“All that nonsense [Brecht] wrote about his writing I think is balderdash, a direct contradiction of the writing itself…All of the comics like me always want to be tragedians.”
— David Mamet, quoted in In Their Own Words
David Mamet possesses something rare and dangerous for a playwright: a voice. Shaw was proof of the dangers; he had a voice, and critics complained (still do) that, as a result, his characters had none of their own. They sounded like “rows of Shaw’s.” Other influential playwrights have taken the opposite path: working for the kind of voicelessness the poet Keats described in Shakespeare as “negative capability.” “A Poet,” he wrote, “is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually infor[ming] and filling some other Body.” But Mamet has a voice so distinctive that almost anyone who has seen a single play of his can parody it or, at least, get the joke, whether it’s the New Yorker cartoon that depicts the monosyllabic conversation on “Late Night With David Mamet” or the one about the Times Square beggar, who chastised by a Bard-spouting passerby to be “neither a borrower nor a lender,” quotes Mamet back at him, in just two words, second word “you.”
At his best, Mamet sets up, via this voice, a crammed-full linguistic world, sealed off from everything but the jagged rhythms of its own fricative riffs. Within this world, Mamet’s characters appear neither as puppets nor quite like individuals, but more as creatures feeding at the same language pool. At his worst, Mamet does Mamet, slipping into the kind of self-parody usually reserved for much more limited artists, spent and past their prime. When this occurs, in Speed-the-Plow, for instance, it becomes tempting to think of his famous voice as a pose and Mamet himself as a poseur. It’s only too easy, then, to see the unexamined misogyny of his characters and their inflated macho cock-surety in the poker-playing, cigar-sucking, con-loving, Chicago-boy-turned-Vermont-woodsman of the Mamet legend. If he’s posing, then maybe this playwright of voice is merely a technician, a wannabe Hemingway endowed with a good ear and a flair for simulating power play on stage.
The better Mamet, on the other hand, can be said to have ushered our theatre’s naturalistic post-WWII critique of capitalism into the age of Pinter. His rigor and clarity of creation also marked an end of an era of experimental (sometimes sloppy, sometimes exciting) play in America and reinvigorated American stage dialogue with a fresh new idiom. Even his characters seemed new. Whereas many playwrights of the ’60s and early ’70s experimented with fluid characters who transformed before our eyes, Mamet’s creations have always been essentially fixed beings, defined by their actions, limited by their native tongue.
Mamet’s recent efforts—Oleanna, The Cryptogram and his adaptation/staging of J. B. Priestley’s Dangerous Corners—show his playwriting talents reconfirming themselves, not exactly stretching, but honing, doing more with less. Unfortunately, Mamet the playwright seems lately to be in the grip of Mamet the director and Mamet the theorist, whose reductive thinking has the opposite effect: that of making less out of more, until it appears that he has turned against himself. The plays are getting the worst of it.
Mamet the playwright knows things that Mamet the director doesn’t. Specifically, he understands what may well be one true fact about the theatre: All meaningful plays are mystery plays. Whether it’s a mystery of event, existence or self, whether the riddle has us looking to gods, fortune, natural selection or human psychology for answers, theatre works when it points to something just out of grasp, some ineffable something that, however everyday our actions, guides or makes sense of us. The stage can never do more than allude to this something. It can only offer painted-up suggestions of true beauty, sideshow sleights-of-hand suggestive of actual magic.
For all the prose of his settings—Merchant Marine lakeboat, junkshop, real estate office, living room—gritty reality has never been Mamet’s aim. Even his famous guttertalk, tough as gristle, is always elliptical, always grasping. In fact, a guiding problem of his whole body of work may well be to say the unsayable in such a way that it gets heard. His voice emanates from this attempt. So does his impulse to bridge mystery (the unsayable) and social reality (getting heard). Even the violence in his plays, particularly troubling when it happens between men and women, erupts out of frustration with this struggle to describe the things of this world that can’t be described.
