The following review appeared 11 June 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Mark Dawidziak <email@example.com>
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Similes ranked high among Mark Twain's favorite tools of the trade. One of his best, found in a December 1872 letter, was, "as happy as a martyr when the fire won't burn."
That pretty much describes the condition Twain enthusiasts were in when they learned that, after more than thirty years, Hal Holbrook's CBS broadcast version of his Mark Twain Tonight! stage show was being released on video. To even casual fans of either Twain or Holbrook, this 90-minute tape should be "as welcome as a corpse is to a coroner" (and that smile-inducing simile can be found in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.)
Holbrook had been bringing Twain to life for twenty years when an estimated thirty million viewers tuned in to see Mark Twain Tonight! on March 6, 1967. The two had been regular traveling companions, taking many roads to arrive at this electrifying moment in television history.
The Cleveland native was a mere twenty-two years old when he first stepped into Twain's white suit at a 1947 show staged in the suicide ward of the Chillicothe Veterans' Hospital in Ohio. The actor was a smooth-featured twenty-nine when he started regular tours of Mark Twain Tonight!, playing the seventy-year-old Twain in nightclubs and at schools. He was thirty-four when his one-man show became one of the most celebrated events of the 1959 New York theater season. He was forty-one when his 1966 Broadway revival won him a Tony award. And he was forty-two when CBS aired this version so well remembered by so many.
But memory can be an awesome magnifying glass, expanding and exaggerating pleasant experiences to almost mythical proportions. The passing of three decades allows more than enough time to transform the most modest of hills into an Everest.
Can this tape possibly equal our memory of that March night? Well, remarkably, it does.
The Kultur release is a splendid record of where Holbrook's interpretation of Twain was after years of polishing and perfecting. With its then-timely inclusion of the writer's anti-war statements and ruminations on patriotism, this broadcast version reminds us how the actor has always kept the show fresh and relevant through constant reshaping, retooling and refining.
He could have taken the easy route, comfortably living off of two or three hours of solid material. By 1999, though, Holbrook estimated that he had "gone through about fourteen or fifteen hours" of Twain, endlessly searching for new passages while giving others a rest.
In a larger sense, the tape reminds us why Mark Twain Tonight! stands as the granddaddy of one-man shows. Its influence has been tremendous. After the show became a sensation, Broadway became a routine destination for performers with one-person vehicles about Will Rogers, Emily Dickinson, Clarence Darrow, Abraham Lincoln, Lillian Hellman and Truman Capote. And, of course, Holbrook's success set loose battalions of Twain impersonators roaming the country, puffing on cigars and tossing off Clemens' quips in their best approximation of Sam's Missouri drawl--an approximation for which, in large part, we must thank Holbrook, who painstakingly researched those speech patterns and pronunciations.
What keeps Mark Twain Tonight! at the head of this theatrical class is that its illusion is complete. The suspension of disbelief is absolute. The actor disappears, and we accept that we are in the presence of Mark Twain. There's magic for you. It happens in the theater, whenever Holbrook walks on stage. It happens when you put this videotape into the VCR and hit the "play" button.
For many, Holbrook has become the "voice" of Mark Twain. These exhilarating ninety minutes explain why.
Fully conscious of the power of what Twain called "a rightly timed pause," Holbrook again and again lures the audience in with his sublime delivery. Once he has us set up, he snaps the surprise punch line, tossing it off as if it were an afterthought and, as Twain advised, doing "his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it."
The first act goes for the big laughs, starting with Twain's thoughts on railroad travel and smoking, moving swiftly to Holbrook's masterful rendition of "His Grandfather's Old Ram." This is Twain as the premier platform performer and the foremost standup comedian of his day.
The second act takes on a less lighthearted tone, with its caustic comments on slavery, its discussion of man as "the Creator's pet" and a generous reading from Huckleberry Finn (including Pap Finn's drunken rant against the government and Huck's battle with his conscience). This is Twain the social critic, attacking hypocrisy and ignorance.
The third act starts with a telling of the "Golden Arm" ghost story, cruising through an excerpt from Life on the Mississippi and concluding with the moving "Mary Ann" farewell (adapted from a passage in Dana's Two Years Before the Mast). This is the philosophical Twain, contemplating the fragility of youthful dreams and knowing that humor is the race's "saving thing, after all."
Mark Twain Tonight! still is best experienced as a piece of live theater (and, since turning seventy-one in 1996, Holbrook has continued to perform the show past the age at which he has always played Twain), yet the value of this videotape cannot be overstated. Even a front-row seat at one of Holbrook's appearances can't get you as close as the CBS cameras, which pick up every wink, every lift of the eyebrow, every puff of cigar smoke.
"He's funny," Holbrook said of Twain during a 1999 interview. "He's incredibly insightful. He's a profound thinker. And almost every thought he uttered for public consumption in the last century has relevance today. What more could you ask for?"
That observation is driven home in captivating fashion as you move from act to act of this 1967 CBS special.
For years, Holbrook had resisted the notion of a home-video release of Mark Twain Tonight!, understandably wanting to protect the viability of his landmark stage property. He was convinced by teachers who traditionally had used his three record albums of Mark Twain Tonight! material in their classrooms.
It had been an effective way of bringing Twain alive to students, but with each passing year, fewer and fewer would sit still for just a recorded voice. Video was needed to hold their interest. Holbrook responded with the Kultur release, and he's now considering a second tape of material not included in the 1967 broadcast--a record of the show after about 2,000 performances.
This, too, would be as welcome as that corpse to that coroner. Together, these two tapes would give us a video glimmer of an actor's monumental journey, living with one character in an ever-evolving show for more than forty-five years. It is not only one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of the theater, it is, in its own way, a staggering contribution to Twain scholarship.
For Twainiacs who have only been inebriated on the three Mark Twain Tonight! albums, this videotape might leave them joyfully quoting a line used by Holbrook: "I'd been drunk before but that was a masterpiece."