Mark Twain is screaming at me. I've been listening to what the author of Huck Finn has to say about our own Gilded Age and the current situation in Iraq. He's not happy.
As we talk over the long distance, Twain happens to be sitting in sunny southern California. We make small talk about the weather. As it happens, it's raining in Spokane; the verbal torrent is what's coming in (loud and clear) over the phone.
Twain - sorry, Hal Holbrook the actor, who's in his late seventies and crotchety, like white-haired Mr. Clemens himself - finds the current conflict harder to discuss than, say, a perennial topic like big business.
"It's easy to know what he would think and to give yourself the permission to say what he would think of corruption and corporate stealing. That's easy -- you have direct quotes, you just leave out a few names. But when you come to war, there's a conundrum here. Now, 'Mark Twain hated war' - that's easy, and in essence, he did. Oh, at first, he was in favor of the [Spanish-American War], but then it turned bad, and he excoriated what we did in the Philippines. For example, in a piece called 'In Defense of General Funston,' which is a savage piece attacking our disgraceful behavior in the Philippines, where we committed unbelievable atrocities, killing women and children..."
Holbrook, who comes to Spokane this Saturday night, is known for his liberal views - he publicly opposed the Vietnam War from the outset ("though not like Susan Sarandon and those people"), and he played a gay man on television back in 1972, back before it was fashionable. So what about pulling out of Iraq?
"That's a major theme in my life right now," Holbrook admits, then launches into a surprising rumination. He has long used his one-man Twain show to voice some of his own views - like a ventriloquist, as it were - but this war is different. "I can touch upon certain truths," he says, "certain things that I know Twain would say. But there are areas I cannot get into fairly. I mean, I can't give an editorial for being in Iraq, and I can't give an editorial for getting out of Iraq -- before we should. Because I don't know for sure what Twain would think about that.
"So what I do is, I move back and take a broader look at the situation and I offer material that hopefully makes people think, that makes both the liberal and the conservative sides think about what they are [saying]."
I can sense the Holbrookian enthusiasm building. He's winding up to deliver a Twain curve ball.
"I had material [for the show] a few years ago - in fact, I used it right there in Spokane - but I have developed a whole lot more on the same theme, and the theme is 'petrified opinions.'
"I approach this subject to try to make people think no matter what their partisanship happens to be. It starts out, 'The same way in politics. ...'" He pauses, mumbles, finding his place in one of the 14 hours of monologues that he has squirreled away in his brain. "'All Republicans are insane - but not one of them knows it.' In a Republican area of the country, the laugh on that is not so big, but it's huge from the Democrats. But if I say the Democrats are all insane, and I'm in a Republican area, huge laugh - but only the Republicans can perceive it.
"But here's the line, here's the killer line" - and the Twain voice grows stentorian -- "'The rule is perfect: In all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane.'"
"Now that's like dropping a big drop of poison down the throat of everybody out there, no matter what side of the fence they're on.
"Then you pause and go back to the lectern, and you start in on the new stuff. And then I say, 'All forms of religious and political opinion, including Republican and Democrat, are rich in shams and absurdities.'
The voice resumes. "You would think this might move us to be more charitable toward each other's lunacies, but it doesn't work that way, because we don't see our own lunacies. Our minds are petrified. We get out political opinions the same way we get our astronomy, by secondhand.
"If you could work the multiplication tables into a Republican platform at election time, the Democrats would vote it down."
He's in the zone now: "Then you go on, you set 'em up like that," he mumbles, more to himself than anything, and then:
"Our thought is petrified. It was once alive and awake, but it has become unconscious. It walks in its sleep, so to speak.
"If some wildcat tribe of religious fanatics should set about killing innocent people to prove its cause was right, their supporters would rise and applaud."
He lets the phrase hang between us. Twain's voice, more than a century later, isn't an indictment of Middle Eastern suicide bombers only.
When a man has done a show 2,000 times over half a century, his thoughts are going to turn to the significance of all those nights spent in Abilene, Texas, and Athens, Ohio - and for what? To impersonate a dead man?
"I've spent most of my life refusing to compare my own self to Mark Twain ... or to think I am like Mark Twain," says Holbrook. "And I have worked as hard as that as I have on anything in my life. I have worked to keep that separation, to keep that character over there. And I've done it not only for personal reasons - because it's sick to think that you are this character -- but also because of my career. I don't wanna get stuck with this guy, you know? I mean, I wanted a career - I wanted to do King Lear, and Death of a Salesman, and Shylock. I wanted to do sitcoms and movies -- and I did all that. But now I'm getting older and those jobs aren't coming to me anymore.
"So now I'm happily left with this wonderful gift, that by some truly strange fate I have kept in my pocket all these years, and now I'm opening it up and really looking at it, and untying the ribbon and taking the cover off and opening the box, and what I'm finding in the box after all these years is, 'I'm thinking I'm a lot like that old man was!' But seriously, you know what I feel? Gratitude. I feel intense gratitude.
"Mostly because I have a way to get my frustration out!"
Holbrook brings his political ventriloquism act to Spokane on Saturday night, impersonating a man who died in 1910, at the age of 75. Holbrook himself is 78. Opportunities like this only come around once every half-century.
Publication date: 10/23/03