Mark Twain's wit lives

In his 50th year portraying celebrated author, actor Hal Holbrook brings his one-man show to the Weinberg Center

In his 50th year portraying celebrated author, actor Hal Holbrook brings his one-man show to the Weinberg Center

October 10, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

When he's home in California, Hal Holbrook swims every day.

As he does his laps, he "works" on "Mark Twain Tonight!," the one-man show he's been doing since 1954.

"Sometimes I stop at the end of the pool and laugh," he said. "So much of this material is so terribly funny," Holbrook said.

In a recent phone interview from his New York City hotel room, Holbrook, 79, laughed heartily while delivering a Twain line or two. Manhattan's Carlyle has been his home base during the current six-week tour of his show. Holbrook's wife, Dixie Carter, had just opened at Cafe Carlyle and was slated to sing through Oct. 9. When he wasn't in another city, he'd catch the show.

Holbrook will bring Twain to Frederick, Md., on Wednesday, Oct. 13. The Weinberg Center curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m.

The show grew out of a project in college after World War II, which had interrupted Holbrook's years at Denison University in Ohio. Holbrook and his first wife had a two-person show with characters from Shakespeare to Twain. After graduation, they toured the school assembly circuit traveling 30,000 miles by station wagon.


Holbrook's first solo performance as Mark Twain was at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania.

He started it to earn a living.

"All I wanted was to get some bucks," Holbrook said.

When he started, people didn't know who he was. Going to a lecture is "the most frightening thing," Holbrook said. A lot of people were dragged to performances for an evening of culture, he laughed.

Also in 1954, Holbrook landed a steady job on a television soap opera, but he continued working on Twain, taking the role to a Greenwich Village night club the following year. He got national exposure on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and Holbrook and Mark Twain opened to rave reviews at a tiny off-Broadway theater in 1959.

He quit the day job and took the show throughout the United States - even performing for President Eisenhower - and in Europe on a State Department tour, the first American dramatic production to go behind the Iron Curtain since World War II.

Holbrook is touring still. He has continued to do Mark Twain every year for 50 years.

"It amazes me," he said.

Asked if he still enjoys it, he sounded almost surprised, "You know I do."

It's developed a great deal, he added.

Holbrook has no set program. He chooses material as he goes along. He adds to his Twain storehouse every year and has accumulated more than 14 hours worth. He said he has about 25 sources - eight to 14 minutes worth - for "insanity." Twain talked about the insanity of politics and religion. He talked about dishonesty. The lines come from Twain's letters and essays.

Holbrook said he doesn't change Twain's writings, but he edits and selects to fit the stage and the times.

There's a difference between reading written words and hearing them spoken on stage. It was a "great relief" when he learned years ago that Twain reworked his material for the stage. He simplified things.

"You have to simplify. It's part of the technique," Holbrook said.

Mark Twain was funny, the actor said, and Holbrook's Twain makes the audience laugh in the first act. He breaks down any resistance to relaxing and listening.

By the second act, people are really willing to listen, he said.

Some of the material is dark, sometimes tough to listen to. It turns the human race inside out, Holbrook said.

"It's funny, but not so funny," he said. "You laugh because you see truth planted in your lap."

"Huckleberry Finn," which Holbrook called a magnificent piece of literature - despite its imperfections - is convenient as a peak in "Mark Twain Tonight!"

"His analysis of the white man was profound. He lived through it," Holbrook said.

Holbrook's research is exhaustive - for Twain and other iconic characters. Among the award-winning actor's many stage, television and cinema roles are Shakespeare's King Lear and Shylock, Arthur Miller's Willy Loman and Abraham Lincoln. They are characters who stood for something important in their time, Holbrook said.

In studying Lincoln, Holbrook drove all night - from Illinois to Kentucky - in the opposite direction of Lincoln's journey. He stood in Lincoln's Illinois in a late October twilight lightly dusted with snow.

Holbrook read William Herndon's book about Lincoln. "Billy" Herndon had been Lincoln's law partner in Springfield, Ill. He knew Lincoln. He wrote that Lincoln placed his feet parallel and swung from the knees when he spoke.

"Incredible information for an actor," Holbrook said.

"As an actor you have somewhere to go," he explained. "All that turns the character into a human being that we can understand."

Holbrook said the important thing is what the character has to say to each person - the actor and audience members.

Twain, who was born in 1835 and died in 1910, has a lot to say - still.

"I do not update his material," Holbrook said emphatically.

People come backstage and tell him that Twain could have been talking about the morning newspaper.

"It's amazing what the man comes up with," Holbrook said.

If you go to the show ...

Hal Holbrook in "Mark Twain Tonight!"

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13

Weinberg Center for the Arts

20 W. Patrick St.

Frederick, Md.

Tickets cost $30, $40 and $45, plus service charge, and are available at

1-301-228-2828 and online at The Weinberg box office is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

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