“There is a secret but isolated joy in writing judicial opinions. I know that, a hundred years after I am buried and forgotten, men who have never heard of me will still be moving to the measure of my thought.”
This excerpt from HOLMES, a new play about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, has certainly proven itself to be true. The play, a staged reading of which is set to premiere on Oct. 30, 2023, in Washington, D.C., chronicles the life of the justice, who sat on the bench for nearly three decades in the early 20th century.
The one-man show finds Holmes on the morning and early afternoon of his 90th birthday in 1931. He paces back and forth in his personal library while pondering one of the most significant speeches of his career. As the world struggles with the onset of the Great Depression, Holmes has been asked to make a nationwide address. It is daunting and exhilarating, and he must find a topic that will live up to the monumental task.
The play covers all the events that have led him to this moment. As a Massachusetts native and staunch abolitionist, Holmes was a 20-year-old Harvard graduate when he enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. In the script, Holmes recounts the wounds he suffered at the battle of Antietam and the loss of his college friends, many of whom were around his age. His memories of the war followed him throughout his life and to the Court. When they served together on the Court, Chief Justice Edward Douglas White, despite having fought for the Confederate Army, gave Holmes a bouquet of flowers every year to honor those who lost their lives. Holmes would often tear up when discussing the war, which has led some to believe that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Through his deliberations, this version of Holmes also gives viewers insight into how Supreme Court justices decide cases and reach their decisions. He says in the play that he begins this task by first reviewing the decisions of the lower court justices, whom he compares to “cuttlefish … [seeking] protection for their feeble intellects in the obscurity of an inky cloud of words.” He then tells viewers about the challenge of interpreting the Constitution in a way that balances what the Founding Fathers wanted with what the nation needs — an unsurprising take from one of the Court’s more moderate justices.
The play is the result of meticulous research by Todd C. Peppers, a law professor at Washington Lee University who studies judicial behavior and Supreme Court history. Peppers first became interested in Supreme Court history during his research as a graduate student at Emory University and his clerkships with Judges Thomas M. Shanahan and Glen E. Conrad. Through his research, he became particularly interested in Holmes and his relationship with his clerks. “I think he is one of the most interesting figures in Supreme Court history,” Peppers said.
As he conducted research on Justice Holmes, he created a glossary of the Justice’s best anecdotes and one-liners. The list expanded until it resembled a loose narrative. Peppers saw that the quotes deserved to be read and appreciated. Then, it came to him — he should add them to a play. Relying on his theater background from high school and college and other one-man plays about historical figures such as “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” and “The Belle of Amherst,” he began to draft a script.
Peppers shared his research with Clare Cushman, the Supreme Court Historical Society’s director of publications. Cushman soon realized that, within the compilation of Justice Holmes’s best quotes, there was a real play that would resonate with audiences. She helped Peppers develop the storyline and remained on the project as a dramaturg, a literary adviser who gives advice to cast and crew throughout a theatrical production.
Cushman also recruited Mary Hall Surface to direct the play. As a recipient of the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical, Surface was more than prepared for the task. Peppers and Cushman impressed her with their extensive research. Of course, Holmes’s writings were the most appealing aspect of the project. His letters and speeches contain a level of wit and an intimate view of the mind of a Justice that are rare, especially from the early 20th century.
When looking for an actor to play the clever Justice Holmes, Surface didn’t need to look far from home. Her husband, veteran actor Kevin Reese, was eager to take on the role. He is no stranger to one-man plays or to Washington theaters. He did note several challenges with this character, which he has compared to King Lear from the titular Shakespeare play. Reese commented that it is a unique experience, as a man in his 60s, to play a 90-year-old justice and war veteran. Because the script is so long, the play will also be performed as a staged reading, meaning Reese will have access to his lines during the production.
Cushman said one of her favorite features of the play is its portrayal of Holmes’s marriage to his wife, Fanny. Despite having no children, the couple maintained a playful atmosphere in their home. Fanny was known for pranking her husband and making jokes about life in the nation’s capital. She even purchased a fake “ink spot” to make it look as though her husband had spilled ink on his Supreme Court documents.
Peppers also hopes to shed light on a justice who came from a background very different from that of many judges today. Holmes was the son of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a well-known Bostonian writer. His father possibly inspired many of his common and witty phrases. His experiences in the war after attending Harvard also likely shaped his life in a way that few modern judges or justices could imagine. In this sense, the play is truly taking a step backwards in time.
The 75-minute staged reading will take place at 7 p.m. on Oct. 30, 2023. Viewers can purchase tickets to attend the show at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court Historical Society will host a reception following the performance.
For those who don’t live in the D.C. area, the play will be recorded and screened around the country. The play will be recorded by a three-camera crew so nationwide audiences can get the full theatrical experience. This way, Holmes’s turns-of-phrase will make their way across the country to teach audiences about this phenomenal Supreme Court Justice. As Cushman put it, “there’s no point in paraphrasing when you have the master’s words.”
Celia Janes is a third-year student at Duke Law who is originally from Orange County, Calif. She has developed interests in various constitutional issues while at Duke, including the Full Faith and Credit Clause and reproductive rights. Prior to law school, Celia attended UCLA, where she majored in History and double minored in Society and Genetics as well as Global Health. After she graduates from law school, she will serve as a law clerk in Santa Ana, Calif. She then plans to practice healthcare regulatory law. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and reading historical fiction and fantasy.
- Holmes – the world premiere of a new play: Schs event. Supreme Court Historical Society. (2023, September 19). Retrieved September 23, 2023, from https://supremecourthistory.org/supreme-court-historical-society-events/2023-1030-holmes-world-premiere/
- HOLMES — The World Premiere. (n.d.). Eventbrite. Retrieved September 23, 2023, from https://www.eventbrite.com/e/holmes-the-world-premiere-tickets-707871632107
- Oliver Wendell Holmes. (n.d.). Arlington National Cemetery. Retrieved September 23, 2023, from https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Notable-Graves/Supreme-Court/Oliver-Wendell-Holmes#:~:text=After%2029%20years%20of%20service,Court%20of%20the%20United%20States.
- Todd C. Peppers. Washington and Lee University. (n.d.). Retrieved September 23, 2023, from https://law.wlu.edu/faculty/affiliated-faculty/todd-peppers