Before social media drove political coverage, networks bolstered election news with the help of outside contributors. In 1968, ABC hired intellectuals and writers William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal to spice up its broadcast of the Republican and Democratic conventions, which is the basis for Best Of Enemies, a new play based on true events. After debuting to widespread acclaim in December 2021 at London’s Young Vic theatre, the production transfers to the West End for a limited run.
Reprising the role of Buckley is David Harewood, best known to audiences for TV shows Homeland and Super Girl. Joining him for the transfer is Zachary Quinto, making his London theatre debut. Quinto, of course, found fame with Heroes and playing Spock in the Star Trek film reboot. In the U.S., Quinto has appeared on stage in Angels in America, The Boys in the Band (and the Netflix movie version), and The Glass Menagerie.
No Tea, No Shade:
Alongside the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., US headlines in 1968 were dominated by the war in Vietnam, civil rights protests, and the rise of the counterculture.
As hard as it might be to believe now, the main news networks (before the arrival of Fox News) strived to be centrist and impartial. This could make the task of covering conventions something of a drag (but not of the Joan Jett Blakk variety): delegates give long, often dull speeches toeing the party line.
ABC was lagging behind in the ratings and had a limited budget. It hit upon the idea of pitting two high-profile intellectuals against each other, picking William F. Buckley, publisher of the National Review, and Gore Vidal.
The gay writer was fresh from the controversy of his latest novel, Myra Breckinridge. Both men were also failed candidates for office. Buckley stood for Mayor of New York City while Vidal stood as a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives eight years earlier.
At first, both men have to be convinced to take part in the debates. There’s a great scene with Quinto as Vidal at a party attended by Andy Warhol, bemused at the growing influence of TV. He remarks with disbelief at hearing about people arranging their living room furniture around the box in the corner.
Buckley shares reservations about dumbing down political discourse. However, both are assured they can keep the conversation as highbrow as they like. Ultimately, their vanity, and the lure of such a large platform, win them over.
Going head-to-head, fireworks explode. Buckley and Vidal clearly detest one another and what each stands for. Soon enough, the highbrow intellectualism is dropped for waspish barbs, bitchy put-downs, and personal attacks.
The Republican convention takes place in Miami, with delegates choosing Richard Nixon as their presidential candidate. At the Democratic congress in Chicago, things are even more explosive, with protests outside the convention center leading to police brutality and mass arrests.
Soon, both Buckley and Vidal realize the magnitude of what’s going on around them. An on-screen slagging match might be entertaining, but don’t they have a higher responsibility here?
Let’s Have a Moment:
Best Of Enemies fully deserves its praise. Graham’s script, with its echoes of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, crams in a multitude of references to summon up the ghosts of 1968.
Herrin’s direction is fast-paced. With the ingenious use of lighting and video, the action switches between scenes with lightning speed. Characters bark into a camera one way, then switch immediately to another character in another location and back again: rat-a-tat-tat.
Harewood’s color-blind casting as Buckley has surprised some (Buckley was white). However, few could deny Harewood inhabits the role.
“Philosophically, ideologically and politically, Buckley is as far away from me as one can imagine,” Harewood told the Observer last year. “And yet the more I read about him, the more I’ve come to admire him. It’s a terrific challenge for me on so many levels.”
Quinto is perfect as Vidal, channeling sneery disdain with aplomb. The play doesn’t shy away from exploring Vidal’s sexuality. There’s a bedroom scene with “research assistant” Matt and exchanges with Vidal’s long-term partner, Howard Austen (Emilio Doorgasingh). Props also to Syrus Lowe for playing a camp, loquacious James Baldwin: a symbolic angel hanging over Vidal’s shoulder, urging him to do better.
The Last Word:
It also feels extremely relevant today, exploring how TV sacrifices the nuances of political argument in favor of entertainment and confrontation. Vidal rightly predicts that how candidates appear on TV will become more important than their political ideas or arguments (hello, Trump!)
From a queer perspective, it also shows Vidal questioning the camp, quick-witted and barbed persona he developed — like so many gay men — as a form of self-defense. Sometimes one needs more than just the bitchiest put-down in the room when the streets outside are on fire.
Here’s hoping for a U.S. transfer in the not-too-distant future.
Best of Enemies plays at the Noël Coward Theatre in London through February 18, 2023.