(Host) Writer Ron Powers spent more than three years researching the life of Samuel Clemens for his 2005 biography, "Mark Twain, A Life."
While sifting through thousands of letters and documents, Powers came across an early, but influential romance in Clemens’ life.
That romance is the subject of a new play by Powers that debuts this weekend in Rutland.
VPR’s Nina Keck has more.
(Keck) Ron Powers leans forward in his chair and talks about Mark Twain like an old friend. Powers admits that with all that’s been written about Twain, there’s little left to uncover.
(Powers) "But there are little pockets of his life that keep popping up. I mean the letters he wrote keep trickling in to the archive."
(Powers) "One of the episodes in his life that intrigues me and charms me is a romance that he had when he was 22 – when he met a young girl – and by young I mean 14 – on the New Orleans riverfront."
(Keck) It was 1858 and the steamboat Clemens was working on put into dock.
(Powers) "And he spotted her on an adjoining boat. Her name was Laura Wright. He fell instantly in love and he called her ‘my instantly elected sweetheart.’ And they spent three days together – completely chaste, very Victorian, very proper. But he never forgot her."
(Keck) Three weeks after he met Laura, Samuel Clemens’s brother Henry died in a horrific steamboat explosion. Because Clemens had met Laura so close to that tragedy, Powers believes their relationship may have taken on more significance.
(Powers) "So I think that Laura was a kind of angel to him in his dreams. Sam had a phenomenal dream life – Mark Twain did. He dreamed about Laura throughout his life. And he worked her into his literature. There’s a lot of evidence that she was Becky Thatcher.
(Keck) Despite all that, Samuel Clemens ended up happily married to Olivia Langdon. But over the course of his life, he continued to write to Laura. Ron Powers felt the subtle, yet complicated relationship Sam and Laura shared was worth exploring.
(Powers) "First of all here’s a new figure we don’t know much about, who had a powerful influence on Mark Twain’s literature."
(Keck) In Power’s play, Laura tells the story in flashback. She’s celebrating her 80th birthday with a young gentleman by the name of Byrd. Over the course of the evening, she describes her long friendship with Samuel Clemens, and eventually unlocks a trunk filled with decades worth of their letters.
(Powers) "And this is real history. Byrd looks at them and says, ‘Ms. Wright, these letters could make you rich. Aren’t you going to sell them?’ And she says, ‘Mr. Clemens intended these letters for my eyes only. Mr. Byrd are you a gentleman?’ He says he was. And she says, ‘On your word as a gentleman, you will burn these letters upon my death.’ He is a gentleman."
(Keck) And, Powers says, the letters were burned.
For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.
Note: Readings of Ron Powers’ play will be held at 7:30 on Saturday at the Brick Box Theater in Rutland.