holbrook1It was in 1954 that Hal Holbrook was out of work and struggling. Instead of waiting for opportunity to come to him he decided to create it by writing a one man show based on one of his idols, Mark Twain. When the calendar turned to 2014 it laid down a milestone for the longest running show in American Theatre history – the 60th year for Mark Twain Tonight!Clive Barnes of the New York Times reviewed Hal Holbrook’s third New York engagement in 1977: “Hilariously funny. We see him not as the precursor of Will Rogers or even H. L. Mencken, but clearly as a prototypal Lenny Bruce, so anti-establishment you wonder why they allowed him into his century.” Holbrook has shown us Mark Twain the social critic, whom George Bernard Shaw called “America’s Voltaire.” The show doesn’t stop evolving. Three new numbers have added another hour to its revolving repertoire of material: one on the Christian Bible, another from the feuding clans in Huckleberry Finn killing each other off, and another on the fate of the laboring class in America. “Mark Twain never stops surprising me,” says Holbrook. “He keeps firing me up and asking questions.” It was a fateful decision for Holbrook when he sat at his desk in a small $79 a month New York apartment in 1954 and began searching Twain’s writings for material that might work on the stage and feed his family. One key decision he made: Don’t update him. Portray Mark Twain as the aging character the world recognizes –a wild white head of hair, beetle brows and moustache, the white suit, and never break the illusion that it is Twain himself speaking in his own time. Let the audience update him. That has made the show more powerful because human behavior doesn’t change. Neither does its foolishness. That’s the joke. This total disguise of himself, which took as much as four hours when he was younger, has given Holbrook the benefit of another career as himself in motion pictures like Magnum Force, Wall Street, Creepshow, Water for Elephants, Lincoln and Into the Wild for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Television films and series earned him five Emmy Awards, a total of twelve nominations. With ninety-eight stage plays in New York and regional theatres around the country, he has said “I’ve been on the road most of my life.”