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Mark Twain Tonight! comes to Tacoma

Hal Holbrook's one-man show played on Broadway

Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain. Photo courtesy of The Booking Group

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Sixty years ago an unknown actor Hal Holbrook created a one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!, which he performed at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954 and in a small Greenwich Village nightclub. He was 29 years old. The much revered actor - known for playing Abraham Lincoln in Carl Sandburg's Lincoln and Lincoln again in the television miniseries North and South, and for playing "Deep Throat" in All the President's Men, among other notable roles - will perform Mark Twain Tonight! at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma on Wednesday, Nov. 7.

When the show played on Broadway, Holbrook won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. It also aired on CBS Television.  In the intervening 60 years, Holbrook has continued to bring this one-man play to theaters, colleges, and other venues throughout the country.

Performances are never identical but are always essentially the same. Twain is always portrayed as the age he was in 1905 (70 years old) even though the actor was 29 the first time and is now 90.

"Of course I was younger then. I loved makeup and had a special ability to play an old man because my grandfather raised me up," Holbrook said.

"I don't think much of characterization. What he has to say is most important to me. I have never run across anyone that spoke the truth as well as he did. What he said 130 years ago is just as true as it is today."  

Holbrook edits, but only to the extent of choosing what to include from among the many things Twain said in his public speaking gigs and wrote in his many novels and essays.

I interviewed Holbrook by telephone, and from the moment I said, "Hello," he was off and running, speaking passionately about Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and politics. I didn't have a chance to question him. All I could do was frantically take notes.

Holbrook said, "Part of the political number refers to Congress as the only distinctive native criminal class in America."   

"In 1872 lobbyists in the Gilded Age were called our invisible government in Washington with headquarters in Wall Street. It hasn't changed one bit. I'm talking about truth."

He said the thing he most admires about Twain is, "He understands that the fault is not in our stars, but is in us. What is happening in America today is our fault. People on both sides are fighting each other. My wife, Dixie Carter, is from the South. They accepted me." (Even though he said they probably thought he was a Communist). "Her family taught me you don't have to agree with each other, you just have to respect each other."

He said he was more interested in Twain's truth than in his humor, but he acknowledged that "humor releases the tension. You have to be very careful on stage. You cannot change anybody's mind. You have to hope you might have made them stop and think for a minute."

Holbrook expressed deep admiration for both Twain and Lincoln, the two giant historical figures he has portrayed on stage and screen. Speaking of playing Lincoln, he said, "First, you're dealing with someone who lived a long time ago and created part of the idealism that goes on in our country. Lincoln was just a common man. He was a simple country man who wanted to be a genius. He read The Bible, Gladstone and Shakespeare. You can hear in his speeches the impact of Shakespeare and The Bible. The people who wrote the Lincoln series knew how to write the idioms and the country speech."

For an example of the wisdom in Lincoln's country speech, he quoted: "You can't cross Fox River until you git to Fox River (emphasizing that "get" was spelled "git").

Holbrook stressed that racism, income inequality, and the corruption of Congress and Wall Street have not changed since Mark Twain was railing about those issues at the beginning of the 20th century. "We are living in a racist country," he said. "That's the last thing most people are willing to say."

Holbrook said he has played Seattle and Tacoma many times and loves the region. "Tacoma was one of my favorite towns. I really love that town. My son went to college in Olympia." He lovingly referred to The Evergreen State College as "that college out in the woods."

Mark Twain Tonight! With Hal Holbrook, 7:30 p.m., Nov. 7, Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway. Tickets start at $29 and are on sale now. www.broadwaycenter.org, 877.903.3691

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