2018 was the first year since 1954 that Hal Holbrook (who retired in September of 2017) did not perform “Mark Twain Tonight!”
I compiled this video to honor him on his 94th Birthday (February 17th) and to remind him that although he is no longer performing, his show continues to have an impact on what scholars write and what students learn in Hamden and Hong Kong; in San Antonio, Syracuse, and Stanford; in Charleston, Cambridge, and Tokyo – in short, all over the world. The seventeen scholars in this video pay homage – each in his or her own way – to what the show has meant to them and what they learned from it, in addition to conveying warm birthday wished to its star.
Hunan Normal University, a higher education institution serving over 30,000 students in Changsha, China, recently launched The Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures, a peer-reviewed, open-access academic journal targeted at a broadly interdisciplinary and international audience. Each issue of the journal will be published in both English and Mandarin, and the editorial board includes scholars from nine countries on three continents.
Among the fifteen articles in the opening issue, there are analyses of Chinese novelist, Zhongshu Qian, and Trinidadian critic, C. L. R. James, an interview with African-American novelist, Ishmael Reed, and an interpretation of the Hollywood musical, Meet Me In St. Louis. There is also a prominent essay by Shelley Fisher Fishkin on Mark Twain’s writings about Judaism and anti-Semitism.
I have long been interested in how fascinated many Chinese are by Mark Twain, and also by Jewish culture and history. Selina Lai-Henderson’s wonderful book, Mark Twain in China, provides a terrific overview of Chinese interest in Twain. During a trip to a conference in Guangzhou some years back for the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford (which I co-direct), I was struck by the passionate interest in Jewish history and culture on the part of a Chinese graduate student I met. More recently, I met a young man whose ancestors were part of the Jewish community that existed in Kaifeng since the 10th century or earlier, who was interested in learning more about his heritage. Given the strong interest in both Twain and Jewish culture—and the fact that anti-Semitic stereotypes are not a concept of which many Chinese are aware (although they are increasingly aware of anti-Asian and anti-Black stereotypes)—it made sense to me to publish this article in a journal which might include a significant Chinese readership. I encourage other Twain scholars to publish there as well. You keep the copyright and are free to reprint elsewhere articles of yours that they publish.
On that note, Dr. Fishkin has graciously agreed to allow us to reprint a selection from her essay, the remainder of which you can download at the JFLC’s website.
A Fresh Look at Mark Twain and the Jews
On a clear, brisk mid-April Sunday afternoon in 1907, a white-suited Mark Twain strode to the front of the stage of the theatre at the Educational Alliance at Jefferson Street and East Broadway on New York City’s Lower East Side and beamed with pleasure. Little Rhoda Rosenblum had just taken a curtain call for her performance as Tom Canty, the pauper who ends up changing places with Prince Edward, in a dramatic version of Twain’s novel, The Prince and the Pauper. Little Helen Schwartz, who played the Prince, had taken a bow at her side.
The audience of 800 included, in addition to Mark Twain and several of his friends, many of the Lower East Side neighborhood children who had besieged the Educational Alliance when plans for the play were first announced, showing up as pairs of identically-dressed, identically coiffed girls and boys vying to be cast as the Prince and Pauper before the theatre’s director, Minnie Herts, announced that the roles had been filled. Rhoda Rosenblum had acquitted herself well as the Pauper: the next day’s New York Times would observe that she played the part “with a touch of ingenuousness that was spontaneous.” Helen Schwartz was quite credible as the Prince (the Times said she “sketched well the range of her role”). And Sara Novick, playing the pauper’s sister, Nan, nearly stole the show with her comic shtiks.
Seventy-year-old Mark Twain was clearly delighted. He marveled that he had lived in New York but hadn’t known about the Educational Alliance and its Children’s Theatre. “It’s like a man living within thirty miles of Vesuvius and never knowing about a volcano. It’s like living for a lifetime in Buffalo, eighteen miles from Niagara, and never going to see the Falls,” he was quoted as having said in the next day’s paper. “If we had forty theaters of this kind in a city of 4,000,000, how they would educate and elevate.”
In November 1908, Twain was back at the Children’s Theater again, this time for an evening of short plays, scenes, and musical interludes. Once again he took the stage after the performance. The young actors – many of whom spoke Yiddish at home – were gratified to hear Twain announce that they “knew their Shakespeare far better than many Broadway audiences.” And they were thrilled to hear that Twain himself had agreed to be Honorary President of the Board of Directors of the Children’s Theater.
