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2013 Class Day Remarks by Terrence McNally CC ’60

Columbia College Class Day 2013
Remarks by Terrence McNally CC ’60
May 21, 2013 

When I asked my husband, Tom, if he had any advice for me about this morning’s remarks, he answered like a shot: “Don’t proselytize and don’t be sentimental.” It won’t be easy.

I have spent a lifetime putting words into the mouths of characters I have created — words to be spoken by some of the finest actors in the American theatre. Now, standing here this morning, the words and voice are my own and the character is me. It’s an unfamiliar situation. I’m used to standing in the dark at the back of a theatre listening to actors tell you what’s on my mind.

We have the elements of a great drama here. You at the beginning of your lives; me, probably approaching the end of mine. Of course as you all know, and we’ve all studied our Aristotle, drama is conflict. I guess I’d better say something to offend someone, though that is very much not my mood or intention. We shall see what we shall see. Curtain up.

I don’t remember who stood here and delivered the keynote address when I graduated Columbia College in 1960. I know I was probably too eager to begin my “real” life outside these walls to listen to someone else tell me how to live it.

Besides, good or bad, advice is easy. I don’t have a lot for you. Be nicer to people, wash your hands more frequently, count to a hundred at least twice before asking someone to marry you. Be useful, keep your word. Re-read that email before you hit the “send” button. Don’t put compromising photos of yourself on Facebook. That’s about it.

Wisdom and experience, on the other hand, are hard and long in coming. I wonder if they have ever been found in a college quadrangle by hyperactive, super-smart, horny undergraduates? Certainly not this one.

My parents were aghast. They had been told Columbia was a hotbed of communism. To me, that was a selling point. It was 1956 and I was in full James Dean rebellion mode in Corpus Christi, Texas.

My roommate was a surprise. He was an engineering major. What the hell was that all about? I thought young men went to college to become great writers. Remember, it was 1956 — Columbia had not yet admitted women.

When I entered our room he was already penning the first of hundreds, if not thousands, of letters to his girlfriend, whose life-size photo I was going to have to get used to living with pretty fast. All I had to fight back with was a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles and a Nuevo Laredo bull fight poster. He’d already chosen the lower bunkbed, of course. Worse, he had no interest joining me on my first exploratory trip to 42nd Street. I was going to My Fair Lady. How could he not want to come?

Tickets were impossible to come by. Every New Yorker knew that. Only I wasn’t a New Yorker, a process that takes considerably longer than earning a degree. The box office at the Mark Hellinger was disbelieving when I walked up to the window and said, “One, please, for tonight.” They explained there were no seats for the next six months but if I really wanted to see the show I could join the line for standing room for the next performance. The box office would re-open at 10 a.m. The few standing places would be gone by 10:01. How early should I get into line? No later than midnight if I wanted to get in. New York was already testing me for what sort of stuff I was made of.

My upper bunk in Hartley or the sidewalk outside the Mark Hellinger? There was no choice. I would wait.

And so I spent my first night as a freshman sitting on the sidewalk in front of a darkened theatre. If that didn’t make me some kind of an instant New Yorker, I don’t know what would.

When a professor reminded us gentlemen that inside these walls were the greatest thoughts of all time and outside them was the most exciting and vibrant city in the world and the liveliest thinking, I felt justified in skipping classes. It would be like that for the next four years. If it was Columbia v. the city, the city and what it had to offer frequently won.

When I told my roommate why I hadn’t come home, I could see his bewilderment about me was as big as mine about him. I wondered if he thought I was gay. We didn’t talk about things like that in 1956 but we did a hell of a lot of wondering. You looked for clues, you left clues, but everybody was actually pretty clueless when it came to sex. The Eisenhower years were not sexy ones. We had our pin-ups, Marilyn and Elvis, but they were fantasies on a poster. The connection between sexual expression and who we were was non-existent. It was an easy time to be a middle-class white male at a prestigious university. What wasn’t easy was to be gay at one. This was more than a decade before Stonewall. I was out but I felt alone. My other life quickly began happening south of 14th Street.

I’m getting ahead of the play. It’s still Act I and the challenge of exposition is still raising its head. Who is this person up here? What does he want? What is he doing? 

Freshman Orientation week my adviser told me that he expected my time at Columbia to be brief. He thought my Texas public schools background had ill-prepared me for the rigors of a Columbia education and that I had only been given a scholarship in a, he thought, misguided effort on the College’s part to attract a more diverse student body and mitigate Columbia’s reputation as the Jewish commuter college in the Ivy League.

