Commencement 2010: Tony Kushner Addresses the Graduating Class

The graduating class of 2010 enjoyed a lively commencement address by playwright Tony Kushner on Friday, May 21, in Alice Tully Hall. Mr. Kushner, along with actor and Juilliard alumna Patti LuPone, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, opera and stage director and former faculty member Frank Corsaro, legendary singer Tony Bennett, musicologist and Mahler expert Henry-Louis de La Grange, and philanthropist and longtime Juilliard friend Glorya Kaufman, received an honorary doctorate that day. Here is a transcript; you can see it on YouTube here.  

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)
(Photo by Peter Schaaf)
(Photo by Peter Schaaf)


I’m terrifically honored to be here. I’m grateful to have been asked to speak to you, and I don’t want to begin by giving offense, but I think you guys are crazy. Why on earth did you ask me to give this speech when instead you could’ve asked Tony Bennett to sing “The Best Is Yet to Come”? My speech is going to be 10 to 12 to 13 minutes long. “The Best Is Yet to Come,” as Mr. Bennett sings it, is 2 minutes and 35 seconds, including that unanalyzable yet absolutely essential perfect little … well, what would you call it? That hybrid sigh/chuckle sort of hiccupped allophone, “HO-hooo,” which he respires before the last repeat of “oh from the tree of life I just picked me a plum.” Two minutes and 35 seconds. So not only would you be out of here and on to whatever awaits you at least 7 minutes and 25 seconds sooner, but you’d know, if you’d asked Tony Bennett to sing that song for you, beyond all argument or doubt, you’d know that whatever it is that awaits you, it’s a real good bet the best is yet to come. What more could anyone ask from a commencement speech? I can’t imagine there’s ever been a commencement speaker who shouldn’t have been replaced by Tony Bennett singing that song—well, maybe not Ralph Waldo Emerson, but pretty much everyone else. And you guys actually had the chance, you could have asked him, and he’d’ve done it, too, he wouldn’t have refused, he’s very generous, I don’t know him and I’m sure after this he’ll be careful to avoid me, but I mean, I’ve heard he’s generous; and in general, it’s hard for people to refuse requests when they’re wearing long dressy robes and hats with tassels. He’d have done it. He’d have told you, beyond all argument or doubt: You think you’ve seen the sun, but you ain’t seen it shine.   

Having said that, I’m not at all certain it’s true—maybe you guys have seen it shine.   This is Juilliard, after all. I’m acutely aware of the seriousness of the place and, as was abundantly evident in the glorious, gorgeous, exhilarating concert by the Juilliard Orchestra that I was lucky to attend last night—Witold Lutoslawski! Who knew?! As was immediately evident in the concert last night, this is Juilliard, doorway to the Pantheon, the exalted time-tested prime incubator of the crème de la crème of talent in the performing arts, with a few composers and playwrights tossed into the mix for good measure, just to ensure that you performers will have something new to play or say when you perform—I trust none of you improvise, I trust that Juilliard’s eminent faculty has thoroughly beaten that impulse out of you!  

The seriousness of the School, of its students—your hard-earned reputation precedes you—the depths of your commitment to, and the vigor and rigor of your engagement with the severe difficulties and the Godlike illuminative and creative potentials of your art. The mere sight of anyone under the age of 35 schlepping a cello case off the No. 1 train at 66th Street fairly fills me, the child of two musicians, with respect bordering on awe. Look! A Juilliard student! So who am I to tell you that you ain’t seen it shine, who am I to prophecy that you just wait ’til you see that sunshine place, there ain’t nothing like it here? Here, in your case, is this place, which is pretty remarkable. Maybe Tony Bennett would feel confident telling you to wait and see, but you didn’t ask him, you asked me, so …

O.K., look, I love speaking at commencements, I almost always say yes, I’m sort of addicted to it, with my predisposition towards depression—it’s probably genetic, and also subclinical depression is practically a job requirement for playwrights—I need to find places and moments to bask in joy the way a snake needs to crawl onto the sun-warmed concrete of the highway to keep from freezing at night. Even if you aren’t depressed like me, you probably know, you certainly ought to know, that the number of opportunities for rejoicing without reservation starts dwindling right after your third birthday, and eventually you may wind up like me: all alone with yourself staring at a blank page or the ghastly white glare of an empty laptop screen, wondering how it’s possible that at a mere 53 years of age any trace of talent or intelligence or moxie you once possessed could so abruptly, so unceremoniously, have departed, leaving not a trace behind. Depressed and lonely, you attend graduations, looking to mooch off the day’s celebratory spirits, the bright sexy seductive promise of a future of change, novelty, discovery, progress, the radiance attendant upon real accomplishment, the Bacchic non-Euclidean ecstasy of liberation—joy, in other words, sheer lovely human joy, which rises up to turn thunderclouds into rococo chariots transporting Divinity and the promise of pennies from heaven. 

