The Big Read Blog (Archive)

After 58 Years, Still Talking Like Twain

By Ben Strand, Development Director, Young Auditorium at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Mark Twain circa 1907. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

On April 21 at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Tony Award-winning actor Hal Holbrook performed as Mark Twain in the one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!, a role which he first developed in 1954. The performance included dramatic recitations of Twain's work, and was part of the school's Big Read program, which this year has focused on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Ben Strand, director of development at the university's Young Auditorium, described the event and reflected on the importance of the iconic American author:

The auditorium was filled to the rafters as Hal Holbrook brought to life the words of Twain. The audience was enraptured by the performance that coursed through Twain’s body of work. Patrons commented over and over again how the words seemed to have been taken from a current day newspaper opinion page and not from a writer who died over 100 years ago.

Twain is as relevant today as he was when I first read him in school. Through the Big Read, we can all lead by example to our children and K-12 students the importance that lifelong learning holds in our community. While the lessons in the stories of Mark Twain are still relevant, the important lesson of the Big Read is that we can’t encourage the next generation to be engaged, educated, and active community participants, if we, the adults, aren’t also reading, learning, and part of the community dialogue.

What struck me on picking Twain up again is how much of his writing is meant to be read out loud. At the Young Auditorium, the recent performance of Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain sold out. Over 1,300 people wanted to hear the voice of Twain. Not only that, but Hal Holbrook has been performing as Mark Twain for 58 years. Mark Twain only lived for 76 years and didn’t start lecturing until his late 30s, so Hal Holbrook has been performing as Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemons did.

One Mark Twain quote that I think is appropriate to mention is his advice that, “The secret of success is making your vocation your vacation.” While today, Twain is known as the first great American writer, he did not begin his career with that goal in mind. In fact, as a boy Twain’s ambition was to become a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi. He obtained that lofty accomplishment but the river traffic was halted with the start of the Civil War. Twain was then adrift professionally. He had to seek a new livelihood. He tried silver mining, then newspaper reporting, then gold mining, then back to reporting and then eventually to lecturing and writing. It’s the sort of professional track that many adults can relate to today, so we should take consolation that greatness often develops through adversity.

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