A teller of truths: Sixty years on the road with Hal Holbrook

Hal Holbrook has performed onstage as Mark Twain for every one of the last 60 years. He will be live in his role as Twain on Friday at the Paramount, and the documentary Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey screens at PVCC on Saturday. Photo Courtesy of Virginia Film Festival Hal Holbrook has performed onstage as Mark Twain for every one of the last 60 years. He will be live in his role as Twain on Friday at the Paramount, and the documentary Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey screens at PVCC on Saturday. Photo Courtesy of Virginia Film Festival

think that this film gains its emotional integrity from the fact that everybody is speaking the truth. It was very moving to watch it. The one thing I was hoping that they would get was for everyone to stop acting like Hollywood people, and just tell the truth—about the mistakes we’ve made, the struggle that it takes to do things in this business.”

That is the actor Hal Holbrook talking about the new documentary Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, screening Saturday at PVCC. The doc follows Holbrook as he does something that he has done in every one of the last 60 years—travel the country to perform Mark Twain Tonight, the show that he first developed in the 1950s, that brought him success and celebrity, and that he continues to refine and hone and perform to this day. At age 89, he still gives around 25 of those performances a year. Holbrook, the movie makes clear, is either a workaholic, a road warrior, or a true believer. Maybe he’s all three. You will have a chance to see for yourself when he performs live at the Paramount on Friday night. It will be the 2,298th time he’s played Twain on stage.

Scott Teems, the director of the documentary, also directed Holbrook and his wife Dixie Carter (who has since passed away) in the 2009 film That Evening Sun. While they were working on the film, Carter started working on Teems to do a documentary about the Twain show. “I had seen the TV version as a kid and had a vague familiarity with it,” said Teems. “I figured at this point it was like a Vegas act—something he came out and did in his sleep—because why wouldn’t it be after 60 years.” But Carter kept insisting that he wouldn’t really appreciate what was up with the show until he saw it. “So I went, and I was blown away by how much I did not know about the show, about its performance and about Twain. I was stunned at how visceral it was, how alive it was, how relevant it was.”

That relevance is in fact stunning—coming as it does from a 60-year-old theater piece performed by an 89-year-old actor built from 150-year-old material. But Holbrook has labored for that relevance, unstintingly. He is constantly confronting and re-confronting Twain, on the hunt, mining out new material that will point us to truths that can still transfix us today.

An example: A great deal of Twain’s satirical outrage is aimed at religious and political hucksters who flatter our chauvinism and applaud our cultural exceptionalism all the while ignoring the stains on our hands. “If we are the noblest work of God,” he asks in what is often one of the central moments in the show, “where is the ignoblest? In the last 5- or 6,000 years, five or six high civilizations have risen, flourished, commanded the wonder of the world and then faded away and disappeared, and not one of them until ours ever invented a sweeping and adequate way to kill masses of people…. Before long it will be recognized that the only competent killers are Christians. And then the pagan world will go to school to the Christian…” He lets it sink in for a moment that 1870 is having a little word to say about 9/11. Then he inserts the dagger: “…not to acquire its religion, but its guns.”

“What he wants,” said Teems, “is for his audience to think.”

Holbrook said the same thing. “I traveled this country for over 60 years. Every single year, coast to coast. You can’t do that without becoming very close to your country and without understanding that there are all kinds of people in it and that most of them don’t want to think about what we’re doing to ourselves. The hardest thing in the world is to try to go out there and inspire or incite or force people, cajole people to think.”

I actually disagree with Holbrook about some of that. It’s not just that people don’t want to think about injustice and inhumanity, about the myriad ways that we dehumanize ourselves and each other. The bigger problem is that we don’t know how to think about them. We don’t know how to accept these darker impulses as our own, as part of our shared human nature. And so, we commit the unforgivable, universal sin in Twain’s eyes: We excoriate others but let ourselves off the hook.

Most of what passes for satire these days—from Twain’s current inheritors like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for instance—isn’t in the long run much more sophisticated than a glorified playground taunt. But Twain’s enduring value as a satirist and the reason that Holbrook’s devotion to his cause continues to matter with such urgency is that he forces us to go deeper than that. He teaches us how to think about human evils by making it plain that we are all implicated in them. It’s our own flawed humanity that we are simultaneously laughing at and appalled by.

“Man is the only animal who blushes…” he said, with a cock of that bushy eyebrow, a puff of the cigar, and a hint of the sigh of a weary truth teller, “… or needs to.”