If Mark Twain were alive today, he'd probably have his own blog where he could spout cantankerous opinions on politics, religion and just about every controversial subject in-between. Instead, Twain has had something much better: actor Hal Holbrook.
The performer has spent a lifetime celebrating the man whose real name is Samuel Clemens, father of such famous literary figures as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. And it's through his "Mark Twain Tonight!" that Holbrook has kept the humorist's lively - and still pertinent - thoughts in front of the public.
For more than 50 years, the actor has impersonated Twain in variations of this conversational, chatty one-man show. Now the entertainment, not seen on Broadway since 1977, has returned for a brief engagement at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre through June 18.
The evening is a leisurely, loose journey, with Twain ruminating on a variety of topics including himself. "I was born modest, but it wore off," the writer says of his natural confidence.
His confidence in himself is tempered by his skepticism about the rest of the human race. "I am an optimist who did not arrive," Twain says, proclaiming his natural suspicion, a quality that held him in good stead as a journalist in the early part of his career.
The show, which is set in 1905, presents the 70-year-old Twain on the lecture circuit. He's the aging literary lion basking in celebrity. Dressed in a light suit and vest, Twain paces the stage between an ornate chair and a lectern while he fidgets with a cigar and decides what to talk about.
Politicians are a favorite subject - to disparage. The same could be said for his thoughts on organized religion, particularly when rigidity over belief denies the possibility that other faiths may be just as valid.
Over the years, Holbrook has amassed a mountain of Twain material. For each performance, he selects a few pieces from this vault of anecdotes and tales, although he always includes a reading from Twain's masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." You can understand why. It's the high point of the show, with Holbrook readily coming alive as Huck and Jim, the runaway slave, among other characters.
There's a haphazard quality to the presentation of the material, though, a meandering that could benefit from a director to give the show some shape. No one is credited here. Yet that randomness shouldn't deter you from seeing "Mark Twain Tonight!" Holbrook's Twain is still a masterful -and unique - creation.
Hal Holbrook has now been performing Mark Twain longer than Mark Twain did.
Twain's public-speaking career began in 1866, when he was 31, a little-known West Coast travel writer, and ended in 1909, a year before he died. Holbrook got a head start. He first did "Mark Twain Tonight!" in 1954, when he was 29.
Holbrook is now five years older than Twain was when he died, but there is no sense that he has any less energy or prowess in mining every word, every pause for maximum comic effect.
There are traditions of actors re-creating famous roles - but none I know where a great actor keeps bringing back one of America's greatest writers.
His current selection from Twain's writing is amazingly topical. A lot of the material, for example, is about fundamentalism. He is equally hard on the Koran and the Bible, and those who interpret them literally.
Twain was as disappointed in God as he was in his fellow man. As he put it, considering the depths of human evil and stupidity, "It's inscrutable that God should endure all this - with lightning so cheap."
Even more amusing is how often -and how scathingly - he took digs at the French. And given current skepticism toward the press, it is wonderful to hear him declare, "There are laws that protect the freedom of the press, but not to protect the people from the press."
Some of the material reminds us that Twain was indeed a 19th-century man, like a long, not so funny piece about cats and blue jays as speakers. But it's useful as a way of seeing what the humor of the time was – and how far above it Twain could soar.
He is at his best in the excerpt from "Huckleberry Finn" in which Huck wrestles with his guilt about helping Jim, the runaway slave, escape his master - one of the greatest moments in American literature.
Holbrook's Twain was never about mere physical impersonation. Ail those years ago, Holbrook saw that in addition to Huck and Jim and Tom and Aunt Polly, Twain created a wily, caustic, meditative and ultimately serene character called Mark Twain. That's what he makes us experience so magically, so powerfully.
Talk about longevity: When he first started performing his now legendary one-man show about Mark Twain some 50 years ago, Hal Holbrook had to wear old-age makeup.
Now, reprising for this limited Broadway run the performance he's delivered thousands of times around the world, the 80-year-old actor has to make himself look younger.
Nonetheless, his "Mark Twain Tonight!" remains the standard bearer in terms of biographical solo drama.
The actor culls his performance from a wide range of Twain's writings, so one never quite knows what one will see in a given performance. Still, rest assured that the monologue, delivered on a mostly bare stage - there's a lectern, a table and a chair - will be suffused with the writer's rakish and subversive wit.
Whether lambasting the "inmates" of Congress, the duplicitous press ("First get the facts, then you can distort them as much as you want"), the hypocrisies of organized religion ("I had a terrible nightmare - I dreamt I was baptized) or politics ("The nation is divided between patriots and traitors, and no one can tell which is which"), the cannily chosen passages wonderfully demonstrate the relevance and humor of Twain's insights.
Wearing a vintage three-piece white suit and smoking a cigar - his Act 2 entrance, prefaced by a puff of smoke from the wings, is highly amusing - Holbrook infuses this solo turn with a droll delivery and comic timing that has obviously been honed by his marathon run in the role. The two-hour plus performance can also be considered a triumph of memory, considering the actor's age.
The show could probably benefit from some pruning - a lengthy passage from the classic "Huckleberry Finn" in Act 2 seems an unnecessary diversion. Overall, though, "Mark Twain Tonight!" is a genuine piece of theatrical history and a sterling example of a theatrical genre that in lesser hands has been far too frequently abused.
The comforting aroma of hearty longevity perfumes the air at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, as thick and intangible as the cigar smoke that wreathes the man on the stage. For there, disporting himself with the lazy assurance that comes with long years of being adored and having the whole world as your mirror, is the 70-year-old Mark Twain, in remarkably fresh and topical form for someone dead nearly a century.
