Here’s how strange 2010 was—the very clear choice for Person of the Year in Nonfiction has been dead for a century. Mark Twain insisted in his will that his unexpurgated autobiography not be released until 100 years after his death. And what a splash it made when it did come out—a sprawling, non-linear, stream-of-consciousness epic that will eventually spread out over several volumes. Since the quintessential American author was not himself available for interview (rumors of his death have, alas, not been exaggerated), we decided to do the next best thing and talk to Hal Holbrook, the man who’s spent as much time as anyone getting inside the author’s head.
Holbrook followed up his Oscar-nominated supporting role in Sean Penn’s 2007 Into the Wild with (incredibly) the first leading role in his film career, Abner Meacham in Scott Teems’ magnificent That Evening Sun. Now Teems is in production on Holbrook/Twain, a documentary feature about Holbrook’s half-century portraying Twain in the Tony- and Emmy-award winning one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!
“What fascinates me about this show, ” Teems says, “is its remarkable relevance. When Hal, as Twain, speaks about the economy, or the government, or the way we treat one another as human beings, it feels like it was pulled from this morning’s headlines. But this was all written more than a century ago. And because he’s speaking through this kind of mask (as Twain), it gives Hal an incredible freedom to speak unfiltered truth. Twain pulled no punches, and neither does Hal.”
Paste: Tell me about how the Twain show originated.
Holbrook: Originally I did the character in a two-person sketch called An Encounter with an Interviewer, which is a burlesque he wrote about what you and I are doing now, a newspaper interview. My first wife and I had a little show that we played in schools throughout the Southwest and all around the country. And this was one of the sketches in it. The solo show began in 1954, when I moved to New York and had to earn a living. So someone suggested that I do a solo Twain. It was a scary idea, because just to go out on the stage alone was frightening. But I needed to get bread on the table, and I knew I could get some bookings, so I developed a show.
Paste: Were you a big Twain expert at that point?
Holbrook: I knew very little about Mark Twain. I had maybe read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but that was about it. I knew very little about the many dimensions of his writing and thinking. So I went down to the Argosy bookstore, a used book store on 59th Street. And I started buying old volumes of books written by Mark Twain, and books written about him. And as I began to learn who the guy really was, I was astounded by the territory that he covered, not just in his well-known books, but particularly in his essays and his speeches. He was talking about everything from child labor and the labor movement to our involvement in foreign war in the Phillipines, to everything. Politics, Wall Street and its chicanery. All these things that if you take away the specific name of the war or the politician, you could be talking about today, without even updating the material. And I was struck by that, when I was reading his stuff. It was so topical. And it wasn’t funny — it was rough,serious stuff. Stuff that hardly anybody dares say today, he would say it. So I slowly developed the show over several years, and this coincided without he beginning of the civil rights revolution in the South. You could say that really got started in 1956 at Little Rock. So my show developed along at the same time as the civil rights movement was really getting underway in this country, and by the time we got to the Sixties, of course, it was in full fury.
Paste: Huck Finn would obviously be very relevant there.
Holbrook: Yes, there are sections of Huckleberry Finn that are particularly potent in terms of our problems with racism and slavery, and they’re told by someone who really understood it. Not a cartoon version by someone like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who never went south of the Mason Dixon line. Told by somebody who was brought up in a slave state, who went down the river for several years piloting a steamboat, who saw slavery in its naked manifestation. He watched the slaves heaving tremendous bales of cotton aboard his steamboat. He watched slave auctions down south. And he involved himself int he lives and culture of people all up and down the river. He had a first-hand view of what was going on. Not to mention what happened in his own town. He played with slave kid. He knew both sides, the good part and the bad part, about relations between black and white. Stuff that people up north didn’t know anything about. Never lived it, didn’t understand. Some of the relationships between blacks and whites, especially children but even adults, were something you couldn’t characterize if you were a Northerner. So I traveled the country a lot myself, and I began to talk about what was happening. and it developed in that direction.