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Twain's timeless 'Tonight!'
December 15, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
Religion and politics — two subjects best not mentioned this time of year, especially at family gatherings —were pathways to laughter for the full-house crowd at Castle Theater last Sunday.
It was Hal Holbrook bringing “Mark Twain Tonight!” to Maui. The “Tonight!” part of the title should not be overlooked. Bringing the author-humorist back to life, a feat of channeling as much as superb acting, is a kind of carnival alchemy the 85-year-old performer has perfected over decades.
Watching Holbrook in Twain’s trademark white suit, his mane of white hair and mustache, his cigar the only prop in 1904 when this performance was supposedly taking place, it was impossible to find the line separating the actor from the role.
As Twain reminisced about his devoted wife, Olivia, who had been his “Eden” from the first moment he saw her, Holbrook might have used the same tenderness to talk about his own wife, actress Dixie Carter, who died earlier this year.
This blurring of what was “real” was a cornerstone in the transformation of Samuel L. Clemens into probably the greatest writer in our still young nation’s history — a rascal named Mark Twain.
A highlight of Holbrook’s performance — one of many — was his vivid reliving of a chapter from “Huckleberry Finn.” It’s the part where Huck grapples with the moral dilemma of what to do about his traveling companion on a dangerous flight to freedom —an escaped slave named Jim.
As Holbrook became Huck — passing through Clemens and Twain to get there — the audience got a whiff of the complexity the author was dealing with, supposedly from the perspective of an ignorant young runaway boy.
Having been taught well by teachers, preachers and his elders that the “right” thing to do would be to turn in the fugitive slave, Huck struggled mightily with the moral weight of knowing better. In Huck’s personal anguish, Twain brilliantly encapsulated an entire nation’s shameful dilemma on the subject of race. But his realization of the humanity and dignity of his black companion was even more striking, coming about a century before the rest of America got it. Some of America still hasn’t.
This radical sensibility, as Holbrook reminded the rapt audience, was little more than common sense. Of course, if you want to get the point across, it helps to be a genius. Twain, after all, was the writer who reminded us that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening … and a lightening bug.
Furious at the arrogance of human ignorance, he kept his scalpel-edged wit sheathed in homespun humor. The country-boy demeanor was great for getting belly laughs; the twinkle in his eye hinted at the righteous indignation underlying the tall tales and jokes.
Locating his own career “between the pulpit and the penitentiary,” Twain didn’t pull any punches on subjects ranging from religiosity to political graft and corruption. Congressional leaders fell on a scale between morons and inmates. They weren’t servants “of the people,” he revealed, but of the lobbyists.
His observations about what was still known as “the press,” rather than the media, were sharper still.
Unlike punch lines to jokes, many of his comments drew gasps or murmurs of approval from the audience. The potency of Mark Twain is the timeliness of his observations, more than a century after he made them. His autobiography has been near the top of the best-seller list for weeks in 2010, even though he hasn’t been around, in the flesh, for a while now.
A stand-up comic before there was any such thing, a literary giant who spoke the language of the illiterate, a herder of shaggy dogs (even though he favored cats), a master of telling lies to speak the truth, he was the eternal riverboat pilot, gold-field prospector, unreliable newspaper reporter locked into eternal battle with hypocrisy itself.
Leaving the house lights on during the show added to the old-timey feel of the evening, as though it could still be happening in the place Twain knew as the Sandwich Islands, where the most remarkable entertainment — to his eyes — was provided by nude native women bathing in the sea.
As it must have been in Twain’s time, the performance was equal measures of entertainment and something from that place the author so despised: the pulpit. There were more moral lessons than a year of Sunday School classes as he masterfully walked the tightrope between belly laughs, cagey wit, biting cynicism and the aching outrage of a compassionate soul.
Rather than feeling as though we had been merely entertained, the audience left the theater feeling elated and honored by the too-brief time we had spent in the presence of these three remarkable gentlemen: Mr. Clemens, Mr. Twain … but mostly Mr. Holbrook.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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