Playwright Tony Kushner's wild and rambling commencement address, which he delivered to Vassar College's 2002 graduating class on May 26, has become notorious enough to merit publication in The Nation.
Kushner's unorthodox speech began making the e-mail rounds soon after it was spoken. It started simply enough, with the writer remembering an earlier college commencement address spoken by a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Soon enough, though, he was questioning why Vassar asked him to speak in the first place.
"You wanted to hear from a playwright," said Kushner, "at least some of you did, at least someone at Vassar did, unless a mistake has been made and you actually meant to invite Tony Kushner the British holocaust historian. He might have been a better choice, holocaust with either a big or little 'H' being something we all have to think about constantly during these very dark days. If you meant to invite me, and let's proceed from that assumption, then you wanted a playwright and I have to say what a strange choice, what with Gabriel blowing his trumpet and the Book of Revelations unfolding seal by seal and all... This is a time of crisis and in a time of crisis we all have to focus on getting real, and you, what do you do? You get a playwright to deliver the 2002 commencement speech."
Kushner continued to inject his speech with large doses of gallows humor and heavy samplings of his famously liberal political perspective. The text mentioned such disparate figures as slain Dutch leader Pim Fortuyn, Vice President Dick Cheney, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, American author and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and President George W. Bush, who was never referred to in a positive light.
At one point, Kushner said his purpose was to organize the students. "Why you? Because the world will end if you don't act. You are the citizen of a flawed but actual democracy. ...when you despair, you open the door to evil, and evil is always happy to enter, sit down, abolish the Clean Air Act and the Kyoto accords and refuse to participate in the World Court or the ban on landmines, evil is happy refusing funds to American clinics overseas that counsel abortion and evil is happy drilling for oil in Alaska, evil is happy pinching pennies while 40 million people worldwide suffer and perish from AIDS; and evil will sit there, carefully chewing pretzels and fondly flipping through the scrapbook reminiscing about the 131 people he executed when he was governor, while his wife reads Dostoevsky in the corner." In another section of the speech, which boasted many non sequiturs and dangerously long run-on sentences, Kushner referred to himself as "the kind of homosexual sexual minoritarian who believes that sexual minoritarian liberation is inextricable from the grand project of advancing Federally protected civil rights, and cannot be separated from the liberation struggles of other oppressed populations, cannot be achieved isolated from the global struggle for the abolition of the legacy of colonialism, cannot be achieved isolated from the global resistance movement against militarism and imperialism and racism and fundamentalisms of all sorts, the global movement for the furtherance of social and economic justice, the global multiculturalist, anti-tribalist identity-based movement for pluralist democracy."
Kushner's latest play was Homebody/Kabul, the first half of which consists of an hour-long monologue by an eccentric London housewife, offering her digressive view of life and the world.
To read the speech, on The Nation site, click here.
—By Robert Simonson