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Connecting the dots.

Essays about how we communicate and why it matters.

Core Strength

Posted on Wednesday, June 17, 2015 by Shelley Cowan

Earlier this spring, we drove to Milwaukee to see Hal Holbrook in his one-man performance of Mark Twain Tonight, a series of dramatic recitations from the writings of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain.

Hal Holbrook has performed Mark Twain Tonight for over 60 years. We saw him do the show in the late 1970s, although “perform” hardly describes what he does. Hal Holbrook inhabits Mark Twain, surely as much as Samuel Clemens must have.

Holbrook was so good, the show so compelling. We wanted to see him again.

But I was nervous. Hal Holbrook is now 90 years old. I know of 90-, 80-, 70- and even 60-somethings who don’t have the stamina to walk across a stage, much less perform for two hours. I desperately hoped he could pull it off.

A few times during the first act, I wasn’t sure.

One of the first sketches featured the character Jim Blaine, from Roughing It, inspired by the time Mr. Twain spent traveling through the West in the 1860s. Although it is Blaine who has had too much to drink and falls asleep in the chair, I am positive that many of those in the audience worried right along with me that it was Holbrook who was dozing.

There were, in fact, a number of uncomfortably long pauses throughout the first act. I was one of many in the audience who held her breath as Holbrook stumbled around the set, inching from a lectern to the edge of a library table to an upholstered Victorian chair.

The guy seated next to us left at intermission. He pointedly let us know that he thought we were total losers for driving all the way from Cincinnati to see an old man who should have quit while he could still do the job.

In the second act, it became clear that Holbrook updates the show, incorporating new material apropos to the times. In Milwaukee he included commentary about race and religion that was angrier, darker and more pessimistic than the folksy anecdotes I recall from the performance we’d seen almost 40 years ago.

Holbrook says he keeps bringing Mark Twain to the stage because, “’s very difficult to find the truth in public statements today. People want me to challenge them, and that’s what this old man does.”

Most searing was Twain’s reflection on the Thirteenth Commandment, the commandment that was inadvertently omitted from the Gospel:

“Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor’s religion is.” Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code. Because of this omission, we have made a graveyard of the globe.

Holbrook’s delivery was sorrowful and remote. 

But then his energy and humor returned. He appeared ready to deliver another zinger about Congress, lobbyists, racism or the peculiarities of Americans and our fellow travelers.

That’s when Hal Holbrook gave himself away – and I knew I’d been fooled.

He hopped out of his chair – without using his arms or hands.

He moved with the agility of someone who works out every day. Someone in control. Someone with core strength.

Try it. Try to lift yourself out of chair without using your arms or hands. If you can easily do this, look around and notice how many people can’t.

Mr. Holbrook, your strength challenges, inspires and fills me with awe.