BWW Interviews: Hal Holbrook of MARK TWAIN TONIGHT, Coming to Riverside's Fox Performing Arts Center
Hal Holbrook, the iconic performer who has spent 60 years portraying Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) in his one-man show, MARK TWAIN TONIGHT, is bringing the production to Riverside's Fox Performing Arts Center for one performance only, on Saturday evening, January 17, 2015. Mr. Holbrook, who has won a Tony award for playing the part on Broadway, has also won five Emmy awards and been nominated for an Oscar. He has played several historical characters in addition to Clemens, among them Abraham Lincoln and "Deep Throat," the informant who helped Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their reporting of the Watergate break-in and cover-up.
BroadwayWorld spoke to Mr. Holbrook by email and asked him a series of questions about his career, and about both Twain's and Mr. Holbrook's views of the world. Mr. Holbrook's written answers are reproduced in their entirety below, including his views about objections to students reading Huckleberry Finn because of its frequent use of an impolite racial epithet. Other than placing the particular word in quotation marks, BroadwayWorld has not edited Mr. Holbrook's statements, which emphasize Mark Twain's disgust with racial prejudice.
BroadwayWorld: As someone who knows a lot about the way Samuel Clemens viewed the world, what do you think he'd say about today's publishing world, where the decision whether to accept a manuscript depends on how many copies the publisher - often the marketing department - believes will sell?
Hal Holbrook: Twain was a publisher. He published General Grant's Memoirs (a big success) and had a hand in the publishing of many of his own books. He would, I think, be very keen about the question of how a book would sell. But your question slides us into the modern world of money before content and the greed factor which has come to rule our commercial world, top to bottom. That would sicken him as it sickened him when the corporate mammoths like Rockefeller's Standard Oil and Vanderbilt's and Frick's Railroads literally took over our country in the 1870's. Very much in the way corporations have taken our country over today. Success is no longer content. It's how it sells. Read his Autobiography.
BWW: Huck Finn, of course, has engendered a great deal of controversy because of its use of the n-word. One parent who favored removing the book from her child's school curriculum complained that white kids had jokingly used the word to her child, apparently because they had just read Huck Finn. What do you say, as the performer channeling Samuel Clemens, to folks who believe that Huck Finn is no longer appropriate for public schools?
HH: Please don't refer to me as "channeling Mark Twain." I'm an actor. Not a channeler. That word is an iPhone shortcut. Acting is more eloquent than that.
Removing Huckleberry Finn from the reading lists of a high school because it contains the word "nigger" is a strange failure of teaching and parenting when the students have not been taught that Huckleberry Finn is about RACISM. The reader's. Yours and mine and the racism of every kid who is unfeeling enough to use the word "nigger" as an epithet to another kid. Rub the kid's nose in the plain fact that Huckleberry Finn is about him and people like him and have him get up in class and explain himself.
The story is about us. The readers. The word "nigger" is used over 200 times to shock us into the embarrassment of recognizing ourselves. It's not a cartoon version of slavery like Uncle Tom's Cabin. Basic intelligence in the reader is called upon. By portraying with authenticity racism in the habits of speaking, the constant use of the word "nigger" and the racist character of the society Huck and Jim meet along the River - including Huck's drunken racist father - Twain is pointing at you. You, the reader of the book one hundred and thirty years ago and today. That is what has made it a great American novel and the most widely read book in American Literature around the world today.
If you are going to ban a book from the educational system because some smartass kid uses the word "nigger," it's your failure - the parent - for not telling your offspring how people should treat each other. Otherwise, you get the world Twain is writing about. Or the teacher's failure who does not have the common sense to talk frankly about the society Twain is describing and use it as a teaching tool. Or the teacher and the parent are afraid of their own racism and can't talk about the subject. Get real. This is a deep and personal topic in our society today. Read the papers. America is hurting because of it. For God's sake, speak up. Don't we need to learn respect for people's feelings? What is going to school for? To learn how to add?
BWW: Because of Huck Finn, people tend to think of Mark Twain as an antislavery activist, yet he enlisted in the Confederate Army. Is this a contradiction, and why did he fight for the Confederacy?
HH: If we want to understand the actions of a man in the early 1860's, put yourself back there in his shoes. As a young man he began piloting steamboats on the Mississippi, a job he loved and wanted to do the rest of his life, he said. The Civil War ended traffic on the River and his job. His home was in Missouri, a slave state, where Ulysses Grant began his first campaign. Clemens joined a local militia of friends under the Confederate banner, served for a couple of weeks until they killed one of their own fellows by mistake. He quit the war and went west to seek a fortune in the gold and silver mines of Nevada. He gave up fighting for the Confederacy to seek a fortune out west. He wrote about it in A History of A Campaign That Failed. He said: "I joined the Confederacy, served for two weeks, deserted, and the Confederacy fell." His attachment to the Southern ideal of slavery does not appear very sturdy.