I got through my four years despite the distractions, in large measure and thanks to Mrs. McElroy, my public high school teacher, who taught us how to organize our thoughts and put them down on paper in a cohesive essay. If you can write, you can get away with murder. The difficulty comes when you get good at being glib instead of telling the truth, which is the goal of any artist. Columbia taught me to respect the truth but it didn’t teach me how to write the truth. That’s where the writers’ blocks and the demons arise to confront us. It will always be hard to be truthful in our work but it’s the only thing that ultimately matters in the arts — and finally our lives. Is it honest?

I still have the recurring nightmare that I’m a senior, I haven’t opened a book all semester and exams and term papers are all due in the morning. Fortunately, I always wake up before I drown myself in one of the Low Library fountains. I usually go for the one on the right.

Four years later, 53 years ago, I was sitting where you are. I graduated with a generous writing fellowship from the same English department of which my freshman adviser was a prominent member. He also taught what were probably my two favorite courses at Columbia: a year-long survey of Shakespeare’s plays, read chronologically rather than separated into categories as was the norm, and a seminar devoted to King Lear. At the end of the semester we were still in Act I, so intense was the parsing of every line.

So what happened between our first traumatic meeting in his office and his “A” for my Lear term paper four years later? Columbia happened. How could it not? Contemporary Civilization. The most perfect curriculum ever devised. The Humanities. Core courses taught by brilliant professors. I’m not smarter than everyone I know but I do think I got a superior education to everyone I know. My Harvard and Yale friends would agree.

What I did with that education was and remains my responsibility — just as it is yours. A Columbia graduate is the true 1 percent. We here today are so over-privileged it hurts. If we don’t take advantage of the opportunity we have been given we are true fools – and callous ones at that. Columbia is a gift. It’s so easy to matter, to make a difference. It’s even easier not to do either. But then we have failed ourselves and this institution.

If Columbia is a cocoon, it is a dangerous one. It asks us questions hourly, it challenges us incessantly. Columbia is that voice of striving to be better at what we do — a voice that never shuts up.

New York had happened to me as well. There was Broadway, of course, what they’re now calling a Golden Age; Off-Broadway was beginning, new American playwrights were everywhere, while the grandfather of us all, Eugene O’Neill, was being rediscovered by a new generation of actors and playwrights. There was the Metropolitan Opera and Maria Callas and the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein introducing astonished audiences to Mahler; there were the amazing museums; there were Lever House and the Seagram Building (I’d never looked at a building before and wondered what it had to say about art and commerce and function and human need); there were the people. Their diversity made our student body look like a ghetto.

Fifty-three years ago this morning, Columbia and New York had happened to me.

I’d changed by increments. Tiny little baby steps. If there were claps of thunder it was in the quiet revelation what a really great playwright Chekhov is and that Bach is the Shakespeare of music. Art Humanities had led me to the heart of Giotto. I didn’t know these gentlemen growing up in Texas. I am fortunate Columbia in seeking geographic diversity took a chance on me. Today they call it Affirmative Action. In 1956 it was my good luck.

I don’t think I read a book or looked at a painting or heard a piece of music by a woman or person of color of either sex, Western or Eastern. That change would come but we did not know that then. We didn’t even realize we should be restless for it. Our plates were piled high with dead white European males — American artists had trouble getting on the Columbia menu in 1956.

Looking back, I’m appalled at how small our world was, how narrow our horizon. We were wearing blinders — gilded ones, to be sure, but only looking where we were allowed to look. It was a vision of the world that didn’t include the half of it. The other half. The half that wasn’t us.

My second act is shorter.

With my grant (the Harry Evans Traveling Fellowship) I thought I would write the Great American Novel. I had written the Columbia Varsity Show in my senior year. It was about cannibals and celebrities who deserved to be eaten. Today it would be the Kardashians. PC wasn’t even a glimmer. Athletes in full drag were the chorus line. The show was pretty funny and had made the audience laugh. But young men who graduate Columbia Phi Beta Kappa and take seminars in King Lear aren’t supposed to make people laugh. I would put a stop to that.

The novel never got written. Was it even begun? But I did write the first draft of my first play. I had fallen in love with playwriting and it was time to try my hand at it.

I had also fallen in love with a playwright. That’s a long story with an unhappy ending but today we are dear friends. You can Google it if you’re at all interested.

