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The Best of Hal Holbrook in "Mark Twain Tonight!'
on April 25, 2006
I saw "Mark Twain Tonight!" with the "original cast," as Hal Holbrook is still doing his quintessential one-man show. That would be well over 2,000 times since he first essayed the role of Mark Twain in 1959. That was also the year that the first of three record albums capturing his performance was released. Now, what you have to understand is that Holbrook has sixty-six separate selections that he can work into a given performance. When you see him perform, you can expect a third of them to show up. If you had all three records then you would have the equivalent of a full performance of "Mark Twain Tonight!" but that would still not be even half of what is out there.
In case you were wondering, here is what was on those original albums. "Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!" (1959): "Introduction," "On Smoking," "Journalism on Horseback," "My Encounter With An Interviewer," "Huck Battles His Conscience," and "How To Be Seventy." "More of Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!" (1961): "Introduction," "Slow Train And Low Dog," "Dangers Of Abstinence," "Problems Of Missionarying," "Accident Insurance," "Requesting A Hymn Book," "Huck And The Lynching Bee," "My Ancestor Satan," and "Encore." "Highlights From the CBS-TV Special, Mark Twain Tonight!" (1967): "Chaucer-Sailor-Tennessee Girl," "Congress," His Grandfathers Old Ram," "Lower the Angels," "A Helluva Heaven," "The Creators Pet," "Sunrise on The Mississippi," "The Dreams of Our Youth," and "The Mary Ann."
Consequently, on "The Best of Hal Holbrook in 'Mark Twain Tonight!'" you tracks 1, 2, 6 and 10 come from the first album, track 3 from the second, and tracks 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9 from the third. Of these ten tracks, Holbrook did eight of them (different introduction and "Problems of Missionarying" was omitted from the evening's performance). I can therefore put forth the idea that what is represented here is not just the best of Holbrook as Twain, but also the core elements of the show. However, the same people who put together this Columbia Broadway Masterworks CD can go back into the vault and put out those three orignal albums on CDs. They should be able to get them all on just two and they can just do the albums in their original order or they can contact Holbrook and have him tell them what order they should all go in to make for an appropriate performance (and if he wants to go into the studio and record what bits in his repertoire were not recorded in that first decade that would be just fine with me as well).
It really is not fair to call this a one-man show for two reasons. First, as many have noted, Holbrook does not impersonate Mark Twain, he becomes Twain on stage. The fact that he no longer needs an aging makeup to play the 70-year-old Twain is beside the point. Second, unlike other one-man shows (e.g., Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow), there is no need for any artificiality. Twain spent a large part of his career standing on stage talking to an audience, and that is precisely what Holbrook does. The only difference is that Holbrook takes advantage of everything that Twain ever wrote (or said and that was taken done). So tonight we heard bits from "Roughing It," "Innocents Abroad," "Letters From the Earth," "Life On the Mississippi," and Twain's "Autobiography." It is not surprising that only one fictional work makes its way into the performance, because when you are talking the great American novel everything else pales in comparison (just think about how Tom Sawyer whitewashing his fence stacks up against Huck's immortal declaration, "All right, then, I'll go to hell"; it is not even close).
The two big set pieces here are "His Grandfather's Ram," culled from "Mark Twain's Notebook," and "Huck Battles His Conscience" from "Huckleberry Finn," which together take up 33 minutes right there. There is a clear contrast between the two pieces, one comic and the other dead serious, but they are united by the fact that in them Twain performs as Jim Blaine telling a story (a fact we forget after 5, 10, 15 minutes...) and as the characters in a pivotal scene from his great American novel (we were so enthralled we forgot to applaud). If you are expecting a lot of political humor that is not forthcoming as the bit on "Congress" is the briefest track, barely a minute long, and is really just an introduction to the show's political section, where Holbrook can have Twain go off in whatever directions the news of the day requires (tonight it was the whole idea of Congress as "The Grand Old Asylum" where Republicans and Democrats are both clearly insane). The humor and social commentary of Mark Twain are as true and timely today as they were when he was alive or when Holbrook first began essaying his signature role. What is here is but a taste and it is not surprising that several members of the audience leaving the show tonight were talking about brushing up on their Twain.