Tuesday, October 23, 2012

David Mamet, the art of the con, and the magic vagina, Part 1

So when do we speed-the-play?  The cast of Race at the New Rep.

It's hard to remember, as you watch Race (at the New Rep through November 4), that David Mamet was once a great playwright.  Admittedly, he was always a reactionary - a masculine reactionary, need I point out; even back in the 70's, the days of The Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Mamet's men were flawed, but basically lovable, while his women were opaque and treacherous.  At the time, however, feminism had flummoxed many American boys - and when Mamet avoided female characters entirely, in plays like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, his talent burned bright indeed - so the sexist streak at the heart of this tough guy seemed easy to forget (or forgive).

It's harder to forgive it now, though - particularly as the playwright peaked in achievement almost thirty years ago, and the man himself has apparently devolved into a conservative crank (you only have to flip through his screed The Secret Knowledge to realize he really should be wearing a tinfoil hat).  Indeed, what may be tragic about David Mamet (and he is much given to musing on tragedy) is that he has by now thoroughly undermined his own early achievement; it's as if he has been determined to deconstruct his own success, and reveal the shriveled sensibility lurking within it.

To be honest, this behavior suggests the classic pathology of the idée fixe, the mental preoccupation which over time slowly dominates a psyche.  In fact it's my conviction that the playwright suffers from a double (if not triple) dose of this mania.  For Mamet has also always been obsessed with the art of the con; all his major (and most of his minor) plays have revolved around deceptions of one stripe or other.  But as long as these swindles were perpetrated by men on other men - as in Buffalo and Glengarry - Mamet was able to generate true drama from his obsession, as sexism, his second idée fixe, didn't prevent him from developing complex portraits of his villains.

When his two obsessions converged, however - probably around the time of Speed-the-Plow and Oleanna - Mamet's standing as a serious artist was suddenly compromised.  For ever since, his plots have repeatedly been dumbed down to turn on crude, predictable treachery, and his women (with the exception of the betrayed mother in The Cryptogram, which could serve as a poignant demonstration of his inability to forge a true vision from his psychological history) have long since hardened into mechanical villains.  Like the famous "magical negroes" whose special powers hurry along sentimental white narratives, Mamet's women have become "magic vaginas," figures - I won't call them characters - who are denuded of actual personality, and who implausibly speed-the-play by attempting to crucify the leading man whenever the playwright wants to wrap things up in 90 minutes (or less).

Meanwhile Mamet's men have morphed into totems of victimology - tragic phalli who are buddies at heart, and who would all love each other if they could only forget their damned competitive instincts! Indeed, one of the very weirdest aspects of Mamet, particularly in his later stages, is his apparent yearning to be homosexual. (If only he knew!)

Thus the once-great playwright has become a kind of theatrical in-joke - which, to be fair, he seems to realize himself, at some level; why else would he now coat his work with a sheen of sitcom-level one-liners? But then he's a smart businessman, and no doubt knows that his flattering of conservative guilt, along with the tension between the form of sitcom-fodder and the "outrageous" content he's allowed to fill it with on stage, are what keep him in commercial clover.

David Mamet- busy writing his own tragedy.
But on to Race - which I've had the misfortune to see twice (I also caught the Broadway run a year or two ago). And what can I say - it's not the kind of play that rewards repeated viewings.  The funny lines fly thick and fast the first time, I admit; but the second time around, you realize that not just two, but three polluted rivers in Mamet's mentality have converged in this poisonous little potboiler.

For even as his dramaturgy congealed into formula, Mamet's politics slowly became infected with his paranoid monomania, too.  The "art of the con" became the prism through which he began to see society at large, and "liberalism" in particular - which I guess he views as the equivalent of the non-existent destination called "Glengarry Glen Ross" in the play of the same name (as I recall, "Oleanna" was a  mythical locale, too). Thus in an embarrassing series of op-eds, articles, and books, Mamet has recently crowed that he is no longer a "brain-dead liberal," and has relentlessly excoriated those on the left - particularly those comfortably ensconced in the academy, Hollywood and the chattering classes - for hypocrisy, duplicity, and a host of other sins; in the world according to Mamet, they're all swindlers and crooks.

Now I could never argue that many liberals aren't hypocrites - I've said precisely the same thing, so I'd be a huge hypocrite myself if I did!  But in these screeds Mamet usually rambles far beyond that highly defensible position to a bizarre vision of a white, Christian nation devoted to the occupation of the West Bank (??),  and of course sorry for its past sins, but beset and besieged by liberal "cons" like affirmative action, sexual harassment suits, and sympathy for the Palestinians.  Mamet never actually engages with the questions of historical justice behind liberal positions (for that would completely complicate their status as "cons"!).  He simply asserts, essentially, that any attempt to rectify the wrongs of history (except in the case of Israel, that's different!) only creates some new kind of swindle because - well, just because, okay?

Well, at least the Palestinians don't appear in Race (although I'm sure Mamet tried to work them in). But we do get just about all his other hobbyhorses, piled atop each other - the sublimated homosexual buddies, the magic vagina (ahem, "m.v." from now on), the twin evils of feminism and affirmative action - this isn't a political play, it's a psychological case study penned by the patient himself from within his rubber room.

Beyond these appalling psychological dimensions, however, lies the script's appalling lack of craft. But we'll consider that more fully in the second part of this series.


  1. Mamet apparently is now a member of the George Lucas Club; the qualifications for membership are 1) Make a body of work for which you're acclaimed, and 2) make later work so abysmal that it forces a re-evaluation of the original work that may actually not have been all that good in the first place.

  2. For the record, I still cling to my initial enthusiasm for Buffalo and Glengarry, although I admit I could be wrong.

    1. Never got Buffalo. I don't know who those people are. Glengarry is very good.

    2. I was riveted by Buffalo when I saw it some thirty years ago. But I admit it could be viewed as an actor's exercise.

  3. I saw Mamet's short film of Catastrophe he made for the Becket on Film project. He clearly had lost all sense of how to direct or coherently communicate visually. His books about theatre have all been a bit embarrassing to read. He was trying so hard to be a gad fly and revolutionary contrarian he threw the baby out with the bathwater. I haven't had much respect for him since.

  4. There was a day when I'd've bent over backwards to argue that this somehow is coherent, funny, and well-made:

  5. You've been especially on lately. Thanks.

  6. The price we pay for having "Mamet, the great playwright" around is that "Mamet, the great thinker" is constantly tagging along close behind, like an annoying kid brother, eager to play with the bigger kids. Therefore, from his earliest interviews through his numerous essays collections, this bookish son of a Chicago labor lawyer has put on the clothes of the cocksure, rugged Yankee individualist, with a reductive, absolutist view of the world which allows no room for dissent. Add a few decades of critical success and monetary riches, and such a pose hardens into reality. Having said that, I think "Buffalo" and Glengarry" are American masterpieces that will stand the test of time. There was once artistic greatness in this man, though you'd hardly know it from this current boulevard-drama phase he's stuck in. I don't know that there was ever a great philosopher in there.