Hal Holbrook has won five Emmys, one Obie, one Peabody, one Tony, and a Drama Critics Circle Award. He has appeared in more than 30 films and 50 television productions. And he's been performing as Mark Twain for over half a century now. Think about it: He's been playing Mark Twain longer than Samuel Langhorne Clemens did.
It started as a college honors project at Denison University, in Ohio in the late 1950s. Holbrook pasted on a mustache and delivered a folksy stand-up routine, consisting of Mark Twain's words, patched together from a lifetime of fiction and nonfiction writing by Missouri author Clemens.
Holbrook took his one-man show on the road. He won an Obie for it in 1959, opened on Broadway in 1966 (winning a Tony), and ventured out with Mark Twain Tonight! to such far-flung places across the globe as Saudi Arabia, Edinburgh, Warsaw and New Delhi.
Now he's coming to Colorado, not just as a Mark Twain impersonator, but as an authority on one of the pre-eminent literary figures of American literature.
George Bernard Shaw once quipped, "Mark Twain and I are in very much the same position. We have to put things in such a way as to make people, who would otherwise hang us, believe that we are joking."
Holbrook attends to that theory, sometimes changing and rearranging the act as he goes along. He has more than 14 hours of material to work with, and edits, augments and arranges Twain's humor to respond to the zeitgeist, or to the events of the day. He has commented upon the civil rights movement, corporate scandals and the crisis of 9/11 using the words of a man almost 95 years dead.
Plain speaking never goes out of style, and as Twain himself said, "My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water."
Holbrook estimates that he's played Mark Twain more than 2,000 times, a bit differently each time.
On stage, he wears a white suit and smokes a cigar, something Sam Clemens never did. These creative stretches are meant to evoke the whole Twain persona. Mark Twain Tonight! is presented as a lecture, the kind of informal public talk Clemens was known for, but the author began the circuit in his 30s and died at age 74, while Holbrook, at age 79, is now playing a character younger than himself: Mark Twain at 70. The actor chose this age in order to have access to Clemens' complete body of work
Mark Twain Tonight! is entirely a self-created show. It has never had a director, nor has it ever been performed by anyone but Holbrook. Bruce Granath, regional marketing director for Clear Channel Entertainment-Theatrical, says that the show is "like Letterman or Leno. It's ingenious and insightful and hilarious, yes, and it's relevant to current affairs. Mark Twain was an entertainer, absolutely, but also a social commentator. You get that with Holbrook." You can get it next Tuesday, at Mark Twain Tonight!
--J.N. Nail capsule Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight!
Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade
Tuesday, Nov. 30, 8 p.m.
$27, $32 and $37
For tickets, call the Pikes Peak Center at 520-7469 or TicketsWest at 866/464-2626.