I am posting this review on behalf of Mark Dawidziak who wrote it:
Holbrook, Hal. _Mark Twain Tonight!_. West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 1999.
Originally aired by CBS on March 6, 1967. Directed by Paul Bogart,
produced by David Susskind, material adapted by Hal Holbrook through the
courtesy of the estate of Samuel L. Clemens. Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, 1
videocassette. $24.95. ASIN B00000IPGJ.
A videocassette tape or DVD of this production (as well as many other Twain
books) are available at discounted prices from the TwainWeb Bookstore.
Purchases from this site generate commissions that benefit the Mark Twain
Project. Please visit <http://www.yorku.ca/twainweb>.
Mark Dawidziak <[log in to unmask]>
Cleveland Plain Dealer
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
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
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
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
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."