Twain Scholars Pay Tribute To Hal Holbrook & Mark Twain Tonight!


For more than sixty years Hal Holbrook did a thing that Samuel Clemens did for only about thirty: he took Mark Twain to the stage. I suppose the transformation was more profound on Holbrook’s part than on Clemens’s because, you could argue, in many ways Clemens was Mark Twain and Holbrook absolutely wasn’t.

But without getting all ontological here, maybe we can agree that Holbrook and Clemens shared in this moment or process of transformation an intimacy with Mark Twain that’s likely to transcend our own experience, no matter how close we might feel our reading and study of the author have brought us to him. It makes a person curious, maybe a little envious: what’s it like to step into that white suit?

It would be a responsibility, for one thing, not just an actorly but an ethical burden that Holbrook always seemed to me to carry deliberately and with grace. In the performances I attended it was as if he was bowed not so much by age as by the consciousness that he had to deliver someone more than a “mere humorist” to his audience, that their laughter, like his performance, had to bear its freight of melancholy, of ambivalence, of reserve. William Dean Howells said of his lifelong friend that Mark Twain always kept something of himself back. For me, Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight was like that, too, as if it was our lot to disappoint him, as if although he knew he’d make us laugh, he wouldn’t forgive us for only laughing.

In an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer Hal Holbrook once said of Mark Twain, “The truth is that he’s been wonderful company.” Let’s take advantage of this chance to say, on behalf of those audiences over the course of sixty years, the same of Hal Holbrook. He’s been wonderful company. And let’s while we’re at it thank him for all those memorable, provocative, bittersweet Tonights.

Jeff Steinbrink, Emeritus Alumni Professor of English Literature & Belles Lettres at Franklin & Marshall College, Author of Getting to be Mark Twain 

*****

I’ve always thought that Hal was the best Twain scholar among us. I respect his desire to retire Mark Twain Tonight! but he brought the complexity of Twain’s thought and writing to thousands of people who would never have known Twain’s work. He understands his character and he understands his audiences, and he plays them both expertly. Thank you!

Susan K. Harris, Professor Emerita at University of Kansas, Author of The Courtship of Olivia Langdon & Mark Twain

*****

Fifty years ago, in 1967, CBS presented Hal Holbrook in a captured-for-posterity performance of his one-man show, then on Broadway, Mark Twain Tonight! I saw that performance on TV then, and was mesmerized. It was the same year I first read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the one-two punch of Twain’s prose and Holbrook’s performance hooked me for life.

The acting requirements of that role, with Holbrook constantly changing the text of his performance to reflect current events, are prodigious. It’s the depth of scholarship, though, and the unyielding commitment to Twain’s words, that have me most in awe of what Hal has been able to do for his entire adult life. It’s a theatrical achievement that has no peer — and, I suspect, never will. I saw Hal perform versions of Mark Twain Tonight! live on stage several times, most recently earlier this year in Philadelphia.

Hal has been very gracious to me over the years, and a great interview every time I’ve spoken to him on the record. But for the record, I’ve always been a little stunned by how good he’s been as, and to, Samuel Clemens. Selfishly, I wish some TV network would film him doing Twain one last time, for some high-profile charity farewell performance, but that’s not the way Mr. Holbrook is planning to exit. And, like Mark Twain with Halley’s Comet, Hal is more than entitled to envision and embrace the time of his own exit, stage right.

Thanks for everything, Hal.

David Bianculli, Associate Professor of TV & Film History at Rowan University, Founder & Editor of TV Worth Watching, TV Critic for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross

*****

Donna and I saw Hal Holbrook perform whenever he came to Texas – in Austin, Kerrville, San Antonio, and Waco – and we saw him perform in Elmira, where we sat just a few rows back from the stage. Whenever Hal puffed on the cigar in his hand, Mark Twain’s cigar smoke wafted down upon us like rays of light from heaven: Let there be light, and there was Mark Twain.

Writing about Hal’s retirement feels like writing an obituary – not for Hal, who will outlive us all – but for Mark Twain. Sam Clemens kept Mark Twain alive during five decades, and then Mark Twain was on his own for four more decades, existing only in print and in movies. Then Hal reincarnated Mark Twain during seven more decades. What will become of him without Hal?

Spending time with Hal in Elmira was a privilege. Sharing late night/early morning dinners with him after his performances was great fun. The day that Donna and I picked him up at his hotel the day after a performance and spent two hours with him at breakfast before getting him safely to the airport was unforgettable. We – mostly Hal – talked nonstop of everything under the sun – life, love, successes, failures, and even Mark Twain: An outpouring of candor, graciousness, generosity, and humility from a truly great and gentle human being.

