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The Cryptogram

David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge, an assault on liberal values and politics, should be viewed not as a polemic but as a yet-to-be-written play about his usual subjects: scams and hustlers

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David Mamet at the New School in New York last year. (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

A book jacket photo dated 1977, from around the time playwright David Mamet first began to hit it big, shows him holding a cigarette and glasses gingerly in one hand. His other hand slides into the front pocket of his tight jeans; he wears a leather bomber jacket with the collar rakishly turned up, and a black turtleneck. Eyes sad and dark, skin smooth and white, he appears as the child of two figures he became obsessed with: the Tough Jew and the Scholar. You can imagine that even then Mamet might have been dreaming up the title of his most recent polemic, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture.

Critics on the left and right have given the book, an attack on big government and other staples of liberal thought published this month and now on the New York Times best-seller list, too much weight. It’s surprising to see a book by a playwright generate so much heated debate. But it was not surprising to see how the pundits focus primarily on being either for or against Mamet’s book. The book itself is yet to be understood in the context in which it was written, namely as a stellar, if strange, incomplete piece of theater, a rehearsal for some future play.

Read literally, as a political polemic—the way most critics, including Christopher Hitchens, writing in theNew York Times Book Review, approached the book—The Secret Knowledge leaves a lot to be desired. From his first foray into conservative politics, a 2008 essay in the Village Voice titled “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal,” Mamet’s opinion writing has seemed half-baked. (In 2006, Nextbook Press published Mamet’s The Wicked Son, an attack on Israel-hating, tradition-denying liberal American Jews.) The writer whose characters famously do not say what they mean is ill at ease playing the writer saying what he means.

This is not to say that Mamet is disingenuous, or that he’s playing with his ideological conversion only to convert again at some point in the future. But read The Secret Knowledge as a yet-to-be-written play, and it will make more sense.

Perhaps this sounds far-fetched, but ever since he appeared, in 1975, at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre holding a play in his hand and announcing that he would put $5,000 in escrow while the director Gregory Mosher decided whether to produce it (the play was American Buffalo), Mamet has gravitated toward flamboyant monologues and ballsy turns. This knack is most evident, of course, in his famous plays—think of the “always be closing” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross—but it is more than an affectation. Watching Mamet’s career as an artist, you get the sense that what he wants to do now, his major artistic quest, is to transfer some of that manic energy from the stage and into real life.

Mamet expressed something like this sentiment in the introduction to his 1985 collection of monologues and short plays, Goldberg Street. “Tradition has it,” Mamet wrote, “that Shakespeare finished King Lear and handed it to Richard Burbage saying: ‘You son-of-a-gun, I’ve finally written one you can’t perform.’ ”

In the two decades since, it seems, Mamet has spent some time trying to turn from plays to polemics and turn his polemics into plays. He might have half succeeded with The Secret Knowledge.

Mamet’s best work paints a portrait of a dense world, rich with the idioms of noir and the grit of 1970s Chicago streets. It’s a world of con men and femmes-fatales who end up sticking their stilettos in your face, a world in which the good guys always get knifed in the back. Mamet made the grievance of the everyday person both mean-spirited and Aeschylean, both self-deluded and avuncular; such sleights of hand seem directly descended from Nathaniel West or cadged from hieroglyphs on the walls of some mid-century tomb shared by Hemingway and Patricia Highsmith.

The Secret Knowledge contains these themes, but abstracted. Instead of describing them from the inside, it prescribes cures and extols points of view. It fits with the rest of the Mamet canon in that it’s about jive, about how Americans try to cheat each other and steal each other’s essentials, be it real estate leads or American Buffalos or ideological validation or big ideas.

It’s easy to imagine that the man who for so long tried to stick a needle into America’s veins got tired. Or that the theater no longer seemed like enough. Mamet is hardly the only Jewish writer who migrated from trying to tell stories about life to screaming about its injustices from on high. The Secret Knowledge seems most interesting as an iteration of Mamet’s evolving interest in mysteries, rites, and ciphers. In his early plays, like American Buffalo and A Life in the Theatre, he used parentheses to indicate that his characters were moving to “a more introspective regard.” Maybe that’s where he’s headed now.

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Ben Singer says:

The “always be closing” speech does not, in fact, appear in the stage version of Glengarry Glen Ross, but was written specifically for the film adaptation.

Pure hyperbolic nonsense. Mamet has read deep and long and observed the world around him deftly. His course in the destructive nature of today’s sanctimonious liberalism is spelled out in the long appendix of books he has referred to in his work. It would do your reviewer well to look over this list before he dismisses Mamet as preparing a play for future audiences, which he well may do. Is there something wrong with straight talk from a guy that sincerely changed his mind without tarring him with psychobabble baloney.

Tuvia Baraban says:

Are you kidding??

Having hyperlinked through to Hitchens’ NY Times review of Mamet’s “The Secret Knowledge,” I’m reminded that Hitchens is a skilled polemicist whose political sea-change (in his case, evolution from a neo-Marxian Left-winger to Center/Right-of-Center) was intelligently articulated by him (even though I remain unconvinced of many of his new political positions — the case for the Iraq War, for example).

Is Hitchens a provocateur? Yes. Is he also something of a contrarian? You bet. But he’s been careful to construct a rickety platform on which to stand and he rarely topples (even if, for example, his brand of atheism is myopic). I haven’t read “The Secret Knowledge,” but, based on what I’ve read about it, it seems as though Mamet has yet to build a foundation for his political/ideological change of heart. Coming from the likes of Glenn Beck, that wouldn’t be surprising…but from a renowned playwright and cultural figure, it’s downright discouraging.

