Commencement 2010: A Playwright Speaks

Tony Kushner 78CC talks about the intellectual earthquake that was his undergraduate education—and how it changed his life.

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Playwright Tony Kushner / Photo: Eileen BarrosoGetting accepted to Columbia College was a great shock to me. It still is; to this day I don’t know how it happened. I attended a really dreadful public high school in a small city in southwest Louisiana – the state of Louisiana routinely ranks 53rd in surveys of education and just about every other measurable marker of civilization. I wasn’t a particularly good student in high school either, straight As in English and history and barely passing grades in algebra and physics, and I got through geometry only by cheating on the finals (there, I’ve finally confessed it, I feel such relief!). I’d already received rejection letters from my second and third choices, University of Chicago and Brandeis, and my parents were in the process of pulling the few strings they knew how to pull to get me into Tulane as a late admission when the Columbia acceptance letter arrived. It felt to me then, and in a way it feels to me even more so now, like a stroke of great good fortune bordering on the miraculous.

I wasn’t a particularly good student at college either. Now I can see how woefully unprepared I was, emotionally and educationally; then I just thought I was sort of stupid. During my first two years, I read only bits and pieces of the books assigned, and what I read I read without much comprehension especially. I took no philosophy classes or classes in economics or political science. I became a medieval studies major because my expository writing class first semester freshman year was taught by a Anglo-Saxon literature graduate student who walked us through close readings of The Seafarer, Beowulf and Gawain, and I was impressionable. Though I don’t regret spending a semester reading Walter von der Vogelweider or the Lays of Marie de France, I wish I’d known myself better, been braver, fought like some of my classmates to get into one of Edward Said’s seminars. I was so deep in the closet that when I saw two guys kissing (at the first Columbia Players’ meeting I attended, hoping to help build sets) I fled in terror. I saw the flyers for the gay and lesbian dances already, in 1974, a weekly feature in Earl Hall, but I never went. Instead I started psychoanalysis and tried to become straight.

But in my junior year I read Marx and Brecht for the first time, and I took Edward Tayler’s two-semester Shakespeare class – which, in addition to liberating me from medieval studies (Shakespeare being a Renaissance writer and hence not part of a medievalist’s curriculum) was the key component in an intellectual earthquake/revolution taking place inside my head. I was learning things: that you can’t read or watch Brecht comprehendingly without reading Marx; that Brecht can help you understand Marx; that Shakespeare contains all of Brecht and Marx, and that close rigorous readings could reveal world-view upending, mind-expanding-to-the-brink-of-blowing things Shakespeare, Brecht and Marx have to say to one another, and to you – and that reading rigorously, widely, ceaselessly was the beginning and necessary precondition of writing anything of value – something I feel I should say I also learned in my senior year from the late great Kenneth Koch. I remember walking from Hamilton Hall towards my dorm room, after Tayler had dialectically parsed Romeo And Juliet and read to us from Allardyce Nichol about the ambiguous figure of Harlequin in the Commedia tradition, and riffed brilliantly on the Latin motto Et In Arcadia Ego; I felt the ground drop out from beneath my feet, revealing what seemed to me bottomless depths, while the world around me magically expanded, filled with mysteries of life, death, history and desire which could never be overtaken or reconciled, but the pursuit of which was without any doubt an occupation for an entirely worthy lifetime. Really. That really happened.

I didn’t enjoy being a student at Columbia, and I didn’t learn nearly as much or as well as I wish I had, but I learned a great deal from the school, I profited enormously. My undergraduate education made me an educated man, and it changed my life. I’ve never written a play or a screenplay or an essay, or for that matter read a book or a newspaper, without at some point in the process being consciously aware of my profound debt to this institution, which somehow managed to teach me even though I wasn’t particularly teachable.

I recite all of this by way of explaining why it is that getting this honorary degree means as much to me, if not more to me, and perhaps it means more to me, than any honor I’ve received. I consider myself to be the recipient, in so many ways, of great good fortune, and in my affiliation with Columbia, I feel my luck borders on the miraculous.

I didn’t attend my graduation in 1978. I was there, in my cap and gown, but when some guy, I think it was the President of AT&T, which had refused to divest its stocks in South Africa, stood up to get his honorary degree, I along with many other students stood up and walked out in protest. While my poor mother sat in the audience, I picketed outside the 116th Street gate.

So tomorrow will be my chance to see what a commencement ceremony at Columbia looks like. I can’t wait! For that and so many other reasons, I’m grateful for this honor. I hope no one walks out when my name gets called.

Comments delivered at the May 2010 Honorary Degree dinner. Reproduced with permission.

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