BEST OF ENEMIES
Review of the West End production about the 1968 Buckley/Vidal Debates during ABC's Coverage of the National Political Conventions
(Above David Harwood, who portrays William F. Buckley, and Zachary Quinto, who portrays Gore Vidal, in James Graham’s Best of Enemies, which opened this week on the West End at the Noel Coward Theatre.)
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It takes a lot to shock me but there was a line in Nick Curtis’s review of Best of Enemies, which has transferred to the West End from its original production at the Young Vic, that I had to read twice when I came across it while reading his five-star rave in The Evening Standard as I was taking the Bakerloo Tube line home to Kilburn last night after seeing the production at the Noel Coward Theatre. Even though that previous sentence is affectedly British, this man who just wrote it is still affectively American - and thus can be shocked by this next sentence written by a British theatre critic. “The two protagonists are largely forgotten now,” Curtis curtly wrote. They are? Not in my life. To forget something, one has first to have experienced the knowing of it. William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal might not be known by some because of one’s youth or a yawning gap in one’s cultural knowledge. I’ll give the curt Curtis that. The editor in me, however, wanted to change that “forgotten” to “unknown” because the writer in me - and political animal of the taxonomic American genus - knows that once one had knowledge of these two knowing cultural warriors who sparred with words - and their respective but not respectful (never more appropriately described) rapier wits - then one could never forget them.
William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal are two of the most unforgettable cultural icons, writers, and pontificators of the 20th Century. When Buckley founded National Review in 1955, he boasted in the conservative journal’s mission statement - a journal that was to become a monthly manifesto in many ways - that “it stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” As the years passed, he and Vidal stood athwart opposite ends of the American cultural dividing line yelling, Don’t Stop Looking at Me. By 1968, a year of dangerous disharmony in America filled with assassinations and disruptive street protests with many of them turning into police riots, their identical cries based on a cynical symbiosis became Don’t Stop Looking at Us when ABC paired them to debate after each night of that summer’s two political conventions.
They were ultimately media whores, to use the terminology that would have appealed to Gore’s velvety sense of the vulgar but not Bill’s performative, patrician sense of propriety based on Papal edicts and a genetic entitlement as white as the sails on the boat he loved to put to sea. From a very young age I - velvety, White, but not entitled -was a media whoremonger. Seeing these two sparring spawn of what once passed for an elite ruling class on the tube of a very different American kind led me, in turn, to their writing since I was not only precocious in my burgeoning sexuality but also in my preciosity and my need, like them, to preen. Indeed, seeing them debate in 1968 when I was 12 years old made me deeply a political animal myself. There was the drama of it all as well. I think my love of theatre - certainly the theatrical - was born witnessing those debates.
That brings us back to Best of Enemies, written by James Graham and directed by Jeremy Herrin. Graham has stated that his play was inspired by the 2015 film of the same name by the documentarians Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon which was about the ten Buckley/Vidal debates staged by ABC. Neville and Gordon are, in fact, credited in the program right below the playwright and the director. The debates were worthy of both an absorbing documentary and a now rollicking, rollercoaster ride of a play full of the thrill that a stage work can elicit from an audience when it is unafraid to mix the high with the low regarding its dizzying place in the dramaturgic graphing of serious dramas and populist entertainments. Just as this production is captivating English audiences in 2022, the debates in 1968 were a ratings success for ABC. They captivated the American public because they were capturing in real time the disruptive, brawling juncture of politics becoming a cultural battle. The debates themselves became a kind of high/low syllabic sideshow full of insults and insinuations as much as a lesson in lofty ideas and historical facts and differences diffused by gentlemanliness. It was the rawness of the rancor and the obvious deep distaste of each debater for the other that intrigued the audience that grew with each of their appearances; their was the visceral appeal of a battle finally engaged that riled the news audience in a way that the drone of dread and dreadful facts they had been fed up until then had never been able to do. Spite disguised as opinions, cattiness gussied up in a dogged eloquence: it was not so much bread and circuses as bread and circuitousnesses. And the masses ate it up. These two normally cultured, haughtily behaved men found themselves wrestling not so much with their consciences for participating in such a verbal slugfest as almost physically doing so with each other. Their hatred was palpable and gave agency to the lower ranks to close ranks around each side of the political and cultural argument, and to hate each other as well. The high drama of hatred filtered through the lowness of the human impulse to do so - that was what the debates were finally about more than politics and culture, and that is what this play is about is well as it uses William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal to contextualize it.
