A still from Inherit the Windbag by Alexandra Petri
Stephen Kime, Tamieka Chavis, John Lescault, and Paul Morella in Inherit the Windbag Credit: Courtesy of Mosaic Theater Company

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In Alexandra Petri‘s satire Inherit the Windbag, the past becomes the present. She resurrects the late editor-in-chief of National Review William F. Buckley Jr. (John Lescault) and playwright, novelist, and commentator Gore Vidal (Paul Morella) at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, where, because “America has suffered from a fever of words,” an animated simulacrum of the former president demands that they replay their 1968 debates. Adding to the chaos, demons (Tamieka Chavis and Stephen Kime) now staff the library. 

Petri’s play had been poised to premiere with Mosaic Theater Company when, over the course of less than twenty-four hours, venues all over the area were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the aborted premiere, plenty has happened, including a leadership change at Mosaic and a format change for the show. Petri, director Lee Mikeska Gardner, and their collaborators reconceived the project as an often surreal eight-episode streaming series shot, with social distancing measures in place, against a green screen.

In 1968, ABC News, facing a budgetary shortfall, could not afford to match the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions presented by competing networks. Instead, the network aired a series of ten nightly debates between Buckley and Vidal representing conservatism and liberalism, respectively. Both hailed from East Coast patrician families with roots in the south. Both had had unsuccessful runs for political office. Both had a propensity for quoting the classics, similar accents, and manners of delivering both political opinion and personal insult. Most importantly, both delighted in playing caricatures of themselves on television. They had closely read each other’s work, and were viscerally revolted by what the other represented.

The debate repackaged the discourse of East Coast literati into the spectacle of late-night television. Their debates on foreign policy and civil rights were rarely without personal invective, yet one exchange is now seen as a harbinger of the coarsening of political opinion in the mass media. Following Buckley’s defense of the Chicago Police Department’s violent crackdown of anti-war activists who had come to protest the Democratic Convention, Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” (Ironically, the debate moderator, Howard K. Smith, played in the series by Chavis, had been a CBS correspondent in Nazi Germany just before the U.S. entered World War II.) Buckley, who had attempted from his post at National Review to dismiss anti-Semites and their fellow travelers from the conservative movement, lost his cool, and responded with with a homophobic threat:

“Listen to me, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” 

Buckley never acted on his threat but it’s hard to imagine his words not inspiring gay-bashing incidents over the violent summer of 1968. Vidal, however, was delighted: He had crafted a legal pad full of scripted insults hoping to find the one that would break Buckley. Both writers revisited the incident over the decades in essays and interviews, and would go on to sue each other for libel on at least four occasions.

The show’s title alludes to Inherit the Wind, in which playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee‘s used a fictionalized retelling of the Scopes Trial to allegorically address McCarthyism. Petri is explicit that the replay of the debates is to examine the roots of punditry in the American media today where ad hominems and whataboutisms trump facts and nuanced distinction.

Although Petri treats the events to her own post-modern sensibility, in which verbatim theater meets speculative fiction, the story and thesis are similar to that of Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville‘s 2015 documentary, Best of Enemies, which is receiving its own stage adaptation by James Graham at London’s Young Vic in December.

Where Petri differs is her choice of supporting cast: The demons become doppelgängers for Ayn Rand, James Baldwin, Buckley’s wife Patricia, Vidal’s mother Nina Gore (Chavis), Vidal’s partner Howard Austen, Whittaker Chambers, Norman Mailer, Alfred Kinsey (Kime) or Truman Capote (Chavis and Kime together, either to create the effect of Capote’s breathless monologuing or a nod to 2005 and 2006, when competing Capote biopics came out).

Gardner does make creative use of the technology: Dylan Uremovich‘s virtual sets and visual effects, which combine elements from Emily Lotz‘s and Willow Watson‘s original sets and props, reenforce the unreality of this particular afterlife with strange perspectives and changes of scale, psychedelic and pop-art backgrounds, and a fractal Capote. However, the adaptation to a new medium only goes so far: the script doesn’t offer the plot twists or the cliffhangers that make the serialized format feel organic, so it is best viewed in a single sitting.

Lescault and Morella both capture their subjects’ mannerisms and verbal tics—Lescault in particular gets Buckley’s constant reclining posture and darting tongue, which Vidal described in reptilian terms, while Morella gives a controlled performance of the prickly Vidal as he gleefully sets his trap for his prey. However, given Chavis’ performance as Baldwin and recent discussions about race in America, a play about the 1965 Cambridge Union Baldwin/Buckley debate on “Has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” or given the rise of Trumpism, a play about Buckley’s clash with the John Birch Society might have been just as relevant as duplicating Gordon and Neville’s efforts.

All episodes are available for free at mosaictheater.org. To defray production costs, payments of $10 to $25 per episode are encouraged. Subscription options are also available.