In fact, her experience at Reed greatly informs her approach to writing plays. For example, seeing a collegiate production of Aristophanes' antiwar satire The Acharnians impressed her greatly. "Seeing Aristophanes was a big revelation," Holden says. "Aristophanes was out. Crazy. Nutty. I never thought that Greek plays would be like that." Besides the classical influences, her work displays a Reed sense of humor, which she describes as being "wry . . . a little tripped-out . . . self-mocking."
Her social activism, however, predated Reed. "I'm from Berkeley," she says, laughing, by way of explanation. Her social conscience "wasn't formed at Reed, and it couldn't have been formed at Reed. There was no political culture at Reed when I was there. It wasn't an intellectually respectable thing to do, to care about politics." The political passivity, she believes, was "the fallout from McCarthyism, which had passed through Reed a few years before."
Reed's emphasis on Demosthenes over demonstrations doesn't lower her appreciation for the college, however. "I loved Reed," she says, speaking, as she does, almost in italics. "I liked my professors, I liked my classes. I was almost never bored. I stayed in the library every night, consuming everything. Now, I'm glad I didn't get diverted into politics, and that I studied hard back then.
"What I learned at Reed was to not be afraid of asking tough questions. To follow the truth wherever it led." These days Holden, whose daughter, Lily Chumley, attends Reed, combines the intellectual rigor she learned at Reed with her social activism. "There's not a contradiction between passion and critical thinking," she points out. "You really can be passionate and keep a clear head at the same time."
As it turns out, I'm off the hook. There are plenty of words besides "intense" or "feisty" for describing Joan Holden: impassioned, articulate, droll, and serious are a few that come to mind. And I needn't have worried for my safety. She may not be shy about expressing her opinions, but Holden is as easily bemused by the human comedy as she is outraged. She understands, as Rosencrantz tells the young prince of Denmark, that "if you delight not in man, what lenten entertainment the players shall receive from you."
Matthew Burtch '82 is a freelance writer in San Francisco. This is his first article for Reed.