Mark Twain Tonight
|Mark Twain Tonight!|
|Written by||Mark Twain
|Place premiered||Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania|
Mark Twain Tonight! is a one-man play devised by Hal Holbrook, in which he depicts Mark Twain giving a dramatic recitation selected from several of his (Twain's) writings, with an emphasis on the comic ones.
The recitation's genesis was a show that Holbrook performed with his first wife Ruby where she would interview him portraying famous people in history, including Twain. Holbrook revised the concept into a one-man show in the 1950s, first performing it at the Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954. He made his first New York appearance as Twain in the Off-Broadway engagement in 1959 and premiered it on Broadway in 1966. Holbrook's performance was first noticed by New York producer John Lotas at The Lambs Club in Manhattan. Lotas presented the show at the Forty-First Street Theatre, where it ran for 174 performances. He won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for that appearance and an Emmy Award nomination for the 1967 television broadcast (which was produced by David Susskind) on CBS.
Holbrook continues to tour in the play (on Broadway as recently as 2006) and alternates the material that he performs. The original program from the 1959 Off-Broadway engagement included the note “While Mr. Twain’s selections will come from the list below, we have been unable to pin him down as to which of them he will do. He claims this would cripple his inspiration. However, he has generously conceded to a printed program for those who are in distress and wish to fan themselves.” This still appears on programs for the show.
Holbrook adapted to concerns that presenting Mark Twain as on an 1890s lecture circuit would use racial slurs acceptable in that era, but unacceptable to modern audiences. Challenging the critics, Holbrook often chose to read a passage from "Huckleberry Finn" where the orphaned, pipe-smoking, uneducated youngster, Huck, faces a poignant moral dilemma. Holbrook altered the narration to use the dialectally milder "Nigra" as the young boy wrestles with his conscience over following the law or his heart concerning "the widow's Nigra, Jim," a runaway slave. Audiences have embraced this presentation as the boy ultimately rejects the legal, societal and even religious ramifications in favor of helping the runaway on his quest for freedom. It is one of the more somber segments of a usually humorous presentation, which Holbrook has felt important to continue in the spirit of Twain's own message.
On the occasion of Mr. Clemens's 175th birthday (November 30, 2010), Holbrook performed Mark Twain Tonight! in Elmira, New York, at the Clemens Center in front of a sell-out crowd. April 21, 2010 was the 100th anniversary of his death. The evening began with the singing of happy birthday to Mr. Clemens followed by Holbrook's appearance on stage. 2014 marked the 60th consecutive year that Holbrook has performed Mark Twain Tonight!