“It’s lovely to live on a raft” says Huck, but I say it was lovely to watch Mark Twain come back to life on stage. It can be said that Livy saved Sam Clemens, Dixie saved Hal Holbrook, and Hal saved Mark Twain. What words of thanks can pay such debts?

But this is no obituary: Let there be light, and there is Hal Holbrook.

Kevin Mac Donnell, Proprietor of Mac Donnell Rare Books, Co-Editor of Mark Twain & Youth (with a foreword by Hal Holbrook).

*****

As much as my passion for the nineteenth century American and British literature continues to lure me always back into research and study and discovery, over the years the word, concept, and ideal of friendship have fundamentally molded me into the person I am. Long ago, my Mother’s declension of “acquaintances, associates, and then friends” was well-defined. Further, she always reminded me that one never has many friends for friends are special: lifelong, trusted by the back, a part of ones whole.

Giovanni and I have been blessed to call Hal Holbrook a friend for a very long time. We respect his work, his brilliant mind, and his wicked wit. But most of all, we are humbled and have been privileged to experience his keen and earnest passion and commitment to and for equality, equity, and ethics. Equally overwhelming and humbling is to experience his unceasing love for his beloved Dixie Carter.

While Hal’s work has encompassed brilliant roles and performances in film, television, and the stage, there is and will always be something remarkably special about his embrace of Sam Clemens. Hal’s grasp of the wit, passion, insights, and profound wisdom that became the hallmarks of Mark Twain will be with us always. In many ways, Hal has followed Sam’s words capturing the soul of life’s great challenge: “I have never tried…to help cultivate the cultivated classes. I was not equipped for it either by native gifts or training. And I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger game–the masses.”

Thank you, Hal. Thank you for your talent. Thank you for your allowing all of us to be with Sam and Mark for so long. But THANK YOU for being the inimitable you.

Jocelyn A. Chadwick, Vice President for the National Council of Teachers of English, Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, & Author of The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn 

John E. Grassie, Contributor to NBC News Education, Broadcast Producer, & Co-Author of Teaching Literature in the Context of Literacy Instruction

*****

I was 13, Huck’s age, when I saw Mark Twain Tonight! on CBS. I was mesmerized. Thanks to Hal Holbrook, Mark Twain came alive to me that night. I only saw his live show once, but by then, I was a teacher and scholar who was devoting his life to studying Mark Twain. I realized that Hal Holbrook was doing exactly the same. Hal Holbrook is a Mark Twain scholar par excellence. Thank you, Hal Holbrook!

John C. Bird, Professor Emeritus at Winthrop University, Past President of Mark Twain Circle of America, & Author of Mark Twain & Metaphor 

*****

I have three encounters with Hal Holbrook to relate.

In the 1990s when MLA allowed associations to reserve suites, The Mark Twain Circle and The American Humor Studies Association shared a suite in San Francisco. We were also allowed to stage program sessions in the suite. Shelley Fisher Fishkin arranged a visit from Hal Holbrook. We had a small audience of about ten of us. I was astounded at his vast knowledge of all things Twain and his overall personality that allowed him to act as a colleague of the Twain scholars at that session. He was anything but a Hollywood star.

Several years later, in 2008, I believe, I was working as a Transportation Security Officer with TSA in my hometown of Charlotte, NC. I was stationed at the walk-through metal detector (before the scanning machines used now). We were charged with checking the boarding passes of passengers traversing the metal detector. That evening, I looked up and said to the approaching passenger, “You look like Hal Holbrook.” Upon checking his boarding pass, I exclaimed, “You are Hal Holbrook!” He was completely non-plussed and did not really reply to my comments.

Finally, at the 2009 Mark Twain Quadrennial Conference in Elmira, Holbrook was the star. In addition to the screening of a documentary about his life, he signed copies of his book, Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain. At the ritual cigar fest on the site of the octagonal study at Quarry Farm on Saturday night, Hal told us about visiting Clara in San Diego prior to starting his Mark Twain Tonight! performances. He described the visit in great detail, including altering his voice when Clara spoke to him. It was a magical experience; all of us smoking cigars and listening to Hal, probably the only living scholar who had actual contact with a direct descendant of Mark Twain. John Bird gave Hal the cigar he smoked, and, as I recall, I lit it and relit it a couple of times.

