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  Accidents in a moral universe
Commencement speech by Lee Blessing ’71
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The nostalgia section of these remarks will be limited, because after 30 years, I have only one memory left of my days here: hunching half-nude and freezing in an oil drum while my erstwhile roommate Eric Overmyer got all the good lines in Professor Roger Porter’s production of Endgame. Thanks again, Roger.

Years ago a screenwriter friend of mine—a very successful one—told me that one of the secrets of his craft was rapidly to alternate success and failure in his central character’s fortunes.

In practical terms, it means that a sequence might go something like this: our herois awakened by songbirds on a gorgeous spring morning.

He starts to rise, only to find himself wincing in pain from a terrible hangover. Groggy, he stumbles to the bathroom and wretches up whatever ungodly poisons he imbibed the night before. Coffee cup shaking in his hand, he opens the door, retrieves the paper and peers at the lottery results. He’s won! He’s won millions! He screams for joy, dives toward a pile of clothes on the floor and sprains his knee. Whimpering with pain—and exhilarated by unbridled greed—he fumbles through the empty depths of his wallet until he discovers the ticket, bent and stained—but a winner, a winner all the same: the gateway to a future of unimagined power, luxury, and ease! There’s a knock at the door. Overjoyed, he limps across the room and opens it to find his bookie, accompanied by a man so large only parts of him can be glimpsed through the doorframe. Our hero owes money—a vast sum. He begs for time. The large man reaches into the apartment and compresses our hero’s trachea until he delivers up the lottery ticket with a painful smile. The twin nightmares go away. Still in his robe, unshaven, gasping for breath, our hero collapses in a chair. The phone rings. It’s a prospective employer. He’s told that he can interview for the job he’s always wanted, but he has to show up now, this very morning. Even though he isn’t dressed, he rushes out into the beautiful day, so elated he forgets that he lives on the second floor, and tumbles down the stairs to the sidewalk below.

As he regains consciousness, he realizes the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen is peering down at him. Love at first sight is such an insufficient phrase for what he feels. Just then, our hero sees his parents approach. “Oh, good!” says his mother, “You’ve finally met your second cousin!” “What’s the matter, Son?” his father asks, “You’re not dressed. It’s time for your commencement.”

For some reason—perhaps not for any profound one—this simple, mechanical alternation of good and bad fortune commands our attention. It’s roughly analogous I suppose to a trick another friend taught me: that if you alternate sweet and salty snack foods you can actually eat all night long.

Why then do I recall it for you here and now? Because you are graduating. You are leaving this condition and heading out into
a world of moral choices as varied, complex, immediate, and unrelenting as the events in our hero’s morning. Whatever path you take, whatever field or fields you choose to enter, the one constant you will find is that moral challenges await you. At every step you will have to decide who you are. And who you are will change.

Take for example my screenwriter friend. He doesn’t speak to me now. I suppose if I called him up we could have a strained, rather formal interaction that masqueraded as a friendly talk. But it wouldn’t be that, and we’d both know it. You see, a year ago I was divorced from a woman I’d been with for more than 18 years. The screenwriter and his wife had been our best friends. Now they’ve had to choose between my ex and me. What is the morality of this situation? None of us saw it coming. Perhaps concepts like good and bad don’t apply. Yet all of us are profoundly changed. And all of us must survive.

I saw a play recently—not mine, so I can praise it—in which the central character’s first line is, “Fifteen years ago I killed my sister.” We learn that it was an accident, that she was a little girl who ran without looking into the street and was struck by his car. He wasn’t charged with any crime. But he can’t get over what happened. It has poisoned his life, and the life of their parents.

In the accident, the little girl was decapitated. Just a random fact, but it haunts them all. The mother is institutionalized for depression, the father comes close to murdering his son, and the son runs away for good to become—what else?—a writer. What, I ask myself, is the morality of this story? Why must the writers of plays go to such places at all? Why must we follow them?

Lee Blessing



Art, I think, is a kind of breathing. It develops in us aesthetic and spiritual “lungs,” as it were. It keeps us from suffocating in this world’s atmosphere of inevitable tragedy, misfortune, and horror. I would love to tell you all—there would be no sweeter feeling in the world than to be able to tell you—that your lives will not endure pain, that you will not lose those closest to you, that all your marriages will work, that all your children will be loved and loving, and that all your careers will bloom. But you are not fools. You know as well as I that suffering attends us all. We are shaken by great successes and great failures. We endure obscurity, insult, humiliation, and the inexhaustible pettiness of human relations. Somewhere along the line, we have to develop the capacity to “breathe in” the great ocean of pain that surrounds us and transform it into that which keeps us alive.

The writer in the play I spoke of survives. His art—his willingness to use his art to recreate and transmute the terrible accident that had become the center of his life—keeps him alive until he’s finally reconciled with his father. He can make peace with his father, because at last he can make peace with himself.

Why am I talking about plays today? Because plays are the most emotional of literary forms, and the vocabulary we human beings learn last—but need most to learn—is the emotional one. I’ll give you an example.

