The JFP Interview with ‘Mark Twain'

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."

Typical Twain, and a response Hal Holbrook wouldn't hesitate to use if someone questioned his costume. Holbrook performs in an iconic white suit, his cigar used to great effect to punctuate the stories he tells, and the pauses he makes.

On stage, Holbrook so completely inhabits his character that he mezmerizes his audiences—as Twain did himself—tickling them with riotous Twain stories in the first act, then hitting them with the tough stuff in Act II. You'll laugh until you cry, then sit up straight, noticing that 100 years later, Twain's words still speak directly to your heart and soul. You'll leave the performance thinking, and you'll talk about it for days.

Holbrook has been playing Mark Twain longer than Twain himself appeared on the stage. But his enthusiasm and energy belie his age, 82 as of February this year. He took the time to speak with me at length this week, our conversation centering around a career-defining moment at Ole Miss in 1962, during the "Meredith incident."

"I knew I could've never gotten away with it if it was Hal Holbrook" speaking, he told me, because he quoted Twain's words about racism in a time when to do so was a real risk.

Mississippi looms large in Holbrook's career, something that I didn't find in any research. It was also clear that he loves what he does. In an incredibly productive and successful career, he has more than100 film, TV and stage credits, but has said that all of his other roles were planned around his Twain performances. What follows is a part of our conversation.

Have audiences changed in their response to the material you provide?
There's a definite change in the reaction you get to certain material. It has to do with what's going on in the country. There's no question about it. That is one reason that I keep adding new material.

I have two pieces of material now that bear a vague similarity. One of them is a compilation of material from various sources of Twain, which talks about how we are in love with our own opinion and anybody who has a different opinion is an adversary—that introduces the idea. He talks about how we get our opinions from political parties, etcetera. I have a thing in there about war. It's very delicate, but very clean or clear. It does not necessarily take one side or the other, but it's designed to make you think. …

This is a very distressing engagement we have going in Iraq, very distressing … it looks like the original action was probably ill-timed. I've come around on that. I've tried to be very supportive, but I come around to say it was ill-timed. The idea behind it, bringing freedom to people around the world is a great ideal. But we never stopped to find out if people really want our version of freedom. I mean, after all, would you like someone from Saudi Arabia or China to come over here and tell you folks in Jackson that the way you're living is not quite right, and you've gotta change your ways?

I imagine there'd be a little resistance …
I imagine there'd be one hell of a lot of resistance. We've got to think a little more intelligently and clearly … instead of sending the CIA out ahead of us, before we engage ourselves in another action, bringing freedom to people, we should send professors who have studied a country and its history, and who have been there more than once. We should bring them together and listen to what they have to say before we go fooling around with other people's chosen life. …

Another piece, which I put together last spring, was inspired by watching my country become more and more fixated on one idea or another idea. Either you're a conservative or a Republican, or you're a Democrat or a liberal. Both sides hate each other and try to make each other look bad. Meanwhile the American people are waiting for somebody to get it together and figure out how to solve the problems that are besetting the country. Instead of that, the two political parties are throwing every kind of hateful ammunition at each other and wasting our time. It's a disgrace. One finally sits down and says, "Wait a minute. This is a democracy. We're supposed to think the way we want to. We're not all supposed to think the same, are we?" And so we had an election, and the people have finally told us what they think, which is, Get off the pot and start working on something." …

Well let's hope they start doing something now.
Well, they're politicians; they won't do much.

You revisited Ole Miss last May. I know that you also did a show there in 1962 (two weeks after James Meredith became the first African American to enroll there) …

I certainly did. It was one of the most important moments of my life. …

I have to preface it by saying that with Twain, I traveled in the South for six or seven years, and I traveled five years before that with (my previous) show. I lived in the South on the road, and I had some knowledge of what it was like in the South back in 1948. I saw changes taking place, and I saw it before the changes took place, too. I wasn't just playing big towns. I was playing big towns and tiny little towns—some that nobody's ever heard of.

I was out west—somewhere around Seattle, I think—when the altercation began (at Ole Miss), and the Army was sent down. The (mainstream press) and all the big byline names went there and reported every day. All the way across the country, I was waiting to be told that I wouldn't be going to Oxford because there were riots down there. I called Klaus Kolmar, my manager.

