Baldwin v Buckley: how the ‘debate play’ made a riveting resurgence | Theatre


James Graham’s play Best of Enemies recently brought to life the gladiatorial televised clashes between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr in the lead-up to the 1968 US presidential election. Tucked inside that drama was a fleeting mention of the historic debate between the white, conservative Buckley and the Black American civil rights activist James Baldwin. It felt, potentially, like it could make a play in its own right.

A new production stages just that momentous confrontation in verbatim form. Debate: Baldwin v Buckley re-enacts in full the Cambridge University Union head-to-head from February 1965, when it was recorded and broadcast by the BBC.

First re-created on screen during the lockdown of 2020, it has since been staged off-Broadway and now makes its UK premiere at Stone Nest in London’s West End. Adapted and directed by Christopher McElroen, it features Teagle F Bougere as Baldwin and Eric T Miller as Buckley.

Baldwin and Buckley have half an hour a piece to make their case for or against the motion of the debate: “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro.” We follow their logic without interruption in the debating chamber, Baldwin arguing for civil rights and for America to acknowledge the sins of its past, while Buckley makes the case for white conservative values.

McElroen says the decision to stage the debate this way came after the murder of George Floyd, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests. “It addressed the racial conflict that the country was navigating yet again.”

David Harewood (as Buckley) and Zachary Quinto (as Vidal) in Best of Enemies.
Gladiatorial clashes … David Harewood (as Buckley) and Zachary Quinto (as Vidal) in Best of Enemies. Photograph: Johan Persson

Political theatre has a long and fine British tradition, from Shakespeare’s history plays to David Hare’s work and Graham’s own oeuvre – which includes This House and The Vote. But the “debate play” is something apart; drawing on the ancient Athenian art of rhetoric and persuasion, it speaks to us directly of issues in our world. It is, by comparison, a rarity these days but we see it in such highly compelling instances as Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose courtroom debate was arguably its strongest feature. There is also David Mamet’s recently revived and volcanic two-hander, Oleanna, which is not formally constructed as a debate but presents two oppositional viewpoints on political correctness in university campuses with immense force, and allows us to view its subject from both sides.

An even more current example is the New Diorama’s musical, After the Act, which features parliamentary debate around Section 28 (which legislated against teaching homosexuality in British schools) and manages to bring satirical comedy to the debate form.

In the case of McElroen’s production, nothing extraneous is added to the words exchanged between Baldwin and Buckley. Unlike Best of Enemies, which couches the infamous debates within greater fictive material, this is a pure reconstruction of the original. “To frame the debate within a bigger story would be like killing a fly with a sledgehammer,” says McElroen. “The material is James Baldwin and William F Buckley Jr – two amazing intellectuals on opposite sides of the political spectrum. The conflict is inherent in that, you don’t need to do anything to it.”

William Buckley and Gore Viral face off in 1068.
With respect … William Buckley and Gore Viral face off in 1968. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images

The setting is modern, apart from an old TV that replays some of the original footage, and there is no use of theatrical lighting or sound. Yet it is utterly captivating. The fierce eloquence and intellectual rigour of Baldwin and Buckley’s arguments have not lost any of their power. There is an argument to suggest that the most powerful part of Best of Enemies is Vidal and Buckley’s debates themselves, which offer a ferocious sense of spectacle – and that the fiction is secondary.

The fact that Buckley airs such critical, even offensive, views on the civil rights movement and effectively mobilises a defence of white supremacy, brings its own questions. Would this debate ever be sanctioned now at a university union, in our era of de-platforming – and should it be?

Yes, says McElroen, because the divided politics are still there. After every show there is a live discussion with the audience, and in some venues the after-show conversations are proof of how some have moved on from this debate around race while others remained entrenched. The first venue in which Baldwin v Buckley played live was the Women’s National Republican Club in New York. “They identified strongly with Buckley’s arguments,” says McElroen, “and they identified the Black Lives Matter movement to be a radical group not dissimilar from the way Buckley viewed the civil rights movement.”

The other issue it raises is whether we have lost the art of civilised debate – and more specifically, if the demand for “total” agreement is eroding the space and permission for true debate and disagreement. If this debate were taking place today, McElroen thinks, Buckley would have stopped Baldwin by his third or fourth word and the discussion would have descended into chaos.

Put-downs … presidential nominees Donald Trump and Joe Biden in their first 2020 campaign debate, in Cleveland.
Pantomime put-downs … Donald Trump and Joe Biden in their first 2020 campaign debate. Photograph: Reuters

If a more recent political debate were given similar verbatim treatment in dramatic form – such as the televised Trump and Biden presidential face-offs – it might be highly entertaining to watch for the heated interruptions and put-downs. But contemporary political debates rarely allow the opponent the time and breadth to make their argument, uninterrupted, in the way that Baldwin and Buckley did.

There is a strain, in debate drama, that it is striving to be more than just theatre, and that it is ultimately trying to galvanise the audience towards a change of heart or mind outside the auditorium through its act of persuasion.

McElroen is staging his play across the US – from Tennessee to southern California – in the lead-up to the next presidential elections, travelling out of the “liberal bubble” and into Republican heartlands. “To the extent that a piece of theatre can affect change, we hope to use this to spark dialogue. What we try and do at the end of the performance is to focus on civility, and on what actually unites us as opposed to the things that divide us,” he says.

“The odd thing about the debate between Baldwin and Buckley is that they find consensus in their arguments about the value of America and the American way of life. We need to do better collectively to hear what the other side is saying. If we do that, we’ll be surprised at how much consensus exists.”

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