When we speak of David Mamet in 2013, we are speaking of a still-prolific, still-provocative, ever-more polarizing figure who still commands great respect as a playwright (and Hollywood writer/director), but now an equal measure of ire for his embrace of a strident political conservatism. Writing in the Village Voice a year before his play, Race, opened on Broadway, Mamet confessed,
“I took the liberal view for many decades... I had been listening to NPR and reading various organs of national opinion for years, wonder and rage contending for pride of place. Further: I found I had been—rather charmingly, I thought—referring to myself for years as “a brain-dead liberal,” and to NPR as “National Palestinian Radio... I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.”
I follow that logic. I don’t like it, but I get Mamet’s arrival at a new viewpoint. He writes like a man who’s been liberated and is now in better alignment.
Then again, he can also sound unhinged. In his 2011 book, The Secret Knowledge: On The Dismantling of American Culture, Mamet lays waste to many a progressive sacred cow, from the government’s proclivity to tax (“thievery”), to our current President about whom he has quipped elsewhere, “He never worked a day in his life! You know what a ‘Community Organizer’ is, don’t you? A shakedown artist. I’m from Chicago. I know.”
Well, I’m from Chicago too, and while Mamet’s sideswipes on Affirmative Action and the President strike me as gratuitous, I know that Mamet’s doing what he’s always done; writing his way toward a breakthrough and practicing his latest act of public and literary provocation. Asked recently by The New York Times if he’s concerned that he’s alienating his public, Mamet responded in characteristically sly fashion:
“I’ve been alienating my public since I was 20 years old. When American Buffalo came out on Broadway, people would storm out and say, “How dare he use that kind of language!” Of course I’m alienating the public! that’s what they pay me for!”
|J.J. Johnson, Mike Nussbaum and William H. Macy in American Buffalo at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago
And yet more than a mercenary stunt to procure publicity, Mamet seems to be working toward something more interesting; something revealing of himself and of our society.
Mamet writes every day. That’s the truest thing that can be said about him....Along the way, this man who writes every day—with swagger and controlled abandon, with cocky confidence and sometimes convoluted candor—continues to ply his trade with a brutal relevance that, now and again, hits the bull’s-eye with a prophetic insight and staying power. I believe he may have hit such a bull’s-eye with this play, even as theater professionals might not have realized it when Race was first produced on Broadway.
When Race first opened on Broadway in late December 2009, not many theater insiders seemed to care about what this privileged white writer had to say on the subject of race in America. As Mamet disarmingly states in the play, “There’s nothing that white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing.” Mamet anticipated his critics (as he frequently still does), but then presented a scenario where two attorneys have an awful lot of compelling things to say about the nature of law—not race—as a competitive arena for the battling out of two narratives—two different versions of the same story—in the minds of the men and women of a jury—making a fascinating implied linkage between the nature of race as a socially created construct, and the law as a forum where “the best fiction wins.” Mamet tethered his theatrical narrative to a plot that would prove prescient, even more than his 1992 play Oleanna resonated with prominent sexual harassment cases of its moment, whether on college campuses or in Senate confirmation hearings for a new Supreme Court appointee.
| Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Photo courtesy of the BBC
In Race, Mamet anticipates the infamous Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair of 2011, in which Strauss-Kahn — managing director of the International Monetary Fund and a likely candidate for the presidency of France—was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a hotel chambermaid, Nafissatou Diallo. He resigned from his I.M.F. post and pleaded not guilty, although forensic evidence showed that a sexual encounter had taken place. Three months later, the New York district attorney came to the conclusion that the only witness in the case, the chambermaid, could not be believed beyond a reasonable doubt, and moved to drop the case.
The DSK Affair and its unhappy outcome stirred controversy and divided dinner table conversations in ferocious ways. And a new wave of audiences made their way to Mamet’s play in regional theaters across the country with renewed fascination. They’ve begun to hear his work anew.
Great writers are like that. They’re worth a second look. In spite of their bad behavior. Or bad politics. Moreover, Mamet’s not been shy from critiquing himself, in the process of critiquing liberalism. And I have a feeling that this evolution of self is not done with David yet. Mamet’s art and his work ethic will keep him forever burrowing.
Let it be said here in this Jewish Community Center that Mamet, scoundrel prophet, is still mishpucha. He’s family. Not only that, he’s a neighbor. As noted in Theater J program pages back in 1999 when we produced our first Mamet—his underappreciated collection of one-acts, The Old Neighborhood, in a bang-up production directed by Shira Piven that actually improved upon Mamet’s own direction of the Broadway version a year previous—Mamet and I grew up in the same “Old Neighborhood,” a block apart from each other, I at 6840 S. Euclid, he at 6970 S. Euclid; exactly one block, and ten years, apart (Mamet’s family divorced and moved away just as ours moved in). And let it be noted that Michele Obama, nee Robinson, lived on Euclid as well, just on the other side of the Illinois Central (IC) train tracks at 74th and Euclid. She’s mishpucha too.
It’s worth noting the familial nature of this political fracas so many of us seem to be having with David. Sometimes it’s good to argue about politics in the theater and not always let the liberal have the last word. Mamet’s becoming the Benjamin Netanyahu of American culture, and that poses certain intellectual challenges to us tonight. Because have you ever gotten in a one-on-one political debate with Bibi Netanyahu? Would you like to? Would you like to get in a verbal knife-fight with David Mamet? I didn’t think so. He’d cut your heart out.
Which would hurt in real life. But in our make-believe construct of the theater, Mamet’s rhetorical pugilism remains a thrilling spectacle. And sometimes, he even hits the bull’s-eye.
So enjoy the knife fight. And take solace in Mamet’s final words, when he wrote about Race in The New York Times just before its opening:
“Chris Rock, in his last tour, addressed the subject of [Obama’s fiery pastor] the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and asked, rhetorically and on behalf of the whites in the audience: Is it possible that a 70-year-old black man hates the whites? Let me enlighten you. You cannot find a 70-year-old black man who does not hate the whites.
This made sense to me…
There has always been, at the very least, a little bit of hate between blacks and whites in this country, with each side, in its turn, taking advantage of its political strength (as who does not?). But that relationship is also perhaps like a marriage. Both sides at different times are bitching, and both at different times are bailing, but we’re all in the same boat.
We are bound to each other, as are all Americans. Bound though subdivided, not only by race, but by religion, politics, age, region and culture. And we not only seem to be but are working it out.
When will it be over? It will be over, like any marital fight, at an unforeseeable time, when it has run its natural course. The length and tenor of that course are unknown to the participants, who, as in a marital fight, are each convinced, above all things, that the fight will be prolonged until his or her own side has triumphed. But as in a marriage the dialogue will take its own course until fatigue, remorse and finally forgiveness bring resolution.”
Here’s to Mamet working it out. To all of us working out our blistering differences in our still deeply divided land, scarred by political and yes-still-racial divisions. May our continuing evolution, ever-burrowing introspection, and capacity to forgive bring resolution.
- Theater J Artistic Director, Ari Roth