Excessive bitchery can get out of hand.
Best of Enemies by James Graham
I am talking online at the Thesis festival on Thursday about “Biography and the Art of Living: Reading Better to Live Better”. Tickets here.
Best of Enemies is the new James Graham play about the 1968 television debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal. Having watched the original debates, I thought this would be enjoyable. And it was. The actors were splendid, most of all Syrus Lowe as James Baldwin: his performance was worth it alone. As you would expect the script was well-paced, had plenty of jokes, and never dragged.
I wasn’t quite sure why this story had been chosen—there was a documentary about the same thing, with the same name, quite recently. One advantage the play has over the documentary (apart from Baldwin: I wish the play had been more about him) is that it doesn’t include Christopher Hitchens. The way the play draws parallel with modern times is too didactic and straightforward for my tastes. The real lesson is, in Buckley’s words, that “Excessive bitchery can get out of hand.” Baldwin got closest to that perspective, but the play as a whole went much further, as we will see. But who cares: a good story bears the retelling.
Then came the crucial moment, when Buckley used that word. If you haven’t seen the debates you must. I will ruin the plot here (heck, it happened in 1968) and tell you what Buckley said:
VIDAL: As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that—
SMITH: Let’s, let’s not call names—
VIDAL: Failing that, I can only say that—
BUCKLEY: Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered—
Shocking, right? Well, the audience certainly thought so—the whole place gasped when that line was delivered. I was amazed to find that they had come to see this play not knowing what it was about. Buckley later wrote an essay discussing this episode. Well worth reading, not least for the way he inserts corrections into a long chunk of Vidal’s assertions—let that be a warning to you about believing what you hear on television. It’s entertainment, not information, especially so with the people like Vidal who make the biggest claim to be informative. This is also the explanation for Christopher Hitchens’ career. (Read Vidal’s riposte, too; he gets the better of Buckley a second time, I think.)
The article is also interesting for this telegram which Buckley almost sent to Vidal sometime before the debates:
PLEASE INFORM GORE VIDAL THAT NEITHER I NOR MY FAMILY IS DISPOSED TO RECEIVE LESSONS IN MORALITY FROM A PINK QUEER. IF HE WISHES TO CHALLENGE THAT DESIGNATION, INFORM HIM THAT I SHALL FIGHT BY THE LAWS OF THE MARQUIS OF QUEENSBERRY. HE WILL KNOW WHAT I MEAN. WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.
One thing this telegram shows is that Buckley was being hateful in his choice of words. We are used to seeing “queer” used in both positive and negative ways and you might try and defend Buckley (although God knows why) on the grounds that he could have chosen more offensive words. This article gives a good description of the history of “queer” as derogatory when used as a noun, which Buckley did here and on the programme.
There is much that could be said—not least about the way that play blithely accepts and indeed accentuates the idea of Vidal as the one who had all the facts—but Graham is entitled to give a selective view of a person if he wants to. Really he has no choice. Instead I want to talk not about the selection of material, but its delivery.
What this play really made me think about was what you might call the Noël Coward problem—how convincing should a character’s accent be? Look at this clip from a Broadway production of Present Laughter. Mimicking Coward’s intonation is remarkably difficult. (David Niven did a good Coward impression.) The reason this is a problem is that we know what Coward sounded like. We have recordings. Often it is better not to try and imitate his delivery: getting the accent not quite right ruins the play. Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan gave one of the best performances of Private Lives in recent times without trying to sound like Coward and Laurence. His voice is just too hard to get right convincingly.
This problem dogs Best of Enemies throughout. Buckley and Vidal are given good American accents, but these are not convincing as their accents. Buckley especially was all wrong. He had a drawling, patrician, occasionally clipped voice. Like Vidal’s, it was entirely singular. The actors didn’t come close to this, not least because they spoke so fast, so loudly, and often with a good deal more malice and growling. They got very far away indeed from the original sound, and gesture, of the debate.
