Hal Holbrook: Mark Twain Tonight!

Review by Adam Blair

At Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York City

Yet again when our Republic is in trouble, Hal Holbrook rides to the rescue. You may remember that he played the now-identified Deep Throat in All the President’s Men (1976), giving Woodstein the clues they needed to help topple that Imperial Presidency. And now — or more accurately, still — Holbrook is Mark Twain: sage, social critic, comedic curmudgeon and fully, gloriously human, giving us the strength and the attitude to slay our dragons, both external and internal.

Notice I said Holbrook is Twain, not playing him or impersonating him. Now that I’ve seen him be Twain, I don’t want a time machine to see the original; I’m sure the “real” Mark Twain would be a disappointment.

Not that I’m dissing Samuel Clemens. This is one of those beautiful partnerships of person, personality and material that come along once or twice in a lifetime. Holbrook has been becoming Twain for well over a half-century, with a 1966 TV special, trips to Broadway about once a decade, etc. I quote from his bio: “Throughout his long career [his first professional acting job was in 1942] Holbrook has continued to perform Mark Twain every year…In his 51 st consecutive year for Mark Twain Tonight!, Holbrook continues to add new material every year. He has no set program. With more than 16 hours of material, he chooses his program as he goes along.”

And Clemens/Twain himself was always in the business of creating a persona, or several (the pen name is a clue). He kaleidoscopes from the folksy sage of Hartford, Conn. to the manchild of Hannibal, Missouri, from the young journalist in the Wild West to the bemused, sorrowful soothsayer who sees all humanity’s faults and likes us anyway.

There’s something for anyone to laugh at and with, in lines that have not only not lost their sting in 150 years but have become more applicable with each passing day. Even when the corkscrewed barbs are directed at us, they are delivered with a coating of honey that ultimately makes them sting even more: “I wonder if God created man because he was disappointed in the monkey.” Like so many of the Twainisms Holbrook so casually dishes out, the line detonates slowly, with aftershocks of laughter flying around the audience.

There’s emotional depth as well, in a reading from Huckleberry Finn that eloquently captures the terror Huck feels when the blank white fog on the river separates him from the runaway slave Jim; the boyish cruelty he quickly reverts to when they are reunited, and the true sorrow of knowing he has hurt his friend. As with so much of Twain, I was shocked at how subversive it was — and continues to be — for Twain to imbue these characters with so much humanity.

Holbrook’s visit to Broadway this time was all too brief, but let’s hope he keeps fiddling with Mark Twain’s cigar for as long as possible. Wherever and whenever he does his thing, you should move heaven and earth to get there.

Hal Holbrook's run at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre ended June 26, 2005, but he continues to embody Twain at a variety of venues. The
Holbrook/Twain TV special is now available on video and DVD at
www.kultur.com; information about the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley, which houses Twain's papers, is available at http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/MTP.

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