Frank Sinatra’s version of “The Best Is Yet To Come,” by the way, is 30 unnecessary seconds longer than Mr. Bennett’s, and though I deeply revere Frank Sinatra—I even own Sinatra cufflinks (but I didn’t wear them today, I thought it’d be disrespectful)—though I revere Frank Sinatra, his singing, I mean, not his, you know, politics, at least not his post-The House I Live In politics—though I deeply revere Sinatra I’ve never believed, when he sang that song, that Frank actually felt the best was really and truly yet to come. I think he thought the best was several years ago. I don’t know if Frank was depressed, but he was in torment, he had the words of the song inscribed on his tombstone, for God’s sake. Sinatra was always at heart a tragic singer. Not so suitable for commencements. When Tony Bennett sings “The Best Is Yet to Come,” you hear a roiling potent ecstasy, barely kept in check beneath the tense surface, its explosive arrival delayed, anticipation electrifyingly prolonged, through the discipline of a mature artist who knows, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said Shakespeare knew, that the paramount aesthetic power is expectation. All that in one song, and he’s a Democrat.  

O.K., now I’ve gone too far. 

I think what I’m trying to say is that I come to mooch off your joy, not to dampen it. And yet you’ve asked me to speak to you; for all your seriousness and stunning accomplishment, you expect a speech from me, and this is an endeavor fraught with peril.  Everyone who speaks at a commencement ceremony is a threat to the festive spirit, everyone who opens his or her mouth near a live mic at commencement may well prove to be the buzzkill. That’s how menaced, how fragile our joy is.

But maybe that’s what graduation day is intended to teach us, maybe that’s the point: We gather together to celebrate, among other things, the proximity, the disquietingly vital intimacy of terror and joy.

I mean let’s face it, you’re not entirely joyful, are you? No! You’re anxious, too. You’re free! But free to do what? The future awaits! But what will it bring?! You serious accomplished adepts leaving this fabled womb of art, you read the papers, you’re hip to the collapsing euro and the tumbling stock market and the prospect of rising interest rates and the unbudging and perhaps unbudgeable record-setting unemployment numbers.  You parents of these adepts, who worked so hard to provide for them when they were younger, and who did whatever it was you did to them to turn them into artists (some of it lovely, some of it maybe not so nice, but I’m sure you had the best intentions), you parents and grandparents and spouses and children of these adepts, you watch now as they usher forth into the world, cello cases permanently deranging their spines (I played the cello when I was a kid, can you tell? Can you tell how, heartrendingly beautiful though the cello is, I’ve never forgiven the damn thing for how much cello cases weighed back when I was a kid?), out into a world in which the Gulf of Mexico is on its way to becoming the British Petroleum Memorial Tar Pit as the global economy remains in freefall and the national economy’s leaning wobbly at an acute angle against the empty space the burst subprime mortgage bubble formerly occupied; and Elena Kagan doesn’t think there’s a constitutional right for same-sex marriage (there is, by the way, it’s sitting there waving at you, soon-to-be Associate Justice Kagan, right over there by the 14th Amendment) and Afghanistan and Iraq and lots more god-awful things besides: it’s scary out there is my point. Perhaps I’m kidding myself, perhaps I come not to mooch off your joy, but to seek out kindred souls, souls similar to mine, souls brimful of panic!

