For the American reading public in the first decade of the 20th century, the feud between Mark Twain and Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy was gloriously outrageous entertainment. Eddy, with her extraordinary success as an evangelist and as the founder of a worldwide church, made an excellent foil for the aging author’s satire. Twain’s book Christian Science, published in 1907, denounced the movement as a fraud and a swindle, Christianity in name only, devoid of the injunction to charity that Twain saw as a core element of more traditional religious teaching. Well practiced in the rhetorical art of targeted deflation, Twain said of the religion, “There isn’t anything so grotesque or so incredible that the average human being can’t believe it.”
Although this late chapter in Mark Twain’s long career is typically relegated to the margins of his story, for actor Val Kilmer, who will be at the Lobero on Friday, June 30, to present his film Citizen Twain, the writer’s fascination with the religious leader reveals an essential truth about his nature and reflects Eddy’s importance as a rare example of female spirituality leading to worldly authority. Kilmer, a follower of Christian Science since childhood, credits faith with healing his recent bout with cancer. The film Citizen Twain is the most recent manifestation of a multi-year project he has embarked upon to bring the story of Twain’s relationship with Eddy and her beliefs to a wider audience. I recently received an email from Kilmer in which he answered some questions about the film and about his interest in the story.
With Citizen Twain you are diving deep into multiple subjects — religion, literature, history, metaphysics, and what it means to be an American. Which of these paths to Twain and Eddy did you come to this project on? Which one are you on now? Perhaps my favorite question in all the hundreds of interviews I’ve done since the play! Well done. The answer is: The spiritual. Twain was very devoted, but very conflicted. He admired Mrs. Eddy enormously but his pride and impishness always got the better of him and he never got around to the full retraction publicly that he expressed to his daughter privately!
What effect does being made up as Mark Twain have on your performance? Will you be appearing in the makeup when you introduce the film in Santa Barbara? Makeup, like costume and hair, is always such a blessing, as you are literally draped in the character — and such a character as Twain, in a big baggy white suit! Madman white hair and walrus beard! Like a suit of comedy armor!
Have you got an actress in mind when you think about Mary Baker Eddy? Who and why? I do but I can’t tell you just in case it doesn’t work out. I can say I’ve talked to Cate Blanchett through the years I’ve been developing the script, and Meryl Streep is always in my heart. Isn’t she in everyone’s all the time about everything? She should be.
What does Citizen Twain reveal about America in 2017? What should the audience be looking for in terms of the significance of the material for our lives today? Twain reveals with such life and humor how awful we are, and how glorious our system of government is, and he holds out the promise that our spiritual core might bring us together, as God intended, free from evil intentions and free of our man-made hell, as Mrs. Eddy envisioned and worked so tirelessly to convey in her words and work.
Val Kilmer will present his film Citizen Twain Friday, June 30, at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call (805) 963-0761 or see lobero.org.