Unlike with Coward, this is the wrong approach. Departing from Coward’s intonation allows for new interpretations. Although we have his voice, we are still able to deliver the lines in several ways, as we are with Shakespeare. Some of Shakespeare’s endurance in performance is down to this flexibility. There is no “correct” delivery as we never recorded Babbage or the others.
But Buckley and Vidal were filmed. We can not only hear them, we can see them. Every twitch, flick, and smirk is there. Most importantly, the body language is there. Watch Buckley: he is remarkably expressive. Like Vidal, he is highly theatrical. They both have a sort of nervous langour that wasn’t captured here. Instead, this was a play of anger, frustration, temper, and neuroses. Very modern. Departing from the accents was part of a larger departure from their behaviour, mood, and body language.
That’s a good reflection of the way hatred underpins prejudice. But it’s a difficult way to reproduce historical events which were filmed. Buckley condemned himself out of his own mouth. As Vidal wrote, “I was pleased with what had happened: I had enticed the cuckoo to sing its song, and the melody lingers on.” Why make him angry, shouty? He is not like that in the film. If nothing else, it is a rule of acting that shouting is the least effective form of delivering a line. Buckley simmers with hatred in the film, but merely boils over in the play.
This is part of the production’s didactic approach, as if we needed a big flashing sign indicating that Buckley was prejudiced about gay people, like many many others in 1968.
The fact that the audience didn’t know what was going on meant they have learned about this episode not as it happened but as it was interpreted. No-one will object to that because the interpretation was morally correct. But already we are on dangerous ground. In his essay, Buckley says this: “Vidal is fond of recalling that Alfred Whitehead once said that one gets at the essence of a culture not by studying those things which were said at the time, but by studying those things which were not said.” Indeed, and in this play all that what was not said—expression, gesture, intonation, and movement—is wrong, plain wrong.
How many other historical episodes which were filmed would it be acceptable to interpret like this? Just imagine if the delivery had implied that Buckley was trying to be languidly humorous and made Vidal’s phrase “crypto Nazi” nastier than it sounded, noting that it is in fact a very nasty thing to call someone, much more so in 1968 than now. Vidal delivered his insult calmly and with a witty smirk; Buckley had more insidious body language. These positions were enhanced in the play—reversing them would have garnered criticism, but distorting them the other way wins praise.
If they wanted to emphasise that Buckley really was prejudiced, why not quote the telegram? It does more than anything else could. When we allow filmed historical events to be reinterpreted like this we begin to turn the Noel Coward problem, which creates no bigger evil than to make a good comedy dull, into a way of turning real events into something closer to The Crown. Graham was right to use imagined dialogue between the television scenes, but the play was wrong to change so much the delivery of the real historical lines. Not least because, as Isobel Lewis said, the best bits in this play are when the real-life debates are reenacted.
In this case it’s not a big deal. Buckley was wrong and shown to be so. But it represents the way we put interpretation ahead of accuracy, the very thing the play was so worried about! The debates were discussed as the start of our modern culture wars and fake news. Such opinionated commentary, when the news became less factual, was said to be the root of our own problems.
Maybe so. I don’t believe that. (Neither, I think, did Vidal.)1 Despite what I’ve written, I enjoyed the play and don’t have a problem with it—there ought to be more art that experiments with historical facts. But shouldn’t you be all the more careful, if you are performing this play, not to participate in the problematic process you are concerned about? Especially when your audience doesn’t know enough to know you are presenting an interpretation, not a recreation.
Thanks for reading. If you’re enjoying The Common Reader, let your interesting friends know what you think. Or leave a comment.
If you don’t subscribe to The Common Reader, but you enjoy reading whatever’s interesting, whenever it was written, sign up now.
“Buckley begins his tirade with, I should have thought, a most dangerous quotation from The East Village Other to the effect that Buckley has been found guilty of exercising “faggot dialectic.” The implication is plain. The writer thinks that Buckley is a faggot. He is not alone. Norman Mailer even shouted the word “fag” at Buckley during a Les Crane taping: it was cut from the show … how innocent television was before Chicago last summer!”