On Saturday, November 22 at the Marin Veterans Memorial Civic Center in San Rafael, California, Hal Holbrook performed his legendary “Mark Twain Tonight!” one-man stage performance. In 1967 the original “Mark Twain Tonight!” directed by Paul Bogart, was aired on CBS, and Holbrook has performed as Twain for countless people in the decades since. In his latest reprisal, Holbrook, now elderly, and seemingly more assured than ever as the American humorist and author, electrifies the audiences with Twain's beautifully vicious, caustically funny take on the powerful in politics.
Sitting in the fourth row from the stage (and a few rows in front of actor Sean Penn, who directed Holbrook to great acclaim in 2007's Into the Wild), I was given the great opportunity of taking in every slight nuance and modulated inflection of Holbrook, who almost instantly made a packed auditorium believe they were looking at Twain. Held rapt in attention by Holbrook's faintly corrosive characterization, the audience finds itself at the great actor's mercy, continually compelled to burst into laughter as Holbrook's Twain mercilessly cuts the “inmates at that Grand Old Benevolent National Asylum for the Helpless known as Congress” down to size. The old Twain saws appear with regularity, peppering the performance with heightened dosages of irreverent witticisms. “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.”
The production set in 1905, with Twain at the age of seventy years old (having been born in 1835), is as simple as can be. A table with half a dozen books, a podium, which has one book on it, and a comfortably padded red seat, are the only props with which Holbrook can work. Split in two fifty-minute segments with a twenty-minute intermission dividing the uninterrupted displays of possessive showmanship, Holbrook ensures that the audience is taken for a wild and fun but always coherent ride into the psyche of the man he so richly inhabits. Numerous pieces are quite politically incorrect in their own ways, but their points are thoughtful and intellectually rewarding. One monologue concerning the “madness of Muslims,” for instance, concludes with the inarguable point that many individuals of differing faiths view one another with ignorance, hostility and/or hatred. As Twain ascertains that he knows people of the “Muslim faith” are “mad,” he just as quickly points out that those proclaiming that faith view him as unquestionably insane.
Typically, Twain gifts his audience with wisdom gently couched in rollicking humor. However, his most especially insolent humor, usually directed at Congressmen and other elected officials (though occasionally thrown in the direction of Frenchmen, Muslims and others who make Twain ill-at-ease), is not everyone's proverbial cup of tea. At least a dozen older audience members, most of whom ladies, were heard by this writer grumbling as they exited the auditorium during the intermission. These people's complaints were made loud enough for me to hear. One old lady remarked, “His statements that they're all rotten, they're all crooked...” This sentiment was repeated by others in an extended moment that seemed like something out of a movie. (Isn't that always the way? Where did these things called movies come from if not life?)
While these ladies and others are perfectly within their right to abandon the show halfway and not care for the reincarnated Twain and his diatribes (through the actor Hal Holbrook), his brand of humor seems increasingly apropos in many ways. Are there not thieving and incompetent Congressmen, not to mention felonious governors willing to sell United States Senate seats to the highest bidder? Is not the corrupt rampant and bipartisan today?
The latter half of Holbrook's performance is more wrenching than the almost entirely comic opening part. A long passage from Huckleberry Finn is read aloud to great dramatic effect, the crescendo of which is Huck Finn's realization that the black Jim's profound despair in the face of personal tragedy is not unlike that of any other person, even whites. Holbrook savors the words and the performance takes on a remarkably different context, reaching people in a manner that is nothing less than bewildering. The intangible reality of the theatrical stage effort becomes an engrossing moment frozen, as people hang on every word, each silence heightened to impossible degrees.
Holbrook's one-man performance in "Mark Twain Tonight!" is well worth the price of admission and then some. He continues to revive the importance of one man, his thoughts and his words. A great service indeed.