Commencement Address -- Marjorie Garber '66
30 May, 2004
When I was at Swarthmore I spent a lot of happy time in this space, directing, stage managing, and occasionally even acting in plays. One of the most memorable performances I ever saw here was a production of The Bacchae, performed — of course — in Greek, on a beautiful spring afternoon. Euripides' classic play of sex, love, death, gender and power was a perfect choice, we might think, for the turbulent mid-sixties. We thought, at the time, that we had figured all these things out — and had, perhaps, invented most of them. Euripides was writing for us.
But the production I remember most vividly and fondly was a production of Shakespeare's As You Like It — which could also be described as a classic play of sex, love, death, gender and power — but framed, in this case, as a witty and playful festive comedy. The play, as you may recall, is one of Shakespeare's green world plays, in which people from the court go into the countryside, and discover there some crucial aspects of themselves.
As Rosalind and her cousin Celia are about to leave the court of the repressive and usurping Duke Frederick (Celia's father) for the Forest of Arden, taking with them their reality principle, Touchstone the court fool, Celia turns to her cousin and friend and declares, "Now go we in content/ To liberty and not to banishment." In context this is a scene-clearing line, sweeping all the characters off stage. In a theater like Shakespeare's, with no front curtain, the actors needed to leave the stage in order for the next action to begin, and a rhymed-couplet is one convenient way of signaling that fact. So "content" and "banishment" rhyme here, even though Celia seems to expect or fear the opposite: "Now go we in content/ To liberty and not to banishment."
I've always thought of that line in connection with difficult and exciting turning points, and, more specifically, with my own comings and goings from Swarthmore. Because one of the most important things that ever happened to me as an undergraduate was my premature decision to leave Swarthmore, after my freshman year. I had had a wonderful first year, but I was eager for other things, other experiences. The time was the early 60s, everything seemed possible, and this campus, in its verdant perfection, seemed, in a way, too happy a place. I left to study elsewhere, to do more drama, to study Italian, to be in a city and its swirling environment. And the moment I found myself elsewhere, I knew I had left something very important behind. I missed the society of the brilliant, articulate, ardent and self-inventing students who were my classmates and my friends. I missed the passionate arguments about ideas. I missed the Frisbee games on the spacious lawn (there was no dining hall then, and indeed no new library to interrupt the fields that seemed to go on forever). I missed the sheer beauty of the place — the very thing I had distrusted as too perfect, too other-worldly. And I missed — above all, perhaps — an intellectual atmosphere, a cultural environment, in which it was possible to make mistakes, to take positions, to make big claims and to worry about the future of the world.
I left Swarthmore, and six months later I came back to Swarthmore, and I was, when I returned, far more conscious of everything the College had to offer me. In a way everything I have done since, in scholarship, in research, in performance, in teaching, in living, can be traced to things I learned, and learned to love — and to live — here. I became a "Shakespearean" here, although I did not know it for many years thereafter. And I became a "cultural critic," though it was not a phrase I would then have recognized. My senior year I wrote and produced the Hamburg Show with a friend. Our play — full of social satire and big musical numbers, was called "The Oddity," and it was a takeoff on The Odyssey — written on the eve of the Vietnam War. The hero, Ulysses Goldbrick, was, like his classical namesake, ambivalent about being drafted for military service. His travels took him (rather like my own, now that I come to think of it), from Swarthmore to New York, and then back to Swarthmore once again. The liner notes remind me that the cast of "The Oddity" was a Who's Who of classmates who went on to remarkable careers in academic life, journalism and public service. I won't embarrass any of them by naming names. (But you know who you are...).
It is no accident that so many Swarthmoreans become professors, college teachers. Many of my closest personal and professional friends today are people I knew at the College, all of them teaching and writing at universities, some in literature, some in history, some in art history, some in philosophy. What we learned here was, above all, to listen to one another, to trust one another's ideas, to learn collaboratively, collectively. This is what a classroom is, whether the class has seven students in it, or a thousand. It was at Swarthmore that I learned that he humanities and the arts are not decorative embellishments; they are at the heart of any complex attempt to understand and appreciate our world.
"Now go we in content / To liberty and not to banishment." Celia's resolve is not entirely other-worldly. It is easy to forget the fact that before she says this line she makes a rather prudent and practical suggestion: "Let's away / And get our jewels and our wealth together."
The poet Wallace Stevens — another poet for whom I have my Swarthmore education to thank — once wrote, in a poem called Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, "It was not a choice/ Between excluding things. It was not a choice/ Between, but of." This green world we are standing in today, this magnificent theater, is not apart from the world, it is the world. It is the beginning of your world. You can come home to it, and you can take it with you wherever you go.
The life of the mind is life. Get your jewels and your wealth together — your ideas and your books — take your friends and your court fool, your irony and your sense of humor. Banishment is the prelude to liberty — indeed, often in Shakespeare (as in Milton, and in life), banishment paradoxically is liberty. Go you — go we — in content.