You Could Get Bookings: A Review of Holbrook/Twain

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, a documentary about the six-decade run of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!, will be released on Tuesday, November 19th. As of today, the film is available for pre-order from iTunes.

The majority of the film, directed by Scott Teems, was shot a few years ago. It centers on a performance Holbrook gave on his 90th birthday, in 2015, to a sold-out crowd in Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain was a long-time resident.

But while Holbrook/Twain does feature numerous, elegantly-framed excerpts from that performance and others, it’s primary focus is not the show, but the showman. Teems previously directed Holbrook in the 2009 independent film, That Evening Sun, which won eleven festival prizes, including two at SXSW. It is clear that what interests him is Holbrook’s mastery of his craft and the costs of pursuing that mastery. We understand Holbrook foremost as a actor, albeit one who has been indelibly shaped by the unique experience of playing one of America’s most iconic historical figures, continuously, for his entire adult life.

Holbrook began staging Twain’s “An Encounter with an Interviewer” as part of a variety show which he and his first wife toured straight out of college at Denison. The show was seen by James “Bim” Pond, then editor of Program magazine. Pond’s father was one of Twain’s booking agents and, having inherited the family business upon his father’s death in 1903, Bim would certainly have been familiar with the public clamor for all things Twain, even deep into the 20th century. When the Holbrooks settled in New York City, looking for more stable employment to support their family, it was Pond who suggested a solo show as Twain. When Holbrook flinched, the editor said, simply, “I think you could get bookings.” The Hartford show from Holbrook/Twain was the 2,301st staging of Mark Twain Tonight!

Holbrook’s commercial success was not without sacrifices, from getting assaulted in the South by those who saw his interpretation of Twain as implicitly sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement to estranging himself from wives and children. Teems approaches his subject without caution, drawing poignantly, for instance, from an unvarnished interview with Holbrook’s son. Nor is Holbrook himself guarded when talking about the costs of his choices. The result is an unexpectedly intimate portrait. We see Holbrook’s life mimicing Twain’s, as his personal losses are weighted with the continual expectation to make people laugh as they have never laughed before. But we also see Hal Holbrook without the white suit and wig, an artistic force entirely distinct from his most famous role, who has earned the highest esteem of his peers, both actors like Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch, and scholars like Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Barbara Snedecor.

It’s hard to imagine there will ever be anything remotely like Mark Twain Tonight!, a show that was born amidst the last vestiges of vaudeville and somehow remains relevant to students born after 9/11. It’s cheap to say this is a testament to Twain. Twain’s burlesque jokes are greeted to scornful silence when I read them in my classrooms. Nearly half-a-century after his death, Twain caught another break when Holbrook crossed paths with Bim Pond. One cannot overestimate how different each of their legacies might have been without the other.

View of trailer for Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey above and Pre-Order from iTunes before November 19th.

A Bouquet of Birthday Wishes from Mark Twain Scholars to Hal Holbrook on his 94th Birthday: What “Mark Twain Tonight!” Means To Us

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.

I am pleased to report he was delighted.

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.

The Impact & Importance of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!

Editor’s Note: This is the second of several posts from members of the Mark Twain Studies community responding to Hal Holbrook’s announcement earlier this week that he would be retiring Mark Twain Tonight! after a nearly 60-year run. What follows is a paper by Mark Dawidziak delivered at CMTS’s quadrennial conference in 2009. Dawidziak is pictured above with Holbrook and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who yesterday wrote her own appreciation for her longtime friend and colleague. You may prefer to listen to Dawidziak’s presentation, or to watch it on YouTube. Holbrook himself responded to the paper, and the audio of his response is appended below.  

Holbrook Responds to Dawidziak (2009)

There are no known recordings of Mark Twain’s voice on the planet. Oh, we have snippets of recordings made by many American contemporaries of his acquaintance, from Booker T. Washington and Edwin Booth to Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Edison. Yet, as if playing a catch-me-if-you-can prank from beyond the grave, the American writer who spoke so loudly and so often during his lifetime can not be heard on the record – or the tape or the CD or the MP3 player or any other recording device. Whatever recordings he made, and he did make them, have been lost – or not yet found.[1] And still, many Americans believe they know the sound of Mark Twain’s voice.

