“Enemies”: Gore Vidal and William Buckley © Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

When Gore Vidal met William Buckley

James Graham’s “Best of Enemies” dramatises the birth of identity politics and the culture wars in 1968
November 3, 2022

Eight years ago, I was sent to review a play by an up-and-coming playwright named James Graham. At the time Graham was best known for his 2012 play This House, which examined the machinations of the Whips’ Offices in the chaotic parliament of 1974–79. He was yet to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder. 

Off I went to the Theatre Royal Plymouth, to watch Patsy Ferran and Harry Melling play the naive student radicals who bombed the home of employment secretary Robert Carr in 1971. (Both actors, like Graham, are now stars.) After I filed my four-star review, a response came back from my editor. Could I really be confident that “no playwright can beat Graham at explaining political ideas on stage”? “Stoppard? Hare? Just a thought.” We compromised. The line became: “no emerging playwright can beat Graham at explaining political ideas on stage.”

In 2022, Graham is unarguably our pre-eminent writer of political theatre. (Though Hare’s Straight Line Crazy, his recent play about the New York urban planner Robert Moses, was an unexpected return to form.) Graham’s party trick remains using a comic staging to explain complex political mechanics. In Ink, a portrait of Rupert Murdoch’s impact on Britain, page three girls enacted rival manifestos; during the 2015 election campaign, he staged The Vote, a real-time farce set in a polling station. For my money, his only weak play, despite its Olivier Award, was 2017’s Labour of Love about the Labour party.

Graham’s latest play, Best of Enemies, tackles the TV commentary of 1960s America. The “enemies” are Gore Vidal, the patrician liberal writer, and William Buckley, intellectual godfather of American cultural conservatism, who were brought together to debate on the ABC network during the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions. Vidal and Buckley see themselves as honourable and cerebral interlocutors, but against the backdrop of two assassinations—Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy—their debates descend into mud-wrestling until Buckley insults Vidal’s sexuality.

Best of Enemies ran initially at the Young Vic last winter; it opens in the West End on 14th November at the Noël Coward Theatre. David Harewood returns as Buckley, but Charles Edwards is replaced as Vidal by American actor Zachary Quinto, which I suspect means a Broadway transfer is under negotiation. Best of Enemies is a British view of American politics—would Graham change anything for a US audience? “Inevitably,” he tells me by email. We might get more detail on American policy debates or “Goldwater, slum clearances, the particulars of Vietnam. We tried to make the debates more universal for a British crowd.” I’m lobbying for more on Frank Meyer, Buckley’s colleague at National Review, whose philosophy has shaped the Supreme Court.

Graham says the Vidal-Buckley debates saw “the birth of identity politics” and the “bombastic populism (though very different) of Boris and Trump”. Towards the play’s end there’s an unsubtle prophecy about a Trump-like president. But away from such specifics, Graham is more interested in comparisons with “the mood that swept both nations, and the world. The generational anger that broke out in the streets of Chicago also happened in Paris, in London. Race riots, armies on Northern Irish streets… These were times of protest and fracture.”

At this year’s Critics’ Circle Awards (which I chair) we gave Jeremy Herrin’s production of Best of Enemies the best new play award. But the decision was not without controversy. In the Guardian, Mark Lawson praised the performance of Harewood, who is black, as Buckley. But given the play “aim[s] elsewhere for photo-realism”, Lawson argued that when race-blind casting is applied to white but not black characters, it requires audiences to “make an adjustment in how they visually read a production.” As Lawson noted, “when Buckley and the novelist James Baldwin are on stage together, white racism and African-American pride are simultaneously being represented by actors of colour.”

Graham rejects this: “I think it neglects the basic purpose of readdressing and correcting the imbalance of power, currently… We were actually very excited about what having two black actors on stage playing a white man and an African American—who both famously debated and fought over racism and its barriers to the American Dream—would unlock, alter or reignite about those themes.”

Buckley was himself an outsider; at a time when Democrats claimed to own working-class, Catholic votes like his, he established himself among Republicans. By contrast, Gore Vidal was the snob grandson of senator Thomas Gore. Graham points out that both characters challenge “how we are split into tribes and how that informs the side we identify with, in almost a religious way.” Few plays feel more topical.