THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
In 1985 when Neil Postman published his prescient book Amusing Ourselves to Death he was lambasted as a Cassandra. In it he bemoaned how tv news had become just another branch of the entertainment industry and pondered the dire consequences for democracy. The hunt for ‘eyeballs’, he predicted, would always trump traditional news values. He wasn’t wrong.
Nearly 40 years later our top political playwright James Graham uses his new play to explore the same subject and has chosen the infamous Gore Vidal-William F Buckley live tv debates prior to the 1968 party Conventions as the signature moment when this rot set in.
ABC was languishing third out of three in the ratings and budgets had been slashed. In desperation the news division came up with the idea of eschewing the dull and expensive reporting of facts and partly replacing it with opinion and commentary. In this case it was using two public intellectuals but when the other networks inevitably copied their success they just went for celebrities. And so, a new style of political coverage was born – commentary as blood sport, pitting the Conservative against the Liberal.
The debates captured the nation’s attention and climaxed in a famous slur by Buckley on Vidal. Graham is blessed by having these two political divas as the engine of his play.
David Harewood’s natural nobility is perfect for the patrician Buckley, who as editor of the niche National Review was trying, in modern parlance, to extend his brand and bring radical Conservative ideas into the popular discourse. This was of course swimming against the rising tide of '60s rebellion, which at the Democratic Convention in Chicago literally exploded all around them. Charles Edwards has perfectly captured Vidal’s silky tone, razor-sharp wit and that eternal air of jaded ennui that he exuded.
The two despised each other but were gifted at invective and so it made for perfect television. Initially Buckley refused to debate the ‘unserious’ Vidal and rejected the framing of the show, whereas Vidal, always the scene stealer, relished the opportunity to offer his waspish spontaneity to the nation, “well-rehearsed in advance of course”.
For those not familiar with the subject, Graham has served up a ‘101 course’ on US Politics and Culture 1968. Director Jeremy Herrin, aided by Luke Halls' great video design, incorporates some expertly chosen video clips which offer backstory and context. We get glimpses of the original debates which blend seamlessly with the live action. The words from the debates are verbatim but the rest is Graham’s imagining of what the two might have said to their lovers and colleagues as they prepped, like prize fighters, in their respective hotel rooms.
Graham also drags in contemporary figures such as James Baldwin, a close friend of Vidal’s, who acts as a Soothsayer. Clare Foster provides great support as Buckley’s wife, as do Emilio Doorgasingh and Sam Otto, who play Vidal’s ‘longtime companion’ Howard Austin, and ‘Matt’, a generic young lover/assistant to the great man who challenges Vidal’s emotional compartmentalisation.
Austen thinks Vidal is wasting his talent: “You’re exceptional at being nasty but where is the great writer and poet here”. By contrast Buckley’s wife urges him to be more of the pugilist and less of the dry academic.
What is most interesting to observe is how Buckley’s brand of conservatism was the seedbed from which Reaganomics grew and how he rightly predicted that the real split wasn’t Democrat or Republican but rather Conservative vs Progressive. The other takeaway is the familiar warning from the Left about the end of the world being nigh. 50 years later we’re still waiting.
Graham too seems to bemoan that while it might be possible to date the polarisation to this event, at that time television was at least a ‘public square’ where each side at least listened to the other. His implication is that this has stopped.
Graham and Herrin have concocted a great, fluid, engaging drama which explores these ideas with intelligence and wit, using these two diva orators as star turns. It’s a good argument for having good argument.