Go Deeper

Sleepless Nights, Chomsky vs. Buckley, and Channeling the Full Range of Human Understanding

Posted August 10th, 2012

Not playwright Bruce Walsh.

Festival Blog contributor Richard Bon lives in Northern Liberties with his wife and daughter. He posts original flash fiction of his own or by a guest writer every other Monday on his blog,

What leads an accomplished artist to recreate a famous 1969 debate between the incomparable leftist, Noam Chomsky, and late conservative commentator, William F. Buckley?

There’s nothing quite like watching the terror alert level go from yellow to orange with your morning coffee. And like many Americans made uncomfortable by the bombardment of threat threshold communication from the Bush/Cheney administration and mass media channels, playwright Bruce Walsh, author of the 2012 Philly Fringe production Chomsky vs. Buckley, 1969, endured some sleepless nights at the height of Operation Shock and Awe. Recalling a documentary he’d seen on Chomsky and the impact of his 1988 book (co-authored with Edward S. Herman), Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Bruce googled Chomsky’s name and discovered the abundance of YouTube content dedicated to interviews with the brilliant linguist, activist, and longtime MIT professor. He found himself turning to seemingly infinite clips of a calm, monotone Chomsky waxing on politics, seemingly infinite political subject matter to help him find peace of mind, Chomsky’s undeniable logic and the confident assertiveness behind the ideas he espoused easing Bruce’s cerebral pain.

Though Chomsky’s words relaxed Bruce, they were no panacea, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to engage random barroom cohabitants in what would quickly become contentious political banter.

After the jump: the failure of logic.

“In my twenties, I really thought my intellectual zeal could bear fruit. I thought that if I argued a point logically, I could convince people to agree with me,” Bruce admits. Now in his thirties, the playwright says “it’s clear to me that logic isn’t going to save us from anything.” From this basic premise and his still occasional viewings of the aforementioned Chomsky footage on YouTube, Bruce’s subconscious led him to the concept of reenacting one of Chomsky’s best-known debates, which unfolded on Buckley’s then-popular television show, Firing Line, in 1969.

Though the combative conversation between Chomsky and Buckley centered around the Vietnam War, it extended to the philosophies behind and justifications of American militaristic expansion and the spread of capitalism, themes easily applicable to recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (for an eye opening examination of capitalism and the Iraq War, check out Robert Greenwald’s documentary Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, it’ll blow your mind). Intelligent and, by today’s standards, as moderately conservative as Buckley was, he frequently interrupted Chomsky and took some cheap jabs, sometimes losing his cool. For example:

The entire encounter resembles what’s become commonplace today on news shows and in barrooms alike: politically polarized individuals stating their own opinions without much, if any, hope of changing their opponents’ minds.

In consideration of what he correctly observes today to be a harshly divided political populace, Bruce asks, “What are the alternatives? How do we find a different way of conversing about political issues? We all have some Chomsky in us and we all have some Buckley in us, we’re all Americans.”

This prevailing wisdom, the hopeful idea that each of us is individually capable of thinking in ways that span the full breadth of the political philosophical spectrum, and thus finding ways to relate to one another, drives Bruce’s creative direction in every aspect of his eponymous reinterpretation of Chomsky vs. Buckley. True to his point that we all have a little bit of both of these guys inside of us, he’s cast his roommates to portray Chomsky and Buckley rather than trained actors (some of his roommates and friends will prepare and serve hors d’oeuvres during the show!). Rather than run the show at a theatre hall or other conventional venue, Bruce is hosting it in his own home, again in support of the sort of everyman feeling he seeks to foster using the words of these far-from-everyman men.

When asked whether the actor–sorry, the roommate–playing Buckley will attempt to speak with Buckley’s proper, aristocratic accent, Bruce answers with an emphatic, “No! The Buckley character will be able to speak in his or her own voice [Bruce did not reveal whether his participating roommates are male or female, FYI –RB]. I love putting language on people where it doesn’t belong.”

Another difference between the real debate and Bruce’s production is that, as you may have guessed by now, the Chomsky and Buckley characters will not always, if ever, be at each other’s throats in the Philly Fringe version. “They may stand up and dance with each other at one point, we’ll see,” Bruce offers. After all, he continues, “don’t you think Chomsky and Buckley could’ve just been a married couple disagreeing about something?”

One aspect of this new portrayal we can expect to be the same as the original event, however, is the writer’s choice of words. Though he’s cut out sections and altered the sequence, every sentence uttered by Bruce’s roommates was first spoken between Noam Chomsky and William F. Buckley that fateful night on Firing Line in 1969.

The show itself will take around twenty-five minutes, with the rest of the hour-long allotment dedicated to introductions, discussions, and a chance to just hang out with the cast and crew.

“I wanted to loosen things up a little for Fringe this year,” says Bruce. “I’m looking at this show as if I’m having people over to my house for a beer and hors d’oeuvres, but instead of showing film on a projector screen or something like that, we’re going to watch my roommates act out [this famous political conversation] and see where it takes us.”

The complete debate

Chomsky vs. Buckley, 1969 runs September 7 and 8 at Bruce’s house, 984 N. Randolph Street, Northern Liberties. Shows at 7:00 and 9:00 pm each night; $16.

–Richard Bon