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After 60 years, Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight! still has lessons for us

Maker's Mark

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Much of the material in Hal Holbrook's one-man play Mark Twain Tonight! was written between 1865 and 1906. Holbrook has donned the white suit, puffed the trademark cigar, and re-enacted the humorous humanist's stage monologues for nearly 60 years. At 88, he has already outlived Twain by 13 years. Many would be content to call it a day after a career like Holbrook's, marked by five Emmys, an Oscar nomination and endless other accolades. What else can he possibly have to say?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

"[Twain's] material is so timely, it's startling sometimes," Holbrook told On Point's Tom Ashbrook. "I watch the different networks, from MSNBC way over on the left to Fox News way over on the right, and try to figure out what's really happening, and pick material from Twain that will speak to what people must be really worried about and thinking about, or need to be thinking about, in my own opinion."

This process has been central to Holbrook's concept for Mark Twain Tonight! from the early days. Twain's observations on the hypocrisy and injustice of slavery — whose frankness keeps The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the ALA's list of most frequently banned books 128 years after its initial publication — resonated during the civil rights movement. In today's legislative gridlock, Twain's characterization of Congress as "that Grand Old Benevolent National Asylum for The Helpless" hits alarmingly close to home.

Though he was a financial peer of the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts, Twain was also keenly critical of the widening gap between the tycoons who benefited from rapid industrialization and the hopeful immigrants on whose backs their fortunes were built. In his discussion with Ashbrook on corporate greed, Holbrook quoted the following remarks, written during the Gilded Age but rendered eerily fresh by our economic crisis and the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision: "Vast power and wealth corrupt a nation. It incites dangerous ambitions, and can bring the republic down. It can pack the Supreme Court with members friendly to its purposes, run down the Congress, and crush the people's voice."

Aside from its social and political astuteness, and its devastating humor, Mark Twain Tonight! remains a showcase for Holbrook's vast and subtle technical abilities. He routinely embodies characters' minute facets far beyond the script, down to the voices Twain invents for other characters through whom he speaks.

Holbrook can't play the role forever, but current contenders are a far cry from his exacting standard. Val Kilmer is trying his hand with Citizen Twain, a one-man show focused on a conflict between Twain and Mary Baker Eddy. Unfortunately, his production misfires by turning away from Twain's own observations and arguments toward suggestion and supposition. Holbrook readily admits to massaging his language to land a punchline, but who puts ideas in Mark Twain's mouth?

Kilmer may have good intentions, but his portrayal comes off as caricature; his accent, akin to a poor impersonation of Kevin Spacey in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, doesn't help. It must be said, though, that he's competing with the image of Twain fixed in the public mind — an image Hal Holbrook did much to place there.

"At the end of my life, the thing that gets me out of bed is Mark Twain — not the man, but what he said about us," Holbrook told the crowd assembled to give him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Mo., in November. "I don't know if there's anybody in our history who understood and appreciated our American character more than Mark Twain, but he was a critic of our behavior, and of the behavior of the entire human race."

For 150 years, we've called on Twain to serve the same purpose we've always asked of literature and drama: to speak the truths we can't bear to say for ourselves. If there was ever a time to face reality with a cool head and a steady hand — holding a cigar for emphasis — this is it.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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