The text of James Baldwin and William F. Buckley’s 1965 Cambridge Union opposing speeches should be part of the national curriculum. For this reason alone, if you’re not yet familiar with the famous debate which asks, ‘Has the American Dream been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?’ that packed the Union – as Norman St. John-Stevas MP breathlessly intoned in his TV commentary, ‘hundreds of undergraduates, and myself, waiting for what could prove one of the most exciting debates in the whole 150 years of the Union history. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Union so well-attended. There are undergraduates everywhere. They’re on the benches. They’re on the floor. They’re in the galleries. And there are a lot more clamouring to get in,’ – it’s worth checking out Christopher McElroen’s staging of the event as verbatim theatre so you can spend some time amongst the discourse captured that one evening.
The texts of laureled American author and civil rights activist James Baldwin (Teagle F. Bougere) and his iconic conservative opponent William F Buckley (Eric T. Miller) are left unedited – only contextualised by the passing of time and the presence of new voices saying the same words. As the producers are at pains to point out, they are not attempting to ‘inhabit such monumental figures as James Baldwin or William F. Buckley Jr., their shoes are too large to fill. Rather, the objective is simply to place their words, which still resonate 58 years later, within the voice of contemporary artists.’
The action begins in the round with the capacious former nave of a Methodist church (which was also the famous Limelight nightclub) turned theatre. The stony gothic features of this landmark (built in 1888) connote the storied space of the 1866 Cambridge Union Society interior (although, alas on a rainy Tube strike night, the space didn’t quite feel like undergraduates were rushing in to grab any inch of available space). As the performance opens, the focal point is a small black and white TV placed upstage that kicks off with the title music straight from the original NET broadcast and the excited but reverent commentary of St John-Stevas. The applause from the broadcast is also used at various stages as sound cues, but the single source felt too little for too long – especially at the beginning and the end. I would have liked to have felt the ambience rise around us from multiple points to get the sense that we are cast as those clamouring undergraduates gathered for a once-in-a-century event.
The producers note that Teagle F. Bougere is not tasked with mimicking Baldwin but rather to give voice to his words. Costumed in a rumpled suit in contrast to the tuxedos of the three other men, there is a pleasing sense of the sculptural in the staging. After the two Union undergraduates introduce the speakers and the motion before the House, it is Baldwin’s chance to speak. Slowly tying his shoelace before standing, Bougere proceeds to recite one of the most compelling pieces of 20th-century oratory. Although I’m advised this is an interpretation and not a tribute act, I couldn’t help but think very carefully and closely to the original rendition (which is available extant on YouTube and included in numerous documentaries and indeed excerpted in other recent verbatim theatre productions such as Andrew French and Jeffrey Miller’s excellent Maud about the 2020 Florida lynching of Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery ). Baldwin’s delivery of his own words before the ritualistic pomp of the Union in 1965 is artful in its dramatic telling as much as its persuasive prose. I found it hard to divorce myself from Baldwin’s spoken voice and concentrate solely on his literary one. Bougere speaks fast, whereas Baldwin has a cadence that shows the rapidity of his wit but allows the vividness of his imagery to sink in as it works on all senses – including humour. Some of that imagery goes by at too great a speed in Bougere’s performance. However, the subtlety of expression on Bougere’s face, as he patiently endures the proceedings (and rather deliberate goading by Buckley) is powerful and adds a new perspective to the lo-tech camerawork of the 1965 debate.
Likewise, Eric T. Miller has eschewed the New Haven lock-jawed drone famously associated with his character (indeed sent up by Robin Williams in numerous Saturday Night Live episodes of the 1980s). Instead, Miller plays Buckley with a sort of easy affability and less specific accent. The sense of entitlement and condescension of Buckley, who seems so convinced of the natural correctness of his position, is well transmitted – even if delivered via different means. But some of the drama of the actual debate is lost. Without the sense of the crowd and its mood, the jeopardy of whether Buckley will succeed – with his ad hominin attacks (patronisingly and archly accusing Baldwin of affecting a ‘British accent’) and propaganda featuring a pet professor’s ‘research’ that American Blacks are intrinsically lazier than other minority groups – is less intense.
Regardless of cavils from a purist, the mere context of half a century is a powerful element of theatrical staging. With after-show discussions each night, it is right that not only points made that one night at the Cambridge Union – in a period of time that followed the assassination of John F Kennedy but preceded the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. – but also the tactics of debate and persuasion are re-examined by as many as possible.
Review by Mary Beer
This was the topic on February 18, 1965 when an overflowing crowd packed the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England, to bear witness to a historic televised debate between James Baldwin, the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, and William F. Buckley Jr., a fierce critic of the movement and America’s most influential conservative intellectual.
The stage was set for an epic confrontation that pitted Baldwin’s call for a moral revolution in race relations against Buckley’s unabashed elitism and implicit commitment to white supremacy. This historic clash reveals the deep roots and lasting legacy of racial conflict that continues to haunt America.
15 March – 8 April
Tues-Sat 7.30pm, Sat 2.30pm
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