Authorities on history, politics, and presidents, playwright Tony Kushner and author Sarah Vowell have defined American theater and historical non-fiction for the better part of two decades. On January 20, they’ll appear together at Sanders Theatre with moderator and Harvard historian John Stauffer to examine the enduring legacy of one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln.
The idea to bring these two social commentators together was the brainchild of Steven Barclay, the agent they both share. As Kushner and Vowell told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2016, their paths have crossed several times over the years: Kushner was the commencement speaker when Vowell graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Kushner narrated parts of the audiobook version of Vowell’s 2005 book, Assassination Vacation, a road trip through the memorials and monuments of America’s first three assassinated presidents.
Still bringing people together over 150 years after his death, both Kushner and Vowell share a deep admiration and respect for our 16th President.
Kushner, well known for his two-part play Angels In America about the AIDS epidemic in 1980s New York, wrote the screenplay adaptation of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln for the 2012 Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln. As he told PBS, he was initially hesitant to adapt her book, which came in at nearly 1,000 pages.
What changed his mind? When Goodwin told him, “you’ll never regret a moment you spend with Lincoln.”
As he delved into her book, he recalls learning that Lincoln was “fundamentally a political guy…a person with who has an absolute consummate mastery of political process,” he said on PBS.
Author Sarah Vowell has been similarly taken with Lincoln. As the author of seven New York Times bestselling books on American history and culture, she most closely examines Lincoln in Assassination Vacation.
In that book she quips, “Like Lincoln, I would like to believe the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Then again, he said that before he got shot.”
In a 2010 interview with WNYC on how the Lincoln Memorial became an enduring American icon, she recalled, “I saw a man in a cowboy hat reading a copy of the Gettysburg Address next to a Hasidic Jew.” It seems Lincoln is still a figure who draws people of all backgrounds together.
Together with leading authority on antislavery and the Civil War era, Harvard Professor John Stauffer, they’ll embark on a thought-provoking discussion on the lasting legacy of Lincoln. In today’s tumultuous political climate, how do we reflect on the past and the lessons Lincoln taught our nation about human equality, freedom, and the survival of our democracy?