Photograph courtesy of Mills "Mac" Edwards Jr., R'67
Photograph courtesy of Mills "Mac" Edwards Jr., R'67

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the trouble began, when all the wrong elements began to align in all the wrong ways so that on a spring night in 1938, Orson Welles stabbed Joseph Holland, R’32, with a bright steel hunting knife on a Broadway stage in plain view of hundreds.

Maybe it started to go wrong on the late summer day in 1937 when Holland, by then well-known on Broadway, said yes to the title part in a new theater company’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In exchange, he got the Equity minimum $40 a week and what producer John Houseman later called “a dubious sliding scale based on an improbable weekly gross.”

Maybe it was that fall, when Welles emerged from a 10-day retreat in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to present his reworked script and a “suitcase full of notes” for a political statement via a modern, fascist-themed Caesar staged with “speed and violence,” he said.

Maybe it was the rehearsal when Welles, as Brutus, threw his dagger at the stage floor in the crucial assassination scene and it stuck, quivered, and reflected an oh-so-right glint of light back at Welles. Other actors later switched to rubber knives, but Welles’ steel one had to be kept after that, even if the freak effect would never be repeated.

Whatever the soothsaying moment of warning, on the night of April 6, 1938, the on-stage stabbing of Caesar went wrong. Welles caught Holland with his blade in the chest and arm. Holland delivered his final lines — “Et tu, Bruté? Then fall, Caesar.” — and then dropped to the stage.

As the scene progressed and the conspirators scattered, one of the actors slipped on Holland’s blood and rose unsteady. Holland lay bleeding for another 10 to 15 minutes until Mark Antony’s “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war” and the stage went black. While the audience applauded in the darkness, worried cast members carried the now-limp Holland out a side door to a taxi, which sped him to Polyclinic Hospital on West 50th Street with his life in the balance after such loss of blood. He was only 27 years old.

The show went on, the actors continuing to slip on Holland’s blood throughout the night’s performance. By the final curtain, Houseman wrote, “it had been pretty well spread around and was beginning to dry.”

How could Holland find himself in such a predicament? What was the calculation behind the reckless choice that put a real blade in Welles’ hand night after night, near miss after near miss, for months on end? The risk is obvious, but what was the reward?

Then fall, Caesar
© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation

Perhaps more than any other storyteller, it's to the Bard we turn again and again to understand our contemporary lives and politics.

Directors and actors on stage and screen have long taken risks to preserve what English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Coleridge wanted his audience to let go of rational skepticism over the undead spirits that animated his poetry. His phrase has survived as useful shorthand for dramatists, whose success depends upon an audience losing awareness of the artifice of the performance they’re watching. It’s why some actors insist on doing their own stunts in films and others consent to being on the receiving end of the thrust of a real dagger. To preserve the illusion of the story, the staging must be seamless, with not a single crack breaking its spell.

It is only within this spell that a work of art can conjure a world that reflects back on our own. Welles’ spell in his landmark Casesar production — wrapping Shakespeare sparely in the trappings of Italian fascism — is an example of a common, if curious, impulse we have when it comes to Shakespeare. Perhaps more than any other storyteller, it’s to the Bard we turn again and again to understand our contemporary lives and politics.

We do it a lot. Just take Julius Caesar as an example. Last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Caesar by the Public Theater in New York drew outrage and headlines for its Donald Trump-like figure, but he was just the latest in a long line of doppelgangers who have delivered Caesar’s lines before falling. In its coverage of the controversy, CNN pointed out that Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair all got similar treatment. Playwright Tony Kushner, writing in the Los Angeles Times, described the Caesar of a 1991 production as “equal parts Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy — noble and dangerous all at once.”

Modern interpretations of other plays are just as numerous, from the reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet as interracial gang warfare in West Side Story to Ian McKellen’s marvelous Nazi-themed film version of Richard III. Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho reinvents Henry IV with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves on the back of a motorcycle; Heath Ledger made ’90s teen hearts throb in The Taming of the Shrew remake 10 Things I Hate About You; and Mekhi Phifer brought life to Othello as a lone black basketball player on a boarding school team in the Deep South in the 2001 film O.

“Humans love pattern matching,” said Kristin Bezio, associate professor in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies and an expert on Elizabethan drama. “We can’t help ourselves. It’s why we see monsters on the coat rack as a child. Your brain is trying to pattern-match everything.”

Shakespeare easily lends himself to such reinterpretation because it’s what he himself is doing in many of his plays, she said. His audience would have understood Julius Caesar, a play about the death of a Roman dictator, as a cautionary tale about the transfer of power in the waning years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who was clearly nearing the end but refused to name a successor.

