ELMIRA, N.Y. – The crowd sang happy 175th birthday to Mark Twain before the lights went down at the Clemens Center, then laughed along with the nearest incarnation of the late author and humorist: Hal Holbrook.
The 85-year-old actor once again put on his white suit and makeup and reminisced, wisecracked, smoked and scolded Tuesday night in the latest, and not the last, stage re-enactment of Twain's world famous speaking engagements from the turn of the 20th century. Twain died 100 years ago in April and is buried in Elmira, home to the family of his adored wife, Olivia.
Performing at a sellout engagement at the 1,600-seat theater, relying as he has for decades on a simple set of lectern, high-backed chair and adjacent table, Holbrook assumed Twain's gravely drawl and rasped the master's ever-relevant wisdom on some favorite targets — politicians, religion and human nature itself. He slouched against the lectern, sat open-legged in the chair, shuffled in profile, cigar in mouth like a tongue sticking out.
"I wonder," Holbrook says, "if God invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey." Considering the general atrocities of the world, he declares, "It is inexplicable that God would endure all this, with lightning so cheap." Another shot: "Man was made at the end of a week's work, when God was tired.
Holbrook recited, from memory, a long passage from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and dabbed his eyes as Twain's hero lied to authority on behalf of the runaway slave Jim. He quoted from Twain's memories of his courtship of Olivia, who came from a wealthy and respectable family that had doubts about the unpolished author and requested letters of recommendation.
Even his friends turned on him.
"They not only spoke of me with disapproval," Holbrook/Twain said, "they were enthusiastic about it."
No side of the barn was broader than our system of government. We not only have freedom of speech and freedom of worship, but the history of ignoring both. Congress, Holbrook cracked, is the "best that money can buy" and sworn to "distribute the graft."
In a quote that might have come the staff of Jon Stewart, Holbrook/Twain observes: "If you could work a multiplication table into a political platform, Republicans would vote it down."
The genius was in the words. And the timing. Holbrook recalled Twain's belief that politicians never reformed. Well, there was one politician who reformed, on election eve.
"He was reformed by his friend who took him boating on the East River."
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