In the marvelous Mike Leigh film Topsy Turvy W.S. Gilbert has a line after the opening of The Mikado, something to the effect of, “There’s nothing so unsettling as success.” He says it grimly to his wife, whom he has starved of affection for years. Bravely she smiles, and they continue on with their needlessly arid, Victorian union. So much is said in that moment. She longs to embrace a man who has left himself utterly unembraceable. He loves her, but no matter how many literary successes he may manufacture, he hasn’t got the emotional vocabulary to love himself.

As you now struggle out into the world of work, society surely will expect many things of you: excellence, creativity, innovation, dedication. You may even be asked to demonstrate emotional stability. As Reed graduates, you possess all of these things. You don’t need me to reassure you. But rarely if ever are people in your situation asked if they are emotionally resilient. Can they not only accommodate things like trauma and loss, but in fact triumph over them? Can they love themselves, no matter what happens? Yet that is the key skill— the skill which will determine whether you can make sense of every other element in your life.

Still, this is the sort of work humans like least to do. Typically we do it only when life becomes so painful and constricted that we are forced to choose between growing and dying. Only then are we compelled to recognize—often after decades of denial—that personal integrity is not optional.

Character is not optional. Love, for ourselves above all, and for those around us, is not optional. We need these things to survive at all.

I would invite you, no matter what you have planned for the coming year, to take part of that time to ask yourself a few questions: Do I like myself? Do I give the best part of myself to those I love? Or do I lie to others about who I really am? Do I have a secret life? Why do I think I need that? Could I stand a terrible loss? How would I respond if I could not fulfill my dreams? What if the most important thing in the world to me were taken away? Who can I help without wanting anything in return? If you have trouble making this examination, I know a place you could go for help. Take in a serious play. It won’t be that bad—honest. Once you’re in the theater, once you’re seated in an audience of strangers who probably all have the flu, you’ll be taken in hand by the playwright whose job it is, like a good trial lawyer or mathematics lecturer, to demonstrate those truths that can be proved. And it’s there you may see how narrow you’ve been in your judgments; there you may learn how you’ve starved yourself of joy, how you’ve misinterpreted yourself and others, how you’ve stayed safe and hidden from the commitment of real emotion for most of your life. Too often we deny that at our core we are irrational, emotional entities. Until we accept that, we can never begin to shape that core. We can never grow as human beings. Go to a play seriously. Really watch what happens to those characters. Awake to the fact that they are wrestling with what must engage a life every bit as much on the line as theirs.

Other forms of literature can help as well. When I was here, I wrote a collection of poems for my senior thesis (don’t look it up; that particular collection will not help you grow). One man helped me greatly in this effort, however. He was an instructor, a poet, who was only here for a few years—my thesis adviser, Robert Peterson. Bob taught me more about writing, and how to be a writer, than anyone in my life. Almost instantly, we became friends. What I responded to most in his work wasits insistence that life, while disappointing at nearly every turn, remains somehow always lovable— that the sad, ironic twists in our lives must never wholly distract us from the infinite happiness of having been invited to the party at all.

The lines of Robert’s that have always meant the most to me are these:

“. . . and good and bad intentions
cling together like wet leaves.”

The respect in this figure for moral complexity—for what Robert saw as the gift of moral complexity in the world, and the opportunity it affords us all to learn and grow, is something of which I am forever mindful.

Robert died last summer. He suddenly got sick and died of cancer. I saw him for the last time in the spring, just before he got his final diagnosis. He didn’t want pity, he wanted to have a good time. We had a great night out in San Francisco, the city in which he’d grown up. Because he was Robert, we talked about insignificant things, we found this and that to laugh about, and of course we criticized the government. By the time he died, I was a continent away.

When you are writers you are very rich, because you are always touching. His books are on my shelf, including one of his which I printed and published myself. Art and life and years helped Bob shape himself into an exemplary human being. He encountered every accident life presented him and fashioned a personal morality I will admire for the rest of my years. I have to say, I wish for each and every one of you an extraordinary and rewarding life. You are working towards it. You deserve it. Likely it is something you will achieve. But it won’t be the end of the world, you know, if you don’t—provided you learn the skill that Bob spent so much time trying to teach me. It won’t matter what your circumstances are. You’ll be alive in a way few people ever get to be. You will have learned one, simple thing—how to embrace yourself. You will have learned how to put that before everything else in life. You will be in the right place.

It’s the single point on the globe from which you can truly go anywhere. My thanks to you all. My congratulations to you all. My love and admiration for you all
. End of Article

Time magazine has called Lee Blessing “America’s most imaginative playwright on public issues.” His play A Walk in the Woods was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Blessing’s many grants and awards include the American Theater Critics Award and an NEA grant. He has also written for film and for television shows such as Homicide: Life on the Streets. Blessing, now playwright in residence at Denison University in Ohio, has also taught at the Universities of Southern California, Iowa, and Texas.

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