May 9, 2010
Nirvana in Hannibal-or Thereabouts
Late last evening, or early this morning, while driving the four-hour, two-lane, unlit blacktop route from Hannibal to Kansas City, we were able to start assimilating the performance we had witnessed a few hours before, Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight." I had always been aware of the fact that the absence of this experience constituted a serious gap in my Twain education, and had harbored a not-suppressed envy of those of you who have had the pleasure, some with multiple opportunities. I have no objective standard for judging these things, but I have to guess that last night's "show," a wholly inadequate word, was a revelatory experience I now can share with some degree of credibility. As if this was not an obvious observation, consider the setting- the Hannibal High School auditorium, filled to the rafters, or at least the balcony, with an audience primed to be enthusiastic, and not to be disappointed. After five decades of practice, the skill, appearance, accent and timing in Holbrook's performance were to be expected, and he is the penultimate professional in all of these aspects, but these, as it turns out for this heathen, are but the gilding, elements of the meticulous and detailed preparation necessary for his purposes. It is, instead, the passion, even love, for his character, his role, that grabs you, enthralls you, transforming you, the seat-warming audience members, rendering the notion of disinterested observer laughable, if not an impossibility. Even as Twain-absorbed "adults," who should know better, it takes no effort to accept Holbrook's performance as your own intuited portrait of the living Twain, and no stretchers are required to match the breathing, talking, smoking and fidgeting persona sucking up all your attentional reserves with the page-driven images constructed from years of reading and study.
The first half of last night's performance consisted largely of familiar bits and one-liners, with an emphasis on politicians, lies, aging and smoking, as if deliberately designed to put the audience on a familiar footing with well-known and well-worn, but effective, laugh-looseners. Once hooked, however, Holbrook, with the sure knowledge that the audience was his, switched gears, following the intermission with liberal helpings of Huck, Pap and Jim, and excerpts from "The War Prayer," "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," and "The Blessings of Civilization Trust." At one point he inserted a brief reference, but one not missed by the audience, to Livy and Eden and their thirty-four years together, and I believe that everyone knew the source of the tearing eyes- his and ours. Twain, I know, would have been moved.
It seems remarkable that the audience, largely comprised of Hannibal and Marion County residents, and including favorite son Ron Powers, would be roused to the high level of unfeigned enthusiasm, even adoration, evident by evening's end. It might be assumed that the "locals" would be a bit jaded by the presence of another reminder of the icon-image plastered all over the vicinity, including a full-length Twain I noted on a Pepsi-dispensing machine next to the repainted Becky Thatcher house (He wasn't a Coke man?). Holbrook certainly knows how to follow the old show-biz adage, i.e., "leave 'em wanting more," more or less. Personally, I am conflicted, knowing I would certainly take advantage of another such opportunity, while wondering if the near-perfection we witnessed last night might guarantee some degree of disappointment. Picky, picky, picky...
No mention of last night's performance should go without kudos and thanks to Cindy Lovell, Henry Sweets, and the staff of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum which made Holbrook's appearance possible and executed in an atmosphere underscored by an obvious degree of professional attention and plain hard work. Conversations with Henry Sweets and others underscore the numerous requirements and demands associated with setting the stage for what may appear to be a straightforward, simple-to-arrange production. It also helps when the weather cooperates, as it did ideally last evening, with seasonably cool temperatures easily conducive to audience comfort in the 1930s school auditorium lacking air-conditioning. An authentic bit of engineered period ambience, no doubt, to reinforce Holbrook's own prefatory remarks informing us that we were, of course, member-participants in his evening, taking place in 1905.
Finally, having duly noted my own reaction to making this pilgrimage to Mecca, and back, let me urge any of you out there in this audience still in the position I occupied twenty-four hours ago, to get yourself seated, by any means necessary, in one of Hal Holbrook's future audiences, at your earliest convenience, if not sooner. I've always strongly suspected that I was at a distinct disadvantage, insofar as my attempts to understand and enjoy Twain are concerned, in comparison with you, and you know who you are, who have seen and heard the closest approximation to the living Twain experience within the realm of possibility. Now that my suspections have been confirmed, and I have crossed over to the other side, it is my obligation to recommend absquatulation, without hesitation, to Hal Holbrook's next performance.
Kansas City, Missouri