Such a struggle drives his recent writings, Oleanna and The Cryptogram, as much as the plays before them. Now, though, even as he displays a greater mastery of his craft, his mind seems more closed, his thinking more fixed. In Oleanna the master playwright dukes it out with his lesser self (who, at premiere time, happened also to be in the director’s chair). In Cryptogram, the clubfisted director (Mamet again) showed little interest in those mysteries his own play reached for. The flailings of language are still the same, only the diction has evolved—from working-class vernacular to educated, middle-class groping. John, the college professor in Oleanna whose private conferences with a potentially failing student lead to the destruction of his career, shares the same obsessive need to define and redefine for understanding’s sake as, for example, the petty hoodlum Teach in American Buffalo from 1975. Even as you read, you can imagine the actors’ rhythms—the tic of rephrasing to make clear the incommunicable:
TEACH: What are we saying here? Loyalty. (Pause.) You know how I am on this. This is great. This is admirable…This is swell…All I mean, a guy can be too loyal, Don. Don’ t be dense on this. What are we saying here? Business.
JOHN: I’m not a…”exploiter,” and you’re not a…”deranged,” what? Revolutionary…, that we may, that we may, that we may have…positions, and that we may have…desires, which are in conflict, but that we’re just human. (Pause) That means that sometimes we’re imperfect. (Pause) Often we’re in conflict…(Pause) Much of what we do, you’re right, in the name of “principles” is self-serving…much of what we do is conventional.
His latest full-length play, The Cryptogram, marks Mamet’s most sustained exploration of mystery within the realm of family and childhood: It opens on a woman and her insomniac 10-year-old son waiting with an old friend for her husband, the boy’s father, to come home. When he doesn’t show, and it becomes clear that the friend knew and lied about events leading up to this abandonment, the mother and son’s confusion intensifies into a kind of waking dream of dislocation and lost meaning.
Throughout the play, even the most quotidian objects—a photograph, a blanket, a tea kettle—contain mysteries; severed from their significance and history, they become puzzles within the puzzle of the title: Who took this picture, if we’re all in it? When did the blanket tear? Does the misfortune of a broken teapot portend greater misfortune? There’s no sum of the parts. Each piece must be added on to another before any whole can be glimpsed. “So I’ll ask my Dad,” the boy John says, anticipating a game he hopes to play on a camping trip with his father, scheduled for the next day. “First thing. ‘You tell me the name of an object. Or a collection of things’…you know what I mean. ‘A view…”
Similarly, the first section of Oleanna makes language as the inadequate conveyer of meaning—an idea that has always driven Mamet’s works—the subject. By play’s end, though, that idea has given way to another, smaller one. The result, coming as it did on the heels of Speed-the-Plow, Mamet’s most predictably mannered full-length play, signaled a developing tendency towards self-sabotage. In the two-person Oleanna, John, a committed if abstracted pedant, about to celebrate his imminent tenure by buying a new house, finds himself holding an unscheduled conference with a (to all appearances) quite troubled student. Carol is a strange bird of a young woman, intense and intent on learning but so grounded by her own inadequacies that she is rendered nearly inarticulate. She requires definitions of much of what John says, claims to have read his book without understanding, and displays copious notes from class, none of which make sense to her. It is, I think, a brilliant scene, probably one of Mamet’s best, an encounter by two limited, inexplicably damaged people trapped in mutually exclusive languages.
But in the next scene, Mamet trades the existential situation he has established for a polemical one and so begins a process of dramatic self-destruction. John and Carol meet a second time. Some weeks have passed and his tenure (and the domestic security that comes with it) is now threatened by a report she has filed (with the encouragement of an unspecified “group”) accusing him of sexism, elitism and, essentially, harassment (with the suggestion of racism thrown in). He wants to talk through her accusations—maybe talk her out of them. She responds, not as the paranoid, shrinking creature of the first encounter, but as something of a powerhouse, confrontative, debate ready.
CAROL: You confess. You love the Power. To deviate. To invent, to transgress…to transgress whatever norms have been established for us. And you think it’s charming to “question” in yourself this taste to mock and destroy. But you should question it. Professor. And you pick those things which you feel advance you: publication, tenure, and the steps to get them you call “harmless rituals.” And you perform those steps. Although you say it is hypocrisy. But to the aspirations of your students. Of hardworking students, who come here, who slave to come here—you have no idea what it cost me to come to this school—you mock us. […] But I tell you. I tell you. That you are vile. And that you are exploitative. And if you possess one ounce of that inner honesty you describe in your book, you can look in yourself and see those things that I see. And you can find revulsion equal to my own.
