Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
He comes onto the Opera House stage, his white head atop a white suit, his trouser legs buckling at the knees, his black shoes purposefully somewhere between a stride and a shuffle.
It is Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, and the huge audience greets him with solid, prolong applause. The advance applause didn't happen back in the late '50s when the 36-year-old actor was an unknown playing an American legend at the age of 71. Undoubtedly some in the audience now know what to expect, but just as surely most have only heard of the portrait or seen its shadow on TV.
Two and a half hours later all have an experience in theater and American history they'll always remember, a relaxation and a stimulus, a reincarnation of a 19th-century wonder with the 21st century in sight.
What makes the portrait so remarkable is that as the world changes, Holbrook changes his Twain with it. Having availed myself of every opportunity to watch Holbrook's particular magic in the 18 years since I first saw it, I can vouch that Tuesday night's was the most unusual version yet.
To keep from boring himself as well as his audience, Holbrook never knows exactly what excerpt from Samuel Clemens he will use when. Having become a recognized Twain scholar, he has accumulated enough excerpts to fill 12 hours, and, as the mood strikes him, so it goes. Fortunately, Twain was resourceful enough to supply remarkable material.
Tuesday night's first half was rich in Twain humor, some of it unfamiliar to me especially one bit about accident insurance and the way he chose to do "His Grandfather's Old Ram." Here he becomes a discursive, forgetful old chap who goes to sleep in a chair while getting to the point of the yarn.
In the second half Holbrook turned to a good deal of the material Clemens' family, intimates and publishers were regretting near the end of his life. The mood is more profound, the distaste for hypocrisy has turned to disgust and some of the material that wasn't printed until long after material that wasn't printed until long after Clemens' death jolts the audience into reflective silence.
What Holbrook sees in this section of Mark Twain is today's world. It is a change, a development from his earlier Twain. These choices clearly have been made by the artist to illuminate us, not just about Twain but about our present unease. People have not really changed in the 66 years since Twain died.
Holbrook's portrait is now richer than it was. He still does the old man becoming young Huck Finn, a mirror within a mirror, he still delights us with the way he can break up a simple sentence with pauses and hesitations. He still keeps people chuckling and busting out into guffaws. But his probing is new and deeper. The run ends Saturday night.