By Hal Holbrook ’48

More from Hal Holbrook's autobiography, Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain

(The following chapter has been excerpted from HAROLD: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain by Hal Holbrook, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Hal Holbrook. All rights reserved.)

“Ed, have you got any kids at that college who can do drayma?” It was Harry Byrd Kline, the school assembly booker out of Dallas, Texas, talking. Ed had met him at the International Platform Association convention at Lakeside, Ohio.

“Oh yes,” said Ed. “I have a young couple who will be the next Lunts.”

“Well. Do they have a show?”

“Oh yes,” said Ed, and waited.

“Well. What kind of a show? It has to be educational for me to book it in the schools.”

“Oh, it’s educational. They do Shakespeare, you know, Hamlet, and they do Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and those poets the
Brownings. And Mark Twain.”

“How long is the show? I need fifty minutes.”

“That’s just how long it is. It can be longer or shorter.”

“Well, I can offer them thirty weeks in the schools in Texas and Oklahoma and I’ll pay them two hundred ten dollars a week plus fifteen dollars for gas and oil. Do you think they might be interested?”

“I think they might be.”

“What are their names?”

“The Holbrooks. Hal and Ruby.”

When Ed finished performing this conversation for us, he said, “If you and Ruby are interested, you can use it as Hal’s senior honors project and have a show ready by next fall.”

Ruby and I talked it over and then we dove at it. We would get paid for acting? A miracle. We figured Ruby could make the costumes. Growing up in Newfoundland, you learned to use a sewing machine because you made your own dresses. The closet scene between Hamlet and his mother, the one I had done in Cleveland, would fit in, along with scenes Ed had suggested: the shaving scene from Victoria Regina in which Helen Hayes had scored brilliantly in the mid-1930s; the ring scene from Maxwell Anderson’s Elizabeth the Queen, which had provided another triumph for the Lunts in 1930; a scene between Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which I would attempt to write; and a sketch Ed gave us by Mark Twain called “An Encounter with an Interviewer.” “This will give Hal a chance to play old in one scene.”

Meanwhile, I’d signed up for the directing course, and my production of Hedda Gabler was to come first. The way you got a passing grade in the directing class was droll and unique. Ed gave you $100. With that you had to cast the play, design and build the scenery, light the show, advertise it, and print and sell tickets as well as direct it. You ran two nights in Denison’s “off- Broadway” Studio Theatre and to get a passing credit you had to give Ed back the $100. I went for the best actors I could get—Dick Welsbacher for Judge Brack; Henry Sutton for Tesman; Martha Prater, a rather plain but spirited girl, for Thea; diminutive Pat Cessna as Aunt Juliana; and Ken Telford, the Adonis of Much Ado, for Eilert Lovborg. There remained Hedda. Martha Harter was tall and willowy, with a mane of hair flowing back from a nearly classic face with high cheekbones. I didn’t know if she could pull the role off, because she simply hadn’t had a chance to show that kind of speed yet. I cast her and prayed. I knew only one thing for sure: she would wear red.

The 1890 translation by Edmund Gosse was so stiff and formal that I did some doctoring and wound up retranslating some of his translation of Henrik Ibsen. I knew the scenery had to be cheap, so I went into a celestial séance with Robert Edmond Jones and came up with the idea of a “semi-realistic space stage.” It maybe cost $25. Three old repainted flats with furniture set in front of them, surrounded by black drapes. There were no doors. The actors just disappeared into darkness between the flats, praying they wouldn’t be crippled by the stage braces. I don’t recall much about my directorial technique, since I had to make it up as I went along. I found out pretty quick that good casting did 90 percent of the job for you, and I was lucky there with nearly everyone. Martha Harter as Hedda was the only one I had to work on because she had the highest bar to clear from the lowest standing start, and it was a tough leap for a socially corseted young woman; but she was a courageous person who saw her opportunity and pushed herself into a good performance, flashing those pistols around to keep the audience at attention.

May I say that my advertising brain wave was a masterstroke? I told the printer to make two hundred small flyers on the cheapest brown paper he had, with the following message in red:

October 16 & 17

I plastered them on every pole and tree around the campus and the village. Nobody knew who in the name of Houdini this Hedda person was, if it was a person, or where he, she, or it was coming from, but they were damn sure they were not going to miss it and they didn’t. We had standing room only. The most embarrassing part of the whole adventure was that my literature teacher, Eleanor Shannon, whom I vastly admired, could not get a seat.

When Ruby and I began rehearsing our little show that had no name yet, I assumed the role of director and Ruby graciously held her peace. We sought out vacant classrooms for our rehearsals and started with the Hamlet scene. I pounded and pummeled it while Ruby dodged her way into the character of Gertrude, queen mother of the seamy bed. I believe her method was to find out what the character was doing first and then do it, while my approach was the reverse: do it and then discover what I was doing wrong. It must have worn severely upon Ruby’s patience. For a comedy number, we took the two forest scenes from As You Like It and spliced them together around a soliloquy to make one continuous twelve-minute scene. Since one of the empty classrooms we stole into for rehearsals had a piano bench, that became our only prop, and I ended up making a breakdown bench in white for the tour. It was the only scenery we trouped for thirty thousand miles when As You Like It turned into our opening number. We consulted costume books for the period styles and Ruby made two brown tunics and off-white shirts with billowy sleeves for Rosalind and Orlando, but we didn’t know where we’d get the money for the fancy fabrics needed for Queen Elizabeth, Essex, Hamlet, Victoria and Albert, and the Brownings. And we would need a car.