Miraculously, she has found her tongue and, in the process, revealed herself as a shrill, feminist harpy from hell, out to unseat John’s cushy white ass. Mamet would have us believe that all this haltering 20-year-old needed was a few weeks initiation with a feminist consciousness-raising group to become CAROLITH: She-Who-Swallows-Smart-Middle-Aged-Men.
What starts as a play about inadequate language becomes one about politically correct language. By their improbable third encounter, he’s all but out of a job and she, having charged him with attempted rape (he tries to hold her in his office at the end of scene 2), shows up with the motive of blackmailing him into pursuing her group’s political agenda on campus, which means banning certain books, including his own, from the classroom. Now we’re out of the realm of language at all, into the realm of political oppression. Oleanna is Mamet’s The Crucible; only, unlike Arthur Miller, he believes in actual witches (with a capital B).
The problem isn’t Mamet’s choice of subject. It’s his agenda. He holds his superior creation in thrall to his idea about such things. He conjures an interesting character, then takes her hostage. He gives her simplistic political motives and makes her an evil puppet. Worse, he deflates the power of his own situation by turning it into a politicized game of cat-and-mouse to make his point about the wall people like her force people like him up against. In a sense, Mamet destroys this play by loading the dice, by replacing mystery with intrigue.
Thrall to a fixed idea plagues Mamet as a director, too, especially of actors. He’s articulated this idea as an acting teacher and essayist and, apparently, relies on it in rehearsal. Simply stated the idea is this: Actors serve the playwright’s story. Story in production boils down to throughline—the action of the play and, from moment to moment, the actions of the characters (in other words, what they try to do to or get from each other). Action equals meaning, he insists, and, since who we are is determined entirely by what we do, action equals character. Everything else—feelings, particular or characteristic behavior, sociopolitical context—is either mere idiosyncrasy, implicit in the text, or unplayable. He plucks his notion of character from Aristotle and his concept of throughline from Stanislavsky, then boils away their surrounding observations. In his essay “Realism,” as elsewhere, he gets quite prescriptive: “The acting, the design, the direction should all consist only of that bare minimum necessary to put forward the action.” Though he’s engaged in a necessary struggle against Actor’s Studio indulgence and introspection, this “only” reveals Mamet’s passion and dogmatism.
The bare minimum has served Mamet the playwright. He reduces dialogue to dense stock and strips settings and stage directions to essence. Clearly, his minimalist ideas of acting and directing are integral to his writing aesthetic. In fact, they seem designed to deemphasize the actor’s contribution. As a stage director, though, he’s either too limiting or not good enough to carry out his own theories. His productions sound like writing—sheer words exploding in air. The crackle of dialogue is the main event. Beyond that, he shuns inner life, subtextual thought, or psychological individualism and offers little in their place. There’s rarely anything suggestive or ambiguous about a Mamet staging. The mysteries he reaches for as a writer are swept aside by the “practical” certainty of his system.
In his direction of Oleanna, this rigid approach to production reinforced the play’s reductivism. Other directors have worked to explore and heighten Carol’s unspoken motives or even the dynamics of attraction and repulsion between teacher and student. Mamet ruthlessly refused to consider anything but words (as spoken) and verbs (as enacted). It wasn’t until I read the play that I saw how exceptional the first scene is. In Mamet’s Off-Broadway production it played like a hyped-up lecture-demonstration, emphatic and clipped as an army drill.