But if beneath your joy is panic, I feel certain that beneath that panic, that terror, is more joy, a deeper, truer, stronger joy: hope, desire, expectation that the future will deliver not discouragement and disillusion but some bright sexy God, or some unanticipated goodness, to earth. I believe the best is yet to come, maybe; and whether it comes or not, or comes and goes at the same time, which is a virtual certainty—“The honey of heaven may or may not come,” wrote Wallace Stevens, “but that of earth both comes and goes at once”—whether or not the best is yet to come and also to go, I believe that it matters enormously that we act as though we feel certain that it’s coming, as though we know, because it’s true, that unless we anticipate its arrival, the best will never get here. We’ll never see that sunshine day. For all of our vast collective expertise and experience and disillusionment, even dismay expertise and experience bring, for all that we suffer, it isn’t given to us to despair; we must act as if we know that, even though we know a lot, we ain’t seen nothing yet.  

Did you read in The Times a few days ago—I think it was Tuesday?—physicists at the Fermi laboratory particle accelerator are smashing protons and antiprotons and creating mini-Big Bang fireballs, which they’re finding are producing more muons than anti-muons, about 1 percent more muons than anti-muons, more matter than antimatter. I of course have no idea what any of that means. I suspect that if one were to provide a musical score for what’s going on in the Fermi particle accelerator, one would turn immediately to Concerto for Orchestra by Witold Lutoslawski. But I have no idea what a muon is, or what a neutral B-meson is, except that, according to The Times, a neutral B-meson oscillates back and forth trillions of times a second between its matter state and its antimatter state, and when you make B-mesons in proton-antiproton collisions, they oscillate from antimatter to matter faster than the other way around. In other words, they aren’t neutral anymore, they’re about 1 percent more matter than antimatter, 1 percent more existence than non-existence. The B-mesons that resolve into matter turn into muons, which The New York Times charmingly describes as “fat electrons.” 

In other words, if I understand this correctly, there’s a slight tendency in the physical universe towards existence rather than non-existence. One physicist called the news “very impressive and inexplicable.” I call it, after a week of reading about underwater oil plumes the size of the island of Manhattan, sort of cheering. I especially liked that the first articulator of an explanation of why there’s more matter than antimatter in the universe was Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident physicist—and how delicious that he called this pro-existence asymmetry “CP violation.”  

Get it? “CP”? 

Theoretically, at least, artists understand how essential asymmetry is. The poet Robert Duncan declared that “life produces itself by constantly throwing itself out of symmetry, postponing the moment of its arriving at composition.” I wonder if Sakharov would recognize that as a non-mathematical approximation of CP violation. I thought of the importance of asymmetry, of postponement, of incompletion last night, during the Juilliard Orchestra concert, as I was listening to the soul-stirring, soul-disturbing settings for soprano and orchestra of two Whitman poems, composed by one of today’s commencers, Niccolo D. Athens. In the first poem Walt Whitman vows to see a triumph over the thousand little deaths that threaten to destroy us, and in the second poem an enemy is laid to rest in his coffin. Listening, I waited as Meagan Miller, the orchestra, and Maestro DePreist churned through vicissitudes in the first poem and descended through baffled loss towards conclusions which might easily be read, in the texts, as in the first case a victory, and in the second case a tender, reconciled grief; and I was rattled with delight to hear how Mr. Athens kept whipping up the orchestral and vocal frenzy, concluding each poem, not with decrescendos and harmony restored. Rather, both victory and defeat, both life and death, were rung out on notes of abrupt, piercing irresolution, each almost a scream.   

Pursuing this theme of the vitality of imbalance, I considered my fellow honorees, a diverse bunch, united perhaps by having made careers of and indispensable contributions  through a refusal of symmetry, of classical balance, by penchant and appetites for disequilibrium, for risking falling flat on one’s face in the hopes of finding life, finding the truth.  

I thought about one of my favorite moments in a Frank Corsaro production, The Cunning Little Vixen, designed by his collaborator and mine, Maurice Sendak. After the vixen has died, and the strains of Janacek’s tense and haunting threnody fill the stage, instead of allowing his audience its satisfying sorrow, Frank filled the stage with adorably costumed woodland insects and animals, played by adorable children, who encircle the vixen’s body and then, bending down calmly, begin to devour her. Janacek would have been thrilled.  

I thought about Mikhail Baryshnikov’s career, the world’s greatest ballet dancer—certainly the most thinking, feeling—and why not say it?—hot dancer I’ve ever seen, refusing ballet’s orthodoxies, violating every genre boundary, from modern dance to film to acting and avant-garde performance. Or so it seems to me, and I admit I know less about dance than I know about particle physics, as you may have suspected if you’ve seen my plays, in which people talk a lot and almost never move.  

