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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
"Martin D. Zehr" <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 10 Nov 2011 12:13:04 -0800
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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In the category : Preaching to the Choir

The Role of a Lifetime

Last evening Hal Holbrook gave a performance worthy of Twain, but with himself as the primary focus.  If there was any doubt as to whether he could pull off this feat in a convincing manner, 800 listeners, the largest audience in Kansas City Public Library history, left, after nearly two hours of personal anecdotes, opinions and observations, clapping, teary-eyed, enthralled, and wanting more.  In conjunction with the publication of the first volume of his autobiography, "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain," Holbrook shared chapters from his childhood, the accidents that resulted in his career choice ("The Turning Point of My Life."), and his early career, stories that were often funny, sometimes poignant, and always, always spellbinding.  Sam Clemens, I'm sure, would envy the opportunity to witness this fellow sharer of life.

He deftly ambled from one topic to the next, so seamlessly that the library's, emcee, when he interjected a question, appeared as a hackneyed irritant, a completely unnecessary distraction.  Comparisons, of course, are inevitable- we find that, like Sam, he had a childhood predilection for pranks and that his mother, despite her near-complete absence, exerted an influence that would later become apparent.  Most of Holbrook's stories were taken from his new book, which ends at a time in the '60s when his Twain personification had become established and he was acting in a television soap opera.  He did, however, stray from the timeline, as when he told of attending a White House function with his wife, Dixie Walker, who he describes as attempting to curb the wilder excesses of his behavior in a manner reminiscent of Livy, and failing.  While standing in a line of guests, with George Schultz behind them, Holbrook, according to his account, couldn't help
 observing, in the hearing of those around him, that Ronald Reagan appeared to him to have "a small head."  Whether this was a strictly physiognomic assessment or something more, it was hard to tell, but didn't matter, at least as far as this Midwestern audience was concerned
(loud laughter).

Of course, Twain repeatedly made his appearance in Holbrook's monologue, no surprise, and, like his alter-ego, Holbrook pulled no punches in his attempt to present the more complete depiction of the Twain he (and we) have come to know.  He noted Twain's opposition to American imperialist activity in the Philippines and the thread of anti-racist writing throughout Twain's writing, letting the crowd know that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and not Tom Sawyer, was his decided preference of the better-known works.  Holbrook was not shy, in this mixed crowd, in expressing (and explaining) his emphatic opinion regarding the importance and necessity of the use of the word "nigger" in Huck Finn.  Remarkably, I could not detect a hint of a soupcon of a whit of unease or discomfort in the audience reaction.

If there were any questions regarding Mr. Holbrook's ability to assume and project this new public role, they were dissolved and banished, permanently, within a few minutes of his introduction.  For those lucky enough to have caught a performance of Mark Twain Tonight at some time in the last half century, as unbelievable as it may seem, you won't be disappointed in Holbrook's new role as himself.

martin zehr
kansas city,missouri