There are only a few scratchy, herky-jerky, black-and-white seconds of Mark Twain on film, captured by Edison cameras at the last residence, Stormfield. And yet we have a sense of how Twain looked and moved in living color.

We believe we know how Mark Twain walked and talked because Hal Holbrook gave him a best-guess voice, along with an approximation of his shuffling gait and lecture-platform mannerisms. He put together his remarkable one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!, when many people who knew Twain – including his daughter Clara, secretary Isabel Lyon, “Angelfish” Dorothy Quick, and James “Bim” Pond, son of the lecture manager – were still alive and eager to offer guidance.[2] And Hal Holbrook has been guiding countless neophytes into the fold ever since. Indeed, many people in this room might not be here today if it were not for a youthful encounter with Mark Twain Tonight! I know this is so because many of you happily confirmed it during the research for this paper.

Conclusion: According to these reports, the impact of this stage show on Mark Twain research and readership cannot be greatly exaggerated. There is no way to accurately measure how many people became Mark Twain readers, fans, impersonators or scholars because of Mark Twain Tonight! But the fact that Holbrook’s portrayal has had an impact is undeniable. Certainly every major Twain scholar interviewed for this paper agrees with this assessment.

“For the general public, Hal Holbrook IS Mark Twain,” said John Bird, the Winthrop University English professor who is the author of Mark Twain and Metaphor and the founding editor of The Mark Twain Annual. “His show has had a huge impact on keeping Twain alive for generations. It would have happened anyway, but not quite in the same way. Speaking personally, the original airing of Mark Twain Tonight! on CBS had a big effect on me. I trace my interest in Mark Twain to watching this television show. I have been hooked ever since, and I credit Hal Holbrook with that beginning.”3

Yes, it would have happened anyway – but to the same magnitude? After all, how many Americans even think they know how Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville sounded? Would the average American even recognize a picture of these two literary giants? Twain, no great believer in the hereafter, certainly did more than his share to insure a long literary afterlife, but, then again, neither Hawthorne nor Melville had a Hal Holbrook keeping them alive.

Kevin J. Bochynski, our able list administrator who keeps the Mark Twain Forum running, said, “Seeing the 1967 CBS Special of Mark Twain Tonight! was a major turning point in my appreciation of Mark Twain. Until that time, my exposure to Twain was chiefly through Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, both of which I read as an adolescent. Through viewings of the various cornball adaptations of both books, I had become desensitized to the texts themselves. Holbrook’s reading of Huckleberry Finn was masterful and it led me to rediscover Mark Twain with renewed appreciation. For me, the show kindled an interest to read as much of Mark Twain’s writing as possible.”4

Those are only two examples, I know, but they epitomize the responses I received from all manner of Twain scholars and enthusiasts. And pause here for a second to consider just these two examples. How much poorer would the Mark Twain community be without John Bird and Kevin Bochynski? Without Hal Holbrook illuminating the way, perhaps we lose the founding editor of the Mark Twain Annual (and one heck of a mandolin picker, I might add) and our invaluable Mark Twain Forum leader. And how many other people in this room, including the speaker who now has the podium? Not a loss of Bird or Bochynski magnitude, I grant you, but my own spark of Twain interest was fanned into a brushfire by becoming a fan of Mark Twain Tonight!

No wonder R. Kent Rasmussen, the author of The Critical Companion to Mark Twain and the editor of The Quotable Mark Twain, said, “I see Hal as a kind of missionary for Mark Twain; he’s out in the field, spreading the good word, keeping the flame alive, and bringing more souls into the flock. Kathy and I caught Mark Twain Tonight! in Oxnard, California. As the audience was rising to leave, I heard a middle-aged man say something like, ‘Makes me want to read Mark Twain.’ ” Kent’s conclusion: “Another soul saved!”5

Calculating how many souls cannot strictly be “a product of reasonings and statistics,”6 to borrow a phrase Twain used in Eve’s Diary. But we do have some statistics to give scope to this remarkable achievement.

