Luther Spoehr: Review of Hal Holbrook's “Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011)


Luther Spoehr is an HNN book editor and a senior lecturer at Brown University.

At age 87, Hal Holbrook has been Mark Twain longer than Sam Clemens was. For over half a century, his one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight!,” has been packing them in. For someone like me, who saw him in the early ‘60s (when I was in high school), bought the recordings, saw the 1967 television special, then saw him again in person in 1984 and again in 2009, his presence has been as constant and welcome as Twain’s books. It was always reassuring to learn the lengths to which Holbrook went to make his performance authentic, from getting the “look” just right (it took three hours to get the make-up on when Holbrook was a young man) to his faithfulness to the texts. It would probably satisfy him to know that when I read the first pages of Huckleberry Finn or many of the other pieces of Twainiana he employs, it’s his voice that I hear.

So it was with no little anticipation and some trepidation that I launched myself into Holbrook’s memoir -- anticipation because of all I hoped to find out about the stagecraft and scholarship that allowed Holbrook to immerse himself so thoroughly in Twain’s persona, and trepidation because so often the authors and actors we admire emerge as less interesting or engaging than we hope. As it turns out, this book merited a little of both.

Holbrook takes us from his unsettled and unsettling childhood, through an equally challenging adolescence and young manhood, to the night in 1959 when “Mark Twain Tonight!” made its successful debut in New York. His goal all along, he tells us, was a simple one: survival, in some of the most basic senses of the word, not least the psychological one. His early years seem straight out of Dickens: at age two, he and his two sisters (ages one and three) were deserted by his parents. Except for a brief glimpse a few years later, he never saw his mother again; she seems to have changed her name and descended into the more obscure reaches of show business. His father, a wanderer who spent years on the road or in asylums, would turn up periodically, like Pap Finn (although he was never violent), and played no role in Holbrook’s upbringing except to raise the terrifying question of whether his particular brand of mental illness was hereditary.

Taken in by his kindly, wealthy grandfather (and his weird grandmother, whose affection for her “blue-eyed baby boy” seems downright creepy), he was then sent to a boarding school where the abusive headmaster made the bully at George Orwell’s fabled St. Cyprian look like the personification of progressive education. His grandfather died when Holbrook was twelve, and the family essentially disintegrated, but there was enough money to send Harold to Culver Military Academy, which, he says in no uncertain terms, saved his life.  There he discovered the theater and his own ability to lose himself in his roles. Then he made the jump to another safe harbor, Denison University, where his plans for an acting career jelled. He served in the military (where, in an unnerving moment, he was threatened by a sexual predator) and found a bride in an unlikely place, Newfoundland.

Holbrook and Ruby, his young wife, started on show business’ lowest rungs, doing summer stock in the Berkshires and taking to the road to bring culture to the schools and women’s clubs of the Midwest. “Our home was the station wagon,” he says. “We were in a lifeboat with four wheels, made by Ford. Our compass was our show and our hope of survival was our belief in it.” Audiences, particularly in the “district schools” of Texas in the early 1950s, often included students from first grade through high school -- and the little ones sat down front; when they got restless, everybody got restless.  They learned their craft on a low budget, their program a series of two-person vignettes taken mainly from popular plays: Rosalind and Orlando in As You Like It, Elizabeth and Essex, Victoria and Albert, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. And, in a fortuitous turn, Mark Twain’s encounter with the interviewer. (Twain didn’t touch Holbrook’s soul right away: at first he thought the sketch was “the corniest thing I had ever read.”)

The middle of the book is given over to these travels, and too often large patches of the narrative amount to recapitulations of his itineraries. Then, as his marriage begins to fall apart (even though -- or perhaps because -- they start a family), the itineraries alternate with analyses of his feelings of temptation, guilt, and frustration. His obsessive, repetitive introspection and self-flagellation, recaptured retrospectively in part by quoting from his letters written at the time, are painful, even embarrassing, to read. (If this review were written as a text message or a tweet, I would simply say, “TMI.”) 

Despite the tremors shaking his personal life, Holbrook got his first big break in 1953, when he landed the continuing part of Grayling Dennis on a soap opera “The Brighter Day,” which ran for 15 minutes daily on radio and another 15 on TV. His pay: $100 per day for every day he appeared on the program. At the same time, he found his thoughts turning more and more to doing a one-man show on Twain. And so, over 300 pages into the book, the memoir gets up to speed again. He takes the show on the road, “editing it during these long drives across the farmlands with the book open on the passenger seat and a tablet on my right knee, ducking around the bare teeth of farm equipment hogging the road, and chancing my luck across the double line on blind curves and hills.” Surviving this reckless multi-tasking, he gets his biggest break when he was invited to appear on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” and “so 1958 ended with thirty-seven solo shows plus two television appearances and ninety-one shows on ‘The Brighter Day.’” When Holbrook finally made his New York debut in “Mark Twain Tonight!” in 1959, he was convinced that he had bombed, but the reviews said otherwise, and the rest, to avoid coining a phrase, is theatrical history.

That debut ends the book, but of course it was only the beginning of Holbrook’s career as Twain. Although he has played many television and movie roles -- his latest appearance is in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” -- it is his extraordinary reincarnation/recreation/impersonation of Twain that will endure as long as the CD, the DVD, and their descendants continue to preserve memorable performances. “A classic,” Twain said, “is something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Holbrook’s memoir is not a classic book, but because it illuminates the origins of one of theater’s most memorable, long-lived presentations, it is a useful one.  

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