Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mark Twain Tonight!

The chance to see Hal Holbrook perform in Mark Twain Tonight, a recreation of a platform performance by Twain, using materials fro Twain's actual lectures, books, the Autobiography, and his notebooks. So deep was Holbrook's research for the show which he created, and which varies from night to night, that he interviewed the controversial Isabel Lyon, of whom Holbrook "has previously said it was from Lyon that he got a better feel for Mark Twain than from any other person he ever met who had known the great author." He also met with Clara Clemens, the last surviving daughter. He modeled his walk onstage from the one film extant of Twain walking about his last home, and from the experience of sailing on a steamboat.

In the program, Holbrook urges gifts to the Mark Twain Papers. As a lifelong Twainiac, how can I not admire him for that, and for his decades of using his skill to re-create America's greatest writer, in a forum very like that which his readers often could experience. Holbrook is not resting on his laurels; he picked selections that were topical, reading the audience's mood, and (I suspect) changing his mind about how to shape the first act to reflect the political follies we have been living through this past year.

Or was it Mark Twain onstage who made that decision? He was famous for the long, stretched out pause, making you wonder what was coming, and then bringing it home. The topical material worked, and then the more philosophical second act, with a reading from Huckleberry Finn, and a memoir of his wife and daughter, and a wonderful, perfect conclusion.

Here's a little taste:



You can, by the way, buy a record of a complete performance.

So, you may ask, did Holbrook measure up? Yes, and for some of the reasons Ben Brantley gave nearly a decade ago:
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.
Yeah. I left the theater feeling closer to Mark Twain than at any time since I completely immersed myself in everything then available about the Autobiography, in writing a thesis on its composition and suppression. Clemens may not be here to see it being brought, at last into the light of day, but, thanks to Hal Holbrook, Mark Twain can, in a very real way, be said to be.

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