10 February 2021

Mr. Holbrook & Mr. Twain

I saw Hal Holbrook do Mark Twain Tonight when I’d just turned fourteen, and it was life-changing.  Holbrook himself was thirty-four, playing Twain in his seventies. 

The venue was Sanders Theater, at Harvard, inside Memorial Hall.  I don’t know if Twain actually appeared there, but the building was completed in 1875, so it’s possible.  Sanders has terrific acoustics, and Holbrook took the stage unamplified, as Twain may well have.


I caught the show twice, a matinee performance and then again the next day.  I had to go back and see it a second time; it was that jaw-dropping.  Nor did Holbrook repeat the shows word-for-word.  He had a lot of material, and he shifted gears, depending on the audience reaction, the time of day, or how the weather was.  He played the room. 

The real game-changer came in the second act.  He screwed his voice up a notch, higher-pitched, an old guy pretending to be a boy speaking, for the opening of Huckleberry Finn.

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”  This is characteristic of Twain, and of Holbrook’s canny delivery, a slight pause or stutter, before the punchline.  Mainly.  What’s also characteristic of Twain is the reversal of expectation, which can be a matter of comic timing, or the sudden chill of menace.  The first act of Mark Twain Tonight is full of laughs.  It’s a kind of bait-and-switch.  Holbrook moves the goalposts when he reads Huck’s story.  He slips in the knife, with the inexorable slide from the burlesque of Stephen Dowling Bots to the murdered Grangerfords.

This is part of the skill of the novel, the juxtaposition of horror and farce, but it’s very clear choice on Holbrook’s part to give us the Grangerford feud, or the lynch mob, or the time Huck outwits the bounty hunters by telling them Jim – hidden in the tent – is his Pa, infected with smallpox.  It balances on the edge of darkness, the consequences if his deception is found out, the entire narrative in fact a feverish pretense, an infection boiling just below the skin, a dose of sulphur with the molasses.

Holbrook put out two LP’s, performing live, and the 1967 TV show.  All well worth seeking out.

I think, however, that the immediate effect of my seeing Mark Twain Tonight in person wasn’t astonishment with Holbrook’s skill at transforming himself (astonishing as it was), or an appreciation of the writer as celebrity (Twain following in Dickens’ footsteps), but the experience of invention.  Holbrook becomes Twain, yes, but Twain becomes Twain, before your eyes.  You see him in the act of picking and choosing, deciding what to reveal, and what to hold back.  I suddenly realized that it wasn’t accidental, and Twain was actually the author of these engines, that he could invent these outcomes, he could turn these corners, he could lift the edge of the curtain, and in so doing, he could shape my emotions, terror, or elation, or wonder.  In other words, he was doing it on purpose. 

This was a revelation.  It demonstrated to me that writing was conscious, that you laid down a beat.  It had somehow not occurred to me.  This is one of those startling things, the before and after.  Before, you didn’t get it.  After, you can’t imagine how you didn’t always know, the knowledge foundational, necessary, built into your muscle memory. 

This is the strength and power of the story-teller.  Given a place by the fire, blind Homer tells again the tale of the heroes on the windy plain of Troy.  His listeners lean in.  A beginning, a middle, and an end.  Or not quite an end, but a tease, the promise of tales yet to be told.  The poet sings for his supper; he needs to give good weight. 

Mark Twain takes a last bow and exits the stage, leaving us hungry for more.  Hal Holbrook gave good weight. 


  1. Great post, David. It's interesting to hear about the many things you learned from these performances.

  2. The obits note that HH performed as Twain longer than Twain did. I only saw the tv special but it impressed the hell out of me. You might want to read The Man in White by Michael Sheldon, which is about how Twain reinvented himself in the last four years of his life. There is a statue of Twain in the Fairhaven neighborhood of my city, sitting n front of Village Books, reading Huck Finn. He did speak here before heading off on his Following the Equator tour.

  3. David, well said. An impressive post.

  4. I never saw Holbrook as Mark Twain live, but I saw him on TV - and I loved it. Loved it. And Mark Twain was constantly reinventing himself. Thanks for the post!

  5. My parents were big fans of Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain & took me to see him when I was a teenager. I _think_ it was at Ford's Theatre in D.C. but it might have been the Warner. Anyway we all laughed until we cried.

  6. I envy you and Elizabeth, David. I've seen only the television version. I found it interesting Disney chose to make Twain and Franklin their centerpiece at EPCOT.

    BTW, family legend says we're supposed to be related, some cousin or something, but who knows?

  7. I love the fact that at age 14 you went back to see the show again and have remembered in great detail that the performances were not the same. Great story.

  8. I remember the TV special and the LPs. I had a falling-out with Twain in High School (long story!) but have been re-discovering him in the last couple of decades!

  9. What a great post getting inside Twain's style and how well he used it.

  10. A decade ago, Mr. Holbrook and his wife, Dixie Carter, had dinner in my restaurant. Afterward they enjoyed a glass of wine with my husband and I and told all kinds of stories. They were so delightful. During the evening, Hal told us that his favorite character was Mark Twain. He even became Twain for us briefly. His voice, his face his demeanor was hypnotic. Before he left, he shook our hands and thanked us for our hospitality. Dixie did the same, but it was that moment that Hal shook my hand that I truly believed I had met the embodiment of Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens.


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