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 directly below this note.

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.