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06/19/95

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Playwright Hwang addresses Phi Beta Kappa inductees

STANFORD -- Sneakers, sandals and high heels peeked out from beneath their dignified black robes as Stanford's newest Phi Beta Kappas crossed the stage in Memorial Auditorium Friday evening, June 16, to shake hands with Provost Condoleezza Rice and become members of the nation's oldest honorary society.

Three of the 188 "robed ones," as they were dubbed by David Abernethy, professor of political science and president of the Stanford Phi Beta Kappa chapter, made the trek on crutches, while several others sported ear clips and one proud native of Hawaii had draped an elegant white lei around her neck.

Those who assembled nervously outside Memorial Auditorium before the ceremony relaxed visibly during the tales of "intellectual adventures" that were told by three of their classmates. Prajnan Das, a biological sciences major, invoked a Bengali poet and a Sanskrit word meaning "feeling of wonderment" to describe the moment when a color change in a test tube told him he had discovered something that no one else knew. Jonathan Huston, a self-described "interdisciplinary freak," juggled several philosophical conundrums as he sought to explain his "symbolic systems" major (no, he told a friend, he wouldn't be designing street signs for a living). And Lauren Pressman shared her hands-on approach to researching Argentine communications regulations, which touched on learning the tango and getting taxi drivers to "talk telephones."

When keynote speaker and award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang finally stepped up to the podium, he clearly was enjoying the evening -- for unexpected reasons. It turned out that he'd never been certain that he actually had been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year.

"I remember seeing my name in the Daily, but I didn't attend any ceremony like this, and I think there's something about a key -- or maybe a form to send for one?" Hwang asked. "Anyway, the invitation [to speak] was the first confirmation I'd gotten that I actually was a Stanford Phi Beta Kappa alumnus . . . and I'm really grateful to you all because it clears up this big mystery in my life."

In remarks that drew frequent laughter, Hwang shared glimpses of the self-deprecating wit and irony that fuel his rapier-sharp Broadway dialogues. He touched on his years at Stanford but focused mostly on the successes and failures of his 38 years -- "the victories and defeats, the hits and flops" -- and how those challenging counterweights might come to play a role in the lives of this year's graduates.

"Victories are marked [in New York] by this sudden ability to get a restaurant reservation any place you want on a Saturday night," he said. "Humiliations, on the other hand, are chronicled in gossip columns for all your former friends to read."

Hwang recalled that as an incoming freshman he'd been asked to fill out a form indicating what he wanted to do at Stanford. "Journalism" and "playwriting" were his responses, and he opted for playwriting after an unfortunate encounter with prose writing in freshman English.

"I had a teacher who I think was going through nicotine withdrawal in class," he said. "He would read our stories and get up and sort of bang his head against the wall. He claimed this wasn't personal, but it was difficult to know."

Hwang was drawn, instead, to drama, where "there was something wonderful about being able to create a world and then see it physically come to exist in print."

His first play, "F. O. B." ("fresh off the boat"), was performed in the lounge at Okada theme house and picked up by the National Playwrights' Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, one of the most prestigious launching sites in the nation for new works.

"The play was subsequently produced in New York, and I had a career," Hwang said. "So what was the result of all this attention?

"On the plus side . . . I remember getting a letter from Professor [John] L'Heureux saying that one day I'd be riding a subway and I'd be able to stop and say to myself, 'I'm living in New York and I'm really a playwright.' And that came to pass, and it was an incredible blessing."

But because the recognition came so quickly in his career, Hwang said, his commitment to his craft had not been tested.

"In other words, it all seemed incredibly easy. I knew in my heart that I settled sometimes for work that was less than my best, and yet I was still praised. And so I reached what seemed to me, at the time, an obvious conclusion -- I figured I must be an amazing con man. And for a long time I sort of thought of myself as a literary shyster, and I was a little bit confused about that."

It wasn't until he experienced his "first real failure," the 1986 theatrical death off-Broadway of Rich Relations, that Hwang said he was able to begin to believe in the value of his work, and to believe in himself as an artist.

"I'd written something that had been loathed by critics and public alike -- and that was an eventuality that I had always feared," he said. "But the sky hadn't fallen, and I was still alive, and most importantly, I was still proud of what I had done.

"So it was not success, but failure, which taught me that I would always be a writer, and that cemented my devotion to this craft."

In succeeding years, when he has had difficulty rewriting shows that have drawn devastating pre-opening reviews -- like his Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly -- Hwang said that he has been able to draw on the fortitude he learned from that early experience: "Having had my flops, I now feel liberated."

While noting that both failure and success may "change the context" of their future, Hwang cautioned the new Phi Beta Kappa initiates to be particularly wary of success.

"I think success is a lot like failure, with this important difference -- success is louder," he said. "It generates a lot of attention and all this noise surrounds you, and you have to fight just to hear the sound of your own heart."

Because "victories and mistakes are inextricably linked," Hwang urged the initiates not to be hesitant in their chosen careers.

"I would encourage you not to be discouraged or made timid in your journeys by the fear of either success or failure. Because in every failure will be embedded some lesson, some blessing, some grace, which will teach [you] to be brave and dare [you] to fail again."

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