News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

May 9, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Just as his character does, Hal Holbrook views America’s ills through skeptical, agitated eyes

TERRE HAUTE — The subject of Hal Holbrook’s one-man show minced no words.

Inside the halls of Congress, Mark Twain once said, dwelled “the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes.” Holbrook has performed “Mark Twain Tonight!” more than 2,200 times since its debut in 1954, earning critical acclaim and a Tony Award. That 56-year run — which includes a show Saturday at Rose-Hulman’s Hatfield Hall Theater — is almost as long as Twain’s adulthood. Clearly, Holbrook knows the mind of Twain like no one else alive.

The nation’s most beloved author died in 1910, 15 years before Holbrook was born. Thus, Holbrook doesn’t pretend to speak for Twain on 21st-century America. But just as Twain loved to skewer the rich and powerful, Holbrook doesn’t hold back his opinions on political and social problems.

In the middle of a wide-ranging, nearly one-hour interview last week, the 85-year-old Holbrook admitted, “It’s tiresome, really, to hear somebody going on like this, but I can’t hardly help it, because it’s terribly important.”

Corruption on Wall Street and, yes, in Washington irks him. “People need to get angry about it — more angry than they are,” he said.

As familiar as that sounds in these days, the sources of Holbrook’s agitation differ from most.

He laments the resistance in Congress to enact reforms on the financial industry. He wonders why the United States has been so slow to develop alternative energy sources. He thinks a reinstitution of the military draft would force the nation to think more deeply before committing to a war. He sees the Republican roadblocking of President Obama’s initiatives as, to put it mildly, a disappointment.

He also regrets voting for George W. Bush in 2000.

Twain would be dismayed today, Holbrook suspects.

“The deceptions we live with day by day and accept with a smile or a shrug are not funny,” Holbrook said, referring to misbehavior in the financial industry. “They’re deceptions. They’re dishonesty. I think [Twain] would be as upset by that as he was in his own day.” Holbrook then recited a quote by Twain following the 1907 stock market crash, which was caused by “the limitless rottenness of our financial institutions on Wall Street, where theft has been practiced as a profession by our most influential commercial men.”

“That’s pretty clear,” Holbrook added.

Obama deserves a chance to address the problems he inherited, along with two Middle Eastern wars. Holbrook favors action.

“The answer to our problems is to address them, to actually do something about them,” he said. “You know, we have this young president here who has been lambasted politically ever since he took office — before he took office. They handed him a hot potato that was the worst hot potato any president has been handed, maybe since Lincoln, and they expect him to get it solved right away — I mean quick, you know, in a year or two, which is moronic, frankly.”

Holbrook is a registered independent who’s voted for Republicans and Democrats and “never wanted to belong or be owned by any political party.”

That said, the Republicans in Congress haven’t distinguished themselves much lately, at least in Holbrook’s eyes.

“I am shocked by what the Republican Party has done since this young man [Obama] was elected president by a majority of the people in the United States,” he said. They “elected this young man to be our president, with the hope that he could try to solve the avalanche that descended upon him before he even took office. And this Republican Party, much to my terrible disappointment, has created a wall of stone between itself and this elected president and tried to stop him from doing every single thing he’s tried to do.

“I think that is absolutely unforgivable,” Holbrook added.

Attempting to listen to opponents, while also battling the status quo, is a tall order for Obama. “He’s trying desperately to fight against it, and change it, and cajole and pat people on the back on the opposite side and all that kind of thing,” Holbrook said. “It’s slowly, slowly having some effect, but why should it be so difficult to call to account the people who put us in this toilet? Why should it be so difficult to put the same kind of restrictions or similar restrictions on the financial dealings of Wall Street that Teddy Roosevelt put on them in 1907, and which were on them — in my understanding — all the way up until the middle ’90s when both the Democrats and the Republicans removed them?”

As this decade began, Holbrook — who served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II — was a supporter of George W. Bush. The fight by Bush’s party against his successor is “the most terrible disappointment, politically, that I’ve experienced in my life,” Holbrook said, “because — God save my soul — I voted for the boy George Bush in 2000, and I’ve regretted it ever since. But I did. So, I’m not some kind of a nut-case liberal. What I’m thinking of is our country. And I’m trying to figure out how, in heaven’s name, we can cut ourselves loose from these deadbeats and these criminal-minded people who are dragging us down and preventing — preventing — any kind of progress or solutions to the problems we face.”

Holbrook plays Twain in the latter years of the writer’s life, when Twain went on speaking tours across the country and globe, dressed in a white suit, puffing a cigar, and making his audiences laugh and think. Holbrook has kept that magical connection alive, ever since he first performed as Twain at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954. Holbrook draws his material from a vast array of the author’s writings, speeches and quotations, but he has never updated Twain’s sayings to fit the times. He doesn’t need to. Twain’s wit and views still apply to man’s desires and pitfalls in 2010.

“The audience is frankly astonished when [his Twain character] comes up with stuff that sounds like it is referring to what happened in the newspaper this week,” Holbrook said. “I think sometimes they can hardly believe it.

“When I do that quote in the show now about Wall Street, there’s a deep, deep silence, because I know people are saying, ‘Holy mackerel. Did he say that a hundred years ago?’” Holbrook continued. “Well, out of that you get a lesson, and the lesson is how it just keeps on happening over and over and over again, and will go on happening over and over again, until somebody does something about it.”

Still busy as an actor, Holbrook plays in the current FX television series “Sons of Anarchy.” Just two years ago, he received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for “Into the Wild.” He delivered memorable film roles as “Deep Throat” in “All the President’s Men,” in “Wall Street” and “The Firm.” But his 56 consecutive years performing “Mark Twain Tonight!” give him a special forum, a pulpit of sorts, to challenge conventional thinking.

“Yes it does,” Holbrook said. “I don’t like to use the word ‘pulpit,’ but it’s true. I think all good theater is a kind of pulpit anyway, because it urges us to open our minds more broadly than we may have thought before we came into the theater, and to open our hearts and feel more deeply than we may have felt before we came into the theater.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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    March 12, 2010