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Issue Date: March 2009

Marking Time

The writing of Mark Twain continues to fuel actor Hal Holbrook’s long-running one-man show.
by Lynne Thompson
Set Hal Holbrook on the phone, start talking politics, and you begin to wonder if he’s trying out new material forMark Twain Tonight.

As the 84-year-old Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor talks about Barack Obama, it’s easy to imagine Twain — the great American author, humorist and social critic — saying the same things.

Holbrook points out how the president’s critics attacked his ability to inspire during his campaign. “They tried to diminish the value of eloquence,” he says.

He then talks of watching news footage of Obama painting walls at a Washington, D.C., school in shirtsleeves a day before his inauguration. “What president has stooped, if you’ll excuse the phrase, to do something so utterly human and inspirational?” Holbrook asks in his unmistakable, weathered voice.

It’s the perceived similarity between Holbrook and his inspiration that speaks to the success and longevity ofMark Twain Tonight. Holbook has taken the Tony-winning production on the road every year since 1954. The show comes to the Palace Theatre March 21.

Over the years, Holbrook has compiled a vast repertoire of 16-plus hours of Twain’s writings from which to draw.

“It’s amazing how Twain’s material just simply changes its shape the way our own current events change shape,” he says.

The Cleveland-born Holbrook — raised in Massachusetts by his grandfather after his parents abandoned him and his two sisters — was introduced to Mark Twain’s work at Denison University.

While there, he worked with his first wife on a two-person show of vignettes featuring historical figures. The couple performed at colleges and women’s clubs until they had the first of their two children. Holbrook then left to support the family alone and studied Twain with the intent of putting together a one-man show.

“I thought,My God, this is amazing!” he remembers. “I don’t think I’d ever read one of his books.”

Holbrook changes his show every year to fit the times. “I tried to think of what might happen in the next six months while I’m out on the road — what might happen that would be dangerous to us and important to drop a little bomb on,” he says.

He also tries to anticipate what Republicans are going to oppose Democrats on and what Twain might think about it.

“Twain says the hearts of men and women are pretty much alike all over the world, no matter what their skin complexions may be,” Holbrook explains. “It may be that the patriots among them are the ones who stir up trouble, who turn their religion and politics into weapons of vengeance to punish the disbelievers.”

One aspect of the show that hasn’t changed is Holbrook’s refusal to omit Twain’s material that has been deemed offensive, such as certain passages from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The whole point of the story, he emphasizes, is that the main character’s good heart triumphs over what Twain calls a “deformed conscience” and racist upbringing.

“If people don’t allow the book to tell the story, if they freeze up the minute they see [the N-word], then they’re going to miss the whole damned experience and they might as well throw the book away!” he charges. “It’s exactly that kind of thinking that the show is trying to pry loose.” 

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