At the moment, David Mamet has two plays in previews on Broadway — his contemporary classic Glengarry Glen Ross (the original 11 November opening has been pushed back to 8 December) and a new play, The Anarchist (officially opening on 2 December). On 7 November Pia Catton reported in the Wall Street Journal on a recent speech Mamet gave to the Manhattan Institute earlier this month; the usually pugnacious Mamet, when asked about Tony Kushner by the New York Post‘s Michael Riedel, most unpugnaciously responded, “I’ll let Tony Kushner work his side of the street and I’ll work mine” — not a “zippy one-liner” as Catton describes it (it is particularly lacking in zip, no matter how many lines it is), but a dodging of the question.
In note of these openings, I repost below an essay that first appeared here on 24 May 2011.
In an article for this week’s The Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson welcomes David Mamet to the fold of the GOP — which, for anybody following Mamet’s public pronouncements on politics over the past few years, comes as no surprise. Looking further back, one can also see that the violence and ruthless personal relationships in his early plays were always complicated by a fascination with and even admiration for those who participated in that violence and ruthlessness — Ricky Roma, c’est David — a fascination which made the plays that much richer, in fact. All this has to do with the upcoming publication of Mamet’s new book of essays,The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, which is due to be published in the US on 2 June. Media critic Eric Alterman has responded to Ferguson’s article here.
So much for this week’s blogospheric teapot tempest. I will note only two things: first, that Rob Weinert-Kendt is quite right to mention that Ferguson’s analysis of Mamet’s “parricide” of Brecht in the first chapter of the book rather misses the point:
The more I think about it, the more this feels like a bit of sleight of hand. Is Brecht really a relevant “father” for Mamet? Why not tackle two influences closer to home, like, say, Arthur Miller or Harold Pinter? Mamet owes each a huge debt as a dramatist, and both were men of the left. Not card-carrying Communists who eagerly submitted to living in a Soviet client state, mind you, just garden-variety lefties (with Pinter, by the end, representing a particularly thistly variety) who, while critical of Western democracies and capitalism, lived reasonably happy and productive lives within them.
Rob’s also quite right to suggest that Ferguson’s application of Brecht’s example to writers like Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith or Christopher Durang demonstrates something of a blindness to the work of all four dramatists. Of the three Americans, only Smith comes remotely close to Brecht’s project in terms of form; in the case of Mamet and Brecht, the comparison is particularly silly (in his formal and thematic concerns, however much he may say he revered Brecht when younger, it’s certainly a reverence that didn’t make its way into Mamet’s work — stylistically, Mamet makes Clifford Odets look like Alfred Jarry). If Mamet wants to commit parricide, he’s genetically closer to Harold Pinter than he is to Bertolt Brecht. What Pinter primarily shares with Brecht is that both are safely dead and unable to respond.
Second, in the Christian Science Monitor last year, Tim Worstall noted in a short essay about Mamet’s book Theatre that Mamet’s new turn to the glories of the American marketplace had a relevance for theatre production as well:
Mamet dismisses state subsidy for the theatrical arts as no more than a means of propping up incompetent “champions of right thinking” whose work would otherwise be incapable of attracting an audience. Such playwrights, he says, are purveyors of politically correct “pseudodramas” that “begin with a conclusion (capitalism, America, men, and so on, are bad) and award the audience for applauding its agreement.”
All well and good — and quite consistent with Mamet’s recent turn of thought. On the other hand, if Mamet accuses Brecht of hypocritically biting the hand that feeds him — well, physician, heal thyself. If it were not for this non-profit, state-subsidized theatre, it’s unlikely that Mamet would even have a career, in the theatre or anywhere else. Almost all of his early plays were premiered in non-profit and state-subsidized institutions — American Buffalo received its mainstage premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1976, The Water Engine at New York’s Public Theater in 1977, and Glengarry Glen Ross in 1983 at the mother of all English-language state-subsidized theatres, London’s National — well insulated from the demands of the marketplace (at least then, in those happy days before regional and non-profit theatres sought to become more and more like their commercial cousins). So we await a statement from Mamet repudiating these earlier “pseudodramas” of his.
Which isn’t to say that Mamet hasn’t made lasting contributions to American theatre. Were it not for him, it’s probable that the line “Fuck you, God” would never have made it into a smash Broadway musical, to be greeted with squeals of delight. That, I suppose, is something.
I reviewed Mamet’s previous book of essays, Theatre, in 2010 here.