on December 24.

1910—Dies on April 21


Classroom Study 

Discussion and Activities – before seeing Mark Twain: Telling Tales

1.      Discuss daily life in the eras Twain wrote about – roughly 1840-1890.  What was life like for the children of his day?  What was school like?  What was play like?   How are things different today?  How are things the same?  What technological advances have children come to depend upon? 

2.      Twain was considered a master of American dialects; many people believe his skill is still unequalled in the 21st Century.  Take a chapter from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn or a short story such as “The Golden Arm” and analyze the phonetic spellings in the speech of its characters.  His characters often used incorrect grammar; look for examples of this and discuss why it made the characters seem more alive.

3.      Research: Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  How did Clemens choose his pen name, under what circumstances, and what does it mean?

4.      Discuss the differences between a fully produced play and a dramatic reading where the all the characters and narration are acted out from the printed page.

5.      Discuss the differences in audience experience, between live theatre and movies/TV.

6.      Read the Mark Twain Life Line (included here) and discuss the personal and professional high points of his life.  Discuss his popularity while he lived, and his fame after his death. 

7.      Briefly study the Vocabulary list (included here) to become somewhat familiar with unusual words and phrases before the presentation.

8.      Schedule a classroom viewing of the Ken Burns PBS two-part documentary “Mark Twain” – available from many libraries and book stores, or order a copy from or

Discussion and Activities – after seeing Mark Twain: Telling Tales

  1. From “An Encounter with an Interviewer” what, apparently, was Twain’s general opinion of reporters?      
  2. How old was Mark Twain (Sam Clemens) when his work was first published?  What do you think of his teen-aged news-gathering?  Was it fair?  Was it mean?  Was it imaginative?     
  3. From his fiction and his own reports of his childhood, what was Twain’s attitude toward black people?  Was he contemptuous, superior, indifferent, generous, fair-minded?  What was the adult Mark Twain’s attitude toward slavery; and what was it when he was a boy before the Civil War? 
  4. In “The Turning Point of My Life,” What does he consider an actual turning point from his childhood; and why was the event so important to him?
  5. What is the important lesson Tom Sawyer learns from the whitewashing incident?  Do you agree with the lesson?  Why do you think this scene is one of the most famous in all of American literature?
  6. What are the time and place of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”?  What major event in American history is suggested by that time and place?  In his talk on “How to Tell a Story,” Twain mentions three types: humorous, witty, and the comic.  What kind of story is the “Frog”?  How can you tell? 

 Further Activities

  1. Have the class write brief reviews of the stories and performance of MARK TWAIN: TELLING TALES; what were favorite sections and moments, most quotable phrases?
  2. Choose one of the popular novels or stories of Twain; read and report on it.  What is its theme?  Its main ideas?  Is the basic meaning of the story still true today?  What about it no longer seems true or inevitable?  Have public attitudes changed or remained the same?
  3. Take the same work reported on in #2 above and prepare a portion of it to be presented as a dramatic reading by one or more in the class. 
  4. There have been numerous recordings made of Mark Twain dramatic readings (see “Audio Recordings” above).  Libraries often carry them.  Obtain one and play portions of it for the class.  Have the class write short reports on what they’ve heard.  How does hearing a story compare to reading it?


Most words and expressions used by Mark Twain can be found in today’s dictionaries.  As with any author who wrote more than a century ago, however, there are some expressions that are not still in common use.  Here are some words and phrases from MARK TWAIN: TELLING TALES that might be unfamiliar.  

  • Alacrity – eagerness, energy, cheerful readiness.

  • Alley – an especially fine marble used as the shooter in game playing.

  • Ax – (dialect) ask.

  • Bated breath – breath drawn in and held because of anticipation or suspense.

  • Bay of Smyrna now called the Gulf of Izmir .

  • Big Missouri the Missouri River , and also a big steamboat named for it.

  • Bully – adjective meaning excellent, very good.

  • Bully-rag – to harass, threaten.

  • Burr, Aaron – Vice President of the U.S. 1801-1805.

  • Buttonhole – button hole in the lapel of a dress coat, also refers to a flower there.

  • Cordwood – four-foot lengths of wood stacked for fireplaces and stoves.

  • Coxcomb – a conceited foolish pretentious man.

  • Dan’l – (dialect) Daniel.

  • Dapper – neat, stylish, smart.

  • Faculties – the senses, capabilities.

  • Fagged out – fatigued, exhausted.

  • Finesse – delicacy and skill in handling a sensitive situation.

  • Flume – an artificial channel or trough for conducting water, sometimes for transporting logs.

  • Forecastle – pronounced “foksul,”a nautical term referring to the structure immediately aft of the bow of a ship, used as sailor’s quarters, machinery or storage.

  • Garrulous – excessively talkative in a rambling manner.

  • Gay – happy, can also mean excellent.

  • Gwine to – (dialect) going to.

  • Holt – (dialect) hold, as in a wrestler’s hold.

  • Hysted – (dialect) hoisted.

  • Iconoclasm – the spirit of attacking icons, cherished beliefs.

  • Incorrigible – uncontrollable, beyond correction or reform

  • Jews harp – small musical instrument with a metal frame holding a metal tongue which is plucked while the frame is held in the teeth.

  • Jilted – rejected by a lover.

  • Jint – (dialect) joint.

  • Journeyman – a worker certified at a trade after completing an apprenticeship.

  • Ketched – (dialect) caught.

  • Labbord – (dialect) the nautical term larboard, the left (port) side of a vessel when facing forward.

  • Lattice box – small wooden cage.

  • Lion – a person of great importance.

  • Marvel – (dialect) a child’s marble for game playing.

  • Notorious – widely known, usually unfavorably.

  • Nub – in comedy, the final punch line, a surprise ending.

  • Obliquity – a straying from accepted moral conduct.

  • P’ints – (dialect) points.

  • Pert – impertinent, bold, lively.

  • Pertinent – relating significantly to the matter at hand.

  • Quail shot – small gauge buckshot.

  • Rascality – the conduct of a rascal.

  • Red – (dialect) short for a “red cent” – not even a penny.

  • Riven – split apart, as a tree by lightning.

  • Salient – prominent, springing forward.

  • Simpering – smiling in a silly self-conscious way.

  • Skylarking – to play and frolic like the European bird which is known for its beautiful carefree song.

  • Son of Mars – a soldier (after Mars the god of war).

  • Stabbord – (dialect) the nautical term starboard, the right side of a vessel when facing forward.

  • Straightened – counted, understood.

  • Taw – a fancy marble used for a shooter in game playing.

  • Toddy – a spicy hot drink.

  • Unremunerated toil – work or a service not paid for.

  • Whitewash – not paint, precisely, but a mixture of lime, water and a thin binder (glue), for whitening fences, walls, and other surfaces.

  • Whither – to or from where.