“They were afraid of returning to the Wars of the Roses,” she said. “They didn’t want to see their country torn apart.”

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare offered his audience a woeful tale of civil war and considerable bloodshed, but even that would have a way of bringing comfort to uncertain times, she said.

“If we can provide an explanation for what’s happening now, we feel like we have control over it, even if we don’t,” she said. “Being able to put a label on something, it’s like a diagnosis. Even if the prognosis is not good, having a diagnosis actually makes us feel better because we at least know what we’re dealing with.”

Then fall, Caesar
Photograph by Russell Rowland

Four hundred years later, we’re using Shakespeare’s texts to do the same thing he did in his time. That’s partly a testament to this skill — “I like to think of him as the Steven Spielberg of the 17th century,” Bezio said — but also a result of historical accident. His highly accomplished contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, was also wildly popular but died young, she pointed out. A lot of Marlowe’s and other plays from the period are lost. Many of Shakespeare’s best plays — Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar among them — might have also been lost if not for the publication of The First Folio in 1623.

“If they hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be reading Shakespeare,” Bezio said. “We would be reading Ben Johnson. Was Shakespeare good at what he did? Absolutely. He made a lot of good choices, but when it comes right down to it, he wasn’t some kind of glorious genius. He is very much a posthumous beneficiary of dumb luck in a lot of ways.”

His dumb luck has turned out to be our good fortune as we continue to turn to his works again and again to understand ourselves, just as Welles did in his time. This past fall, a group of sophomores encountered a version of Shakespeare that aimed to shed light on a contemporary issue. They were enrolled in a course called A Life Worth Living taught by associate professor of Russian Joe Troncale. The reading list ranged from Plato and St. Augustine to Leo Tolstoy and J.M. Coetzee, all designed to help them understand the processes of self-discovery and self-understanding in their own lives. 

October’s fall break took them to a theater at Baruch College in New York City for a production of As You Like It (above) by a company called New Feet Productions. It depicted Shakespeare’s characters as modern refugees.

The company’s choice of play for this treatment was not obvious. As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays these days and a favorite of high schools. It’s full of disguises and other contrivances, like women dressing as men and then imitating women to pursue marriage in a forest called Arden. The action is usually conceived as a romantic comedy full of sweetness and light.

“I have to confess that it is a play that has always driven me slightly crazy,” said Jessica Bauman, who adapted the script and directed the production, called Arden/Everywhere: The As You Like It Project. “It’s always bugged me. One of the things is that the people in the forest always looked to me like they just stepped out of an L.L. Bean forest and were on their way to a picnic. Why aren’t those people starving?”

Most productions gloss over the premise that sets the play’s action in motion: An evil duke casts out his brother, niece, and others in a bid to seize power, banishing them to a forest. Bauman’s version treats their predicament seriously.

“They are on the run for their lives, living in the woods and living hand to mouth,” she said. “We have a word for people in that situation. Those people are refugees. The stakes are very serious.”

The production’s set evokes a refugee camp, with a mishmash of corrugated steel and wooden pallets that serve as walls and shelves. The characters inhabit a deliberately uncomfortable environment, with suggestions of deprivation and menace always looming, even as life goes on. In one scene, two main characters Rosalind and Celia have what should be a private conversation as they stand in line with others at a water pump. In other scenes, ensemble cast members are always crowding the background, kicking a soccer ball or lingering nearby trying to eavesdrop on the principal characters.

But the show’s most striking feature was its cast, made up of a mix of professional actors and non-professionals who were mostly college students. All of the non-professionals were immigrants or the children of immigrants. One was a resettled refugee. After the intermission, some of the actors broke character and took center stage to tell a bit of their stories with accents influenced by places like Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Uzbekistan, Liberia, and Russia.

“It was my favorite part of the show,” said Emilie Erbland, ’20, one of the students on the New York trip. “Shakespeare stopped for a moment as real people came out from behind the roles. I became more interested in the play after that point. I didn’t realize the set was portraying a refugee camp in the first half of the show. I think that speaks volumes about how we think of refugee camps. It made me sort of snap out of that Shakespeare funk and realize this is about real lives.”

Joseph Holland was a long way from home when Orson Welles stabbed him in the service of anti-fascism. The leading man with the booming voice and chiseled jaw was a small-town Virginia boy who grew up in Franklin, a community of 5,000 surrounded by peanut and cotton farms. His stage acting career began late in high school and then began to flourish at the University of Richmond. He made the first dramatic speech ever performed in the then-new Jenkins Greek Theater and played Othello there to help celebrate his commencement.

