For more than half a century, lauded stage, television and film actor Hal Holbrook has performed his one-man Mark Twain show. He was scheduled to bring the show to the EKU Center for the Arts Saturday, but the show has been postponed until May 21 due to illness.
Holbrook was nominated for Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globe and Academy awards for his role in the 2007 film Into the Wild, but he earned international fame 30 years earlier with his portrayal of Deep Throat in All the President’s Men. Contemporary audiences might remember him from his recent roles on the FX show Sons of Anarchy and the 2012 biopic Lincoln.
Holbrook, 91, says he created Mark Twain Tonight! at the dawn of his career for purely practical purposes and never imagined it would grow into a lifelong endeavor.
He and his wife had performed a Twain sketch in college for school assemblies, and it was quite popular. When he moved to New York with his young family to become an actor, he found himself struggling for work.
“Nobody would even see me, Holbrook says. “I was utterly desperate, and it was because of the utter desperation of trying to figure out how to get bread on the table that I decided to take up this idea of doing a solo of Twain, because I knew I could get bookings. I had no idea at the time that it would work its way into a lifetime project.”
His one-man show did get him bookings, but it also drew him deeply into an enduring relationship with Twain’s insights into the American identity.
He understood us. He pointed out the satiric nature of our stupidity. His writing is a not necessarily funny but has a humorous view of humanity.
Hal Holbrook on Mark Twain
“I had no idea that I would become so fascinated with Mark Twain’s ideas and his vision of America,” he says, “with his understanding of our people and where we fail, where we don’t live up to our ideals at all.”
He changes Twain quotes and anecdotes in the play based on current events, which he says reveal how Twain’s perspective is even more relevant than ever.
“The key to all this is that nothing has changed,” he says.
“Most people don’t have any idea. but what we’re doing today, including Trump and everything else, is no different than the kind of thing this country went through 100 years ago,” Holbrook says before diverting into a history lesson about the post-Civil War immigration boom, the unbreakable grasp of racism, and the unparalleled industrial growth that dug ever deepening divides between the rich and the poor.
“When Mark Twain says, and I’ll give you a quote, from A Connecticut Yankee, ‘A privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under a different name,’ that rings bells. It rings bells. It rings bells in the mind of a lot of people who are living today and trying to make a living. It rings bells in history.
“Before the Civil War, this country was just an agrarian nation of farms. After the Civil War, in the next 30 or 40 years, we had the greatest industrial creation in this country than any time we’ve ever known. Think of the things that were invented in this country: the telephone, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, airplanes, all in the period of 40 or 50 years. Can you imagine the tremendous explosion of invention, industry and wealth? And it was controlled and run by a small group of people who became tremendously rich — men like Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt — and Mark Twain knew them all.”
We’re just angry at each other and throwing brick bats at each other. This is a very dangerous thing because the world cannot afford to have the United States of America in a mess.
Holbrook says Twain’s genius lies in delivering his astute observations with humor.
“He understood us,” he says. “He pointed out the satiric nature of our stupidity. His writing is a not necessarily funny but has a humorous view of humanity. The way he writes about it makes it not only palatable to listen to or read, but it makes it fun. It can be fun but at the same time it can be very on-the-nose and tough.”
Holbrook, who says he stays abreast of current events and reads the newspaper every day, says that Twain’s enduring message needs to be heard so we will stop paking the same mistakes over and over.
“We’re not sitting and thinking clearly and intelligently,” he says. “We’re just angry at each other and throwing brickbats at each other. This is a very dangerous thing, because the world cannot afford to have the United States of America in a mess.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
Mark Twain Tonight!
What: Hal Holbrook’s long-running one-man show.
When: 7:30 p.m. May 21. Note the date change due to illness. Tickets purchased for Saturday’s show will be honored May 21.
Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Dr., Richmond