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Twain portrayal shows how little times have changed

Joblessness, banking debacles and Wall Street greed sound a lot like life in today’s troubled times. Hal Holbrook’s recent Escondido portrayal of America’s seminal writer and social satirist drove home the point that human nature and capitalism have changed little over the past century.

Holbrook brought out the best of Mark Twain’s bite during his nearly sold-out performance at the California Center for the Arts. His show was held in conjunction with an Escondido speakers’ panel and other Twain-related events in that city to the south.

Having portrayed the American icon more than 2,100 times, Holbrook has become more like Twain than Twain himself.

April will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, whom William Faulkner described as “the father of American literature.”

Holbrook’s performance, which my wife treated me to, lived up to my expectations. It is said to be the last Twain tour for the 84-year-old, five-time Emmy Award winner who has appeared in more than 40 movies.

Holbrook, who was raised by a grandfather after his parents disappeared, began his Twain portrayals in 1954. He landed a spot on a daytime television soap opera before television variety show host Ed Sullivan gave Holbrook’s Twain national exposure.

He performed for President Eisenhower and became the first dramatic attraction to venture behind the Iron Curtain following World War II.

Holbrook has catalogued more than 16 hours of Twain material, and his show program noted that he can draw from more than 60 selections. He mined some of his best material for his Escondido performance. He skewered journalism, organized religion, Congress and a decay in the art of lying.

“History repeats itself,” Holbrook said in a drawn-out manner, a smoldering cigar firmly clenched between his fingers. His on-target remarks were as applicable to today’s bubble-burst economy as they were in the post-Civil War years in which Clements and thousands of other Americans turned west to forge new lives.

Just as the railroad barons populated Twain’s day, we have raptorial real estate tycoons, overrated chief executives and overaggressive hedge fund operators who put themselves ahead of their companies, their investors, their workers and their world.

Millions of Americans have watched in horror as their jobs, home equity and retirement hopes have vanished amid a smoke-and-mirrors economy.

And now, as in Twain’s day, society glorifies those at the top of the financial heap while looking down upon those who sweep floors, fix cars or farm the land. Twain called these financial lords the “deacons of the almighty dollar,” and noted that the Golden Rule had been relegated to antiquated furniture of his day.

“Money has become more respectable than virtue,” Holbrook said in that portion of his performance. “People have learned to bow down and worship money and the men who earned it, no matter how it had been received.”

He went on to say that many people will believe whatever they hear as long as the information is delivered with a straight face.

“We’ve gotten rid of the notion that stealing is not respectable,” Holbrook continued. “It’s like a blight, a paralysis.”



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