Hal Holbrook’s Timeless Gift: The Performance of a Lifetime

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.

Who understands the well-timed pause,

And the art of the well-told story;

Who humbly shares the wild applause

That crowns both men with glory.

Who forces Twain to our attention

Skewering hypocrisy and pretention;

Who, with a wit that equals Sam’s,

Lampoons our lies and shames our shams

             Author and actor, each the best,

             Leave us laughing, and doubly blessed.


Shelley Fisher Fishkin is a Professor of English and the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities at Stanford University. She is author of numerous books and articles on Mark Twain and winner of the 2017 John Tuckey Award for lifetime achievement in Mark Twain Studies