The first time I ever saw Hal Holbrook do his impersonation of Mark Twain, I think I was still in college. He first conceived of the idea and performed it in 1954, when he was 29. He’s now been performing Mark Twain Tonight for sixty consecutive years, and he doesn’t look ready to quit yet. The man is 89 years old, for heaven’s sake, fourteen years older than Samuel Clemmons himself lived, and he’s still going strong! At least he no longer has to spend a full four hours applying his make-up … only two!
Last week, Joan and I slipped up to the historic and beautifully restored National Theater in Washington to catch the first of his two shows there. But …sorry. Unless you’re lucky enough to be in New Hampshire, you’ve missed it. Tonight’s show (April 11) in Concord is evidently the last of his current limited tour.
I believe I must have seen the now legendary performance at least three times over the years. I have never grown tired either of Mark Twain or of Mr. Holbrook. I still periodically scour the Web, just to see if Holbrook will be touring nearby. Quite a remarkable man in his own right, he has spent virtually his entire life on the road. Somehow at the same time he has come away from roles in more than sixty plays and fifty movies, loaded down with Oscar, Tony, and Emmy award nominations and wins.
And as for Mr. Twain himself, who famously came and went with Halley’s Comet (1825 and 1910 respectively), I have been a lifelong devotee since I first picked up Tom Sawyer at age 9. Some years later, by the time I had worked my way through all his other works, especially including “Letters from the Earth,” I joined the rest of the world in the conviction that no American writer would ever offer up a better or wittier impatience with sham and hypocrisy, especially in politics and religion.
Holbrook does move more slowly than he has in the past, and often even appears addled. But somehow it felt completely appropriate, and it aptly conveys his affection for his alter ego. That grumpy, all-knowing twinkle in his eye kept us mesmerized. Recreating Twain on a lecture tour in the mid 1890’s, he meanders back and forth across an almost empty stage, throwing out his witty barbs as they occur to him. Seemingly unplanned, his choice of material depends on his mood, and that of his audience. Topics ranged through Twain’s favorite targets: the nature of man, politics, religion and smoking, with time out for a reading from Huckleberry Finn. For example (I may be paraphrasing): “Mankind: The Creator’s most beloved and favored creature. Gifted with … imagination! The one thing that differentiates us from our fellow creatures! Imagination! Birds don’t have it. Dogs don’t have it. Monkeys don’t have it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so happy!”
Holbrook has apparently given up on actually lighting that much vaunted cigar of Twain’s, either on doctor’s or fire marshal’s orders. But he was always on the verge of striking a match, and the lust for cigars was ever present. I was reminded of one of my favorite Twain quotes that Holbrook did not deliver: “I’ve given up smoking many times … for the inestimable pleasure of starting it up again.”
That this performance happened to be staged in the nation’s capital meant that Congress would bear the brunt of the evening’s relentless humor. I couldn’t help but wonder how many U. S. Cngressmen were sitting in the audience, laughing and applauding along with the rest of us, blind to their own hypocrisy (… which, it must be said, no doubt applies to the rest of us as well). The timely relevance of the material is of course shocking: that in 120 years the United States Congress has not seen fit to improve itself one iota past what Twain labeled as “idiots and dumber than fleas!” I can’t resist ending my comments by sharing just three of Twain’s.
“If congress had been in session when the Creator declared “Let there be light!” we wouldn’t have it!”
“There is no distinctly American criminal class – except Congress.”
“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress … But I repeat myself.”
Next Up: Camp David