I have been reading the writings of Jane Addams, a founder of the Settlement House movement. She wrote a hundred years ago at a time when she felt our modern cities were dominated by the factories, run by the engines of the economy, when people’s primary value was their utility – how as laborers and consumers they kept the machine going, and how blind she felt the city’s leaders were to any other aspect, need or hunger of its citizens.
And she wrote of how young people, naturally – generation after generation, persist in dreaming of a larger future for themselves, how they revolt against the idea that what is dished up to them as reality is all there is.
Because of this, she says, all of us – the entire society – rely upon its youth to reassure us as to life’s charm and joy. This is what the spirit of youth is, this is what it delivers. And if a society dismantles, oppresses and overcomes the insistence of its young people that life be more than the daily round, then society succeeds in killing off the source of its own hopefulness.
Jane finds the spirit of youth in young people, and happily for us, she finds it in artists, whom she calls perpetually youthful, and, finally, thank goodness, she relents and admits that the spirit of youth can, with luck and the right circumstances, survive in a few of us older ones.
This weekend I saw the utube video of Susan Boyle, the 48 year old Scotswoman who courageously put herself through the ordeal of appearing on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, a kind of American Idol competition complete with Simon as one of the judges. Without a smidge of fashion, heavy-browed, square and dowdy, she went on that stage where she was sneered at by both judges and audience. Though she stood tall and smiled, in a lion’s den like that she looked wildly vulnerable and completely out of context. They booed the simple fact of her age, were ready to crush her pretensions in asking for their listening ear --- and then she sang. Jaws dropped. People rose to their feet. In the past week, 20 million people have viewed that utube video – a seven minute story that has made me weep three times. And I’m not alone.
It is rare that the spirit of youth survives in the kind of life Susan Boyle has led, yet some stubborn hope of finding more than she had been offered still held on after a lifetime of shyness, of caring for her mother, of the quiet paths of her own daily round.
I thank every young person that has ever performed at Downtown Art over the past twelve years, including, of course, every actor and musician on this stage tonight. In them I have found beauty, hope, and joy at times when I couldn’t find it anywhere else. Who they are and what they set themselves to do – how they come out nightly to show something about what is in all of us - moves me in ways I can’t articulate….but I can feel.