WASHINGTON (AP) — Hal Holbrook is in the midst of a marathon of theater and has no intention of stopping.
This marks the 60th consecutive year he has staged his one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight,” keeping alive the satire and commentary of the late writer and humorist for audiences today.
The 89-year-old actor began playing Twain solo in a 1954 assembly at a Pennsylvania teachers college. He’s taken the show to Broadway, to the South during the civil rights era and on a world tour, and he has made a TV special.
Ahead of Holbrook’s stop Friday and Saturday at the National Theatre in Washington, he said Twain’s commentary is ever relevant. Holbrook recently added new material on the Bible, the labor movement and a number from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
This year’s tour continues on to Concord, N.H., Jefferson City, Mo., and Santa Clarita, Calif., through May.
Holbrook spoke to The Associated Press about his passion for Twain.
AP: What drew you to Mark Twain and this role for the stage?
Holbrook: I tended to lean toward character work. I love to disguise myself.
When I got to New York as a young actor, I had been working on the road with my first wife doing a variety of characters in this little two-person show we put together. We had just had a baby. My wife had a nervous breakdown. She couldn’t work anymore. Our two-person show was gone.
I walked the streets of New York for two years begging for a job, and I couldn’t get one. Finally I went to see this man … his father had been Mark Twain’s lecture manager. I sat there in his office, and I said, Bim, do you think I could book this two-person show and get somebody else to take Ruby’s part? He stared at me for a while and said, “Why don’t you do it solo?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Of Twain,” he said.
“You mean go out on the stage alone? Jesus, I’d be scared to death.”
“I think you could get bookings.” That’s all he said.
AP: How have you developed the show and kept it fresh?
Holbrook: I never, ever update Mark Twain. I don’t modernize it. I let the audience update the material.
When I go out on stage, I’m trying to make the audience believe they’re looking at this guy who died 104 years ago and listening to him and saying to themselves, “Jesus, he could be talking about today.” And that’s the point.
I do material now and when I start into it, the audience just gets real quiet. Real quiet when I say, quote, “These lobbyists are called our invisible government in Washington with headquarters on Wall Street where they understand the virtues of addition, division, and silence. The rich corporations have to be shielded and protected in the Congress and this requires vast sums of money to keep their political party in power.”
AP: What have you added to the show about the Bible?
Holbrook: You know, Mark Twain had a great deal to say about the Bible. To begin with, Mark Twain was brought up with the Bible. He knew the Bible. He wasn’t somebody who was referring to the Bible without knowing what’s in the Bible.
He says, “I was brought up in a village on the Missouri frontier, fragrant with the odor of Presbyterian sanctity. When I read the Bible, I was less surprised at what the deity knew than at what he did not know. Why, I wondered, is it necessary to burn someone at the stake to convince them to love the savior? What makes it hard to come to peace with religion? It’s not our belief in it but how we have used it to be cruel.”
AP: Don’t you get tired of playing the same character?
Holbrook: Not this one. No. You know, it’s really hard to get tired of him. He is like a fountain of thought and a fountain of good language. His ability to nail somebody or something to the wall with colorful language that is so specific is just unrivaled.
AP: Have you thought about someday letting Mark Twain retire?
Holbrook: No. Why the hell would I? I think I may drop dead on the stage someday. I hate to think of it. But it’s getting tough on me, the travel. The show, I somehow manage to rise up to it, you know. But I have no desire to retire.
I’ve had a very full career in the theater, on stage, in films and on television. But this thing with Twain has been the millstream of my life.
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