As for the actor playing Twain, Hal Holbrook, he is 80 now, meaning he has a good 10 years on the man he is impersonating. Mr. Holbrook has been embodying the iconoclastic creator of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" for more than half a century in well over 2,000 performances, starting when the actor was in his late 20's.
He has since had a long and varied career, ranging from Shakespeare to movies-of-the-week, that includes a film role much talked about of late - that of Deep Throat in the 1976 film "All the President's Men." But Mark Twain is Mr. Holbrook's most faithful alter ego. You might think that by this time, he would have petrified (to use a favorite image of Twain's) into the embalmed form of an institution playing an institution.
Well, Mr. Holbrook must have been about 40 when this critic, as a little boy in Winston-Salem, N.C., saw him on tour in "Mark Twain Tonight!," the same show, more or less, that opened last night on Broadway. I thought he was just wonderful then. To my surprise, I still do.
It was sentimental as much as professional obligation that made me drag myself to the latest of Mr. Holbrook's many editions of "Mark Twain Tonight!" And I confess that I had a hard time getting anyone to accompany me. One friend of mine actually hooted in laughter when I invited her; another cut me off with a trumpeted "No!" before I could even finish asking.
I could understand their resistance. Sure, the show had inspired astonished hallelujahs from the New York Times critics Arthur Gelb and Brooks Atkinson when it opened off Broadway in 1959. But, honestly, how could Mr. Holbrook's Twain be anything other than a moldy old piece of taxidermy by this point?
What's more, "Mark Twain Tonight!" has a lot to answer for, since after Mr. Holbrook's initial success with it, it seemed that pretty much every actor and actress in America started thinking about making a contribution to the theater of dead celebrities. Just think of the long roster of one-person séances on New York stages, devoted to channeling Lillian Hellman (twice), Harry Truman, Truman Capote, Quentin Crisp, Diana Vreeland, ad nauseam.
Such shows are usually patchworks of gossip, anecdotes, raging eccentricities and a few shattering moments of personal revelation, preferably in the form of an onstage mini-nervous breakdown. This is not, for the record, the form of "Mark Twain Tonight!" Mr. Holbrook is making little attempt to present the inner Mark Twain, the man dissected by biographers in recent years as a shadowy mass of contradictions and insecurities. Autobiographical anecdotes here mostly fall into the category of comic tales stretched tall on the rack of repeated tellings.
What Mr. Holbrook offers is the professional persona that Twain fashioned in years of the public speaking to which the writer became increasingly addicted. So instead of "Mark Twain: The Me Nobody Knows," it's "Mark Twain: Have Lectern, Will Travel." Culling from a vast reservoir of selections of Twain's writing (the line-up changes from night to night), Mr. Holbrook presents Twain as the prototype of the stand-up comic pundit - a homespun American tradition that now embraces everyone from cracker-barrel philosophers like Will Rogers to pickle-barrel philosophers like Jackie Mason.
In the performance I saw, Mr. Holbrook's Twain felt as politically of-the-moment as, say, Al Franken and Bill Maher, though considerably less obnoxious. Mr. Holbrook has tailored his Mark Twain handbook of quotable quotes and set pieces to focus particularly on the corruption and fabrications of politicians and journalists, subjects that alas seem excruciatingly relevant just now.
Even more chilling are Twain's reflections on the divisiveness of religion. "When a disciple from the wildcat religious asylum comes marching forth, get under the bed," he says. "It doesn't matter whether he's a Christian, Hindu, Jew or Muslim."
Now such observations could reek of pulpit pounding. But Mr. Holbrook ensures that they do not with a performance that is perhaps most remarkable for the energy it derives from a studied languor. Mr. Holbrook's Twain is a master of theatrical passive aggression, of a vanity so assured that it doesn't need to sell itself. Unusual if not unique in the theater of celebrity impersonation is his refusal to pander, to turn idiosyncrasy into show-stopping cuteness.
His style of delivery is rambling, skirting the edges of senility and then zeroing into sharp focus with punch lines that grab you from behind. Having landed a good quip, this Twain lets his eyes crinkle (but not, thank heavens, twinkle) in self-satisfaction beneath his thundercloud eyebrows, and his lips twitch into the merest whisper of a smile.
Mr. Holbrook's timing, though honed over decades, never feels mechanical. Seemingly wayward repetitiveness (and surely a few of the politician-baiting lines could be jettisoned for different material) only adds to the uncanny aura of naturalness. And while he may come close to canonizing Twain as an oracle for the ages, Mr. Holbrook also hints at an old poser's insatiable hunger for admiration.
He does beautifully by a reading from "Huckleberry Finn," in which he summons an artist happily summoning characters into being. And there is an extended, jubilantly folksy bit about how blue jays are the best cursers of the animal kingdom.
But it's Twain the Misanthrope that contemporary theatergoers are most likely to clutch to their bosoms, the fellow who says he prays daily for the damnation of mankind and finds that reading the newspapers makes him want to lay his head down on a sack of chloroform.
Who, in the first years of the 21st century, can't identify with that sentiment? There's a grimness in hearing Twain's indictments of greedy, intolerant, irredeemable humanity echo your own thoughts after glancing at the morning's headlines. But it's reassuring, too, that Mr. Holbrook and his bushy alter ego are still around to fulminate with such zest.
"I wonder if a person ever ceases to feel young - I mean for a whole day at a time," says Twain. It is one of the sweeter paradoxes of theater that playing old before his time has helped keep this actor forever young.