Hal Holbrook’s association with Mark Twain began in September 1947, when he and his first wife, Ruby, began working on a two-person show to be toured to schools in the Southwest. The Cleveland native was a mere twenty-two at the time. Suggested by their teacher, Ed Wright, and developed as an honors project at Denison University, their program included scenes from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Moliere’s The School for Wives, as well as Twain’s 1875 sketch, “An Encounter With an Interviewer.”7

“This was my introduction to Mark Twain and the beginning of my education about him,” Holbrook wrote in 1959. “Up to this time I knew he had written Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but I was not sure about Robinson Crusoe.”8

Hal Holbrook first stepped into Twain’s white suit at a show staged in the suicide ward of the Chillicothe Veterans’ Hospital in Ohio. The actor was a smooth-featured twenty-nine when he started regular tours of Mark Twain Tonight!, playing the seventy-year-old Twain in nightclubs and at schools. The first performance was at the State Teachers College in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, on March 11, 1954. He was thirty-four when his one-man show opened at the 41st Street Theatre, becoming one of the most celebrated events of the 1959 New York theater season. He was forty-one when his 1966 Broadway revival won him a Tony award. And he was forty-two when CBS aired that version so well remembered by Bird, Bochynski and me.

But the CBS airing of Mark Twain Tonight! doesn’t get you to even the halfway point of Hal Holbrook’s ongoing journey with Twain. He has taken the show to every state at least once, and, at eighty-four, he still schedules about thirty to forty dates a year.

The 2000th performance of Mark Twain Tonight! was in Germantown, Tennessee, on January 17, 2004. There have been about 173 performances since. Some of the early appearances would have been to small audiences, of course, and, since 1959, there have been sold-out performances in houses that seat 2,000 or more. If we took 1,000 as the average audience, which undoubtedly is low, we’d estimate that 2,173,000 people have experienced Mark Twain Tonight! in the theater.

For those of you keeping score at home, Samuel Langhorne Clemens adopted the pen name Mark Twain in 1863. It was how the world knew him until he died in 1910, which means ol’ cigar-puffing Sam was Mark Twain for about forty-seven of his seventy-four years on this planet. Hal Holbrook has been touring as Mark Twain since 1954, and, yes, that means, with fifty-five years of Twainian experience to his credit, Holbrook has been Mark Twain longer than Sam Clemens was Mark Twain.

“If this show was the only thing he’d ever done, he still would be a legend in the theater,” said Martin Sheen, his co-star in the landmark 1972 TV movie That Certain Summer. “But then you try to take in everything else he has done, like playing Deep Throat in All the President’s Men or Sandburg’s Lincoln, and you realize you’re in the presence of nothing less than an actor’s actor.”9

Sheen is right on both counts. First, Hal Holbrook is infinitely more than just a one-role actor. He has won five – count ’em, five – Emmys, and not one is for playing Mark Twain. One was for playing Lincoln. Two more were for the 1973 TV movie Pueblo. There is not sufficient time to even suggest the scope of this career, but let’s just add last year’s Oscar nomination for his work in director Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

Back to Sheen’s other point, the one about Mark Twain Tonight! being the stuff of theatrical legend. He is not overstating the point. You may go back to the Greeks and not find the equal of this feat in theater history. Here is an actor who has not only lived with one role for fifty-five years, he has lived with it in an ever-changing stage show.

How many actors, upon becoming the toast of the New York critics in 1959, would have said, “Well, I have my two hours of material – lock it in and live off this for the rest of my life”? Holbrook had the opposite response to success.

“I’ve always been filled with fear, ever since the New York critics bowed down and put a nice carpet under my feet in 1959,” he told me. “I was frightened to death that this show would kill me off as an actor. I was determined not to grow complacent or comfortable. One of the ways I fought that off was to pursue as many different kinds of projects as possible. The other was to keep adding material to the Twain show. I’ve never stopped looking it as a work in progress. It would have ceased to be fun long ago if I hadn’t kept challenging myself and scaring myself.”10

So he never quite performs the same show twice. Starting in 1975 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., I can personally account for twelve of those 2,173 performances. Always aware of the need to keep this granddaddy of one-man shows fresh and relevant, he regularly reshapes and reevaluates Mark Twain Tonight! The tinkering process is constant, new lines and passages being added and dropped so the show reflects the times. How much adding and dropping are we talking about here? Holbrook estimates that he has “gone through” at least fifteen hours of Twain material since 1954.

After fifty-five years, he’s still on the lookout for new material. During the Enron scandal, for instance, he started searching through Twain’s work in order to piece together a segment about corporate dishonesty and the blind pursuit of wealth.

