Hal Holbrook, Who Has Played Mark Twain For 56 Years, Returns To Hartford For One Night Only
January 17, 2010
'What ought to be done to the man who invented the celebrating of anniversaries? Mere killing would be too light." — Mark Twain, 1896
Hold off the killing, sir, because this time the celebration is in your honor.
It's anniversary time at the Mark Twain House & Museum and the Hartford home is gearing up for a year-long celebration of a series of mileposts: the 100th anniversary of the author's death, the 175th anniversary of his birth and the 125th anniversary of the publication of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" is the city's pick for national The Big Read this spring and a new stage adaptation of that book will be produced by Hartford Stage in April.
Kicking off the year's events (see sidebar, Page G4) is this week's sold-out presentation of "Mark Twain Tonight!" Saturday at the University of Hartford's Lincoln Theater by a man who has become synonymous with the American author: Hal Holbrook.
Holbrook says that after 56 years performing as Twain in his Tony and Emmy Award-winning solo show, he never tires of quoting the master. He frequently adjusts the show — never updates it — so Twain's writing reflects contemporary times.
And, boy, has Twain a lot to say about bankers, politicians and greed.
"'It's a strange panic we're in,'" says Holbrook, quoting Twain. "'It's like a paralysis in which a mighty machine has slipped its belt and is still running but accomplishing nothing. A creepy and awful stillness has given us an atmosphere of apprehension. The phrase of 'laying off' has been common: the laying off of 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 men have become familiar. But there is a more disastrous laying off going on all over America: the discharging of one out of every three employees in every humble small shop and industry from one end of the U.S. to the other. A blight has fallen upon us and the monarchy of the rich and the powerful are the authors of it.'"
And the reaction of audiences when they hear this speech today?
"Stunned silence," says Holbrook, during a telephone interview from Houston, where he was presenting the show. "Audiences just take it in as I leave them with a big, horrifying pause allowing them time to think about this hot potato they have in their laps. They're probably saying , 'Oh, for Christ's sake, this is ridiculous. We're doing the same stupid thing over and over!' And then I walk over and start the 'Huckleberry Finn' section [of the show]."
Speaking with Holbrook, who over the decades has become a leading Twain scholar in his own right, it's hard to tell where the actor leaves off and the author begins.
"In the early days of the republic," says Holbrook, "we chose to believe in the motto, 'In God we trust.' If this nation has ever trusted in God, that time has gone by. For the past 50 years, our entire trust has been with the almighty dollar. The national motto should be changed to reflect the times. It should be 'Money is god. Get rich. Dishonestly if we can. Honestly if we must. Lack of money is the root of all evil.' Money has become more acceptable as virtue."
And what would Twain think of a multi-racial president of the United States?
"Well, he had a pretty great imagination, you know, so I suspect he could imagine anything," says Holbrook. "But I think he would be thrilled by [the election of President Obama]. After all, he was good friends with Frederick Douglass. But no matter what your politics are, everybody in America was basically thrilled that we finally broke this thing down [by electing a racially mixed president]. I hope everyone is praying that this young man will come out from this horrifying avalanche that hit him as soon as they elected him, but I think he's going to lose votes in the next election because people can't put up with these bad times. Its impossible to get it our heads that we have been struck by one of the great disasters in our country, and we're not going to get over it quickly."
About to turn 85 next month — and a decade older than Twain was when he died — Holbrook is having a busy year, also playing Twain's two other signature "homes": in Elmira, N.Y. where the author and his family summered, and in Hannibal, Mo., where Twain grew up. "I played Hannibal in 1956 and I drew 58 people," he says. "I'm hoping to do better now."
The show will be Holbrook-as-Twain's first show in Hartford (where Twain lived from 1874 to 1891) since 2001, although the actor returned to town in 2007 to play the Stage Manager in "Our Town" at Hartford Stage. He left that show before the end of run because of an illness but has been fine since, going on to receive an Oscar nomination for Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" in 2008, starring in a 2009 indie film "That Evening Sun" and continuing his Mark Twain touring. He also is writing his autobiography for Farrar, Strauss and Giroux publishers, titled "Harold," Holbrook's given name.
The Twain Effect
"You can't spend all this time with Twain without being affected by him," says Holbrook. "I guess he's been my major education. The great thing about Twain is that he not only invites you to think, he makes you think.
Living with Twain for more than a half century, Holbrook reflects the master in much of his own thinking, especially in contemporary issues that hark back to Twain's time and writings.
"It's a very ironic thing that is happening in this country," says Holbrook. "The enlargement of the dissemination of information is at odds in a strange and dangerous way with the democratic process because people are now getting used to the idea that information is intelligence. But what people are missing is the thoughtful process that leads to intelligence. We're missing the thoughtful part.
"And now we have the idiots — ultra-liberals on one side and this guy Beck on the other — who twist the truths, and it's disgusting and very dangerous to the democratic process," he says. "Democracy requires thoughtful deliberation and without that you just have people yelling at each other from two different points of view and that intense anger can produce an anarchy [and destroy] our wonderful, wonderful political system."
When asked about "Tom Sawyer" — several major events focus on that book this year — Holbrook says that novel was never one of major importance to him in the show.
"I don't do anything from 'Tom Sawyer' because I'm drawn more to a stronger commentary on our life, and that's from 'Huck,'" Holbrook says. "'Tom' is a nice story and all that, although I think the experience of Tom in the cave is very interesting if you allow yourself to realize that in that experience that young boy became a man, growing up and taking responsibility.
"My wife [actress Dixie Carter] and I did a reading last year from several passages from 'Tom Sawyer' and I was amazed by the audience reaction. The audience loved it and laughed like hell. They laughed in a way that you get the human aspect of it, the relationships, the truth of it, and I got a whole new respect for the book.
"You get to that scene in the school where Becky and Tom come together, well that's a perfect description of the dance that goes on between men and women. Even if it's done by two kids, man, it's just as true as someone that is 40 years old."
One book that Holbrook says is overlooked — and would make a great film — is Twain's ironic novel published in 1894, "Pudd'nhead Wilson."
"It's a straight-ahead analysis of racism in this country and it is extraordinary. It's well worth reading. You're going to be surprised."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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