The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 874

The Best Man is a behind-the-scenes examination of the political maneuverings at a national party convention, as three candidates vie for their party’s nomination. It is set entirely in two hotel suites, those of candidates Russell and Cantwell. The play’s seven scenes rotate between the two suites, which are differentiated...

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The Best Man is a behind-the-scenes examination of the political maneuverings at a national party convention, as three candidates vie for their party’s nomination. It is set entirely in two hotel suites, those of candidates Russell and Cantwell. The play’s seven scenes rotate between the two suites, which are differentiated visually by different campaign placards and props. As the curtain rises, candidate Russell, his wife, and Jensen, his campaign manager, are in the midst of a throng of reporters and photographers. Russell, a strong, youthful looking man of fifty, fields the reporters’ questions in a wry, unconventionally clever manner that clearly causes his campaign manager some discomfort.

Once the reporters are gone, Russell begins to deal with the visitors and power brokers who will be critical in this very closely contested convention. The first of these, Mrs. Gamadge, has great influence among women voters, and although she agrees with Russell’s policies, she disapproves of his intellectual eccentricity. When Alice Russell returns, the audience learns that theirs is a marriage of political convenience, of “separate rooms, separate lives,” but that she believes in him as a potential president. Former president Hockstader enters through a back entrance; he is the man whose endorsement is critical to the outcome of the nomination process. A folksy old-time pol, Hockstader likes a drink and a good story, but he is also a consummate political operator. Although he has obvious affection for Russell, he refuses to reveal whom he will endorse that night, and before the end of the scene he also reveals that he is dying of cancer.

The action shifts to Senator Cantwell’s suite, where Mabel, Cantwell’s pretty blond wife, is watching the political coverage on television, smoking, cheering on her husband, booing Russell, and mocking Mrs. Russell’s hat. Even from the voice heard coming from the television, it is clear what a slick politician Cantwell is. As soon as he comes in, the audience learns that he and his aide Don Blades have some kind of dirt on Russell, something that Cantwell is tempted to use. Blades is dispatched to bring Hockstader, and in the interim, the genuine love between Cantwell and Mabel becomes clear; they are a real, devoted team.

Hockstader is ushered in, and he clearly does not care for the nondrinking, nonsmoking, pure, and young Cantwell. The scene between the two sets forth one of the many debates of political philosophy in this play, and in the two scenes with Hockstader the differences between the principled, thoughtful Russell and the expedient, driven Cantwell are evident. Cantwell reveals his dirt on Russell, which concerns a history of nervous exhaustion and breakdown, as well as marital infidelity. An argument ensues about whether such personal skeletons are fair game in politics, and whether these particular allegations should be revealed. Hockstader finds himself enraged at Cantwell and vows to have Cantwell’s political scalp on his belt.

When the scene returns to the Russell suite, it is the next afternoon. The audience learns that the previous night, Hockstader gave an ambiguous speech and did not endorse anyone. Russell’s psychiatrist, Dr. Artinian, is brought in to combat Cantwell’s impending release of the information about Russell. The strain is growing on both of the Russells, although Hockstader has now pledged his support. At this point, the play makes a turn when a possible solution to Cantwell’s threatened revelations arrives: Jensen has tracked down Sheldon Marcus, who served in the army with Cantwell and has a story that is political dynamite—he says Cantwell had a homosexual relationship. Both Jensen and Hockstader want to use it, if not to smear Cantwell, then to force him to cease smearing Russell. However, the candidate is reluctant.

Meanwhile, in the Cantwell suite, things are proceeding apace until Cantwell gets a call from the Russell camp that stops him cold. What follows are a series of tense scenes involving negotiations over what will happen in the nomination process, and a larger a debate over the proper uses of power. Russell, Cantwell, their wives, their aides, and Hockstader are all pushed to their limits in a series of confrontations and escalations. Ultimately, Cantwell releases the dirt on Russell, but Russell does not use the (discredited) rumors about Cantwell.

In the final scene, the convention is deadlocked and on the sixth ballot. Russell has lost about three hundred delegates, but Cantwell does not quite have a majority because Governor John Merwin is holding on to his small group of delegates. Hockstader has, in the course of previous scenes, collapsed and is now near death in the hospital. Cantwell comes to Russell for one final attempt at a deal, offering the vice presidency but also bringing the information that Hockstader has died. The shaken Russell makes the one decision that nobody expects: He will throw his delegates to Merwin, giving him the nomination and thwarting the ruthless Cantwell. “Neither the angel of darkness nor the angel of light . . . has carried the day,” is how Russell puts it, which, Jensen laments, means the “angel of grayness” wins. The audience hears the television announcer relay the shocking news, and in a denouement, Alice decides to stay with Russell, come what may.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223

A realistic melodrama in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen and Arthur Miller, The Best Man is mainly about talk: intelligent people talking in interesting ways. Although there is necessarily a great deal of exposition, Gore Vidal introduces elements of intrigue and conflict right from the beginning, and the play moves rapidly from scene to scene. There are surprises around every corner, and Vidal strives to maintain realism and credibility: He has even written essays defending the veracity of the incidents in the play. While the play is very talky, the talk is witty and colorful, and Vidal adds quite a few comic touches to the serious proceedings. Russell has an odd superstitious habit that involves pacing about on patterned carpets and avoiding stepping on certain parts of the pattern. Both Hockstader and Mrs. Gamadge are bold, blustery comedic characters in the midst of the tense circumstances.

The rotating hotel suites in which the play is set provide opportunities for symbolic contrast between the characters while grounding the action in a realistic environment. One particular device that Vidal uses is a group of actors who appear periodically as a pack of reporters, photographers, or delegates. They provide a link to, and representation of, the world outside the two campaigns, and also serve to occasionally break up the two-and three-person conversations that dominate the action.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 91

Sources for Further Study

Baker, Susan, and Curtis S. Gibson. Gore Vidal: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Dick, Bernard F. The Apostate Angel: A Critical Study of Gore Vidal. New York: Random House, 1974.

Kaplan, Fred. Gore Vidal: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Vidal, Gore. The Best Man: The Screen Adaptation of the Original Play Directed by Franklin Schaffner. New York: Irvington Publishing, 1989.

Vidal, Gore. The Essential Gore Vidal: A Gore Vidal Reader. Edited by Fred Kaplan. New York: Random House, 1999.

Vidal, Gore. Palimpsest: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1995.

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