The damage done to The Cryptogram seemed greater to me, because it’s a finer, more elusive play. I’d read it in advance of seeing the premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, and had been more excited by it than any earlier Mamet play. The production took place on a horizontal strip of stage beneath a staircase up to unseen bed- and attic rooms. The flatness of area restricted the actors and emphasized an emotional flatness throughout. As the mother, Felicity Huffman, the most compelling of Mamet’s regular actresses, and her director seemed hellbent on a reading that emphasized the frigidity of the character. The confused, angry, intelligent, trapped woman of the script lost the stage to the cold, narcissistic mother and unfeeling friend. Mamet has sometimes been accused of woman-hate, and this reading of his own character (along with his portrait of Carol in Oleanna) support the claim. The boy was played by a young actor named Shelton Dane who, in spite of obvious talent and discipline, delivered his lines with a coached automation. Here was a strangely personal work rendered monotonal, like painful memories recalled without affect. It might have made an arresting radio play: language heightened, intensity telegraphed, ambiguity extracted, as if anything uncontrolled might prompt listeners (which is essentially what audience members became) to pop the radio off.
Priestley’s Dangerous Corners is essentially an upper-crust British whodunit, played out among a chic clique of friends of the dead man. The evening builds through a series of maniacally intricate revelations about stolen money, motives for the man’s suicide (or murder?!?), and who loves whom. These “intricacies of the human heart” stand in opposition to the hollowness of the lives involved. “Nothing happens here inside,” one character explains. “That’s the cruel thing. Nothing happens.” Mamet, characteristically, showed more interest in the nothing than the heart. Whereas The Cryptogram had been scenically flattened—shut in—the Atlantic Theatre Company’s stage in the Chelsea section of Manhattan had been opened to the theatre walls to create a latticed summer veranda, a tiered platform for chilling, late-night revelation.
The scenic openness and attention to the public nature of these revelations among friends, who turn out to know very little about each other’s private doings, spotlight Mamet’s interests and his deficiencies. The production was a fun spin, light and speedy. It stayed fervently away from questions of class and custom, psychology and even given circumstances (for example, the characters drank all night without noticeable effect on behavior or mood). Private doings were noted, private selves ignored. In fact, each new discovery provoked a group stare outward, as if giving spectators a moment to digest while the characters marked time. Further, the public event never included that invisible group dynamic so fascinating in ensemble situations: the movement of human beings to and from each other. The only invisible thing was information, which soon would come out. The spectre of Stephen Daldry’s chaotic, atmospheric, almost apocalyptic production of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls the previous season made Mamet’s approach feel even spindlier.
Like others before him, notably Brecht, Mamet has never seemed content to be merely a playwright, but has set up shop as a “man of the theatre.” But Brecht was, by all accounts, an exceptional director and, depending on who you talk to, an important theorist. Mamet’s writing about the theatre comprises the fuzziest of his essays, but also his most passionate and heartfelt. Beyond his writing, he’s an artist who attracts other artists to him. In this way, he functions as a kind of Woody Allen or, more precisely, John Cassavettes of our theatre. He keeps, within his gravitational pull, a coherent orbit of actors, directors, and designers, many of whom have moved with him since the ’70s, from Chicago’s St. Nicholas and Goodman theatres to Lincoln Center and Broadway. At present, Mamet and his fellow travelers occupy a unique niche of the art that straddles the regional theatre—specifically, the A.R.T.—commercial Off-Broadway, nonproﬁt Off-Off-Broadway—especially, the Atlantic—and now Hollywood. The persistent loyalty of this cadre of artists is nothing short of miraculous in a theatre that often seems founded on disposability and forgetfulness; moreover, it affirms the loyalty that is the ethical center of Mamet’s plays.
On the flip side, though, there has always been something about Mamet’s followers (especially his students and former students) that borders on the insular and cultish, a sort of “David speaks the truth; David is the truth” adoration that has tailed him from Chicago. Add to this the unquestioning Great American Playwright status the critical establishment has bestowed on him and you have the unfortunate makings of an artistic prophet. In the end, the prophecy contains equal parts of metaphysical longing and bullheaded dogma—a mixture at odds with itself.
At the opening night party for The Cryptogram, I spoke to no fewer than three established directors about their desire to direct the play we’d just seen. Of course, this is the director’s party game, but that night they were right. Mamet had missed his own play, as he had with Oleanna. They murmured their criticisms as if making final, whispery plans before a coup d’etat. So they hovered on the fringes, munching hors d’oeuvres and drinking wine, waiting to descend on the carcass of a new play. Unlike vultures, however, and unlike Mamet himself, their descent would demand that ﬂesh be added to these ﬁne-ﬁtting bones.
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