The Mark Twain sketch was a problem. I thought it was the corniest thing I’d ever read. I didn’t want to tell Ed that because it might hurt his feelings, since some of the stuff he did in his solo show was so far out in the cornfield that it would have been embarrassing if he weren’t so brilliant at it. Finally I had to say it: “Ed, I think this Mark Twain thing is pretty corny. I don’t think it’s funny.”

“Why don’t you and Ruby work on it and let me see it?”

So we worked on it, with Ruby playing the Interviewer, who asks the usual questions but is baffled by Twain’s moronic responses. “How old are you?” “Nineteen in June.” “Whom do you consider the most remarkable man you ever met?” “George Washington.” “But how could you have ever met George Washington if you’re only nineteen years old?” “If you know more about me than I do, what do you ask me for?” In a disenchanted mood we showed it to Ed.

“I see why you don’t think this is funny. You’re not getting the point, Hal. This is a man with a sense of humor who’s dealing with a person with no sense of humor. Why don’t you keep working on it.”

An opportunity came along to join up with Dick and Betty Welsbacher for a performance in the suicide ward of the Chillicothe Veterans Hospital. They would sing and act and we would do the Mark Twain sketch. We were led into a large room with windows too high to climb out of and a lot of bewildered-looking guys shifting around making grunting sounds and turning away, an alarming-looking crowd for a theatrical debut. We moved two chairs and a table into position, set an ashtray on the table and lit the cigar, and waited for
our introduction by an attendant with big biceps. There was no applause.

At first we held their attention because they didn’t know who these people were, what they were doing in the room, or why we were talking to each other instead of them. This unnerved them, and they started looking up at the windows, muttering to themselves as if planning an escape. Some of them stopped and looked back at us as if we were dangerous. There were others who continued to stare at us, rooted to the spot and clearly afraid to move. One of them made what I thought was a laughing sound, but without the merriment in it, and then another guy looked at him and did the laughing sound, too. He looked at another fellow, as if to pass it along, and the laughing sound moved around the room until it collected the attention of the guys who wanted to get out through the windows, and they chimed in. The only trouble was, no one was looking at us. They were looking at each other or empty space and laughing. We didn’t know whether to wait for these laughs or just keep going. Could this be an audience response? In the car on the way home I tried to snatch some useful critique of our work from this tryout performance. “Some of that growling and snorting could have been laughs. In the Twain scene, remember that part about George Washington? Where I said, ‘I attended his funeral’? Wasn’t that a laugh, that big sound there?” There was a rueful silence from Ruby and the Welsbachers, but a few weeks later we got our answer when we played the Rotary Club in nearby Newark. They laughed at the same places where the people in the suicide ward had made grunting sounds, so either the Rotarians were crazy or the guys in the ward were saner than they looked.

For the scene about the Brownings we got the idea to create an imaginary encounter in which Elizabeth presented Robert with a poem she had written for him: “How Do I Love Thee?” I researched the Brownings and gave it my best literary shot (I had won the poetry prize in my freshman year), and it served us pretty well, depending a great deal on Ruby’s classically romantic Mrs. Browning, a strong-minded, spirited woman caged by the physical boundaries of her infirmity. This scene would be a chancy one in the schools but a knockout in the women’s clubs we would play in the future. Robert Browning was a stretch for me because even though I was considered handsome, I never felt handsome, and that is its own infirmity.

The costume changes were going to be the big hurdle. How to change from Hamlet and Gertrude to Mark Twain and the Interviewer in—what—fifty seconds? We planned to use music and would troupe a tape recorder, but how long could the musical interludes hold the audience between scenes? Thirty seconds tops. A device was needed. An introduction to each scene from in front of the curtain would serve multiple purposes. One, it would allow us to plunge right into each scene without a lot of exposition to bog down the action. Two, it would allow the actor who needed to start the next scene to get into makeup and costume during the introduction and then be onstage doing something for thirty seconds while the actor who made the introduction was slapping on a wig or beard and the new costume. And three, it would allow each of us to come before the curtain in a dressing gown and be seen as our own sweet self.

The inspiration for this simple device came from a couple of seasoned troupers who had played the school assembly circuits for years, Jack Rank and Jay Johnson. This exotic pair were friends of Ed’s from the old Chautauqua days. He sent us over to Newark to watch them put on their astonishing production of Macbeth. Jack Rank played all the parts while Jay changed costumes on him as he passed behind a screen upstage. Jack would be in the midst of a speech as Macbeth and disappear behind the screen for maybe seven or eight seconds—still emoting in a voice ripened by years of projection in school auditoriums across America— and then pop out on the other side as Lady Macbeth: “But screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail!” With variations of pitch and timbre in that aged-in-gravel voice commanding the stage, no one in that high school audience dared move. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth both had the balls of an angry elephant. It was a marvelous theatrical experience and these two troupers gave us advice and warned us of the pitfalls to come, the truest professionals in the finest tradition of the theater.

With the startling memory of Jack’s changes of voice and character, we worked on the roles we would play with an ear for variety, and Ruby devised costumes that could be underdressed or overdressed as required, with snaps or a hook and eye in strategic places. These were the days before Velcro, so steady hands were required. Off with Orlando’s tunic, shoes, and green tights, Hamlet’s black tights underdressed. On with his shoes and the introduction bathrobe. Dash to the opening in the curtain, dousing the music en route, step through it calmly, and introduce the closet scene while Ruby gets out of green tights and tunic, redoes her hair, slips on Gertrude’s nightgown and robe, and gets into place onstage. I finish the introduction and cue the curtain puller on the way to our improvised dressing area just offstage. Ruby starts the scene in pantomime while I throw off the bathrobe, slip into the black Hamlet tunic, zip it up, buckle on a sword, and enter. Precision and practice. Precision and practice.

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