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