It is 1968. America is deeply divided as racial unrest and protests against the Vietnam War erupt in the streets. Martin Luther King is assassinated in April, and in June, Robert Kennedy, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency is murdered. In August the Republican and Democratic parties meet at their national conventions in Miami and Chicago, the latter disturbed by more clashes between armed police and protesters.
Against this backdrop the television network ABC enlist two controversial political pundits to engage in a series of freewheeling TV debates: the arch-conservative William F Buckley Jr and the liberal writer and provocateur, Gore Vidal. Not only did their intellectual jousting provide meaty conflict, the personal antipathy between them sparked iconic TV fireworks. The series of ten short debates were a surprise television hit, attracting ten million viewers. As subsequent history has proved, the form and style of their venomous public battle was also a harbinger of the type of polarised personal discourse that now prevails in our current news and social media.
James Graham is a master at reflecting the anxieties of our time through the dramatisation of recent political history. In this case, reenactments of parts of the Vidal-Buckley debates form the centrepiece of his new play Best of Enemies, which is receiving its premiere at London’s Young Vic theatre as we record this episode in December 2021. The play is fascinating for so many reasons: the period in which it is set was one of fervid social and political upheaval around the world, the two protagonists are wonderfully compelling and complex characters themselves, and for the glimpse it provides into a particular moment when a new form of digital media came to dominate and even distort our public debate.
I am delighted to welcome James Graham to the podcast to talk about Best of Enemies.