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Bringing Mark Twain Tonight Alive Today

Jerry Mosey
AP Images
Hal Holbrook, shown in his New York apartment, Feb. 1973, making serious preparation for his next role.

The longest continuously running stage show in American theater history, “Mark Twain Tonight,” is coming to Pittsburgh.  The one-man show was first performed in 1954 by Tony and Emmy Award winner and Academy Award nominee Hal Holbrook, who has staged it at least once every year since then.

After a run as an actor in a two person show with ex-wife Ruby, Holbrook was desperate for work.  Through his connections with the son of Twain’s manager, he was steered toward performing a one man stage show as Mark Twain.  Having never read any of Twain’s books, Holbrook headed straight to the bookstore to immerse himself in the classic works in order to familiarize himself with the “character.”

Though Twain died in 1910, and his voice was never recorded, Holbrook explained that depictions of Twain’s movement, mannerisms, and accents were documented and published in newspapers of that time.  Such depictions became invaluable to Holbrook in developing his character. 

Portraying Twain came as a thrill to Holbrook who, from a young age, always enjoyed disguises as a way to cope with insecurities.

“I had to learn how to act myself.  I had to learn to give up disguising myself.  I had to really open myself up and be who I am, and that was tough for me,” Holbrook told Essential Pittsburgh.

Now 90 years old, Holbrook has learned how to be himself.  Nevertheless,  he says portraying Twain never gets monotonous for him. 

Much of this is because he believes that what Twain wrote is still relevant today, as similar social issues such as faith, government, war, and racism are still being debated in our country. 

Holbrook explains that one of the reasons Twain’s work is so in tune with the issues of today is because he wasn't afraid to tell the truth as he saw it.

“You cannot solve a problem as a country if you’re afraid to talk about it,” Holbrook said.

“Mark Twain Tonight” hits the stage at the Byham Theater at 7:30pm on October 15.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

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