I thought about Glorya Kaufman’s glass box dance studio protruding as the flagship of the fantastical, fantastic asymmetricalizing of Lincoln Center and Juilliard’s handsome but let’s face it stolid, even square marble boxes. 

I thought of Henry-Louis de La Grange’s vast and microscopically specific four-volume resurrection and magisterial reconceptualization of that composer/embodier of virtually all of the destabilizing forces, musical, philosophical, political, theological, psychological, and historical, without a profoundly synthetic exploration of the jagged discordance of which the trajectory of the 20th century can’t be comprehended.  

And I thought about Patti LuPone, one of the greatest musical theater artists of all time, whose most invaluable gift is, it seems to me, precisely her adamant refusal, from the beginning of her career, of the anodyne languages of timbre, emotion, gesture which makes so much sung drama, musicals, and operas, seem mere pablum and palliatives—except when she performs, and discovers and mines in show after show that quality exceedingly rare to the American musical—difficulty. One example: I saw the original company of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, I saw Angela Lansbury give what I believed then to be an unmatchable performance in the role of Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s cannibal paramour. Lansbury can sing patter songs that go faster than Rossini’s and never lose a word or a laugh. She was exactly what Sondheim intended. Then years later, I saw Ms. LuPone take the role and topple the show from the museum case that can entrap and suffocate even the greatest works of art. She made us see it anew by adding to Mrs. Lovett’s character one shocking new attribute: a conscience. Her Mrs. Lovett had an ethical core; she wasn’t a sociopath, she knew what she was and she knew what she was becoming. And it made the dark heart of Sweeney Todd into something nearly unbearable to watch and unignorably true.  

I usually hate talking about art, especially to artists. I heard another commencement speaker, a poet, a few days ago talk about how art is humankind’s most important means of understanding itself and the world. Far be it from me to trash a fellow commencement speaker, and God forbid I should ever trash a poet! But I’m not sure I agree with his estimation of art’s primacy—it seems to me that, for instance, particle physics is just as useful, maybe more useful in understanding the world, and as useful in understanding the human beings who are in the process of ecocidally unmaking the world, as dancing or acting or playing the cello, or writing plays, even if one does those things as surpassingly brilliantly as you guys do them. Usually I like to make fun of art and artists; I think one shouldn’t take oneself too seriously whether one is a cellist or a playwright or a particle physicist.  Repeat to yourself the late great Charles Ludlam’s immortal maxim: You are a living mockery of your own ideals; either that, or your ideals are too low. 

But this is Juilliard, and look who I’m onstage with! Tony Bennett! And last night it was Rossini and Dvorak and Michael Katz and Niccolo Athens and that way cool woman who played the double bass and Lutoslawski!  

(And acting students, I feel sort of disloyal, I’m going on about the musicians and I haven’t seen your work yet, even though I’m a theater guy, like you, we’re mishpocheh, so I know you’re all amazing—Juilliard actors, the best, right? One thing that occurred to me, last night, watching the orchestra, was how much musicians could learn from actors in terms of how to receive applause. I’m the son of two musicians, my brother is a musician, so this is a phenomenon I’ve been watching all my life—you guys, you orchestral musician types, you make this communal noise of celestial or demonic dynamism and force, you blow the roof off heaven, and then people in the audience cheer and scream for you and, and I’ve never seen an orchestra in which this wasn’t true, I’ve waited my whole life to say this: the audience is expressing rapture and adoration and you stand there looking like, “That goddamn valve’s sticking again” or “Did the cat eat the ficus while I was out?” or “I need a beer.” Actors, on the other hand, know how to look like they love applause; is that only because actors really do love it, and musicians are indifferent? Is anyone indifferent to applause? Or is there someone on staff in the music division who teaches classes in facing a howling mob of fans with a facial expression that can only mean, “I’m sorry, but have we met?”)

