As an unemployed actor six decades ago, Hal Holbrook starting digging through Mark Twain’s written words in order to fashion a staged interview in which the “father of American literature” (as William Faulkner deemed Twain) would come to life. From the interview, the event evolved into Mark Twain Tonight! in which one author’s distinctive humor and his observations on humanity swirl together like well-timed puffs of cigar smoke. From 1954 to today, it is estimated that Mr. Holbrook has performed his version of Twain more than 2,200 times.
Remarkably, Mr. Holbrook is still bringing his literary muse to life at 89 years young, and lucky for Washington, DC, Mark Twain Tonight! returned to town for two performances last week.
Mr. Holbrook may be the world’s greatest illusionist – at least that’s what I saw on Friday night at the National Theatre. At his age, he probably does not a require a four hour make-up job to go from award-winning actor to 70 year-old Twain offering one of his celebrated lectures around the year 1905. That part may have been more impressive in the 1950s and 60s when the then younger Holbrook had to disappear into the Mark Twain look we have all come to expect: white, three-piece suit and cravat; a tussle of snow white hair; and the trademark nose and hanging mustache. He still works his cigar, sips water, and methodically checks his notes throughout the performance.
His voice, now colored with Holbrook’s advanced years, still has the power to enthrall us with his interpretation of Twain’s down home Missouri twang. For many of us, that voice and the delivery is locked in our cultural conscience, thanks to the audio recordings Holbrook made decades which are now available on CD and other digital formats.
But the magic of Mark Twain Tonight! is the actor and his power over the live audience. What actor has had a chance to hone his gifts and sharpen his skills as much as Mr. Holbrook? As I watched him take the stage Friday night, I must confess that half of me was geeking out that Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain was as close as a few rows away. The other half of me was analyzing the power of such a simple, brilliant one-man show that has been seen the world over.
And then all that was forgotten. As Mr. Holbrook welcomed his visitors to the “services,” as he calls his lecture, there was Mark Twain in the flesh. My fan-boy elation subsided and my analytical notions ceased. Curiosity gave way to simple enjoyment. The gentleman on the stage, with eyes sparkling, took in the entire auditorium, and began his visit with us. Familiar lines rang out, stories were spun, and nearly prescient observations on the state of politics and the economy tumbled forth as if they were being thought and shared for the first time.
After so many years of living with the material, Mr. Holbrook is able to use Twain’s stories and witty lines like a jazz musician uses notes, rhythm, and improvisational riffs. Holbrook has nearly 20 hours of material in his arsenal – a feat on its own merit. But it’s what he is able to do with the material each time he performs that makes Mark Twain Tonight! so unique, as the actor changes the selections, molding and shaping it as he performs it.
Friday night, I heard musings on the Christian Bible, and thoughts on the American working class that sounded as if Twain had written them as fresh as Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart’s observations of the state of things in 2014. Being in Washington, DC, Holbrook has no dearth of pithy Twain-isms about the town and some of its most visible inhabitants. “Washington is a stud farm for every jackass in the country,” he offered, and by jackasses he meant members of congress. He threw in a comparison between a congressman and Judas Iscariot that drew a huge reaction, too. There was a bit of a hush over the crowd when Twain brought up the powerful grip lobbyists have over those who run the country. Wait, was he speaking about 1905 or today?
He also included a fan favorite, a selection from Twain’s most famous and most controversial work, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Instead of the more familiar sections from Finn (known from the recordings and the 1967 television special) – “Huck and Jim” or “Huck’s Conscience,” the audience heard a newly added excerpt about feuding clans that Huckleberry and his traveling companion encounter on their journey.
For me, the most valuable and remarkable aspect of Mr. Holbrook’s performance that must be experienced firsthand was his amazing use of the pause. The pause, or “beat” in acting parlance, can be a powerful help to playwrights and performers. The master class in its use might possibly be Hal Holbrook’s performance in Mark Twain Tonight!
Doing a little digging, I found a quote from Holbrook where he talks about how he discovered the power of the pause. “Bim Pond, the son of Mark Twain’s lecture manager, described how Twain placed great importance on the pause.” Apparently, this was akin to finding St. Peter’s keys to the Pearly Gates for Holbrook.
It was in the pauses that he was able to hang on to the audience, to massage time and space and make the lines seem like new. Reading this is a pale comparison to Holbrook’s delivery, but one such example was this line, where he took just enough time to make sure every ear was primed for the bullseye: “It is curious — (pause, pause, pause, pause) — curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, (pause, pause) and moral courage (pause) so rare.”
Apparently, Bim Pond’s advice to Holbrook also included the suggestion many years ago, “Do a solo, I think you could get bookings.” Good advice, Mr. Pond. As Hal Holbrook said, “It’s the gift he gave me, a hungry young actor looking for work.” And thankfully, he is still sharing his gift of Mark Twain to hungry audiences to this day.
Hal Holbrook, Mark Twain Tonight! was performed April 4 and 5, 2014 at the National Theatre in Washington, DC.