MonkFish says:

The reason Mamet is a fool and his anti-liberal screed possibly the most fatuous and confused work of political polemics to be penned since Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism” is that he his blind to the fact that Wall Street bankers and the Republican Party – the most narrowly individualistic, short-sighted and antinomian forces in America – are the foremost representatives of 1960s “free for all” ideology today. The continuity between 60s social radicalism and 80s free market absolutism has been closely argued by such luminaries as Daniel Bell, William F Buckley and Thomas Frank. It is THEY and not the advocates of a sane, mixed economy, family values and a moderate welfare state who are largely to blame for the degredation of public discourse, the subjugation of democratic politics to the forces of Capital, and the severing of communal, religious and inter-generational ties. No amount of fundamentalist posturing and pseudo-history a la sauce Bachmann-Palin can obscure the fact that the economic ideology that they promote is a travesty of religious values and deeply detrimental to the communal good. Paradoxically, in this “debate” between Hitchens and Mamet, it is the former who is on the side of the angels…

Richard J. Brenner says:

What an absurd position to take-i.e. that such an assured, learned, and articulate writer as Mamet, would spend a chunk of his life writing words and ideas that are mere stepping stones and, most likely, of only passing relationship to what is to follow.

The facile, ill-though-out, lazy and lightweight writing of Rachel Shteir isn’t worthy of publication (and I say this with care and forethought).

Richard J. Brenner

Arnie Bernstein says:

Have to disagree strongly with this review. In this book he glowingly praises Glenn Beck; you’d think a dramatist of Mamet’s caliber would see Beck is Howard Beale come to life. And his admiration for Palin is also suspect, given his strong defenses of Israel, Jews and Jewish history in the wake of her “I’m a victim of blood libel” ignorance.

Though I do have another theory about this book. Perhaps Mamet is pulling an enormous Andy Kaufman style prank and fooled everyone. If so, bravo!

Folks, I can’t believe that so many of you think Mamet is worth your approval. I’m totally with MonkFish. I have not been able to get past the first page of every Mamet book (not his plays) I’ve looked at. Fatuous just begins to describe him. I was really glad to see Hitchens take off the gloves. No one else has except Terry Gross, and Mamet was the single worst interview I’ve ever heard on her show. He was defensive and uncooperative. Mamet’s world is nasty, brutish, and short. (Is yours? I bet not.) He looks down on his characters. His basic posture in the world is hostile and aggressive. That’s why hustlers and con artists are his forte. He was the great critic of capitalism (albeit a superficial one)…and now he’s defending the right wing. The man is bogus. It’s about time people opened their eyes to him. Have you ever seen the movies he’s directed? Notice how he directs his characters to be robot-like? That’s to reinforce his sense of being the puppet-master. Have you ever seen anything like your world in any of his plays? Like the con artists he so admires, he’s a con artist himself. Kudos to Christopher Hitchens.

Popescu says:

I doubt that any of those who referred so disparagingly to Glenn Beck have ever actually watched his program. Whatever you may think of one or another of the ideas he advocates, he has the trait, both naive and bold (in both cases due to his being more or less of an autodidact), of thinking about things that most of us not only do not think about but come to with prepositioned notions that, whether left, right, or center, are more like talking points than positions. Beck really thinks about issues and problems. He sometimes verges on the nutty and is often off base, but from my perspective is also quite often right on. He also, so far as I can determine from watching him, is quite sincere about the things he cares about and really seems to have a heart in a way that can’t be faked. Just hear him one day on Israel and Judaism.

James Smith says:

I too think this review is off-base, but not because I think the ideas Mamet espouses make any sense. Because from all I have read (3 reviews but not the book) Mamet really DOES believe the nonsense he is spouting. Hitchens’ take on it *seems* supported by the quotes from Mamet I have seen, and details Mamet’s shoddy reasoning and arguments. It is fine to be anti-liberal, but one can be so intelligently. Mamet’s mind seems out of control.

Jeff Laurie, I like Mamet but appreciated your comparison to Christopher Hitchens. That said, I hope Rachel Shteir is right. And actually think she’s on to something. Looking at his work, Mamet simply isn’t interested in argument. He’s closer to Antonin Artaud (theater of cruelty) than Arthur Miller. He writes dramas that lack redemption. He’s interested in how we fool ourselves – but interested less in the logic than in the machinations. All to say that when he goes into the didactic, he’s just playing games. There’s no real passion. And therefore no serious intelligence.

So far as watching Glen Beck, Popescu, traveling a lot and having time on my hands, I became interested in him during the months leading up – and after the 2008 election. Here’s my take. Him and Mamet share a love of grifters. Beck is a total conman, from his crying to his politics. But Beck seems to do it less out of anything grand than a love of attention. Mamet doesn’t exactly scorn adulation, but he’s miles away from Beck when it comes a life informed by neediness. That’s what makes me hope that Shteir is right, as from what I’ve seen quoted in the book seems sloppy, half-baked and even ludicrous.

It’s ironic that because of his love for and admiration of the State of Israel Mamet now makes common cause with the most virulent of Jew-Haters who see Israel as a major pawn in their eschatological fantasies.Will he next cozy up to John Hagee?

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The Cryptogram

David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge, an assault on liberal values and politics, should be viewed not as a polemic but as a yet-to-be-written play about his usual subjects: scams and hustlers

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