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10 December 2021

James Graham’s new play Best of Enemies reveals the origins of our culture war

This drama set in the late 1960s explores the televised debates between William F Buckley and Gore Vidal, and asks: is this when the divisions of today were born?

By Katherine Cowles

War, what is it good for? Theatre, almost definitely. Which is why, I think, James Graham gives us three of them in his new play at the Young Vic. There’s the Vietnam War (this is America, 1968, the year of revolt and “the whole world is watching”); a ratings war (between America’s big three TV networks during the Republican and Democratic conventions that year); and then – attention sap that it is – there’s the war we’re all still talking about, the war that rages on, the war no man can win however hard he sighs: that is, the culture war – or at least, perhaps, the birth of it.

In Ink, Graham charted Rupert Murdoch’s move into the British press, but it is Best of Enemies – based on a 2015 documentary of the same name – that tells the story he believes changed political coverage forever. It’s all thanks to ABC, America’s third station of three (“if there were four networks, we’d be fifth”) which is on the hunt for a value-for-money hit to rival the blanket broadcasts laid on by NBC and CBS during the conventions. The network lands on a novel idea: ten 15-minute debates, televised over two weeks, between two celebrity intellectuals or “controversialists” (“O-pin-ion?” protests the incredulous host, “the news does facts!” From the audience, a knowing laugh). On the right is William F Buckley (played by Homeland’s David Harewood, who, unlike his character, is black) – ultra-conservative, Catholic, homophobe – and on the left is Gore Vidal (Downton’s Charles Edwards) – liberal, iconoclast, bisexual. What, do you think, could possibly go wrong? 

At the beginning, very little. To be sure, the men loathe each other, and both want desperately to “win”. But the point is to elevate political debate, to reach beyond party lines to the philosophical and – crucially – the cultural: “conservative” versus “liberal”, or the “new dividing line of America”. We watch the men swot up then sit down: Vidal turns up better prepared with quips and quotes, which riles his adversary, but it’s all fairly civil and cerebral – a bit of repartee here, a few euphemisms there, the brow about as high as the one raised on Vidal’s forehead. But don’t be fooled: this is a thinking man’s cage fight, and eventually the gloves come off. 

I know what you’re thinking. Two blokes sat cross-legged in leather armchairs, talking about the state of the nation. Not much to see here. But the play is full of visual interest: the audience is in the round, as if inside a television studio, and above the stage are three great semi-transparent screens, behind which the producers prowl and beaver, and on to which video footage – both from the archives and of the actors live on stage – is projected. (These clips are useful not just as historical reference points but as a treat for the eye when the ears are getting an… earful). It’s all very multimedia, a blend of screen and stage: cameras roll, and the scene transitions snap like jump cuts. And, I should point out, the play is not just tirades from two talking heads, but carried by a diverse cast of characters, including “celebrity cameos” from Aretha Franklin, Andy Warhol and James Baldwin (my favourite turn, I think, pitch-perfect and elegantly underplayed by Syrus Lowe). Directed by Jeremy Herrin – who worked with Graham on This House – the supporting actors surge in and out with the shifting sets, adding necessary energy to the erudition. 

[See also: Zadie Smith’s stage debut is a filthy, feminist reworking of Chaucer]

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And what of Vidal and Buckley? The subtle triumph of Harewood and Edwards’ performances – and of Herrin’s direction – is that they are almost indistinguishable: despite their ideological differences, these men are both aristocrats, insiders, self-aware caricatures, and so it figures that the actors playing them should carry themselves the same, sound roughly the same, seeming, at points, to shadow each other as they swan around stage (“No wonder you loathe one another,” Buckley’s wife Patricia (Clare Foster) tells him, “you’re the same people”). Edwards has Vidal’s smug self-assurance, but lacks some of his impishness. Harewood has Buckley’s gravitas and his mannerisms (all that shifting in his seat!), but lacks some of his restraint. It’s an excellent piece of casting, though, a black actor playing a man who once argued in an editorial that whites were the “advanced” race: it speaks to the themes of authenticity, identity and integrity that run through the play.

But if Best of Enemies is not too talky, then at times it can feel too shouty. Take the infamous ninth debate. This is the climax – the moment Buckley cracks up and the political becomes personal and poisonous. Tensions are running high after police turn violent during anti-war protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Vidal, incensed by the scenes outside the studio, decides to go there – branding Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” – and Buckley leans forward in his chair and snaps back: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” It’s nasty – but the real Buckley growled the line instead of shouting it as Harewood does: a dog baring its teeth rather than barking again. Sometimes a snarl speaks volumes.   

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Graham cannot take credit for many of Best of Enemies’ best lines, which are Buckley and Vidal’s own. But he has abridged and brought the material together artfully, and written rounded, convincing versions of the men in imagined scenes. I can’t work out if it’s deliberate – or unfortunate – that this play about division is so much a play of two halves: the second act superior to the first, after which I wondered over interval wine whether Graham himself hadn’t fallen into the culture war trap. Had he not sidelined the politics for posturing and performance? At one point, my friend and I turned to each other and whispered: “What are they actually fighting about?” But by the second act we had an answer and, despite all the cross-talk, it was very well delivered.

His message is clear: we need a free interchange of ideas, but what we have – today as yesterday – is discord and disunity. Debates are set up for dissent, for infighting and hostility. There is, as Vidal says, “a great split coming”, but no one’s doing anything to seal it shut. I’m reminded, naturally, of Graham’s Brexit: The Uncivil War – with its warring factions and dividing lines – and then of This House, in the way that history tells us something about the politics of now. Then, finally, I recall a line from Ink, in which the new editor of the Sun is offered some advice: “Pander to and promote the most base instincts of people… create an appetite, but I warn you. You’ll have to keep feeding it.” We all have those instincts – fear, hatred, disgust – and we all have that appetite. But I wonder, who is feeding it? And when will we be satisfied?  

Best of Enemies
Young Vic, London SE1
Until 22 January 2022