Award-winning playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley gave a commencement speech to students at College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York. In the speech, he described how seeing the play Cyrano de Bergerac changed his life and transformed how he viewed his own self-image:
“I saw a play called Cyrano de Bergerac. The main character in the play is a freak: he has an obscenely long nose, he’s the toughest guy in the regiment, and he’s a poet.
I was thirteen when I saw that play. And it changed everything for me. It said, if you are not mindful you will be distracted and deceived by this Practical World. It said, there are other things than money, power and position. Real things. And these are things that make life sweet. Honor, courage, love, poetry, glory, beauty, nobility of purpose, gallantry and friendship.
I walked out of that theatre and thought, I could have a beautiful life. I know I am a freak. But some guy who died one hundred years ago just showed me that there was another way of living. You can do it anywhere and no one can stop you. And I am saying that to you. You can have a beautiful life.
Tell the truth. Say who you are. And let it stand.
Shanley goes on to say:
Not to bring up something upsetting, but when you leave here today, you may go through a period of unemployment.
My suggestion is this: Enjoy the unemployment. Have a second cup of coffee. Go to the park. Read Walt Whitman.
Walt Whitman loved being unemployed. I don’t believe he ever did a day’s work in his life.
As you may know, he was a poet. If a lot of time goes by and you continue to be unemployed, you may want to consider announcing to all appropriate parties that you have become a poet.
So here we are. Commencement. The day stands before you like an open gate.
What’s on the other side? You gotta wonder. A hideous job, a satisfying marriage, a spiritual quest?
I’ve worked like a dog all my life. I have had my heart broken numerous times.
I have had great success, humiliation, physical affliction and I have seen the face of despair. When I stand here, I feel like I’ve dropped out of the mouth of a storm and my hair is crazy on my head.
That storm is life. Life is very long and very short and it’s unknowable and strange and terrifying and beautiful and it’s spooky and boring and bitter and nasty and elegant and extreme and if you are lucky you have the courage to want it to be all those things.
You commit to it. You commit to live and not run away. It’s true I’ve learned nothing. It’s true nobody changes, not really.
But if you commit to your life and live it, you will become more and more truly YOU. And that’s a great thing. That has something of the Divine in it.
Enjoy Shanley’s Entire Speech to the Students
John Patrick Shanley is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. His play, “Doubt: A Parable,” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Desk Award and the Tony Award for Best Play. He also won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the 1987 film “Moonstruck.”
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