(Above: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley in their makeup chairs before a night’s debate in the summer of 1968. Photo from the documentary, Best of Enemies.)
Zachary Quinto, who portrays Gore Vidal, doesn’t so much ooze the churlishness that Vidal could harness into his haughty charm as glide along on the oily slick of it he leaves in his wake. He has discovered the manner of the mannered man without giving a mannered performance. It’s a brilliant balancing act. And he’s managed to eerily locate as well the timbre of the voice without arriving at mimicry. Channel 4’s Matt Frei once visited Gore at his place in Ravello, Italy, and described the voice as “laconic yet edgy - molasses with shards of glass.” Quinto centers his portrayal in the dangerously sharp sweet spot that was at the heart of the man. Incongruity in a character - especially one who was not only an actual person but a famous personage - can cause an actor to fumble about as if the fumbling were the acting choice. There is instead a sureness to Quinto’s performance - even a surefootedness - as he glides about the stage giving a staggering performance without once - more incongruity - seeming to stagger.
David Harewood, who portrays William F. Buckley, had the harder job because he is a Black man not only playing a White man famous for his facial tics but one who buttressed White supremacy and racism early on by writing editorials in National Review that gave them an intellectual framework that was even more insidious because it shunted ignorance aside as an excuse for each and even argued that it was their impediment. I have gone back to read some of those editorials, which also defended violence to perpetuate a kind of White authoritarianism - a southern-fried fascism - and there is one word for them: evil. (You can read one here, titled “Why the South Must Prevail.”). The evil of Buckley’s racist views couched in intellectualism was blunted by his later in life evolving regarding civil rights but it could not be obliterated. The unintended consequence of casting a Black man to portray such a White man is not just irony but obliteration of that history. Some might argue that such casting instead highlights that history, but I think it is a way of giving it a pass. Color-blind casting is in many important ways about obliterating race as a factor in the hiring of actors and a way of addressing past wrongs based on race, a resultant racism that came about with the lack of imagination in casting choices and a condescension toward audiences that we lacked the imagination to see past color to an actor’s talent and color-less - or, better yet, multi-colored - brilliance. But sometimes race must be remembered - not forgotten - because racism must be. This is the higher incongruity - the dangerously sharp sweet spot - at the heart of Harewood’s portrayal. He is also brilliant but it is a brilliance layered not only with emotional subtext, but a societal one.
There is greatness in an actor who can navigate all this and never lose the impulse of his artistry: to personify the truth about his character. Leave all the treatises about truth to critics and academics and theatre bloggers. Harewood gets to the deeper truth about this colorful man than the color of his skin: an elitism that elided with a neediness to be accepted. Like Buckley’s infamous serpent-like tongue that darted about outside his mouth as if attempting to arrange his flittering thoughts if not ingest them, Harewood laps up this meal of a man without ever losing his table manners. It is a measured performance that also never resorts to mimicry which would have been so easy to slip into since Buckley himself could seem to be mimicking “William F. Buckley” at times so pronounced were his plumy characteristics and pronunciations. Harewood does slyly and slowly begin slipping his tongue Buckley-like out of his mouth until we begin to notice it more and more. And as the cameras are turned on the two of them in their debates when Graham’s ingenious and empathetic dialogue gives way to the actual transcripts of their back-and-forth, Harewood allows himself to signal the change by slipping into some of Buckley’s inflections and his timing and how he could elide words at the end of sentence as he raced to get to his thoughts in the next one the way his elitism elided with his neediness, a highfalutin fumbling about that passed itself off not only as an actorly performance but as his signature erudition. More gentry than gentleman, Buckley - head thrown back, tongue darting, eyebrows partnering in a dance no dilettante dare to cut in and attempt - glistened with glee when he was battling an opponent with ideas. Yet he never failed to go in for a verbal assault if he felt insulted. Harewood captures that lower man imprisoned in the same man’s higher image of himself. Even more important than multi-colored, it is a multi-layered performance. There is high art in his finding the lowness in a man who outwardly had such a high opinion of himself.
