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 Porters
production of Endgame. Thanks again, Roger.
Years ago a screenwriter friend of minea very successful onetold
me that one of the secrets of his craft was rapidly to alternate success
and failure in his central characters 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. Hes won! Hes won millions! He screams for joy, dives
toward a pile of clothes on the floor and sprains his knee. Whimpering
with painand exhilarated by unbridled greedhe fumbles through
the empty depths of his wallet until he discovers the ticket, bent and
stainedbut a winner, a winner all the same: the gateway to a future
of unimagined power, luxury, and ease! Theres 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 moneya vast sum. He begs for time. The large man reaches
into the apartment and compresses our heros 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. Its a prospective employer. Hes
told that he can interview for the job hes always wanted, but he
has to show up now, this very morning. Even though he isnt 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 hes
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, Youve finally met your
second cousin! Whats the matter, Son? his father
asks, Youre not dressed. Its time for your commencement.
For some reasonperhaps not for any profound onethis simple,
mechanical alternation of good and bad fortune commands our attention.
Its 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 heros 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 doesnt 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 wouldnt be that, and
wed both know it. You see, a year ago I was divorced from a woman
Id been with for more than 18 years. The screenwriter and his wife
had been our best friends. Now theyve 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 dont apply. Yet all of us are
profoundly changed. And all of us must survive.
I saw a play recentlynot mine, so I can praise itin which
the central characters 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 wasnt charged with any crime. But he cant 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 becomewhat 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?
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 worlds atmosphere of inevitable tragedy, misfortune, and
horror. I would love to tell you allthere would be no sweeter feeling
in the world than to be able to tell youthat 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 arthis willingness to use his art to recreate and transmute
the terrible accident that had become the center of his lifekeeps
him alive until hes 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 lastbut need most to learnis the emotional
one. Ill 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, Theres
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 hasnt got the emotional vocabulary to love
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 dont
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 recognizeoften
after decades of denialthat 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 wont be that badhonest.
Once youre in the theater, once youre seated in an audience
of strangers who probably all have the flu, youll 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 its
there you may see how narrow youve been in your judgments; there
you may learn how youve starved yourself of joy, how youve
misinterpreted yourself and others, how youve 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 (dont 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 yearsmy 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 Roberts that have always meant the most to me are these:
. . and good and bad intentions
together like wet leaves.
The respect in this figure for moral complexityfor
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 didnt want pity, he wanted to have a good time. We had a great
night out in San Francisco, the city in which hed 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 wont be the end of the world, you know,
if you dontprovided you learn the skill that Bob spent so
much time trying to teach me. It wont matter what your circumstances
are. Youll be alive in a way few people ever get to be. You will
have learned one, simple thinghow to embrace yourself. You will
have learned how to put that before everything else in life. You will
be in the right place.
Its 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.
Time magazine has called Lee Blessing Americas
most imaginative playwright on public issues. His play A Walk
in the Woods was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Blessings
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.