Politics as Usual?
David Finkle assesses the relevance of Gore Vidal's The Best Man, back on Broadway 40 years after its premiere.
In the foreword to Quarrel & Quandary, her new collection of essays, Cynthia Ozick asks: Is politics a distraction from art, or is it how we pay attention to the life that gives rise to art?
When it comes to Gore Vidal's The Best Man, the answer to the question is easy: Politics is the indisputable impetus for the art. Of course, Ozick--who is noisily uncomfortable with too strong an art-politics link--might slip out of this one by saying that the play formerly known simply as The Best Man isn't art, it's craft. And many would concede the point, since Vidal's work is a well-constructed comedy/drama. Whether it's an example of art on the hoof is another matter; Charles Wright, my colleague in these Theatermania web pages, shied away from describing Vidal's 1960 effort as a work of genius, and I have to concur.
But its narrative is indisputably intriguing. The Best Man takes place during a political convention wherein the contest has narrowed to three figures, only two of whom are seen on stage. The first, William Russell, is a highly moral ex-Secretary of State whose private life includes womanizing and a bout with mental instability. The second aspirant is Joe Cantwell (hey, Mr. V., couldn't you have found a less obvious surname?), a Congressional battler not above attacking his opponent with any weapon that comes to hand. The suspense Vidal builds into the two acts of this play (originally three) hinges on which will prevail: rectitude or turpitude.
Five producers have brought the current revival to the Virginia Theatre, and their reasons for doing so undoubtedly revolved in part around the quality of Vidal's writing--his skill at dramatic structure, his ability to compose pithy repartée. But, surely, they also chose this moment to dust off the play because the country is smack dab in the middle of another presidential run. Much of the fun of watching Vidal release his dialogue balloons in 2000 arises from comparing and contrasting the selection process now with what it was then. This game of Match and Mismatch may not be intrinsic to the text, but it's definitely a serendipitous fillip this particular fall.
As Vidal's frenzied characters hustle in and out of the mirror image hotel suites wherein the high-gear scenes are set, a healthy percentage of what they say to each other causes the ticket-holder to flash on this season's contest. I, for one, sat there thinking from minute to minute: "Yes, that situation still prevails, but no, this one doesn't." By the time the final curtain rings down--well, it's actually a scrim featuring a black and white view of a convention hall from behind the speaker's lectern--the audience has been reminded that the more things change, the more so many of them stay the same. Processes may shift, but human nature doesn't.
The major change is in the play's premise. Thanks to revisions in the primaries over the 40 years since Vidal completed his opus, conventions have ceased to be the place where candidates are chosen. Were Vidal to broach the subject now, he wouldn't write about two front-runners waiting for the sitting President to endorse one of them just before the delegates cast their votes. Instead, he might examine behind-the-scenes deal making in New Hampshire or at the Iowa caucuses.
In addition, there are many smaller gaps between what people filling the political limelight now and then might think and do. At one point, Russell, having just been called a liberal, jokingly looks up the word in a dictionary. Anyone running for national office now would be too busy denying the charge of being liberal to take time to consult Webster's. On the other hand, he or she wouldn't have to worry about being tapped an "egghead," as Russell is, since no one uses that damning noun today. And speaking of "he" and "she," there's the question of the role of women in national political parties. Vidal sends busybody party lady Sue-Ellen Gamadge charging in to advise the candidates and their wives on distaff obligations, and she counsels that the women be less active than Eleanor Roosevelt but more active than Mamie Eisenhower. But these assumptions about what women voters want in a potential first lady no longer hold. The ability to contribute to a hen-fest--as Cantwell's wife, Mabel, is adept at doing--doesn't carry much weight now that spouses are expected to champion at least one important national cause. That is, if they don't hold office somewhere themselves. Which brings up another still-evolving attitude: In the play, Russell's medical history becomes a huge issue. Today, with Tipper Gore plugging a corrected stance towards mental health, frank and open discussion seems more and more a likelihood.
As for what hasn't changed over the intervening years--well, the quips Vidal provides about a President sneaking women into the White House for sexual purposes are so recognizable that they provoke scattered applause. There is also much nodding of heads over the marriage arrangement that Bill and Alice Russell have struck: His philandering may have come between them, but she's prepared to keep up a united front--like the Clintons, did someone say? And Vidal's raising the proliferation of smear tactics as a pivotal turn of the plot is so palpably familiar to this year's theatergoers that it registers as joltingly up-to-the-minute. Indeed, campaign strategies based around exploiting the negative may be the single biggest reason that exiting patrons chatter about how timely the play remains. The influence of poll results is another aspect of the 1960 campaign covered by Vidal, one that could also just as easily be grabbed from today's headlines. Plus, there's a reference to a politico who consults an astrologer.
It's worth nothing that there are a few issues Vidal doesn't bring up at all, because they meant little or nothing a generation back. Although Russell and Cantwell have armed themselves with much mud to sling--womanizing, a troubling medical history, a possible homosexual relationship--there's no mention of employing TV or radio commercials to disseminate these revelations. Neither is there any mention of soft money; that term wasn't even in the political lexicon then, since not as much funding went into campaigns, and what was accumulated was deployed differently. (The former president in Vidal's piece, a plain talker and self-described "hick" named Art Hockstader, would probably have been too finance-light to be elected.)
There is so much enjoyment to be derived from The Best Man that it's likely to be a whopping hit; the revival is scheduled to close December 31, but there's already talk of extending. Its appeal may be especially strong for one more segment of the population: Since the Russell-Cantwell confrontation is something of a set-to between the Northeast and the rest of the country, the beliefs and behavior of that part of the electorate thought of as the Eastern elite is validated. In the end, the man of privilege fares better than the man who's pulled himself up from the streets. Russell's ethics are shown to be grounded in something more durable than those of Cantwell, who harbors only disdain for the Ivy League-educated.
It's probably needless to ask why Gore Vidal would have any other outlook, or imagine any other outcome; he was born and raised a rich and well-connected man. In 1960, most theatergoers would have found those credentials unimpeachable. Nowadays, that type of theatergoer is much more rare, and those left will be glad for the reassurance--consciously or unconsciously. Others might feel that the Joe Cantwells of the land aren't the only ones who stoop to conquer. Indeed, some of those born to wealth nowadays do whatever they can to hide their backgrounds. In 1960, it's not likely Vidal would have imagined that a man who went to Andover and Yale (as both George Bushes did) would downplay his degrees, his pedigree. Jack Kennedy, a Vidal acquaintance, certainly didn't. But it happens now--and this may well be the biggest discrepancy between the political climates of 1960 and 2000.