Few people would have been surprised by Twain’s enthusiasm for this cause and his willingness to support it. After all, as a writer and as a father, Twain had focused on children and their educational development for over two decades. He had been a passionate theatre-goer for even longer. And he was well-known for being a friend of the Jews. Readers of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, The Washington Times, The New York World, and the New York Times during the previous decade were familiar with his distaste for anti-Semitism. He had published a searing expose of anti-Semitism in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He had minced no words denouncing pogroms in Russia and had been a featured speaker at a benefit for Russian Jews. He had condemned French anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair on numerous occasions. And in a widely-read essay called “Concerning the Jews” he had provided his own analysis of the roots of anti-Semitism. Would he want his daughter to marry one? Absolutely. When Clara Clemens did just that in 1909, Twain embraced his Jewish son-in-law, the Russian pianist and conductor, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, with unreserved affection, hosting their wedding ceremony on the lawn of his Connecticut home. So how can it be that some of Twain’s comments from “Concerning the Jews” regularly get quoted with approval today on white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and other anti-Semitic websites and blogs?
In literally thousands of extraordinary performances of his groundbreaking show, “Mark Twain Tonight!,” Hal Holbrook has brought Mark Twain alive for millions of people in the U.S. and around the world for over 60 years.
To prepare for his first solo performance as Mark Twain, he researched reviews of Twain’s lecture tours and combed through little-known Twain texts in the Mark Twain Papers at Berkeley. The spectacularly innovative off-Broadway show that he developed ran twenty-two weeks in New York and then toured the country, receiving rave reviews from coast to coast. A television special, recorded albums, State Department-sponsored tours abroad, and countless performances throughout the U.S. soon followed.
Holbrook’s daunting command of over sixteen hours of Twain material allowed him to draw on new combinations of texts in each performance, making Twain topical as well as timeless in often uncanny ways. No performance was precisely the same as a previous performance—except in one respect: Holbrook’s execution of the material was flawless.
Blended in seamlessly with material Twain often presented when he lectured are selections from private writings that Twain himself never dared present in public. Holbrook’s Mark Twain has been fresh, accurate, hilarious, caustic and inimitable. His meticulous, thoughtful, imaginative, deeply engaged and engaging interpretive performances of Twain’s words have given Twain the one thing he could not give himself: a vitality beyond the grave that no author has the right to expect. Thanks to Holbrook’s consummate artistry, America’s greatest writer is alive for generations after his death. There is no other writer, in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, who has been given this kind of gift.
His painstaking research, his enormous respect for Twain’s words, and his carefully-crafted delivery have earned him the gratitude of Twain scholars everywhere. It was a great honor, when I was President of the Mark Twain Circle of America, to present him with the only Lifetime Achievement Award that this organization ever awarded. It was also a particular pleasure, when I was Editor of the 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain, to invite Holbrook to introduce the volume of Mark Twain’s Speeches. The essay that he wrote confirmed my sense, and that of my fellow Twain scholars, that Holbrook is much more than an actor and performer: he is a brilliant scholar in his own right whose nuanced performances reveal dimensions of his subject that might well remain obscure had he not chosen to shine a light on them.
When Mark Twain accepted an honorary degree from Yale in 1888, he wrote to Yale’s President Timothy Dwight that he wanted to remind the world that the line of business he was in “is a useful trade, a worthy calling; that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty, and it is constant to it—the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.” Like his muse, Hal Holbrook has spent his career deriding shams, exposing pretentious falsities and laughing stupid superstitions out of existence.
Holbrook has given us the gift of a living, breathing Twain who was outraged by the lies of silent assertion that governments hid behind as they committed unspeakable crimes, a Twain who was impatient with plutocrats and blowhards, who was infuriated by swindles and shams that bilked honest people out of their hard-earned money. Holbrook has allowed Mark Twain to speak from beyond the grave with honesty, eloquence, humor and heart—daring us to do better, try harder, be our better selves. He has given voice to a Mark Twain that we need now more than ever. God bless Hal Holbrook for having shared his generosity and his genius with us through “Mark Twain Tonight!”
It has been one of the great privileges and joys of my life to count Hal Holbrook as a close friend. I am in awe of what he has contributed to my own life, to the culture of our nation and the world, and to Mark Twain’s legacies.
In that spirit, I wrote following sonnet for him with David Bradley in 2015 on the occasion of Hal’s 90th birthday:
Sonnet for Hal Holbrook on his 90th Birthday
No author’s had a finer friend –
More respectful or devoted,
Who knows where each line ought to end
As well as—if not better than—the man who wrote it.