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Actor Hal Holbrook, 91, has assayed the role of author Mark Twain on stage for more than 60 years.
He is, at present, 17 years older than Twain was when he passed away in 1910.
When Holbrook brings “Mark Twain Tonight” to the Embassy Theatre on Dec. 3, it will be his third visit to that venue.
People who have seen it before are well advised to see it again.
Unlike most theatrical shows, “Mark Twain Tonight” is not bound to a set script. Holbrook has apparently ingested all of Twain’s prose and converted it to DNA. He pulls out whatever material seems appropriate at and to the moment.
Holbrook told the San Luis Obispo Tribune that Twain’s commentaries on humanity’s foibles remain timely because humanity’s foibles are timeless.
“I’m shocked by how we just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again,” he said. “It’s a joke, but it’s not funny.”
The show addresses politics but is not ideologically partisan, Holbrook said. The truths imparted therein are about how humans vote only in so much as they are about humans behave.
“I’m not a big liberal voicing my opinion,” he told the Waco Tribune. “My show talks to the people. I can’t go out and give them liberal [expletive]. They have to make their own thoughts. I want the people to listen to hear what he had to say and make up (their) own mind.”
Twain didn’t think much of politicians, regardless of party affiliation.
“The trouble with politicians,” Holbrook told the Hollywood Reporter, “almost every single one of them, [is that] they always say what they think might get them elected. They’re not telling the truth.”
The show is funny because Twain was and is funny, he said. But funny is not the same thing as frivolous.
“The human race keeps acting like a bunch of asses and fools, all you got to do is look at what’s going on,” Holbrook said. “Mark Twain wrote about all this – you and me and our behavior and our misguided ideas about who we are, the lies we tell each other, the lies we tell ourselves. It’s a part of our history. And Mark Twain, people dismiss him because they thought he was being funny. Yeah, it’s funny. It’s funny up to the point where it’s not funny.”
As legendary and venerated as “Mark Twain Tonight” is (Holbrook won a Tony Award for the show in 1966), it is amazing to consider that the actor originally intended to do no more than take the show around to schools and offer it as an educational resource.
“I was so damn scared,” Holbrook told the Spokane Spokesman Review about his first performance. “I didn’t know if I could go out on stage without falling over in fright. I’d never done anything alone on the stage before. When I did the show the first time, it was at a teachers’ college in Pennsylvania. A morning assembly, 7 o’clock. I had worked and worked to try and edit together something that you might call a show.
“So I started out with the opening line, and they laughed!” he said. “I didn’t even know it was funny! Then I said the next line, and they laughed again. After 20 minutes or so, I thought, ‘By God, this is pretty good.'”
Holbrook is often asked how and why is still doing the show at his age. His response is usually something along the lines of “How could I not?”
“I just regard myself as a part of a long, historical tradition, a very fine tradition of actors,” he said. “People today don’t give a [expletive] about that, kid. They all want to be movie stars. I’m talking about the tradition of going out and working your ass off on the road, which is what actors have been doing for centuries.”
Holbrook said he has never gone a year without performing it.
“This is a lifetime,” he said. “I’ve played every state of the United States and the one thing that keeps me going is he tells the truth. Very few people are telling the truth. It keeps me going. I’m not dying yet. Thank God, Mark Twain keeps me alive.”