Playwright illuminates Twain romance

MIDDLEBURY — The romance between Laura Wright and Samuel Clemens was a whirlwind on the New Orleans riverfront, lasting only three days in the spring of 1858.
The passionate (though chaste) meeting had a lasting impact on the lives of both young people long after they went their separate ways — 14-year-old Laura to become a schoolteacher in Los Angeles; 22-year-old Sam to pilot steamboats and, later, begin writing under the pen name Mark Twain.
That passion caught the eye of Castleton writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Powers, who came across the story while writing “Mark Twain: A Life,” about the fellow Hannibal, Mo., native. He published the biography in 2005. Soon afterward, the love affair took the form of a play, “Sam and Laura,” which will be performed this weekend at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury.
The story of Sam and Laura was well-known, one that every Twain scholar had come across. Clemens wrote about Laura in his autobiography, recounting the tale of those three days with the teenage innocent before his steamboat left town.
“It was always very chaste and proper,” said Powers. “But he never forgot about her.”
Laura visited Clemens in his dreams for years after — in part, said Powers, because just weeks after their meeting Clemens’s brother was killed in a steamboat accident. It was an accident that Clemens felt personally responsible for, since he had coaxed his introverted brother into the steamboat life. He looked back to his pure memories of Laura for solace.
“I think it’s a combination of those two events, this great infatuation followed by this unbelievable trauma, that kind of solidified Laura’s presence in his dreams,” Powers said.
The memories of Laura continued to be a strong support in Clemens’s volatile emotional life.
She would come to him in his dreams, always the same age, and the two would float across the surface of the earth together, hand in hand.
“They would talk in a special dream language to each other, and every time he had one of these dreams he would wake up feeling calmer,” Powers said.
Although much of this is story is known to Twain scholars, Powers was doing research for his book at the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley when he came across a letter written by C. O. Byrd, a young friend of the Wright family who met Laura in California on her 80th birthday. Laura told him of her relationship with Clemens, then revealed a trunk full of letters that she had received from him over the course of his life — at that point, Clemens had been dead for 15 years.
Wright made Byrd swear that he would burn the letters upon her death and, gentleman that he was, he stayed true to his word. Those letters were all lost, and all that remains is the letter recounting Byrd’s interactions with Wright.
This was the last piece of the story that Powers needed, and the story began to come together.
Powers, a nonfiction writer, had never written a play, but the genre called out to him for this particular story.
“I really decided, ‘Here was a story that can’t be contained by nonfiction,’” Powers said. “There are so many unknowns — it was ripe for invention.”
But Powers also drew on Twain’s own writing, adding quotes in the dialog of the play.
“If you’re going to steal, steal from the best,” Powers said with a laugh.
Nearly two years and many, many revisions after he had started the script, Powers had a finished product — one that he brought back to the hometown he and Clemens share. After a performance in Hannibal, “Sam and Laura” has been performed in venues across the country, from Missouri to Michigan to Hawaii, and in Calaveras County, Calif., where Twain’s story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” takes place. Now, it comes to Middlebury.
This weekend, the Middlebury Community Players and a number of Castleton State College students will stage the play under the direction of Barbara Harding. The acting will be accompanied by Michael Lussen on the banjo. That, Powers pointed out, was not originally in the script, but he said it adds exactly what the script was missing.
“It’s so obvious that what the play needs is that Americana music,” he said. “It picks up the emotion.”
To Powers, a Middlebury resident and community theater participant for many years, seeing his words come to life on the stage of the Town Hall Theater will be a unique experience.
“To see your words enacted on stage is like a gift,” he said.
Sam and Laura will be performed at the Town Hall Theater at 8 p.m. on Nov. 11-13, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 14.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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