Mark Twain Goes Overseas in the 1950s

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

The actor Hal Holbrook, who died in January of 2021, had a long and distinguished career.  He appeared on stage and in many motion pictures and television shows.  Those of us of a certain age especially remember his portrayal of “Deep Throat” in the 1976 movie All the President’s Men.  He is best known, however, for his portrayal of Mark Twain in a solo stage show that he originated called Mark Twain Tonight.  First performed in 1954, at a small college in Pennsylvania, the show eventually grew to have an international reputation.  He went on the Ed Sullivan Show in early 1956, even as he continued to refine and perfect the presentation.  In 1959, he performed at a party on the occasion of President Dwight Eisenhower’s birthday.  He last performed as Twain in 2017.

Holbrook as Twain holding a cigar
Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Mar 29, 2012 (University of Houston Special Collections)

After the Eisenhower birthday show, the Department of State sent the following circular to several American embassies asking about the usefulness of having Holbrook perform overseas and whether the show would be comprehensible to foreigners because it was “based on colloquial American concepts and mores.”  The reference to the “President’s Program” is to activities under the provisions of the International Cultural Exchange and Trade Fair Participation Act of 1956 (PL 84-860).  The law authorized the President to, among other things, send U.S. artists and athletes on overseas tours.

see above paragraph
Dept of State Instruction CA-3365, Subject: Cultural Presentations: President’s Program: Hal Holbrook, Oct 16, 1959

Abbott Washburn, the deputy director of the United States Information Agency, attached a note during the clearance process.  He noted that “[t]here is very little material in the Holbrook presentation that I would call colloquial.  It is 90% universal humor.  He had all 2800 guests at the President’s birthday press banquet . . . enthralled.”

The response from overseas was positive and the Department of State sponsored Holbrook on an extended European tour.  Sadly, there is almost nothing about the tour in the Department of State files preserved in the National Archives.

Source: Department of State to Belgrade, Bern, Bonn, Brussels, Copenhagen, The Hague, Helsinki, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Reykjavik, Rome, Stockholm, and Vienna, CA-3365, October 16, 1959, file 032 HOLBROOK, HAL/10-1659, 1955-59 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  The undated note by Washburn is attached.