EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Prince delivered this commencement address to the Gettysburg College Class of 2007 on May 19. It appears here as part of the ongoing Moral Compass series, highlighting the spoken word.
Four score and seven years ago was 1920. I didn’t arrive for another eight years, Gettysburg College was celebrating its eighty-eighth anniversary, and the Owl and Nightingale Players had been here six years already. Where was the world in 1920?
Woodrow Wilson died, and was replaced by Warren Harding, who declared before his nomination “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing, not nostrums, but normalcy, not revolution, but restoration.” Then he was elected President, and lost his message. In a big way. The 1920 generation was called The Lost Generation. Some were disgusted with nationalism, and others, the pacifists, lined up against the pro-military.
In 1920 the League of Nations met in Geneva, but without the membership of the US, Russia, and the nations defeated in The Great War. In 1920, barely 20 percent of America’s virgin forest land remained uncut. It was in 1920 that US government agents, raiding thirty-three cities, rounded up thousands of persons suspected of subversive activity, many of whom were detained for long periods of time without ever being formally charged. And in 1920, a British mandate was established in Iraq. Muslim clerics in Baghdad began denouncing British rule, and for a time the Sunni and Shia tribes united in opposition of the west.
I’ve been around a long time–almost fourscore, but without the seven added. I had my first paying job sixty years ago. At that time, I met composers, lyricists, and playwrights with whom I would work for the body of my life. And the atmosphere in our society was so generous–welcoming–that I also met and grew to know most of the great established writers, composers and directors in the theater. They seemed curious about what I wanted to do with my life, and they asked questions and they listened to me. I have always believed that they were so forthcoming, not only because manners in those days were held in high regard, but because there were so many of them working consistently and simultaneously. The arts were flourishing. There was no TV then, and little until the 50s. We wrote letters then, long letters, and instead of channel surfing we read voraciously. We were ambitious to create. Making money was not the objective, it was ancillary. As the years go on, we got older, some of us got married, we had children, and making money acquired a new urgency. But it never was–it never has–become paramount. For being an artist accepted by artists, perhaps appreciated for some impact on the quality of life in our country–beyond our country, our globe–was the goal.
Early in my marriage, my wife and I, along with hundreds of thousands of others, boarded the train from New York to Washington, DC and marched against the war in Vietnam. We barely missed being gassed, en route from the Justice Department–put that in quotes–to Union Station.
It is interesting to note that countries step up to the plate in times of darkness and crisis to support and encourage the arts. During the Great Depression, the WPA, the largest federally funded program to date, was founded under FDR’s Administration. Great Britain’s Arts Council was founded after World War I destroyed centuries of priceless art, architecture and lost manuscripts, and again America responded to the war in Vietnam by establishing BOTH the National Endowments.