There Are Contentions Among You: Gore Vidal’s political play The Best Man

By Daniel Garrett

The Best Man by Gore Vidal
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Virginia Theatre
New York, September 2000

The Best Man (play book)
Dramatists Play Service
Revised edition, 1998
81 pages
ISBN 10-0822215276
ISBN 13-978-0822215271

The controversies surrounding the election of the second President Bush in year 2000—was he elected by the people or selected by the Supreme Court his father helped to appoint?—and the decisions he has made—such as seeking retribution rather than peace, and putting profits before ordinary people and their concerns for jobs, housing, and health care—reminded me of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, a play I saw in the year 2000 (it preceded that year’s election), and a play which explores the struggle to be elected president and indicates what is at stake, personally and politically. I was reminded again of the play during the 2008 presidential election, first with the Democratic party contests involving Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama, and also in the Republican and Democratic party campaigns led by John McCain and Barack Obama. The rabid commentaries by conservatives, in response to the new president’s initiatives, convince me that the play will remain relevant for a long time to come. Here is my commentary, written not long after seeing The Best Man:

I have liked to read plays for years and my favorites have included plays by Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, James Baldwin, Adrienne Kennedy, Albert Camus, Noel Coward, and Pirandello. I’m not a regular theater-goer, but in the last year and a half, I saw plays such as Up Against the Wind about Tupac Shakur, Betrayal with Liev Schreiber and Juliette Binoche, the Public Theater’s play about Christopher Marlowe, and plays at the Henry Street Settlement and the Fringe Theater. I like plays about friendship and love, family and community, artists, ethics, politics, ideas, and idiosyncratic characters and situations. I find myself wishing I could go to the theater more, wishing I could count on being offered every year plays that connect the life of the world with the world of ideas, aesthetic experimentation, and even my own life. It’s odd to me that there isn’t more of an American repertory of great (or merely interesting) plays regularly available in New York City. When I read a play I like, I find myself thinking, “This is important. This is something that it would be great to see on the stage and discuss.” One play I did read and was later able to see was Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, a play about a political convention contest between a liberal intellectual and a ruthless opportunist, was performed on Broadway. The play may be dated—or at least too formalistic in its conflicts—in that today those characteristics (liberal intellectual/opportunist) would describe one man. However, it’s a well-written, intelligent, funny play—and though I’m a longtime fan of Vidal I only read the play in 1999, a year before seeing it. I wanted to see it when it was first announced and mentioned it to acquaintances, but no one I knew was very interested and it soon fell off my radar—until a business associate mentioned it and I remembered it as an option. Ultimately, the play is about power, the impact of private life on public opinion, the dependence on political polls and popularity, and the lessening but still important sway of right and wrong. What is a man willing to do for what he wants? Will others support a man with good ideas and a flawed private life, or a man who merely tells them what they want to hear?

The performances of Spalding Gray (as the intellectual) and Chris Noth as his opponent were not bad but they were uneven. Chris Noth’s character first appears “good” but time and the play reveal him as abusive, arrogant, immature, and oddly spoiled, the kind of man the poet John Ashbery might have meant when he said, “He is important, it will get you nowhere. He is the source of much bitter reflection.” Unfortunately, Noth played him as if he were a candidate for student body president, not candidate for a powerful country’s leadership. (Even George W., who can seem profoundly stupid, conveys the sense that he could be nasty to be the point of murder—his Texas executions alone suggest an indifference to the loss of life.) I kept thinking Noth should be in movies; unfortunately, because he looks good—and it is a central part—he received an attention he didn’t have the professional talent to gratify or justify. The best thing about the play was Charles Durning as an aging, ill, practical ex-president who is invigorated by one last political fight (the audience response to him supports this conclusion as well). Durning himself is no longer young and that may have added to his effect, though his was a thoroughly vivid, well-conceived performance, amusing and intense. In this play, Vidal signifies on—reads—American political reality in a way that makes it hard, as all good satire does, to go back to believing sentimental but well-intentioned lies. Character itself can produce a kind of power, personal power—that is called conviction, integrity, truth; institutional power on the other hand works through people and usually prefers weak or corrupt vessels—the power remains institutional, not personal. As a character in the play says, “politics is life.”

Seeing the play gave me a strong sense of how theater might connect with contemporary reality, with daily conversation and our own lives and public choices. It’s easy to have a conversation after such a play about our own recent political phenomena, easy to talk about how we compromise our own ethics or repress our personal complexity to fit in…One can read or see Shakespeare and then have such conversations. But it’s important to know that there are American writers living and dead who inspire the same seriousness.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism; and he has said, “True criticism involves identifying, exploring, and evaluating the structure, content, and spirit of a work—and it is forever in danger as it works with knowledge against ignorance—and ignorance is great.” Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man,” where his comment on Vidal’s play appeared. His e-mail addresses are D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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