History and fiction

December 24, 1991

Napoleon observed that history is an agreed-upon fable, but the experts all agree on the spuriousness of the fable concocted by director Oliver Stone in the film "JFK," which is based on the assassination of President Kennedy. Stone is being excoriated for blending fact and fiction so adroitly as to confuse everyone, especially younger people, about the circumstances of the heinous deed committed in Dallas in 1963. Stone's film, says everyone familiar with it, is especially pernicious in making a hero of James Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who abused his office by persecuting an innocent man on evidence wholly fabricated.

As deplorable as it may be, it's not new for playwrights to take unconscionable liberties with truth. Shakespeare, no less, engaged in this practice by vilifying Richard III as the embodiment of consummate evil when the historical record shows Richard was no better or worse than his adversaries in contending for power in Medieval England. The playwright Arthur Miller, in his play "The Crucible," ostensibly written to expose the terrors of McCarthyism, committed grievous libels against individuals who were identified in the play by name.

Even alleged historians cannot escape opprobrium for playing fast and loose with the facts. The earliest, most popular biography of George Washington emanated from the imaginative pen of one Mason Locke Weems, called "Parson" Weems because he was a clergyman. He was, however, a clergyman with little appreciation of the commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness," because his account of Washington's life and times is pure hagiography, much of it created of whole cloth.

There have been many TV docudramas or plays "loosely" based on "actual events" that have egregiously distorted history.

There is a vast difference between factual truth and philosophical truth. The former belongs in the realm of history and biography, the latter in the realm of fiction. If we mix up these things, we do a disservice to both history and literature.

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