“I was born saying ‘To be or not to be,’” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which covered some of his performances.

Then fall, Caesar
Photographs courtesy of Mills "Mac" Edwards Jr., R'67

After college, he left for two years of training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and then made his debut on Broadway, where he performed in 22 plays from 1934 to 1957. He was a proud Spider, too, returning to campus in 1935 to perform the title role in Richard III at the Greek Theater. His return prompted a thank-you note from Westhampton’s first dean, May Keller, who had apparently never seen him perform before. “I confess that your acting surprised me,” she wrote, “even after all I had heard.”

His Broadway debut came in a production of Romeo and Juliet staged by the Katharine Cornell Company. Signing on with Cornell was a major step in Holland’s career. She was nationally famous — “indisputably a reigning Broadway star of the second quarter of the century,” wrote The New York Times. Holland played opposite her in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan and alongside such leading figures as Tyrone Power and Charlton Heston in other plays. The legendary Martha Graham was the choreographer of the 1934 production of Romeo and Juliet in which Holland had a small part. That was also the production where Holland first met the 19-year-old Orson Welles, a talented eccentric with a violent temper.

Yes, that Orson Welles. The man who would later send unwitting listeners into a panic with War of the Worlds. The man who made Citizen Kane, a film critics still consistently rank as America’s greatest cinematic achievement.

If Holland’s career was steadily developing when they met, Welles’ was about to take off, accelerated by work he was simultaneously doing on CBS Radio, which was making him a star. Early in his 20s, Welles — filled with “terrible energy and boundless ambition,” as the producer Houseman put it — directed a New Deal-era Federal Theater Project production of Macbeth that challenged the politics of the day with its all-black cast. When Houseman and Welles both found themselves pushed out of productions in 1937, Welles — as Houseman tells the story — turned to him one day after supper and said, “Why the hell don’t we start a theater of our own?” Julius Caesar, with Holland in the title role, would be the first production of the newly christened Mercury Theatre. Its bold, modern production propelled Welles’ reputation ever higher.

In the many volumes written about Welles, Holland’s stabbing is often a slightly sensational aside, if it appears at all. In his memoir, Houseman — later of The Paper Chase fame — introduces it as “a less comic incident” after an anecdote about an errant fire alarm and sprinkler deluge during a performance. He treats the Holland episode seriously but dispassionately over three paragraphs, concluding with, “We paid his hospital bills, and he never sued us.”

It took Holland a month to recover and return to the role. In it, he was receiving acclaim and advancing his career, too. New York theater critics called him “striking and powerful as Caesar” and a “full-bodied Caesar alive and vital enough to explain all Brutus’s misgivings.” He finished the run, which lasted 157 performances, but never worked with Welles again. He stayed on Broadway, though, often taking roles in other Cornell productions of varying success. He also served during World War II for four years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Then fall, Caesar
Photographs courtesy of Mills "Mac" Edwards Jr., R'67

Critics called Holland a 'full-bodied Caesar - alive and vital enough to explain all Brutus's misgivings.' It took him a month to recover and return to the role.

When he returned, his profession was shifting under his feet. As the film industry matured and the television industry developed, the nation’s entertainment center of gravity shifted west to Southern California. Holland took parts in touring shows, including a 30-week, 30,000-mile stretch in 1948 and 1949 playing Hamlet and Macbeth in cities from Ames, Iowa, to Walla Walla, Washington. In the mid-1950s, he moved west, settling in an area of Hollywood Hills called Nichols Canyon, where many stars lived. He landed minor film and television roles, including on Peter Gunn and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In the early 1960s, he started to invest in real estate and bought an apartment complex near UCLA and several houses. He and his partner Vincent Newton shifted gears to a contented, successful life as landlords, according to his cousin and fellow Spider, Mills “Mac” Edwards Jr., R’67, who got to know him later in life. Holland and Newton eventually retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Holland died in 1994.

Holland’s decades of scrapbooks and other memorabilia eventually ended up in Edwards’ hands. In 2017 he donated them to the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Collection, where they are today. Sometimes, when Edwards and his husband Reggie Birks would fly out to Los Angeles for visits, Edwards would ask his famous cousin about his Broadway days and the stabbing incident, but drawing out details was difficult. Welles may have taken the artistic risk, but Holland was the one who had borne the cost.

“Joe rarely talked about this unless pressed,” Edwards said. “One time, I asked him what he would do if he saw Orson Welles walking down the street toward him. He told me, ‘I’d turn and go the other way.’”

Sometimes, depending what shirt Holland wore, the scars were still visible.