Useless Above the Ground

Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight.

At the Lobero Theatre, Friday, March 24.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

Narrating his coming to Silver City, Mark Twain (Hal Holbrook) mentions the “Carson River,” and pauses. “A moist ditch,” he adds, “half a mile wide.” Not satisfied that he had given us an accurate picture of the river’s insignificance, Twain says, “If it was my river, I wouldn’t leave it out at night — some dog might come along and lap it all up!”

Hal Holbrook is now 81. When he first performed Mark Twain Tonight he was playing a man twice his age; now he plays a man at least six years younger than himself. They have grown old together, Twain and Holbrook, only at different rates. I don’t believe that Samuel Clemens did Mark Twain better than Hal Holbrook does. The older the actor gets, the more perfect the illusion he creates.

He did some of my favorite bits, and he did some things I had never heard before — the show is ever changing, ever evolving. There was a long, complex story about a time Twain escorted what he thought was a friend’s mortal remains home for burying. In fact, his friend’s coffin had gotten mixed with a similar-sized box of rifles, someone had set down a package of limburger cheese on the box, and as the freight car heated up, Twain and the railroad employee thought that what they were smelling was his friend. There was almost nothing to the story except the telling of it, which was brilliant, and we were all laughing so hard by the end of it that we probably didn’t hear the punch line, if there was one.

The first half was the funnier; the second the deeper. The most pointed political remark was an aside about flagrant law-breaking in high office. But he was a bi-partisan satirist, letting both Democrats and Republicans have it at once. At one point he observed, parenthetically, that America “had no native criminal class, except Congress.”

He coined a delicious phrase speaking of religious bigots, averring that they were “useless above the ground — they would do much better six feet under, inspiring the plants.”

Once he had gotten himself out west, and discovered “that mining was done with a shovel,” he decided to make his fortune another way. “I needed to find a job,” he said, “but I was very particular. I wasn’t looking for work, just employment.”

Come back and see us again, Mr. Twain/Holbrook. It has been too long.

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