Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight!” was set in the year 1905, but the Twain quotes Holbrook shared painted pictures of the similarity of elections and politics then and now.
The majority of his first act was a sober commentary, blasting the “inmates in Congress,” people conducting election campaigns and newspapers.
He said “the climate in Washington causes a Congressman’s conscience to leak out through his pores.”
About elections, he said “the truth is out of place at election time.”
Displaying a more humorous side, he also described his first trip west to Nevada. “I went west on the overland stage and crossed the Carson River.” This river did not compare to the Mississippi. “If it was my river I would not leave it out nights,” he said. “A dog could come along and lap it up.”
He continued on to San Francisco, he said, where “I became a newspaper reporter. I hated to do it, but could not find honest employment.
“I know from past experience the press has tremendous power and can make or break anyone’s reputation,” he said. .... “Due to the absence of wholesome restraint, journalism has become a natural curse. ... We have laws to protect the freedom of the press but none to protect the people from the press.” This comment drew a round of applause from the audience that was nearly filling Hannibal High School auditorium.
Later Twain (Holbrook) told an amusing version of the Biblical story of Noah and the ark.
The second act was more light-hearted, including portraying Huck Finn in a scene from the book. Before enacting the scene, Holbrook said Huck lived many years ago. “He had as good a heart as any boy had and was the only truly independent person in the community.”
In the scene, Huck and Jim were going down the river on a log raft, looking for Cairo, where Jim would be free from danger of capture as a runaway slave. Huck saved Jim from being captured by pretending he had smallpox.
This act included a lengthy description of civilization, mostly negative in outlook. “People call me a pessimist in my old age,” he said, “But I’m not. I’m an optimist who did not arrive.”
This outlook was balanced by sharing happy memories of his early life on his Uncle John’s farm, with picturesque descriptions of nature.
Steamboat pilot dreams also were shared. “I had a permanent ambition to be a steamboat pilot,” he said. “I loved that profession. I was the only truly independent human that lived on the earth.” The beauty of sunrise and sunset on the river was described, and he said when the sun sets, “you have seen something worth remembering.”
Page 2 of 2 - He said he met his wife, Olivia, when she was only 22 and beautiful, and “for 34 years, wherever she was, there was Eden.”
He closed by saying that since his 70th birthday he had received hundreds of letters “and in some of them there was a note of affection. I’m very grateful to have that reward.”
After the program, Holbrook met some people connected to his past, such as Joe and Betty Cady of Columbia, Mo., who attended Holbrook’s first Twain performance in Hannibal. The year was 1954, Joe explained, and he was in the Hannibal Jaycees, which sponsored the show at the Star Theater. “He stayed at the Mark Twain Hotel,” Joe added.