Old Faces Bring New Life to The Mark Twain House & Museum

Posted on August 1st, 2016

Living History Tour Highlight; First of Four

The man who lived at 351 Farmington Avenue between 1874 and 1891 was known to many people as many things. To some “Sam,” to others “Mark,” both “Mr. Clemens” and “Mr. Twain,” even occasionally “sir;” to his daughters he was “Papa;” to his wife he was always “Youth, darling.” This man wore many hats, often all at the same time, and nowhere did he do so more than in his Hartford home. The new Living History tour series now offered at The Mark Twain House & Museum is an unparalleled opportunity to get to know the man beneath the hats as he was to those who were nearest to him, cared for him, and loved him. All of the tours offered at the House are detailed and informative, providing stories about the home and family that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. To be led through these stories, delicate cozy details, and gossipy morsels by a character who knew the man himself has an emotional value that is simply irreplaceable.

Living History

(Left to right: Virginia Wolf as lady's maid Katy Leary, Betsy Maguire as house maid Lizzie Wills, Lisa Steier as Olivia "Livy" Clemens, and Kitt Webb as coachman Patrick McAleer. Photo by John Groo.)

In March of this year, the House was able to welcome back to its rooms and corridors some of the very people who used to live and work within its gorgeously stenciled walls. Thanks to a stroke of innovation and hard work from Executive Director Cindy Lovell and Manager of Living History Tours Betsy Maguire, characters from Mark Twain’s own time have returned to help show the house to modern visitors. It was my great fortune to be able to learn a little bit more about the makings of these tours and experience them for myself.

Since the evening event “Beck and Call” performed in 2014 at the House—an occasion where actors and staff members played written parts as the home’s servants while visitors toured the house—Lovell imagined what it might look like to have such an interactive experience available at the house every day. According to Maguire, it was then that she enthusiastically stepped in, having played the character Lizzie Wills in “Beck and Call,” excited to turn a fantastic brainchild into a living, breathing program available for all guests of the House.

It was certainly a daunting task. When the project launched in January of 2015, the Living History tours of today were little more than an idea. However, with what Maguire describes as the “full support of the museum”—including access to the Curatorial Department’s library and archives for character research—the program was ready for launch in just over a year’s time. Often she found that one of the hardest parts of the process was not getting enough information, but being overwhelmed by it. She told me, “The challenge with research is where do you stop, because you know, we have so much.” But Maguire and the Museum have met this and every other challenge head-on, with enormous success.  Despite still technically being in its launch phase, the series has quickly begun to reap the rewards of the extensive research and writing-time Maguire pours into it; in only a few months, over a thousand tour tickets have sold.

There is something unique to each tour that keeps people enthralled, and this is no accident. Every character is richly written to include a variety of talking points which are held in common, but not the same. As Maguire put it, her main concern was addressing how each character would see and talk about something. For example, all three guides will have something to say about Clemens’s famous neighbor, Harriet Beecher Stowe; however, each of them has a completely different perspective. The tours are designed first and foremost to give an experience that is true and unique to the character leading it, as well as flexible and organic. As the characters lead their groups through the House, they bring with them an arsenal of affectionate, confidential information that allows them to chaperon a slightly different but equally engaging tour every time. In truth, no two tours are the same and no one tour is disappointing. The research and care that has gone into every character guide is apparent and the result of this, as intended, is to blow audiences away.

Living History

(Some of the 19th-century objects visitors can pick up and examine in the laundry room. Photo by Kim Beal)

If The Mark Twain House & Museum is not on your must-see list yet, it should be. All three of the current Living History tours are intimate, entertaining, and interactive, offering visitors a chance to visit and take pictures of the basement of the home as well as physically handle nineteenth-century objects. With ready plans to add even more guides very soon, the series already offers three different character tours, all of which I was able to attend. What I saw and experienced during my three days of touring did not disappoint in the slightest, as you will see. Come back Monday, August 8 to look at the Mark Twain House first through the eyes of lady’s maid Katy Leary!

Sabrina Rostkowski is an undergraduate at Yale University studying the humanities. Thanks to the generosity of the Yale Club of Hartford, she has had the wonderful opportunity to intern at The Mark Twain House & Museum during the summer of 2016, primarily (though not exclusively) in the Development Department. MTHM is honored to have had Sabrina share her talents and enthusiasm with us this summer.

For more information and to sign up for a Living History Tour, click here.

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