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Column: In Transit
by Russell Banks

5 November 2005

Unseasonably warm, more like late August in upstate New York than early November, the fields pale gold in slanting sunlight, the oak-covered hills and hummocks bronzed with leaves still clinging to the branches, as we drive west across the state from the Hudson Valley to the Turning Stone Casino, owned and operated by the Oneida tribe of Indians. It’s a family outing, occasioned by my mother-in-law’s 79th birthday. Annie Twichell, mother of my wife Chase, has said that for her birthday she wants to see Hal Holbrook’s one-man performance in which he impersonates on stage for two hours the greatest American writer, Mark Twain, and Chase and her two sisters, Eliza and Cary, have talked me into facilitating the event, a facilitation I did not argue with very strenuously.

Russell BanksI have never been to one of the proliferating, incredibly successful, Indian casinos, and as someone who visits Las Vegas casinos once or twice a year mainly to play blackjack, I am more than mildly curious about how they operate, who goes there,and how they compare to the big casinos on the Vegas Strip. And though I have little interest in seeing Hal Holbrook’s legendary portrayal of Twain on stage and prefer to encounter the author himself on the page, still, it’s worth checking out the reasons for the enormous, forty-year-long popularity of the act. Is it for Twain’s words, or is it for the actor in a white suit, drooping moustache, froth of white hair, that for decades people have filled theaters across the country and keep on doing so, even when they no longer read Twain himself? And, too, it pleases my wife and two sisters-in-law, and it seems important also to my mother-in-law, Annie. I love these four women, and the three sisters are direct descendants of Mark Twain’s dearest, life-long friend. My wife’s and her sisters’ great-grandfather was the Reverend Joseph Twichell, the Hartford, Connecticut, Congregationalist minister who traipsed all over Europe with Twain and was the model for several of his characters, who married Twain to his beloved Olivia, who presided over the burial of two of Twain’s children and then, finally, of Twain himself. Mark Twain is regarded in the Twichell family as a sort of great-uncle. So this is a family affair, as well as a literary mission, and also a bit of show business, for the Hal Holbrook act is an old Broadway favorite and is apparently, according to the reviews, entertaining.

More entertaining to me, at least at first, is the casino itself, located way out in the rolling hills of central New York State, far from any metropolitan area, inaccessible except by car, surrounded by farmland, small, desolate towns, trailer-parks, RV campgrounds, and truck-stops. Then suddenly we come upon a vast complex of buildings that resembles a gigantic space-ship set down in the middle of mid-America, except that it’s in the middle of the Oneida Indian Reservation. There are poured concrete plinths the size of houses set out like ceremonial stones in the parking area, a cavernous lobby with waterfalls and rough (poured concrete) rock walls, boutiques selling Indian jewelry and crafts. We learn that there is no alcohol available at the casino or at any of the restaurants, that in fact there’s no alcohol for sale anywhere on the Reservation; we’ll have to drive into the town of Oneida, ten miles away, to buy a few bottles of wine for the evening. Which we do. They sell cigarettes by the carton tax-free in bulk everywhere on the Reservation and even have a special tobacco outlet in the casino, but the explanation for no alcohol is that the state and federal government are unable to tax liquor, so therefore the Indians are not permitted to sell it. Sounds spurious to me. They can’t tax tobacco or gasoline, either, but sell it all over the Reservation. Sounds more like some 18th century federal law against alcohol being sold on Indian reservations, not by Indians, but by white people to Indians. So now the Indians can’t sell it back to the white people.

After a dreary dinner in a Chinese restaurant located in the casino a short ways off the “game room” – a crowded space the size of an airport filled with slot machines and the usual range of gambling tables – we find our seats in the Showroom for the Hal Holbrook “Mark Twain Tonight” show. We sit up front, close to the stage. My wife Chase has sent a note backstage to Holbrook telling him that direct descendants of Reverend Joseph Twichell are in the audience. As it happens, I participated in a very popular TV documentary about Twain by Ken Burns, as did Hal Holbrook, and she says that I am here also. We were both commentators, talking heads saying obvious things about Twain from our somewhat different perspectives, his as an actor long accustomed to portraying Twain, mine as a novelist long accustomed to writing in the shadow of Twain. And what can I say about the performance? It was not so much the imitation of the author that thrilled me as it was the presence of the author that emerged from his words, his astonishing relevance to the world that surrounds us today, his biting criticism of politicians and religious hypocrites, his anger at US imperialism, government corruption and incompetence, his dismay in the face of the racism of his fellow-citizens. The old man doing a slightly histrionic impression of Mark Twain (Hal Holbrook is over eighty, and while still surprisingly energetic, his age shows) was slightly depressing to me. What’s this old man doing, still out there on the stage for two hours, and here, of all places, in an Indian casino in the middle of New York State, when he could be kicking back on the beach in Santa Monica writing his memoirs? But it did occur to me that maybe he’s doing it simply because he still is in love with the text, with the words of the man he imitates. Maybe he loves saying those words aloud to other people.

An assistant came to our seats and escorted us backstage to meet with Mr. Holbrook. Sweetly, he had inserted several references to Reverend Twichell from Twain’s writings into the performance, which of course had thrilled the four Twichells. They were photographed with the actor, and he expressed his pleasure at being in the presence of women descended from the best friend of Mark Twain, as if they were distant relatives of Hal Holbrook, too. Later, after the others went to their rooms and to bed, Chase and I played blackjack. She won a little over thirty dollars; I lost about thirty.

Full article available in Salmagundi No. 150-151.
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