Tuesday, November 23, 2004
Hal Holbrook has been playing Mark Twain longer than Mark Twain played Mark Twain.
Samuel Clemens, after all, used the "Mark Twain" pen name for 48 years until his death in 1910. Holbrook, the actor known for playing Deep Throat in "All the President's Men," has been doing versions of his one-man show as Twain for 50 years.
It's easy to imagine Holbrook's performance could become stale after all that time, except that the actor has brought an element of improvisation to the game. He has memorized more than 14 hours of Twain's material - books, stories, essays and speeches - and figures out the program as he goes along.
The result, Saturday night at the Lied Center, was an entertaining and thought-provoking show.
Holbrook started the proceedings with an anti-Missouri joke: a Tennessee girl, finding out her family's moving to the Show-Me State, runs around her home saying goodbye to the animals and plants.
Finally, Holbrook-as-Twain concluded, the girl looks up at the sky: "Goodbye God! I'm going to Missouri!"
Recognizing Twain's Missouri roots, though, Hobrook added: "She should have said, 'Good! By God, I'm going to Missouri!"
But Holbrook didn't play Twain just as a 19th-century Jerry Seinfeld, full of funny stories and satirical observations about nothing much in particular. He also tapped into Twain's Jon Stewart side - the "Gilded Age" observer who railed pungently at the world's insanities.
Holbrook spent much of the evening recounting Twain's criticisms of fanaticism in politics and religion.
"If you could work the multiplication table into a Republican platform, the Democrats would vote it down," he said. "And the other way around."
Some of Twain's other observations seemed quite relevant in the 21st century:
- On the division caused by war: "The nation is divided: Half-patriots and half-traitors. And no one can tell which is which."
- On strongly held opinions of any sort: "Perhaps we should consider that we are all partially insane. That would explain us to each other."
- On the unchanging nature of humankind: "There are just new generations of the same sort of people."
- On parenthood: "I know that insanity is inherited. We get it from our children."
- On politics: "Sometimes it seems to me that Washington is a stud farm for every jackass in the country."
Holbrook created a murmur in smoke-banned Lawrence by lighting up a cigar - and letting a puff of smoke precede him back on the stage after intermission.
"There are always people who are worried about their health," Holbrook-as-Twain observed. "And there are always people to help them worry about it."