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 email@example.com.
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.
- Mark Bennett Opinion
MARK BENNETT: New public-access point begins quest to create more spots to experience river
Fairness holds no power over the Wabash River.
MARK BENNETT: People spaces
Demolition machinery chipped away at the buildings on the 500 block of Wabash Avenue. I stood and watched awhile, last week. By July 2015, a new $18.7-million structure will replace those relics.
MARK BENNETT: Blessings of a long, cold, snowy winter
As spring, summer arrive, Hoosiers will appreciate icy months (well, maybe a little)
MARK BENNETT: Healing Indiana’s Achilles’ heel
Illinois served as the easy target.
At that moment.
MARK BENNETT: Yeah, yeah, yeah... For some grownups, first impression not so fab
We’re pretty smart here in middle America.
Our DNA carries the common-sense chromosome. From birth, Midwestern culture begins honing us into the most rational and perceptive of human beings. Sure, our prisons are full, but generally, we mean well. And we’re wise.
MARK BENNETT: Remembering the less glitzy days on Manning’s road to the Super Bowl
A blur of memories.
They’ll flicker fast and furious tonight, like a spinning Rolodex, when Peyton Manning runs onto the MetLife Stadium turf in Jersey City, as a Denver Bronco, playing for a Super Bowl ring against the Seattle Seahawks. Most Hauteans will experience flashbacks, too.
MARK BENNETT: A lengthening climb
The American economy is improving.
Confidence has risen since the government shutdown by the polarized Congress last fall. Indicators in various sectors show promise.
MARK BENNETT: Tackling entrenched economic problems could brighten local forecast
Without a DeLorean, there’s no going back to 1995.
MARK BENNETT: What is Indiana’s image in the eyes of the world?
A bus pulled up to the curb near the riverfront in downtown Chicago. An unusual advertisement was painted on its side.
Raising the bar
Around coffeeshops, kitchen tables and office watercoolers, Hoosiers have cussed and discussed the federal health care law.
MARK BENNETT: ABA’s record proves Bobby Leonard’s a legit Hall of Famer
Bobby Leonard symbolized the feisty competitive flair of the old ABA.
MARK BENNETT: Letter from coach’s young daughter put pro sports, Christmas in perspective
Most of us sympathize with people forced to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That list is growing, now that Black Friday has morphed into Black Thursday, causing retail employees to join doctors, nurses, hospital staffers, police, firefighters, emergency responders, military members, convenience store clerks, road crews and media to spend holidays at work. Ideally, we’ll feel gratitude when we require their services on those special days. Too often, their sacrificed time gets taken for granted.
Terry Leonard wanted the executives to remember her dad, and their family, at Christmastime.
And, amazingly, they listened.
MARK BENNETT: A degree of success
Determination to get that diploma Larry Bird’s deepest bond with fellow ISU alums, students
MARK BENNETT: Brad Fenton and friends set dominos in motion to make Larry Bird statue a reality
The idea has been out there for awhile, floating.
Locals in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s would say, “They need to put up a statue of Larry Bird. I mean, one of the all-time greatest basketball players played right here in Terre Haute at Indiana State University.”
MARK BENNETT: Next chapter set to begin
Use the classic Tommy Tutone song to memorize the following number …
MARK BENNETT: One-ring blues?
Minutes before kickoff tonight, the Lucas Oil Stadium tech crew should play Sam Cooke’s classic, “(What a) Wonderful World” over the sound system.
MARK BENNETT: At Peace in Parke County
Northwestern Parke County — The stream merely trickles beneath Mill Creek Bridge. It’s just a few inches deep, but the water keeps moving.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute native Tommy John belongs in Cooperstown for pitching like a Hall of Famer
Few players in history left a greater impact on baseball than Tommy John.
And he did so through his performance on the field.
MARK BENNETT: Remotely confused
“Must See TV,” where have you gone?
MARK BENNETT: Popularity Contest: Congress does little to improve its standing with Americans
The members of Congress ardently resisting the Affordable Care Act emphasize its unpopularity.
MARK BENNETT: ‘The voice of the Democratic Party’
The ad stands as a campaign classic. Its scenario is part of history. Its narrator would be familiar to millions of Americans, yet anonymous, too.
MARK BENNETT: Transparency in public decision-making includes sincerely listening to the people
Transparency isn’t universally accepted in public entities.
MARK BENNETT: This Little Light: Remote chapel keeps a light shining on story of Flight 93
Father Al explained the meaning of the lamp. He asked me to light it.
The reverence in his voice offset the raspiness, left by his latest battle with cancer. Clearly, he saw this place as special.
MARK BENNETT: Reflections on the Wabash
The series “500 Miles of Wabash” wrapped up last Sunday after a five-week run. Readers offered some enlightening insights, memories and photographs as the series unfolded.
MARK BENNETT: Current Information: Put your Wabash knowledge to the test … or quiz
Just for fun, ponder a few questions concerning the large waterway flowing through Indiana and Terre Haute, as the Tribune-Star’s series, “500 Miles of Wabash” concludes in today’s editions. Those who’ve followed the five-part series of stories, photographs and videos about people and communities uniquely embracing the Wabash River may have a head start. If you’re just catching up, check them out in the online editions at www.tribstar.com.
- Answers to the Wabash River Quiz
MARK BENNETT: Pedestrian paths across the Wabash few, so far, but appreciated
The future tends to sneak up on you. Planning for it offers no guarantees, but it helps.
MARK BENNETT: Questions of fairness, impartiality, public trust legitimate in wake of school rating controversy
The discovery of a double-standard in public policy — or the appearance of it — weakens trust. The acceptance of a double-standard in public policy — or the appearance of it — erases trust. Indiana needs to draw a clear line between the former and the latter, and not cross it.
MARK BENNETT: Living downstream: From source, Wabash bears mark of mankind mile after mile
Something was missing. I’d never visited this spot before, but the view looked familiar. I’ve walked the banks of the Wabash River and its tributaries countless times, catching crawdads and skipping rocks in Honey Creek as a kid. On the other side of the state, where the Wabash crosses from Ohio into Indiana, trees arched over the water as it ran under a bridge on a quiet country road. It looked like western Indiana, except for one absent element. Litter.
MARK BENNETT: We are Hauteans (ho-shuns)
I fielded an hilariously disturbing question recently. A friend asked if the word “Hautean” is meant to be a derogatory label.
- More Mark Bennett Opinion Headlines
- MARK BENNETT: New public-access point begins quest to create more spots to experience river