By MIKE CHAIKEN
A new program at the Mark Twain House and Museum will allow visitors to receive a little inside information about the Clemens family.
The historic home in Hartford, which housed the famous author of “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” in the late 19th century, has introduced a new Living Tour dimension to the museum experience.
Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, guests have the opportunity to take a tour of the home under the guidance of the Clemens family maid, Lizzie Wills; family maid, Katy Leary; or the matriarch of the family herself, Livy Clemens, Twain’s wife.
The three characters—played by actresses Betsy Maguire (Lizzie), Virginia Wolf (Katy), and Lisa Steier (Livvy)—introduce guests to some of the features of the ornate home. Twain, according to them, had a love and hate relationship with the then-new telephones in the home. They’ll talk to you about some of Twain’s idiosyncracies, such as his propensity for bombastic profanity. They share tales about the famous author’s sense of humor (for instance, he named two of their cats, Satan and Sin and had an acidic quip about many of his literary contemporaries). And, along the way, the characters will let the guests know a lot about their own lives and life in 19th century Hartford.
The three actresses—a fourth character is in the works—all are cognizant of those guests in their tours of the household. But questions are always answered in character.
Each Living History tour is about one hour, and led by just one of the characters at a time. Visitors can return at later dates and take a tour with another character, and receive a completely different viewpoint of the house and the Clemens family.
Researching her role as Leary, Wolf said, “was an evolution… on my part…. When I was a tour guide here, I became very interested in Katie Leary (who wrote a book about her life at the house). I actually developed a one-woman show about her that I toured with.”
“When this Living History idea came around, Betsy Maguire actually wrote a script,” said Wolf. “She took some of my script (for Leary), and added more into it, because we’re in a certain time and space in the house each of us.”
“It was a bit of a challenge for me now to set aside that play (I wrote) and embrace this one and get all of the stories together,” said Wolf.
To prepare for the “performance,” Wolf said it was a matter of taking the script, getting into the house, and learning how to attach the stories to the rooms in the house. “It’s an hour long one woman show, in a way.”
Along the way, since it is a tour, Wolf often is asked questions by the guests about the home and its famous occupant. “I was a tour guide. I’m very familiar with the house.” That said, said Wolf, “It’s a little challenging as we proceed to keep it all in the right time frame… People will ask me, ‘What happened (regarding a certain event)’… I only have a certain amount of knowledge. But I do say (if I don’t know), the nice people in the visitor’s center can answer that.”
“I don’t want to break character.”
As for her attraction to this opportunity to be part of the Living History tours at the Mark Twain House and Museum, Wolf said, “I think Katie Leary really speaks to me. She never married. She lived with the family for 30 years. She was at their death beds. She embraced the (Clemenses) as her own family. She absolutely loved them. I just love her. She was a very practical, warm-hearted, Irish woman who had a real great view of life… I would have loved to have known her.”
The Mark Twain House and Museum is at 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford. Living History tours are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and are offered three times daily. Tickets are $24 for adults and seniors, $19 for members, and $17 for children ages 6 to 17.
For more information, and a detailed schedule, call (860) 247-0998 or visit MarkTwainHouse.org
PHOTOS by MIKE CHAIKEN