“I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” says Huckleberry Finn at the end of the novel that Mr. Mark Twain wrote about him. In 1861, Twain himself, then still known as Samuel Clemens, lit out for the Wild West with his brother Orion, whom President Abraham Lincoln had appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory. Only 25, Twain eagerly anticipated the journey, on which he “would see buffaloes and Indians, and prairie dogs, and antelopes, and have all kinds of adventures, and maybe get hanged or scalped, and have ever such a fine time,” or so he wrote a decade later. But instead of the unspoiled land of plenty he imagined, Twain found a place where the ideal of individualism had been corrupted into the credo of every man for himself, where a system that functioned under the name democracy was in fact a tyranny of the powerful, where the natural desire to strike it rich in the gold and silver mines was warped into murderous, all-consuming greed. By the time his planned three-month excursion had stretched into a sojourn of several years, the innocent young Missourian had learned all too well how the west was run.

That education is the subject of Roughing It, Twain’s follow-up to Innocents Abroad, the humorous study of Americans in Europe that made him internationally famous when it was published in 1869. In the later book, Twain turned his focus on Americans in America, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. But because of the author’s keen eye and ear it was a funny one. In both his narration and his dialogue, Twain brilliantly captured and just slightly stylized the delicious convolutions and exaggerations that marked the flamboyant way people talked in a world where there was plenty of time and not much else to kill it with.

“There was no television, obviously, and books were scarce,” notes Ina Marlowe, artistic director of Touchstone Theatre. Travel in the days before trains had reached the west was tedious and tough (a running gag in the book concerns Horace Greeley, the New York publisher whose editorials popularized the credo “Go west, young man, and grow with the country,” and how his enthusiasm was dampened by the rigors of stagecoach travel). And for men struggling to find gold in the ground, there was plenty of need–and time–for the distraction of a long, spun-out story to take their minds off bad luck and bleak conditions.

“There was a real oral tradition,” says playwright Tom Creamer, author of the new stage adaptation of Roughing It that Marlowe is directing for Touchstone. “And it was a good one. It’s remarkable how literate these people were in their own way.” Even if they couldn’t read, people were familiar with the majestic English embodied in Shakespeare (whose plays, though often in bizarrely mangled form, were much more popular with the masses than they are now) and the King James Bible, which was drilled into virtually every child of the time. One could, as Twain did, break from the religious dogma of the Bible but not escape the influence of its language.

Marlowe, who founded Touchstone in Lake Forest in 1985, first encountered Creamer when she staged the translation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler he had written when he was a literary associate at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. When she asked Creamer to write a new play for her company, he thought of Twain. “Ina wanted an adaptation of a work of American literature and a costume drama,” Creamer remembers. “I thought this would be interesting because although most people know Twain’s novels, not a lot of people know this book.”

That’s partly because modern readers can be daunted by its loose narrative structure. Twain jokingly said of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that “persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot”; no gun is necessary to inhibit readers of Roughing It from finding a clear story line amid its dense and rambling stream of incidents and observations about the myth and reality of the west.

But, says Marlowe, “I trusted Tom to be able to make stage sense of this unwieldy work.” Like a prospector sifting a few ounces of gold from a ton of rock, Creamer isolated one key element of the book–Twain and a friend chancing onto an unclaimed vein of gold. Then he rearranged other characters and incidents so that they came into line with the gold-mining story. In particular, he expanded the character of the gunman Slade into a key role embodying the cruelty and corruption that both repelled and fascinated Twain; Creamer’s Slade is a mining lord who rules with one hand clasped to a revolver and another gripped around the slippery political and legal system that attempts to govern the mining industry.

A first draft of the play was tried out by Touchstone two years ago in Lake Forest; now, with the backing of a grant from AT&T, the play is being presented in heavily rewritten form to Chicago audiences. The rewrites, Creamer says, are intended to tighten the narrative focus and to build up the character of Twain himself–both the 40-year-old literary celebrity who narrates the show and the 20-ish tenderfoot he once was. (Twain at the two stages of his life is played by two different actors who sometimes interact.)

Creamer’s script is certainly less faithful to its literary source than is his stage version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which is produced annually by the Goodman Theatre, where Creamer is staff dramaturge. But Creamer has aimed to capture the spirit of Twain–not only as expressed in this early work, but as it appears in his more refined later novels and essays. In Creamer’s Roughing It, more explicitly than in Twain’s book, the search for wealth is a metaphor for the search for personal values; young Sam Clemens, the hero of Creamer’s play, begins to understand the difference between “fool’s gold” and the rare real thing in his own nature as well as in the rocks he’s mining. “When Twain wrote Roughing It,” says Creamer, “he was reporting from the frontier of language”; for him, it was also the frontier of the soul.

Previews of Roughing It begin Thursday, March 7, at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont. It opens March 13 and runs through April 14; tickets run $16 to $20. For more information, call 327-5252.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.