Looking back now, the most striking thing about the famous 1969 Firing Line debate between conservative avatar William F. Buckley Jr. and leftist icon Noam Chomsky — a lengthy back-and-forth mainly over U.S. involvement in Vietnam — is its abundant civility and scholarly rigor, despite the two men’s drastically opposed world views. It’s a stark contrast to the loudmouths and buffoons all across the political spectrum who dominate the airwaves these days.
But Philly playwright Bruce Walsh isn’t all that hung up on the devolution of decorum. He thinks the whole exercise was, and remains, fruitless.
“The concept of debating is that you’re trying to out-argue each other and prove you’re right, and then you’re going to get people to come over to your line of thinking. I don’t really think that’s possible,” says Walsh, 35. “People have their core beliefs, and when you try to change them, all it does is create a lot of ... pushback. It doesn’t accomplish anything.”
Walsh explores the notion that debate is futile — and essentially asks, “Why do we have to be goddamn right all the time?” — in his new work Chomsky vs. Buckley, 1969, an hour-long experimental performance that appropriates and recontextualizes the Firing Line transcript to emphasize that it’s all nothing more than a silly intellectual parlor game.
Maria Möller, co-founder of Shakespeare in Clark Park, amps up Buckley’s affectations and witty arrogance as she uses the Firing Line host’s own words to mount a defense of American military action in Vietnam as right and necessary. Visual artist Rob Wetherington, meanwhile, plays guest Chomsky in all his unflappable, academic nerdiness as he counters that the war is immoral and unjustified and represents nothing more than rampant U.S. imperialism.
But though the men are quoted faithfully, Walsh ratchets up the absurdity by staging the debate in his Northern Liberties home. Möller and Wetherington will recite their lines while making hors d’oeuvres for the audience and arguing over food preparation — conflict atop conflict.
Walsh — who says he identifies with Chomsky’s politics — explains that he came up with the idea for the play after getting into “insane screaming matches with random people at bars over the need for universal health care.” But even when he changed tack, taking a more mild and reasoned approach, he realized he still couldn’t win over his adversaries.
“It’s just like Chomsky and Buckley’s debate — they’re both calm and mostly respectful and presenting their evidence, they’re not shouting at each other, but is that leading anywhere? They could be talking about Iraq and Afghanistan — they were debating the same points back then that we’re arguing about today. So where has any of it really gotten us?”
As for hosting the performances at his house, Walsh says, “I’m basically just trying to create a fun party in an intimate environment and hopefully start a discussion afterwards. I don’t have all the answers, but I’d love it if whoever comes to see it starts thinking about different ways to solve problems instead of just trying to be right and pushing people away.”
Chomsky vs. Buckley, 1969, Sept. 7-8, $16, 984 N. Randolph St.
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