I deeply disliked Buckley when I entered the Noel Coward theatre. I didn’t exactly like him when I left - and still wondered what kind of editorial he would write if he were alive after seeing himself portrayed by a Black actor - but I understood my dislike with more empathy by understanding his own seeming dislike of himself. Harewood’s magnificence as an actor was proven to me by his being unafraid to find magnanimity within himself for such a man who struggled to find it for others because he seemed to have so little of it for himself. Such a performance transcends colorblind casting and speaks to an actor’s mining his soul for the “unmining” that it takes to be an actor of such accomplishment, the generosity of giving oneself away to express one’s art. Harewood has been very open about his mining of himself and his psyche and part of my contemplation of the acting feat I had just witnessed when I left the theatre the other night was what it had taken for a Black man of such courageous honesty to mine himself for such an “unmining” in such a role. I talk a lot about grace in my writing but Harewood’s performance was more than graceful; there was a hard-won grace present within it. ( You can read more about Harewood’s deep wells of honesty here and here.)
(Above: Syrus Lowe, who portrays James Baldwin in Best of Enemies, in the rehearsal studio at the Young Vic.
William F. Buckley had honed his debating skills on his program Firing Line which debuted in 1966 and a year earlier when he and James Baldwin famously met at the University of Cambridge to engage the motion that “the American Dream was at the expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin is an important presence in Best of Enemies and serves as both a kind of chorus and the greater conscience of the piece since Buckley and Vidal, as I stated, were too busy worrying about their images to wrestle with their own. The third brilliant performance in the play is by Syrus Lowe who portrays Baldwin by capturing the writer’s dignified aplomb that combined the dandy with the don. Each time he made an entrance one could feel the energy change in the theatre and on the stage. Yes, he’s that good. He was so good in the role, in fact, that he made me long for a play about Baldwin. And then I wondered if James Graham, a White man, would be able to write it. And another question occurred to me: Would anyone ever cast James Baldwin with a White actor playing the role as they had cast a Black actor to play Buckley? Does color blind casting exist not only to address historical wrongs in the theatre, but also as a theatrical tool in and of itself so no roles are seen through the prism of color? Down the street from Best of Enemies, The Doctor has been playing at the Duke of York Theatre. An important plot point in that play turns on a priest being a Black man but the audience isn’t aware of the until about half an hour or so into the play because the role has been cast with a White actor. There is an essay to be written about these two productions neighboring each other and making these casting choices regarding a Black priest and a White elitist - the editor in me recognizes that - but the writer in me wonders if I am smart enough - or brave enough - to write it.
Baldwin was also Queer. I decided to capitalize that as well as Black and White in the context of this review about this particular play because the plot’s pivot point is the moment in the debates after Vidal bluntly tells Buckley to shut up and then refers to him as a crypto-Nazi. Buckley pivots himself on Vidal, unhinged by such an ad hominem attack from such an “uppity” homosexual - I have pointedly used that one word to conflate the man’s racism in only the recent past at this point with his very present homophobia (not sure he ever evolved on that) - and snarls, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered.” I don’t have to mine my own soul to remember that moment. It was the moment I realized at 12 years old that was what I was - Queer - and that Buckley and men like him - civilized men who found ways to traffic in bigotry that actually benefited them - could pivot on me at any moment and threaten violence. Yes, the world was changing in 1968, but my world in that moment did as well.
It is a moment in the debate that can still shock. As I sat in the theatre feeling that shock when it happens in the play, I thought of that 12-year-old boy in Mississippi steeped in otherness and finding solace in politics and two rather odd yet ostentatious men batting back and forth ideas who seemed steeped in otherness themselves. Vidal never really came out of the closet as a gay man. I think he detested otherness even as he defended it in others. His neediness to be accepted matched Buckley’s. He would probably have been more upset, come to think of it, being played by Quinto, a proud out gay actor, than Buckley would have been being portrayed by a Black one. At least, Harewood is straight, Buckley probably would have concluded because Buckley, a fancy-pants man who fancied himself an intellectual, was finally rather freakish in his affect. He was more dandyish than James Baldwin ever was. Buckley and Vidal were more alike than they cared to admit. Don’t Stop Looking at Us was that cry of theirs that was not only based on a cynical symbiosis but also a horrible harmony. Politics and culture aside, they were horrible in the same way. The play has found the harmony in that. And we still gratefully can’t look away.
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This is one of your best pieces and some of your questions posed have my head all awhirl.
Tiny side note: When I played Moon in Tom Stoppard's THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND, a play about theatre critics, I based my character on Buckley. And with no internet or videos in 1978, I used my recollections of the man from the televised debates and his appearances on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW.
Wow. What a great essay. This makes me want to fly to London right now and see this. As for an essay about Best of Enemies and The Doctor, you are smart enough and brave enough. Do it. I can't wait to read it. Even if I never fly to London to see either of these plays.