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.
In 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts was established to encourage the nourishment of artists and arts organizations. It came at a time when escalating costs and competition from TV was eroding the amount of work we could do in live theater. A huge number of not-for-profit theaters of all sizes and shapes were established across the country, and the average endowment, though small, amounted to imprimaturs in the community. The NEA progressed at a steady pace. I served on the NEA Council of the Arts from 1976 to 1982, and it became obvious during the 80s that our president did not support the principles of government funding of the arts. Neither did big business. I remember rumors that both endowments, the Arts and the Humanities, were in jeopardy. But thankfully, there was intercession from unexpected quarters. One, a world-renowned movie star, reached our Chief of State, and the endowment survived with substantial cutbacks, and the annual budget, which in five years should have grown to a $300 million-plus budget–chickenfeed, really–was instead cut back from the existing $100 million. In the ensuing years, it has been inching up under the aegis of some excellent public servants, artists in some instances, who’ve taken up the chairmanship of the NEA.
But the cynicism hidden behind the specious argument that big corporations would take up the slack created in diminishing budgets still prevails. And what does this mean to us? That there is diminishing acknowledgment of the place the arts play in our society.
So, today I find myself in Gettysburg, enormously honored to speak to you, to celebrate your anniversary, and your consistent and building commitment to arts education. I congratulate and thank my good friends the Leonard Bernstein family for celebrating Lenny’s legacy with a training program that sends teachers into the classroom, and I honor the work of the Sunderman Conservatory for providing a balanced perspective for musical performers in a liberal arts context. These extraordinary programs provide an opportunity for all students, not just the majors in those fields to be educated, explore and express their own creativity.
Earlier, I mentioned that in the days of my youth the community was huge and welcoming. Well, the community has shrunken substantially, and with it competition has become more fierce. And the welcome mat is no longer out.
To be fair, there were exciting and positive events fourscore and seven years ago. The League of Women Voters was founded. The America Civil Liberties Union was founded. Mohandas Gandhi staged his first Devotion To Truth crusade. The first United Negro Improvement Association, under the leadership of Marcus Garvey, was established. Women were enfranchised to vote, and 26 million became instantly eligible. Women became 40 percent of all US undergraduates. By the way, the National Football League was established, and in 1920 the world’s first radio broadcasting station opened.
It also appears that what goes ’round, comes ’round. However, see how easy it is resisting the impulse to say “those were the good old days,” because in truth, they weren’t. But these surely are not the good new ones. Remembering our personal March on Washington, I need to ask, what became of all that? Where are the crowds of young people today? Have they sold out to the Great God Mammon? I really don’t believe that. Rather, I believe they’ve been lulled into blogging each other on the Internet. But visible social activism, believe me, beats blogging every time, and were there a draft, think how different all of this could be. But the powers in charge are smart enough to avoid the draft, and abrogating our duties as citizens is hugely responsible for the state of our union, as we live in it, and as it is perceived by the rest of the world. If we remain inactive, accept the loss of principle, compromise our values, and redefine our responsibilities, our nation, and everything unique and idealistic that it stands for, is perishable.
You have my future in your hands, not just your own. You have the capability to change this world. Time and idealism, talent and energy are on your side. Use them, good luck, and thank you for hearing me out.