The play was another matter. It was a three-act, three-hour–plus piece noir that explained everything that was wrong with Western Civilization and why it was doomed to imminent collapse. I wanted to show those Harry Evans people that I had not attended Columbia in vain.

When it opened on Broadway one critic said it was an occasion that would live in infamy along with December 7. Another said the American Theatre would be a better place if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his crib.

In my case, “experience” — no major offered at Columbia — was fast coming. Wisdom wasn’t on the curriculum either.

My Act II was about trial and error. It was learning to leave the acting to the actors and directing to the directors. Without the right people in the rehearsal room a new play doesn’t have a chance. Shakespeare had remarkable collaborators or his plays would have been lost to us.

I fell in and out of love and thought I had struck gold but then AIDS raised its hideous head. Gary was one of the first and most fearless volunteers in the grand battle and he was soon among its victims.

A lot of art was about AIDS. As artists we had to respond somehow to the epidemic. Our government wasn’t. What we wanted was a cure. While we waited, we wrote.

As a playwright responding to the obscene thing that was happening to my community, I often felt ineffectual. Art heals hearts but not bodies. The best we could offer was hope and plays about extraordinary people in unbearable circumstances. 

This is when the debt I owe Columbia began accumulating. I remembered my Greek tragedy and its stern acceptance of the unlikelihood of happiness. I thought of Job and realized I’d take a bad review any day over his ordeal. I thought of the foolish but necessary optimism of Don Quixote. I thought of Lear entering with the dead Cordelia in his arms. Never, never, never, never, never — still the five most moving words ever written. I remembered marveling at the complexity of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and wanting to see the perfection of the Parthenon for myself.

The Eisenhower years I grew up in ended as dramatically as any dramatist could wish. All was not well in the Magic Kingdom of the Nelson Family and Betty Crocker.

The first civil rights protests I remember were several blocks south of here to protest hiring policies in the Deep South. Gay bars were multiplying and more permissive. Men could dance at the Cherry Lane but we couldn’t touch, which is harder than it sounds. There was one particular bar in the Village gay Columbia men favored. It was down a deep flight of stairs, a firetrap if ever there was one. One night I saw a young assistant English professor of mine there. He wasn’t much older than me. He looked stricken when he saw me (and knew I’d seen him) and fled. We never spoke of it (in fact, I don’t think we ever directly looked at each other again and were both relieved when the semester was over) but I knew I didn’t want my life to be furtive and secretive.

Bob Dylan got it right. The times they were a’changin’.

From Eisenhower to Obama in 50 years, all in my lifetime. I am lucky to bear witness to such change. My head spins. An African-American graduate of this college is the 44th President of the United States. I’m counting on a woman to succeed him. My heart leaps.

When students tell me they don’t know what to write about, I look at them in disbelief. Open your eyes. Look and listen.

I still think from time to time about my freshman roommate. Is he grateful to Columbia for the same things I am? We pretty much had the same education but we didn’t have the same experience of it. He had a girlfriend and a career goal. I had no one and the vague hope of being some kind of writer. I no longer feel sorry for him. I’ve stopped being judgmental. It’s OK to go to Columbia and not be a writer. For all I know his name was Bill Gates.

Change. I am married to a wonderful man.

I still enjoy a career that still knocks me down with some degree of regularity. I like my day job, I like my night job, I like being alive, especially after all those cigarettes we smoked over Shakespeare caught up with me.

I think of my freshman adviser and his tough love and definitive classes. He’s still some sort of a son of a bitch but I promised you I wouldn’t get sentimental.

Change. I think of the assistant English professor and am happy to realize we wouldn’t have to avoid each other’s gazes anymore.

And I think about the Varsity Show. It’s OK to make people laugh. The trick is to make them think and feel at the same time. There are millions of people out there yearning to do all three. Most of you have already made a difference. The rest of us here this morning are counting on you to make a bigger one. Your work is just beginning.

The truth is we don’t know how far we can go, to what heights we can ascend, how limitless our freedom is, until someone shows us. We need Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk and ACT UP, we need Gloria Steinems and Edie Windsors. We need protests like the one I joined last night against hate crimes and senseless killings. We need Mrs. McElroys, schoolteachers to show young men and women how to make Shakespeare their friend for life, not an obstacle for their senior year. We need great teachers at every level.

We need Columbia Class of ’13 to show us what else must still be done to make this a more perfect planet and a democracy with equal opportunity for all. We need to grow and look ahead. Let us make the future our friend. Congratulations and good luck.

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