Channeling Twain in a Columbia science class

By Alex Steadman, Contributing Writer

Mark Twain, clad in his trademark white suit and glaring over his bushy white mustache, asked the Columbia students in Pan Papacosta’s Space, Time and the Arts class if there was anyone in the room who never told a lie. No hands were raised.

He then asked if any of them lied all the time. Again, no hands were raised. Finally, he inquired who among them lies from time to time, and all the students raised their hands.

“I think that’s an important way to begin,” Twain said, before launching into the story of his early life in Hannibal, Mo.

“There were seven of us children, half of them boys,” he recalled. “How many of you think that’s true?”

The students shrugged at one another and laughed.

Later, after many more tall tales that included the claim he had drowned seven times in the Mississippi River, a classroom display behind him fell with a crash.

Twain gave a start and quipped, “I promise to tell the truth from here on out.”

Papacosta’s class is all about how space and time are viewed through various artistic disciplines. The guest speakers have included filmmakers, dancers and poets, but on April 20 the subject was writers and how they portray journeying through time. The first guest was Columbia faculty member Audrey Niffenegger, author of the best-selling novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”

She spelled out how she manipulated chronology in the book, which is a love story about a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to go back and forth in time at unpredictable moments.

Then it was the turn of Mark Twain, also known as Warren Brown, an actor who makes his living impersonating the celebrated 19th century author.

Brown’s channeling of Twain, delivered while standing next to a table piled with books and a fake skull, began with him looking around as the students fell still.

The actor playing Twain, who was known as a notorious religious iconoclast, groused, “I feel like I’m in church. It’s quiet.”

That caused the students to loosen up. During the next hour, Brown gave the class insights into Twain’s life, mixed in with the occasional whopper.