Michael Salazzo’s entertaining dramatization of Twain’s novel proved beyond doubt that Huck wants to be the hero of his own adventure, assuming an identity separate from that of his creator. This was emphasized in a soliloquy at the beginning, as Huck assured us that what he was about to tell would be infinitely more compelling than Tom Sawyer. As the author/producer of his own play, Huck tried to present himself in a favourable light, but circumstances kept getting in the way. Either he was forced to do things he didn’t want – for example, fetching and carrying for his alcoholic father – or his judgments of other people turned out to be faulty. He took the Duke and the King – two scoundrels out to make a fast buck – at face value, only to discover their real intentions later on. This Huck Finn was a rites of passage tale, whose narrator aspired to omniscience, but who realized the futility of his task as the story unfolded. By the end he admitted that it had proved very troublesome for him to “make a book,” and he was loath to try it once more.
Salazzo also emphasized the novel’s fluidity of identity. Through ingenious use of doubling, even trebling of roles, he showed how many of the characters – including Huck himself – assumed different personae when the occasion demanded. The Duke pretends to be a long-long uncle in the hope of obtaining a legacy; the Duke and the King play great actors in a hilarious bowdlerization of Shakespearean tragedy; while Huck becomes a young girl and a young farmhand called George Jackson. Some of the disguised produced moments of genuine farce – as, for example, when Huck stayed with the Grangerford family. He forgets his name, and asks the Grangerford’s eldest son Buck to spell it for him. The boy obliges, spelling it G-O-R-G-E J-A-X-O-N. On other occasions the disguises lead to unfortunate consequences: the Duke and the King’s masquerade is eventually uncovered and they are tarred and feathered as a result. This emphasis on role-playing underlined the search for identity characteristic of many Americans at the time Huckleberry Finn was written, as their world underwent radical change in the decades following the end of the Civil War.
On the other hand Salazzo did not shy away from more serious issues such as slavery, as Jim was imprisoned and tortured by the white majority for the crime of escaping from his employer. It was only due to Huck’s persistence in defending him that Jim secured his release – and even then we had no way knowing whether the African-American’s freedom would be permanent. The novel appeared a time when some states had passed emancipation legislation, while others – particularly in the South – clung to their white supremacist ideology. It was a time of social and political turmoil for Anglos and African-Americans alike: Salazzo’s production vividly stressed this.
At heart Huckleberry Finn is a picaresque work, with the protagonist going on a journey – both physical and mental – involving a series of random incidents and encounters with a range of personalities, both good and bad. It is an ideal text for radio adaptation, encouraging listeners to use their imagination in conjuring up the world of the late-nineteenth century South, where politics always mattered, and where the characters spoke their own idiosyncratic form of English. An announcer told us before the production began that this Huckleberry Finn was intended for children: Salazzo proved beyond all question that it is much more than a children’s work, but rather a living commentary on
America in the midst of profound social and political upheaval.