"Klaus, what the hell's going on. They're having riots there. What am I supposed to do?" And he said, "Well, Hal they haven't said you shouldn't come, so I think you should go." …

So I guess you went.
We arrived there late in the afternoon and got to the hotel, and there were newsmen hanging around, and they asked, "Hey Hal… What are you going to do tomorrow night?"

I didn't know what I was going to do for sure. I knew I was in some kind of a troublesome situation where I had to be very clear about what … I felt I could do. I had recently gone to Europe, and I realized how poorly (our press) reports on (the Europeans), and how poorly they report on us. I did not want to create an incident in the Warsaw paper. …

I can understand that.
We were asked to go to dinner with the head of the English department. My stage manager and I went to his house, and we were walking along the street, and nobody said a word. There were machine guns on the back of trucks, and mortars and sandbags around the entrance to the university, and soldiers walking around with carbines. … There were black lawns, black from the smoke. It was a serious matter. More serious than I might have imagined if I hadn't of been there. …

So we went to his house, and … nobody said anything about what was going on, as if it wasn't happening. I thought, "I've got to find out what's going on." Finally, I thought, "I'm gonna try a little humor." I said, "Look, I want you to know that we brought our sheets. We've cut two holes for our eyes. What I wanted to know is: should we wear the sheets tomorrow night?"

How'd they take that?
There was this wonderful pause and then this gentleman, he said, "Well, we don't think there's gonna be any trouble."

Now, the idea that shot through my head was, "He said, we don't think there's going to be any trouble. That means that there might be." …

He said, "We just don't know. This will be the first event for which the university will assemble." Everything (had been) cancelled. So I thought, "Oh, ho, I'm the guinea pig." And then he said, "We will have federal men in the audience," and my heart began to sink. "And also, backstage … we'll have an escape route out the back to the girl's dorm. …." My hands began to sweat. I thought, "You're into something far deeper than I thought it was."

I had the responsibility, which was paramount in my mind, that I did not want to create an incident that would look bad in the foreign press. At the same time, I wanted to bet on my instincts about the southern people. I had done tough material—the Huckleberry number is tough when you do it right, whichever one you do—and the silent lie material (from his essay, "On the Decay of the Art of Lying") was dead on, because he used slavery as the example of lying by staying silent in the face of great injustice. Nowadays, it may not seem to exciting, but boy, in those days it riveted the audience, believe me. It was red hot.

Did you have a personal connection with what was going on?
My daughter, my oldest child went to school with Micky Schwerner, who was buried under the dam (in Neshoba County in 1964), so I was not indifferent to what was going on.

I wanted to bet on the southern people. The late '50s and the early '60s… it was the Civil Rights Movement. But there was more to it than just that (for me). It was (a) movement (that) created the deeper material in my show. … It is that part of our history which took this show from something inconsequential—which is basically to find out how to make people laugh at Mark Twain— and forced me to look deeper into his material at stuff I knew nothing about.

I discovered that this man had so much to say about (slavery and racism) and all other subjects that you can think of that afflict our country or have relevance to us. It was that movement that created my show. So this was very, very important to me. …

I had been doing this material in the South, (and) I had been getting away with it because I was being Mark Twain. I knew I could've never gotten away with it if it was Hal Holbrook. I knew that very clearly. I had silences out there that were scary. What I read into the silences was … that something was going on in the South that (other people) didn't know about and couldn't read about in their newspapers, (for example) if you owned a drugstore in town, and you stood up and said out loud what you might be thinking, you wouldn't have a drugstore.

True, and everyone knew it.
It took far more courage to stand up and speak in public about what might be going on in your mind … (It took) far more courage than people up North even began to understand. They didn't get it, and they couldn't get it. …

That night when I went out there, I bet on the audience. I wasn't sure what I was gonna do, and I was very scared, especially when they showed me how to defend myself with a fire extinguisher. Before I went out, one of the stage hands—who I guess was trying to be humorous—said, "Hal, watch out, because the windows"—the old chapel had these big windows …—"Watch out for those guys in the trees with squirrel rifles." That was the last thing I heard before I went on, and my knees were shaking.

