Mark Twain Tonight

Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 12:00 am
By: Doug Lund
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Ever since I watched Hal Holbrook’s incredible portrayal of Mark Twain on a CBS television special in 1967, the idea of seeing his performance in person has been on my bucket list; you know, things you want to do before you kick the bucket.
Well, I can now scratch that one from the list thanks to Holbrook’s appearance at the Washington Pavilion Wednesday night. 1967 Hal Holbrook at the age of 42 in the role he was born to play..Mark TwainI wasn’t aware that Holbrook was still touring with his one man show, Mark Twain Tonight, so I vowed to be in the front row when I heard he was coming to Sioux Falls..but didn’t get around to calling the box office until late last week. 
There may not be a bad seat in the Pavilion’s Great Hall but, thanks to my tardiness in getting tickets, Linda and I wound up sitting in row X..which is pretty much the steerage section of this wonderful theater.( More on that in a minute.)
At a time when audiences will accept different people playing familiar roles from James Bond to Batman..Hal Holbrook IS Mark Twain and we will accept no substitutes. He has been doing this character for over 50 years and committed to memory nearly everything the great American author and humorist, Samuel Clemens, ever wrote or said. As a result, Holbrook has no set agenda for his performances..picking at will from his vast mental library lending an air of complete spontaneity to each show.
Even though every word Holbrook utters from the stage is from Twain himself, on Wednesday evening, he opted to explore more of the author’s politics than his playfulness which was a little disappointing because it was clear everyone in the house wanted desperately to laugh at the familiar funny and witty side of Mark Twain. There was some of that, of course.“Man is the only animal that has the true religion..several of them.” "Man is the only animal that blushes..or needs to.”  "Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.’Hal Holbrook still at it in 2008Most of this evening, though, was dedicated to drawing parallels betweenTwain’s views on politicians, corporate fat cats, and war in 1905 to what’s going on in America right now.  
He spent a good deal of time pointing out Twain’s disdain for religious hypocrisy telling the story of the Christian minister in the pulpit beseeching  the Lord for victory in war; “Oh Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead.”  Deep but not too funny.
There also weren’t many laughs when after an excruciatingly long 25 minute intermission, Holbrook returned with a lengthy oration from Huckleberry Finn in which he assumes the characters of both Huck and his black friend, Jim, telling of the tragic circumstances that led them both to run away and float down the Mississippi on a raft.   I might have appreciated the dialogue more had we been able to hear it. Despite assurances from the box office lady that even though our vantage point at the tail end of the alphabet rows might be marginal, the sound system would allow us to hear every word. Not so. Especially when Holbrook drifted into the southern accents of Huck and Jim. What came through the two small speakers up front was garbled and mushy to those of us back in the boonies. So much so that two ladies in front of us got the giggles and couldn’t stop. Then a guy in row “Y” muttered something about what he was missing on TV, and walked out.
We were all wondering whether, considering how people freak at thought of anyone smoking in a public building these days, Holbrook would use Mark Twian’s most recognizable prop; the cigar. Well, in the first act, he got one out of his pocket and talked about how easy it was to quit smoking because he’s done it thousands of times. Still it wasn’t until the second act that Holbrook finally fired up the stogie filling the stage with a big blue cloud. I’m sure some in the crowd were appalled but I wanted to applaud the fact that Holbrook has remained true to the character of Twain who said, “I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar…. at a time.”
Holbrook also managed to stay in character when, during one of his long poignant pauses, somebody’s cell phone erupted in song and played to the end..echoing through the great hall like a melody from Manheim Steamroller.
But in spite of the crummy seats, crass members of the audience (many of whom obviously had bad head colds that required lots of coughing and clearing of nasal passages) I’m really glad I was there.
Hal Holbrook is 83 now and doesn’t need much make-up anymore to play the role he created for himself so long ago. It was perhaps the best job of casting in the history of show business.

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