“There’s a piece I added in the last couple of years that I call ‘Get Rich,’ ” Holbrook said. “It’s about money and morality, and it’s so on-the-nose about what’s going on in our times. It starts out talking about money and our love affair with getting rich as quickly as possible. Since the jitters hit Wall Street, the audience gets awfully quiet – chastened is the word, I think.”

The piece only has grown in resonance with the missteps of Wall Street.

“And then I extended that to show how this country fell in love with wealth,’’ Holbrook said. “That was a favorite topic for Twain: When did we fall down and start to worship the almighty dollar? It’s one thing to acquire wealth through character and industry. It’s quite another to worship wealth and those who acquire it through shady means. That’s what Twain told us more than 100 years ago, and it never ceases to amaze me how it always sounds as if he’s talking about today. So much of what he had to say is right on the money for today. I can’t get over this man. He just keeps coming.”11

It is true that Emlyn Williams was in the field before Mark Twain Tonight!, first performing his celebrated one-man show as Charles Dickens in 1951 and regularly touring it for thirty years. But Holbrook not only unleashed platoons of Mark Twain impersonators (several in almost every state), he popularized the one-person show about American figures. He soon was followed by James Whitmore as Will Rogers (then Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt), Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow, Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, and Robert Morse as Truman Capote, just to name a few.

Mark Twain Tonight! also inspired some youngsters to become actors. “I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen,” said Mandy Patinkin. “It was the one thing, more than anything else, that made me want to pursue that life. I couldn’t believe someone could so totally transform himself into somebody else and hold an audience like that for two hours. It was a revelation, and I wanted to do that.”12

While many Twain scholars, impersonators and actors were influenced by seeing Mark Twain Tonight! on stage, many millions more were reached when CBS aired a version of the show on March 6, 1967. The viewing audience that night was estimated to be thirty million people. And that doesn’t count the millions more who have seen it rerun on PBS or on VHS or DVD.

“Actors who perform Shakespeare on television are fond of saying a single telecast is likely to be seen by more people than have seen the play on stage ever since Shakespeare wrote it,” said David Bianculli, an author, television critic, Rowan University professor and Twain enthusiast. “Hal Holbrook’s 1967 telecast of Mark Twain Tonight! was so popular, it was seen by more people in one night than the extensively traveled Mark Twain was able to reach in a lifetime. I was thirteen when it aired. When I saw Holbrook on TV, I thought Twain WAS alive – funnier than I’d imagined him, and also throwing some serious sucker punches, about war and race, that knocked the wind out of me. And now that I teach TV history, Holbrook’s forty-two-year-old classic is part of my college curriculum, and still packs just as strong a punch.”13

As Kent Rasmussen might observe, “Another soul saved!” Bianculli responded to an aspect of Holbrook’s performance that went beyond the genial image most Americans had of Mark Twain in the mid-1960s.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, author of Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture: “I suspect that Hal Holbrook has shaped Twain scholarship at every level, from sparking interest in Twain on the part of young people who become Twain scholars, to reminding seasoned scholars of aspects of Twain that they may have neglected or that merit further research. The research Hal conducted at the Mark Twain Papers to develop Mark Twain Tonight! focused on material that did not jibe with the tame, avuncular image of Twain that long circulated – and still is alive and well – in American popular culture. In terms of specific impact on scholarship, it would probably be hard to find a Twain scholar who was not inspired, early on in his or her career, by Mark Twain Tonight! Speaking personally, Holbrook has been a key inspiration in my own career.”14

All right, the influence has been profound. Yet some rightly caution that it would be unwise to view Holbrook’s portrayal as a case of reincarnation or reanimation.

“Holbrook’s act and fine portrayal help us imagine Mark Twain in a certain way, a way that, of course, could be easily deconstructed by critics, but which is now taken to be the ‘standard’ view of how Mark Twain looked and sounded,” observed Mark Twain scholar and St. Louis University professor Harold K. Bush. “Holbrook has been extremely influential in how we imagine Mark Twain.”15

No one would second Hal Bush’s opinion more than Hal Holbrook, who has remained consistent on two claims. First, that his portrayal of Mark Twain is a performance – an actor’s interpretation – not an impersonation. From the start, he made actor’s choices, like adopting the white suit, which Twain would not have worn for platform appearances, and smoking the cigar, which Twain would not have fired up on stage. The second claim is that he should not be mistaken for a Twain scholar.