Joseph A. Alvarez, Former Department Head & Program Director at Central Piedmont Community College, Editor of Mark Twain’s Geographical Imagination

*****

I recall two items in particular about Hal’s visits to Elmira conferences.  One is his little talk at the site of Twain’s study at Quarry Farm during the cigar-smoking Saturday-night event. I believe that was in ’09. He spoke then of his meetings with Isabel Lyon and with Clara, back when he was first starting his one-man show.  In this way, he had a personal contact, one step removed, from Mark Twain himself.

The other item is probably from the same year. He was in Elmira for much, maybe all, of the conference that time. He attended sessions. At one of them, in the large room in the basement of the library, he was introduced and invited to say a few words (Holbrook Remarks from 2009). He rose and thanked us – the people who do Twain research and teach Twain and read papers and write articles and books about Twain and who communicate on the Mark Twain Forum (which he kept up with). He said that it was from us that he learned more about Twain, and that that caused him to see Twain anew, which in turn led him to constantly update the Twain materials he used in his show and modify the angles of perspective he employed on stage when delivering the material. He was gracious in giving us all such credit, and I felt it was sincere – not just polite – for he had always been, from the beginning, a serious scholar of Twain in his own way – reading contemporary newspaper reports of Twain’s appearances to learn more about his voice, his manner of delivery, his movements on stage in performance, in addition to Twain’s political-literary-social views. So, like Twain, depending on the audience and contemporary events, he selected the materials for a given performance from a reservoir of possibilities. He didn’t say all this when he stood up that time, but some of it he said then and other parts he spoke about on the porch at Quarry Farm, before we all went up to the study site for cigars. Needless to say, people were around him all the time, asking questions and listening to him talk.

A third item, scarcely unique, is that I recall that first appearance on TV in the late ’60s and how mesmerizing it was. And I was thrilled to be able to see him on stage live later in Chicago and then some years ago when he came to Richmond. Those were unforgettable events.

Terry Oggel, Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Frequent Contributor to Mark Twain AnnualAmerican Literary RealismStudies in American Humor 

*****

I saw Mark Twain Tonight! in Indianapolis, I believe at the Murat Theater, sometime around 1990. I couldn’t have been much more than 10 years old. My father was a booking agent. Even by that young age, I had been to dozens, possibly hundreds, of concerts and theatrical performances which he was either presenting or scouting, most of which I have no memory. But I do remember Mark Twain Tonight! Not so much the content, but the audience’s electric anticipation and their ensuing joy.

I had seen several comedians, probably more than was appropriate for my age, but this is the first time I remember that sensation of laughing so hard it hurt, yet hoping it would never end. Half the time I’m sure I didn’t know what I was laughing at, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to speculate that Mr. Holbrook planted a seed that night, a positive association with Mark Twain, which made me look favorably on being assigned his work, then to seek out classes that featured his work, and later to prominently feature him in my own teaching and writing, such that eventually I ended up with Mark Twain in my very job title. It’s not to far-fetched to suggest that if it weren’t for Hal Holbrook, I might be an economist, and humorless…but I repeat myself.

When Joe Lemak and I assumed our positions at the Center for Mark Twain Studies a few years ago, Mr. Holbrook sent us a personal letter of congratulation, replete with commentary which made evident he had carefully read our profiles in the recent newsletter. It was not only a touching gesture, but it indicated, as several other scholars have said, that he was not aloof, as you might expect from a showbiz icon, but genuinely invested in Twain Studies in all its myriad forms. We are lucky to have him.

Matt Seybold, Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, Editor-in-Chief of MarkTwainStudies.org

*****

You may also want to check out these tributes from around the web:

Shelley Fisher Fishkin wrote about “Hal Holbrook’s Timeless Gift” at MarkTwainStudies.org last week.

MTS.org published Mark Dawidziak‘s 2009 paper, which Holbrook himself responded to, on “The Impact & Importance of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!” Dawidziak also wrote a column responding to Holbrook’s retirement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Cindy Lovell, former Director of the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, shared her thoughts in the Huffington Post.

Have any Questions or Comments? 

2 comments on “Twain Scholars Pay Tribute To Hal Holbrook & Mark Twain Tonight!

I saw Mr. Holbrook when I was 14 years old (Wilmington, DE) and 60 years old (Pittsburgh, PA). I am not a literary scholar, but both experiences were magic. I have enough of and about Mr. Clemens to have a deep sense of him and love for his perspective on the world. Mr. Holbrook made it live in timeless AND contemporary ways. I am so grateful for the experiences and will never forget them.

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Bernard Ulrich

I would love to see Mr. Holbrook is he ever coming to Omaha Ne ?

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