Arts & Culture

The perils of historical fiction

5 min read

In lectures and discussions, playwright Tony Kushner and company rewrite history (writing)

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, author of the celebrated “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” delivered the Tanner Lectures at Harvard last week (April 9-11).

In between opinions on his favorite authors (Melville, Dickens) and his political obsessions (the past eight years), Kushner shared a writerly problem: A subject who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, famous, and dead.

Well, sort of dead. Kushner — now a screenwriter — has been at work for 23 months on a film script about Abraham Lincoln: the tallest U.S. president, arguably the most famous, and still very much alive in the popular imagination.

The problem is how to present Lincoln on screen, in the first studio film about him since 1939. How do you convey his 19th century diction, or compress the complexities of the Civil War? How do you deal with Honest Abe’s purported eye for the same sex? (An ambiguous issue that’s not that interesting, said Kushner.)

The challenges (and freedoms) of historical fiction were central to the talks the Manhattan writer delivered over two days, and to the informal public conversation Kushner had with three other word artists on the third day.

The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered annually at seven universities in the United States and two in the United Kingdom, were established in 1976 by industrialist, scholar, and philanthropist Obert Tanner, who died in 1993.

“Fiction That’s True! Historical Fiction and Anxiety” was delivered in true Kushner style, with a machine-gun delivery and plenty of arm waving to power the jokes and asides. (“But I digress,” Kushner said in the second lecture. “Often.”)

Making introductions on Day One, in front of a near-capacity crowd at Lowell Lecture Hall, Harvard University President (and Lincoln Professor of History) Drew Faust expressed her faith in Kushner to “leave us wiser and better and nobler.”

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard’s Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, praised Kushner as “wide-reaching, deft, and disciplined.”

Kushner, who described his relationship with academe as “fraught,” wasn’t having any of it. He spent a third of the first lecture — “an elaborate apology, with digressions” — explaining why he wasn’t qualified to do it, and how little he had to say.

Moreover, Kushner explained, he was lazy, and reluctant to do much of anything — mostly by virtue of “not having submitted my intellect and discipline to a real profession.”

Despite what he called “my general uneasiness at being an artist,” Kushner over three days delivered eight hours of erudite and eclectic public discourse.

With comic timing and intellectual fearlessness, he cast a wide net. There were asides on Saul Bellow, John Ford, Zola, Vermeer, Shakespeare, Kushner’s fear of poets, Lincoln and the atom bomb (he wouldn’t have used it), falsified memoirs, the “Munich” movie set, the 13th Amendment, and even Mr. Ed (whose lips moved because he was worrying a whole-shell peanut).

Kushner also left behind a trail of insights — though no pronouncements — on the literary life, its accidental inspirations, and its mechanics.

Fiction writing depends on the engine of narrative, he said, and is a skill that has little to do with either writing for movies or the stage. “Plays,” he said, “are more about argument than storytelling.”

That leaves playwrights free to be political. “The political lens is one for which I have a fondness,” said Kushner, and “attention to history is one of the attraction of politics.”

But history, he added, “is a source of anxiety” for writers who choose to engage in “the marriage of the real and the unreal.”

Lincoln’s historical re-creation, though complicated, is muted by a relatively distant past. “The distance in time,” said Kushner, “certainly lets you off the hook.”

But shuffling a very real Roy Cohn “into a deck of fictional characters” was more problematic, he said. Cohn, a closeted gay man who died of AIDS in 1986, was a right-wing American lawyer known for his 1950s anti-Communist commitment. He was the historical heart of the playwright’s two-part, seven-hour stage epic, “Angels in America,” later adopted for film, and as an opera.

Still, no matter how recent or how old, history can be shuffled into fiction as long as “the research is reasonably thorough … sufficient enough to avoid howlers,” said Kushner. Errors, he said, “have a de-legitimizing effect. … I’ve stopped reading books in which birds sing on the wrong continents.”

The only kind of fiction worth writing, said Kushner in his second lecture, is “fiction that’s true.”

Each lecture, April 9 and 10, was followed by a one-on-one public conversation — “the Tanner interrogations,” Kushner called them. First up was Wendy Lesser ’73, founding editor of the Threepenny Review. She asked Kushner to compare writing for film, with its capacity for realism, to writing for the stage, a live medium that is “inherently fake,” she said.

“One of its great joys” of live theater, said Kushner, “is that nothing is believable.” After the sword-fight scene in “Hamlet,” there are “dead” bodies on stage whose chests are heaving from effort, he said. “You don’t care. You cry anyway.”

Over three days, though, Kushner resisted getting too far into detail about the artistic process. “I don’t like teaching it,” he said of creative writing. “I don’t know how I do what I do.”

In fact, Kushner added, “I have a genuine fear of really knowing.”

On Day Three, in a conversation on stage with Gopnik, Greenblatt, and Lesser at the New College Theatre, Kushner sided with artists for “refusing to talk about what we actually do.”

He read a favorite poem, “A Better Answer,” by Matthew Prior. “Must one swear,” it reads in part, “to the truth of a song?”