As to the first claim, filmmaker Ken Burns, whose works include a documentary about Mark Twain, believes interpretation is the very strength of Mark Twain Tonight! “We can quibble with interpretation, but I truly think that, in many ways, he knows more than anybody else about Mark Twain,” said Burns, who first saw Holbrook’s show when he was ten years old. “He may not be able to synthesize disparate facts into coherent theses, the way a member of the academy could, but this man has on his hard drive, on his soul, a deep and abiding understanding of Twain. He’s able to take, on any given night, two of the many hours he has committed to memory and, each night, rearrange them in an utterly new form, like a jazz performer. And by doing this, has essentially been able to promote, in the widest possible arena, a love for our greatest writer. Wow!”16

On the second claim, the one about not being a Twain scholar, Holbrook will get more of an argument from Twain scholars.

Robert H. Hirst, general editor at the Mark Twain Project in Berkeley: “From our point of view, he is unique among Mark Twain performers (which number in the hundreds at any given time) inasmuch as he confines himself pretty strictly to using Clemens’s actual words. Most impersonators yield to the temptation to improvise and even to tell their own jokes ‘as Mark Twain.’ Hal denies that he is any kind of Mark Twain scholar, but I’m not sure I agree. He has researched the manner and the descriptions of Mark Twain on the platform (all we have to go on, as you know) and he applies that knowledge with some discipline to what he performs on stage. For a writer like Mark Twain, whose tradition and techniques are fundamentally oral, it’s a great boon to have an actor of Holbrook’s skill there to keep the performity side of the writer alive and well. Scholar or no, he contributes to a deeper knowledge of Mark Twain than we could otherwise have.”17

Kevin Bocyhynski: “At the American Studies Association Annual Meeting in Boston in November 1993, during a panel on ‘Huck Finn and American Culture,’ Holbrook rejected the suggestion by an audience member that he was himself a Mark Twain scholar. However, his remarks about the text demonstrated an extraordinary depth of knowledge and critical analysis not out of place on the distinguished panel, which included Jocelyn Chadwick, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, David Bradley, and Justin Kaplan.”18

Stanford University’s director of American Studies, English professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin recalls meeting Holbrook in the late ’80s: “I had known from his work that Holbrook had had to become a Twain scholar in his own right to create his show, but I was unprepared for how deep and far-ranging his knowledge of Twain was. Having lived inside Twain’s voice for decades, he grasped aspects of his psyche that tended to elude mere mortals who hadn’t lived inside his voice or his head . . . Holbrook’s show has done more than keep Twain alive as a cultural presence: the show gave voice to a side of Twain that Twain himself could not show the public during his lifetime. By brilliantly melding Twain’s well-known platform gifts with some of the most biting satiric pieces of his later years that he left unpublished at his death, Holbrook allowed a very different Twain to take shape in the imagination of the American public . . . Hal in effect allowed Mark Twain to come to life as a social critic in our time . . . We need that Twain – the troubling Twain, not the tame one – now more than ever.’’19

So while it’s unquestionably true that Mark Twain has been good to Hal Holbrook, Hal Holbrook has been good to Mark Twain. Mark Twain once observed that there was “no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” Holbrook certainly has had ample opportunity to put this maxim to the maximum test.

“The truth is that he’s been wonderful company,” Holbrook said. “It would be an understatement to say I like him. But, you know, I think I would end up in a mental institution if I couldn’t do this Mark Twain show. I get so angry about what’s going on in the world, I can barely contain myself. And this show gives you the freedom to go out on stage and say exactly what you’re feeling – exactly what needs to be said. It’s tremendously cathartic.”20

“I like to make people think, and that’s what Mark Twain did,” Holbrook said. “He forces you to think. That’s the greatest gift he’s ever given me, and I love sharing that gift with audiences. It’s my job, and it’s a job that becomes more precious to me, not only because of the pride I get out of doing something decent with my life, but because of the sheer pleasure and inspiration I get from working with this man’s ideas and thoughts and literature. He’s been great company.”21

He’s a generous man, this Holbrook. He has given us Mark Twain Tonight!, today and tomorrow.