I wanted to do a good show. I wanted to say everything that I felt I could say on the subject. I wanted to use all the material I had. But I did not want to create a riot. That meant I had to have faith in the audience. I started the show and I wasn't sure what I was going to do next. The first act is basically funny and the audience responded well, but there was a feeling out there; I sensed they were waiting for something. The laughter didn't really roll. … There was a sense of "What's coming next." …

Were you wondering the same thing?
When the second act began, I thought, "This is it. What you are gonna do?" And I thought, "Go for it." So I did the silent lie material. There is a pause in it, a long one. It comes right after he talks about the silent lie of slavery; how people can remain silent in the face of a great injustice like slavery. At the end of that sequence, it ends up with "It is timid, and shabby." I'm downstage right, and I turn and I walk all the way across the stage to the lectern never saying a word, just let what was, in those times, a very hot potato sit in the lap of the audience. …

Three times in my life, has the audience applauded in that moment: The first time was in Hamburg, Germany, in 1961; the second time was in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962; and the third time was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, behind the iron curtain, in (1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall). That tells you something.

When that happened (in Oxford), I realized that I had bet right on the audience.

What an incredible story.
At the end of the show, I went back to the dressing room, and suddenly several news men came back. "Hal, Hal, we've gotta talk to you. Geez, I mean, holy cow, this is hotter than hell, my God. You started with this silent lie, I see a window's open and I'm figuring how can get out of my seat and out the window. We gotta talk."

And I said, "Well, I have a lot of people out there on the stage and I have to talk to (them) first." I always talk to people who come back; I never stop people.

"Well," they said, "we've gotta beat deadline. We have to write."

"That's all very well," I said, "but I'm not gonna make these people wait."

"Well, Hal. I mean, you know, we have to write."

"Look," I said. "You do whatever you have to do, but I'll talk to you after I talk to the people on the stage."

I went out, and there were about 100 people. Lots of students came to the show in those days … the audiences were very exciting in the 1960s because of that. … There was one very elderly, dignified lady, who looked to be darn near 90, in the middle of this group with a preacher. And she said, right there with all these young people around, "Mr. Holbrook, you gave us a better sermon tonight than we got in church last Sunday." I thought that was real classy. …

When I went back and the newspaper people—here's a thing I learned, about your profession, sadly enough …

I can take it.
Yeah, I imagine you can.

They interviewed me and they said, "Hal, how do you explain this? I mean how do you explain this response? I couldn't believe the reaction." The applause was thunderous at the end of the show.

So I said, "Well, how do you explain it? You were here. You guys have written a good deal about what's going on down here in the South. … You have to write about it, but it's not good. Now tonight, you saw something good. Why don't you write about that, too? You saw something good tonight—hopeful—write about it."

So they said, "Huh, yeah."

They never did.

No way!
They never did. They wrote a report in UP or AP something. The essence was that I had gone down there and really told those folks what it was about. They did not credit the audience at all. That was a great disappointment to me, and it taught me a lesson.

Which is?
Don't count on the press to tell the truth all the time.

That's a pretty good one. When you returned to Ole Miss this spring, I understand you had a chance to meet James Meredith.
I did. It was really beautiful to meet him. I'd never met him before. … He represents something very important in my life, as well as other people's lives, something very personal. … There's such a sweet kindness about his personality and his manner that was really very affecting. …

You know, people get to patting themselves on the back—we all do, every one of us—for the changes that we have made happen and how we have improved this, that and the other thing about our lives and our way of life. But we really shouldn't spend too much time doing that, because there's just so much to do.

What is it about Twain's writing that's made such a huge impact on America's literature?
He talks to the people. He can be understood by anybody—whether they went to Harvard or MIT, or whether they never went to college or didn't finish high school and worked on their daddy's farm in Nebraska or Iowa—as long as they can read. He uses phrases and has an ability to choose words and idioms that are so grounded that anybody can understand them. Yet, at the same time, hardly any body can come up with the same thing. I don't think anybody can imitate Mark Twain successfully.

