There he is, dressed in blue jeans and work boots, lazing about on the comfortable seats of a commercial theatre and surrounded by velvet drapery: David Mamet, theatrical pugilist and provocateur, who has just distilled the wisdom of his four decades in the American theatre into Theatre, a series of short essays that display what he believes he has learned about acting, directing, the commerical and non-commercial theatre, and the world itself, in a spare 155 pages.
In the fifteen years between 1982 and 1997, Mamet wrote some of what are indisputably classics of the American theatre. Edmond, Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, The Cryptogram, The Old Neighborhood — all of them testimony to a unique imagination and unstinting concentration on the elements of drama. These plays, like the best drama, resist closure, education and comfort and grow like crystals in the mind’s eye with each engagement. Remorselessly and unsentimentally, Mamet stripped the veneer from the lies that believers in the American dream hold in common.
Then, a few years ago, somebody apparently slipped Mamet a copy of The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek’s analysis of the failings of the socialist dream and the possibilities of the free-market economy, and Mamet took an about-face from an explicit apoliticism to a firm stance in favor of laissez-faire libertarianism, a change announced in his 2008 essay “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’” Theatre, perhaps of necessity, displays elements of both the artist and the polemicist, leading to an infuriating and maddening book in which what is given on one page is taken away on the next.
“The theatre is a magnificent example of the workings of that particular bulwark of democracy, the free-market economy,” Mamet writes on page 64 in an essay called “Politically Correct.” “The theatre especially exemplifies the dramatic free market in that interactions between playgoer and presenter, between consumer and purveyor, are immediate, unfettered, not subject to regulation. … There is an immediate feedback between parties to the transaction, and each will maneuver until he has achieved his particular end … without recourse to logical, verifiable position statements. The interactions of the theatre, a free-market institution, resemble thus not a legal proceeding but a wrestling match. … It is the province not of ideologues … but of show folk trying to make a living.”
Mamet’s prose style is of that faux-naïf quality found to a disturbing degree in American writings about theatre and American drama itself, perhaps Our Town being the most faux example of this naïvete. His targets in many of the essays here are ideology, especially the communitarian ideology of the contemporary American non-profit theatre, and theory, especially the diluted psychologism of the American directing tradition. And he is right — so far as he goes. But his blind spot here is that he neglects to acknowledge that laissez-faire free-market libertarianism is every bit as much a political ideology as that of the socialist or communist dream. This ideology can be used as much as an instrument of corruption and crime as can those of the left, as the recent financial shenanigans in the U.S., and now abroad, are attesting.
The fact is that the motives of those who promulgate any ideology are never simon-pure. Mamet may no doubt agree with William Goldman’s assertion that, in the theatre business as in film, “Nobody knows anything” — nobody knows what play will succeed or fail, but decisions must be made as to which plays appear on stages, on the Broadway stage as well as in the smallest black-box theatre south of 14th Street. Informing those decisions are prejudices and ultimately power — who has the money or influence to determine what choices any given audience member will have when he scans the theatre listings in preparation for the weekend. This is the broken hinge in the libertarian ideology: while celebrating choice, the libertarians deny that this choice is limited by what the producers believe will attract the largest audience, and in these decisions as to what to include in a season, or even between book covers, they engage in a kind of cultural authoritarianism as well. This is the argument for subsidized theatre — another target of Mamet’s wrath — but it is in this subsidized theatre that audiences may first engage with that work that may be uncommercial in the contemporary political climate, and what happens on those stages may, in time, end up on Broadway.
As did, indeed, the work of Tony Kushner and some playwrights who engage in writing what Mamet castigates as “victim plays.” “This play … has a quantifiable meaning (such and such a group are oppressed, and well-meaning people must learn to overcome their prejudice and come to their aid), but it is a meaning that panders to the lowest in the audience (See how smart you are? I, the author, am proud of you), and ejects the audience both feeling self-righteous and having ratified its potential for violence (How could that vicious school mistress not have seen that the deaf are people too? Why, I’d like to …). These issue plays, then, are a mild form of propaganda, not putting forth the views of the state but, perhaps more dangerously, positing the existence of and recruiting for that group greater than the state: the confraternity of the right thinking. This invitation is potentially the mild beginning of fascism.”
As I said, maddening, even if not entirely wrong — more maddening in that Mamet in this book often engages in a kind of broad, slapdash thinking about groups of people — the “victims,” the “capitalists,” the “oppressors” — not unlike that of the playwrights and ideologues he criticizes. Mamet has it in for “intellectuals” generally (though he acknowledges at the end of his book his “indebtedness” to Thomas Sowell, Paul Johnson, Friedrich Hayek and others — all these are intellectuals too, but apparently the right kind of intellectuals), but worse, for the “audience,” this mass which must be entertained, coddled and attracted. But there is no audience; audience is a fiction, an abstraction. In truth, they are individuals who are attracted or not attracted, engaged or not engaged, by a play; it is a matter of numbers, not of the abstract monster the audience. One gets the sinking feeling that in trying to make this audience happy, Mamet fears it: fears that he will be found wanting, a failure, if his play does not meet with economic success. For the man who wrote the character of Shelley Levene, this should be an awakening, and a warning.
And then there are minor aspects of the book which would be laughable if … well, they’re just laughable, really. Next to Our Town, The Front Page is Mamet’s favorite American play; though he castigates Eugene O’Neill’s plays as museum pieces, he doesn’t seem to mind the rolltop-desk-slamming farce and dated “sweetie, get me rewrite” dialogue of this otherwise perfectly respectable comedy. And my own personal favorite is “Let us leave T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and all the other quitters who preferred Europe” — a jingoistic bone-headed locution that makes Glenn Beck look like George Orwell.
David Mamet’s Theatre is just as enlightening about the state of American drama and theatre as was Outrageous Fortune earlier this year — perhaps moreso, since it comes from a man who is undoubtedly one of the great American postwar playwrights. He is right and wrong, constantly contradictory, and infuriating: all to the good, I think. On page 68, Mamet writes:
Consider, in opposition, pseudodramas, mixed media, performance art, agitprop, and other suggestions that there exists a politically correct view, and that the correct venue for such a view’s airing is the dramatic arena.
These essentially meaningless spectacles, again, invite the audience (self-selected by the political views the members hold) to bask in a celebration of the death of meaning. They do not explore human interaction (the task of drama), which is to say, they do not investigate in order to arrive at a conclusion, but begin with a conclusion (capitalism, America, men, and so on, are bad) and award [sic] the audience for applauding its agreement.
And on the final page:
The mystery in drama is time: how to use time, how to exploit the human perception of time and its ordering into cause and effect. The rejection of this intolerable burden, our human specialty, is the goal of the religious mystic, the yogi, the lover, and the drug addict — to live in a world without time, to achieve unbeing.
The examination of this urge and its avowal and the confession of its tragic impossibility is the subject of all drama.
I’d like to see David Mamet try to sell that to a Broadway producer; and I have no doubt that he believes in those words as much as he does the economic theories of Milton Friedman, for he gives them pride of place as the conclusion of his book. Nonetheless, that a dramatist’s thought can hold both concepts in an equilibrium — and fascinating, enthralling concepts they are — argues for his continued importance to an American drama that needs just such blooded, pugilistic, even grossly pig-headed at times thinking and writing.
Terry Teachout briefly discussed the book in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal here.