 

Mark Dawidziak is a film and television critic, actor, scholar, Twain impersonator, and Friend of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. He has compiled several thematic collections of Twain excerpts, most recently Mark Twain for Cat Lovers. His also  recently published Everything I Need To Know I Learned From The Twilight Zone and wrote about Holbrook’s retirement for The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

 

[1] Whatever recordings he made R. Kent Rasmussen, Mark Twain A-Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 125.

[2] He put together his remarkable Hal Holbrook, taped interviews with the author (January 1990; November 1995; January 25, 1999; April 2001; February 2004; April 2004; July 2007; November 20, 2008; March 2009)

3 “For the general public, Hal Holbrook IS Mark Twain John Bird, e-mail response to query, May 12, 2009.

4 “Seeing the 1967 CBS special of Kevin J. Bochynski, e-mail response to query, May 12, 2009.

5 “I see Hal as a kind of missionary for Mark Twain R. Kent Rasmussen, e-mail response to query, May 11, 2009.

6 “reasonings and statistic” Mark Twain, Eve’s Diary (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1906), p. 103.

7 They performed scenes from Shakespeare Hal Holbrook, Mark Twain Tonight!: An Actor’s Portrait (New York: Ives Washburn, Inc., 1959), pp. 3-4.

8 “This was my introduction to Mark Twain Hal Holbrook, Mark Twain Tonight!: An Actor’s Portrait (New York: Ives Washburn, Inc., 1959), p. 5.

9 “That’s wonderful,” said Sheen. Martin Sheen, taped interview with the author, January 2006.

10 “I’ve always been filled with fear Hal Holbrook, taped interview with the author, January 25, 1999.

11 There’s a piece I added in the last Hal Holbrook, taped interview with the author, March 2009.

12 “I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever Mandy Patinkin, taped interview with the author, July 1994.

13 “Actors who perform Shakespeare on television David Bianculli,, e-mail response to query, May 28, 2009.

14 “I suspect that Hal Holbrook has shaped Twain Shelley Fisher Fishkin, e-mail response to query, May 18, 2009.

15 Holbrook’s act and fine portrayal Harold K. Bush, e-mail response to query, May 11, 2009.

16 We can quibble with interpretation Ken Burns, taped interview with the author, July 27, 2009.

17 “From our point of view, he is unique among Robert H. Hirst, e-mail response to query, May 12, 2009.

18 “At the American Studies Association Annual Kevin J. Bochynski, e-mail response to query, May 12, 2009.

19 “I had known from his work that Holbrook had Shelley Fisher Fishkin, e-mail response to query, May 18, 2009.

20 “The truth is that he’s been wonderful company Hal Holbrook, taped interview with the author, January 25, 1999.

21 “I like to make people think, and that’s what Hal Holbrook, taped interview with the author, April 2004.

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

Upcoming Dates for Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!

As Hal Holbrook is quick to point out, he has been Mark Twain for longer than Mark Twain was. Holbrook premiered Mark Twain Tonight! in 1954. He has been performing a constantly evolving version of the show for over sixty years.

Samuel Clemens bore his eponymous alter ego for less than fifty.

holbrook-2

Holbrook, who will turn 92 in February, will visit the following select cities over the next six months.

November 15th – Waco Hall, Baylor University (Waco, TX) – The Trouble Begins at Eight

December 3rd – The Embassy Theatre (Ft. Wayne, IN) – The Trouble Begins at 7:30

January 20th – TOCA (Torrance, CA) – The Trouble Begins at Eight

February 3rd – Springer Opera House (Columbus, GA) – The Trouble Begins at 7:30

February 24th – Mesa Arts Center (Mesa, AZ) – The Trouble Begins at Eight

March 16th – Diamonstein Hall, Christopher Newport University (Newport News, VA) – The Trouble Begins at 7:30

April 1st – Buell Theatre (Denver, CO) – The Trouble TBA

April 7th – Mansfield Theater (Great Falls, MT) – The Trouble Begins at 7:30

May 4th – Merriam Theater (Philadelphia, PA) – The Trouble Begins at 7:30

May 19th – Orchestra Hall (Minneapolis, MN) – The Trouble Begins at Eight