Clarity seems to be an extremely difficult thing to achieve.
Yes, clarity. And clarity that at the same time is excited or enlivened by this wonderful ability to come up with phrases like, "There are shoals and shoals of fools out there, running around outside the asylum, exhibiting some form of specialized insanity." Now you have to love somebody who can come up with "specialized insanity." And yet, there isn't a man or woman alive who can't understand what the man just said.

And then he'll say, "I've heard people talking about man being the noblest work of God… Well who found that out?" You're talking about a big subject here. He's has just thrown out a statement which invades the territory of "BIG" subjects. And now, he's gonna pull the rug right out from under that big subject by saying "Who found that out?" which is designed to make you double-think.

If you had to choose a favorite story or quote, could you do it?
It's almost a mantra quote for the show: "When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect." …

I've tried—I've not always been successful—not to let my own emotional intellectualism run away with me on any subject, because Mark Twain is not here to speak for himself. He is not here. In going through his work and putting together a show (that) represents his thinking, I had to be aware that, for example, he is not here to speak about the Iraq war. Now people will say, "Well, he hated war!" Gee whiz. What a wonderful discovery to make! Gosh! I can't wait to use that! If we're so dumb to think that that's the be-all and end-all of the subject…

I try to get around on the side of things, punch a few holes in it and make people think. … People have lost track of how important it is to be accurate and authentic; to stand up and to take it, inspect it for what it was, why it was, what it means to us today, and what it can teach us.

Other than Twain, are there particular roles that stand out for you?
… I had a wonderful time doing Shylock (in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"). I worked on it twice. The second time I persuaded Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington to do it in the time in which it was set, which is the 16th century, so that the idea of cutting somebody's heart out was not unbelievable. Jack O'Brien did a production earlier at the Old Globe, and I played Shylock there. He set it in 1928 or 1930. … In the age of navigation and shortwave radio, Antonio could have called up and found out that his boats were fine, and nobody was going to going to cut somebody's heart out—it's not a real threat. But if you place it back in the mid-16th century, you can let all the racism on both sides come out and let people judge for themselves. ... You can stand back from it because it's in an historical framework.

My father always had a bone to pick with people who tried to separate historical events from their times.
This is one of the areas that I try to touch upon with Mark Twain. Because of the fact that I don't update (Twain's) material, much of the reference is oblique. It depends upon the editorial work (and) the selection of material and the placement that will create the connection with today. People today, when they talk about slavery, they should read "John Adams," McCollough's book, and find out what those people went through trying to create this country. That's not to excuse anything, but you need to know why. People casually blame the founding fathers for not solving the problem of slavery, completely overlooking the fact that it was a question of having one country or two countries. … That's not to say it was right—it was wrong, and probably a lot of people in the South knew it didn't jibe with the Bible, no matter what they might have been told on Sunday.

All the awards you've won: a Tony and the National Humanities Medal for Twain; five Emmys; six honorary doctorates … Is there one that stands out?
I think the Tony award is hard to beat. … The lifetime achievement award from the Mark Twain Circle of America … you expect they would (award it to me) anyway.

Because of longevity?
If you live long enough, frankly—and usually they wait until they think you might die—then they start giving them to you. … The awards don't have the same attraction that they might have had when you were young. You just don't need (them) because you've been given the award of being able to do your work for audiences all around the country for so long … the response that you get … the way people respond and welcome you—that's the award; there really isn't any award that's better than that.

See "Mark Twain Tonight!" on Tuesday, March 13, at Thalia Mara Hall. Tickets $37.50 to $57.50. Call 601-355-5252 or go to ticketmaster.com for tickets.

Previous Comments


All, here's The Clarion-Ledger's interview with Holbrook. Smile. Score one for Ronni.


BTW, all, James Meredith is going to be a guest of Mr. Holbrook at the performance Tuesday night. And we found out today that the Legislature is going to honor Mr. Holbrook Monday a.m. Cool, huh?


"There were black lawns, black from the smoke. It was a serious matter. More serious than I might have imagined if I hadn’t of been there. …" Hadn't HAVE been there.. Yes, 'have' sounds like 'of' in contractions and in inclusion, but as writers, you have to be able to use proper grammar. I correct seven year olds on this. To actually contribute, I've got my tickets for the show tonight, and I expect a great performance.



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