The interesting scope of Mark Twain's development as a human being is that he grew. He saw, he travelled, he studied this country and later the world with the eye of a man educating himself. This is a central fact in the Mark Twain legacy. He became an American spokesman for the ideals of racial equality and dignity for the working man because he was willing to look the world in its face and see, really see what was happening to the people in it. Look, see, learn, become a citizen of Mankind, not just Hannibal, Missouri. That is the message of Twain.
BWW: Turning to your role in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, "what did you know and when did you know it" about the identity of Deep Throat? Were you as surprised as most people who are old enough to remember Watergate when Deep Throat was revealed to be FBI deputy director Mark Felt?
HH: I knew nothing about the identity of Deep Throat while taking on that role in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. It was a secret tightly kept and controlled and if anyone from the Director to Redford and Hoffman knew the answer, it was never revealed. I pursued my own idea for the man.
Was I surprised when Mark Felt was revealed? Yes. My characterization of Deep Throat was built on the idea that he was an elegant man who had served presidents of both political parties and was breaking the code of ethics as a servant of the President. And doing it in the dark of a dirty garage. What he was doing was beneath him. It embarrassed him. But he was driven to it because he had to choose between his loyalty to the President and his loyalty to his Country. He chose his Country.
The revelation of his identity as Mark Felt was somewhat a let-down for me because I had imagined that the terrible battle within Deep Throat would be more affecting if you could see this thing he was doing was humiliating to an elegant man with cufflinks.
BWW: How do you keep your performances fresh after so many years? Do you ever change the material?
HH: Gotta laugh at that one. Yes, I change material all the time. I have about 15 hours of it that I've developed over the years, some of it discarded for a time but called back if needed. I find I can keep about five or six hours in my head to be useful anytime. The whole idea of the show is that it's fluid. It ranges over topics that change importance with the crash of current events and seems to be commenting on them over 100 years later. In this last year I have put on about an hour of new material: another number from Huck Finn (the fifth), The Feud section between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons which deals with our dependence on guns and its consequences; another selection about our misuse of the Christian bible and Twain's take on that; and another piece on Tom Sawyer's desire to go on a crusade to the Holy Land. Each one of these has its own singular comment on events now rumbling through our lives, singular because I never update the material. It's Twain talking over 100 years ago. That's its power. The audience updates it, as they do in the other Huck numbers and the Money is God number and the one that dismantles the criminal mentality of Congress. I'm working on a new section for that now. On Lobbyists selling our country for a fee.
So, "yes," I change material either at will or to avoid repeats when I am going back to a town I've played before. I can change it in the middle of a show if the crazy thought hits me. It keeps the show feeling fresh.
BWW: You are at the age when most people with your accomplishments have retired, yet you are continuing in pursuits that could exhaust younger people. Does performing keep you young, and if so, how?
HH: Why do I keep performing at my age? What else am I going to do? Play golf? I tried that years ago and all I did was cuss. I can do that without the walk, cuss at Congress and let Twain do it. "Imagine that you were an idiot. And then imagine that you were a member of Congress. Wait - I've repeated myself."
I'm working on a new section for the Congress number in the show right now and my Assistant, Joyce Cohen, has to calm me down. "You could turn the audience off with that one, Hal". How are you going to talk about politicians and stay calm? Twain called Congress "the only distinctly native criminal class in America. We've lately sent a United States Senator to the penitentiary." That was a fact. Lobbyists in Washington are making six figure salaries selling our government out to the corporate interests and we just sit and smile as if nothing is happening while the poor folks are getting poorer and their pharmaceutical bills rise.
Politics has become incendiary. People don't find it so funny now so I have to be careful, but I have to wake them up with some truths and the truths I aim at them are over 100 years old. Facts that no one can dispute. When the audience begins to see the sunrise on that it's hard for them to turn away from it because they're listening to a man talking to them from over a century ago. And nothing has changed. So what are you going to do about that?
That's the message. What are we going to do about the injuries to our country still going on right in front of our eyes? It gets me out of bed in the morning. It makes me mad enough to get my blood up and want to get out there with Twain and get it said and that is why I still hit the road and go out on the stage and keep working at staying alive. I don't play golf. Mark Twain is golf to me.
MARK TWAIN TONIGHT will appear at the Fox Performing Arts Center (Fox PAC), 3801 Mission Inn Avenue, Riverside, CA 92501, 951-779-9800 for one performance, Saturday, January 17, 2015, at 7 p.m. The doors open an hour before the performance. Tickets range from $45 to $77.75, including fees. The Fox PAC is located about 120 miles from San Diego, 70 miles from parts of the San Fernando Valley and West LA, 57 miles from Long Beach, 55 miles from Palm Springs, and 45 miles from Anaheim. The Web site for more information and tickets is www.riversidelive.com .