Kushner Draws Crowd To Historical Fiction Talk

The second installment in the Tanner Lecture Series on Human Values focused on the politics of fiction

Fighting the lure of sunshine and 70-plus degree temperatures outside, an audience of nearly 200 filled Lowell Lecture Hall yesterday afternoon for prominent playwright Tony Kushner’s lecture, “Fiction That’s True! Historical Fiction and Anxiety.”

The second installment of the Tanner Lecture Series on Human Values was erudite and fast-paced, touching on topics from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to Abraham Lincoln’s possible sexual orientations.

Clad in a bow tie and jet-black suit, Kushner raced through his forty minutes of prepared material, pausing only for the occasional sip of water or self-derisive quip.

“If you wanted a Jewish playwright who really knows his stuff, you should have gotten David Mamet,” he joked, referring to his anxiety about lecturing in front the Harvard audience.

The selection of Kushner is something of a departure from the typical Tanner lecturer profile.

“He is the first non-classical academic we have hosted,” said lecture coordinator Kim Tseko, “It is something different, but even those from the academic community who expressed prior concerns have been very receptive to Mr. Kushner.”

The versatile writer opened with reflections on the role of the artist in creating history.

“Fiction that is true is the only type that anyone should read or write,” Kushner said, referencing Melville among others. “But all telling of the truth for the historian and the artist is very, very hard...It is a voyage, not an arrival, with shipwreck virtually guaranteed.”

Kushner also spoke candidly about his experience writing the 2005 screenplay for the movie, “Munich.”

“As proud as I am of Munich, there is an anxiety lingering over this historical fiction,” he said. “I believe Munich did more good than harm, I leave it to others and the work of history to judge it.”

The lecture was followed by an open-floor question-and-answer session, moderated by Chair of the Tanner Committee Professor Stephen J. Greenblatt.

Noel W. Swanson ’08 said the lectures gave him a new perspective on historical fiction writing.

“These are not trivial matters; Kushner presented views on philosophy, literature and history, challenging us to connect them in a difficult way,” he said.

Kushner and the Tanner Committee will hold an informal public seminar at the New College Theater today from 10-12 p.m.