As I was saying, this is Juilliard, and for Juilliard I guess I can admit that I think art is swell. I’ll cite a passage from an essay by Thomas Carlyle, who was politically as bumpy a ride as Frank Sinatra, and as great an artist as Frank Sinatra: 

“The artist,” Thomas Carlyle wrote, “has delved into the sacred mystery of the universe; what Goethe calls ‘the open secret’—open to all, seen by almost none! That divine mystery, which lies everywhere in all beings, ‘that divine idea of the world, that which lies at the bottom of appearance’ of which all appearance, from the starry sky to the grass of the field, but especially the appearance of humankind and its work, is but the vesture, the embodiment that renders it visible. This divine mystery is in all times and in all places; it veritably is. In most times and places it is greatly overlooked; and the universe, definable always in one or the other dialect, as the realized thought of God, is considered a trivial, inert, commonplace matter—as if the universe were a dead thing which some upholsterer had put together! It is a pity for every one of us if we do not know the divine mystery, live ever in the knowledge of it. Really a most mournful pity—a failure to live at all, if we live otherwise!”

“But now I say,” writes Carlyle, “whoever may forget this divine mystery, the artist has penetrated into it; is sent hitherto to make it more impressively known to us, to reveal to us that sacred mystery. While others forget it, the artist knows it, I might say, has been driven to know it. Others may live in the show of things; for artists it is a necessity of nature to live in the very fact of things. The artist is a person in earnest with the universe.” 

A person in earnest with the universe. It’s kind of a calling, being an artist. It requires something more, much more than technical prowess or cleverness. It requires a comfort with discomfort, with difficulty, a capacity for asymmetry; it requires what Herman Melville prescribes: along with time, strength, cash, and patience, being an artist requires the recklessness and courage to dive deep, and come back to the surface with bloodshot eyes. What you’re diving after is truth. An artist, said Ezra Pound, who was much worse politically than Sinatra and Carlyle combined, must ask of him- or herself: are you or are you not a serious character?

I’m going to conclude by talking about one last artist in the hall with us today, who is a serious character, who is in earnest with the universe. As I’ve mentioned, I’m the son of two musicians; my mother, the late Sylvia Deutscher Kushner, was a bassoonist of great heart and skill and passion. My father, William Kushner, is a clarinetist and a conductor.  He led two orchestras in Louisiana, where I grew up: the Rapides Symphony Orchestra in Alexandria, and in my home town, the Lake Charles Symphony. My father conducted these orchestras for four decades; he only recently retired. My parents were for me, and for my sister Lesley, who’s an extraordinary painter, for my brother Eric, who’s first horn of the Vienna Symphoniker, the platonic ideal of working artists. They gave us permission to paint, to play, to write, to see these as occupations from which a living could be made. They also showed us what it means to love art, to be devoted to art, to address to art an ardency and passion. They didn’t pontificate about it, or make the love of art into a political principle. But they showed the three of us that a life lived in the service of art was a life well lived, was worthy and worthwhile, as socially useful and sensuous and soul-satisfying as human life can be.

My father gave me a love of poetry as well as a love of music; he taught me faith in democratic government and the rule of law and reason and decency. He taught me pride in my Judaism, in myself, which eventually helped me find pride in being gay; he’s still teaching me today. He gave music to thousands of people, he was the musical soul of his home. There’s no one I owe more to, or admire more. And he’s a Juilliard graduate, class of 1951. With my sister, he’s here today.

(Just two days ago he told me this great joke: What’s the difference between Rush Limbaugh and the Hindenburg? One’s a big flaming bag of Nazi gas, and the other’s just a dirigible.)

O.K., enough already!

As you are adepts of a mystery, go forth and deepen the mystery, make the impossible seem possible, bring heaven down to earth. As you are citizen adepts of a democracy that is still a democracy in more than name, but not, I fear, unless we work very, very hard, for very much longer, you have to learn as well the art of the possible, and practice it in the months leading to this November’s midterms and beyond. As you are adepts of a divine mystery, and obviously pretty amazing adepts at that or you wouldn’t be here on this great day with your parents and grandparents and spouses and children and teachers, all of whom are shepping nachas; as you are such gifted and remarkable and soon-to-be graduated adepts with diplomas and degrees, go forth, make art for the world, show the world what the heart of it means! I think you are lucky, you have passed through a terrible time, and there are terrible times still to come, but you’re lucky—I think this is a time when America, when the world may actually understand the art you make. So go make art already, commence already, thank you so much for inviting me to share today with you, and a million billion mazels to you all of you, we count ourselves very lucky to be the audience for what you have in store.


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