In response to a positive review in The New York Times of the recent revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, one young theater maker, @harharharbour wrote, “Fuck Mamet, there’s nothing he has to say worth hearing. Stop giving racist transphobic playwrights platforms. This show is shit.”
This tweet epitomizes what is now an entirely mainstream, and in some circles mandatory, view of David Alan Mamet, 74, of Chicago, the great American writer of Glengarry Glen Ross, The Verdict, The Untouchables, Hoffa, Wag the Dog, Oleanna, and a mountain of other novels, books, essays, plays, and even cartoons. Mamet must be canceled. The “trash”—as Tony-winning actor and writer Colman Domingo writes—must be taken out. But as we Jews have learned all too often the hard way, silencing our prophets is usually a mistake.
Mamet’s most recent book, Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch, came out in April. It’s very good, though on the surface at least not nearly as thrilling as his 2012 The Secret Knowledge, a book of political essays which in turn seemed cranky when it was first published but predicted with shocking acuity the cultural and political turmoil we now face.
Rereading The Secret Knowledge 10 years on it is impossible to deny that Mamet has a prophetic gift for understanding American life, honed in his drama, perfected in his prose, and that there’s a lot that Americans of all political leanings could probably stand to learn from reading his work. But for the past 14 years, the cognoscenti have ignored, shunned, and demonstratively not read, David Mamet. His crime? Abandoning his tribe.
Since Mamet’s 2008 essay in The Village Voice, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal,” he has been subject to a towering wave of enmity from the community to which he has devoted his life. (There has always been the absurd accusation that he is a misogynist, a view presumably predicated on his ability to give idiomatic voice to male longings and terrors. That Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna, and Race all feature brilliant female roles, and that Boston Marriage and The Anarchist have all-female casts, affects this point of view not at all.)
A cursory Twitter search for “Hate Mamet” or simply “Mamet” reveals a consistent pattern of antipathy. The chief film critic of The Hollywood Reporter isn’t even able to get through an Anne Heche RIP post without mentioning that it pains him to “draw attention to a David Mamet movie these days.” In 2020, Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel made very clear she does not consider Mamet an “artist.” In April, Tony winner Jason Robert Brown retweeted a photo from outside the theater where American Buffalo is being performed on Broadway; someone has written on the sidewalk, “David Mamet Is An Asshole.”
These examples are contemporary, and so one might be fooled into thinking that the vitriol for Mamet from within his community (and the greater left) is due solely to his public adoration of President Trump, or his comments on schoolteachers and pedophilia (which have been grossly misrepresented as anti-gay, when in fact they might be characterized as anti-male), or some lack of interpersonal skills or worse that must be obvious to cognoscenti, if not to the rest of us.
But I can attest from personal experience that the Hate Mamet movement predates any of his recent offenses. When I was a student at Mamet’s Atlantic Acting School back in 2007-10, it was au courant to dunk on him. The mere act of announcing he’d had a political epiphany to the right was too much for the theater community to bear; we instantly wrote him off.
Meanwhile, we continued studying his and William H. Macy’s “Practical Aesthetics” acting technique—we weren’t going to allow our reflexive attitude toward conservatives to prevent us from becoming Great Actors!—and found that their method has a lot to offer. (When I recounted my memory of this to Mamet in a recent interview, telling him that in retrospect I felt I was young and stupid for writing him off, Mamet responded, “Yeah, well, as you said, young people are stupid.”)
In 2009, when his play Race came to Broadway, I did not go because I didn’t “want to hear David Mamet try to teach me about race.” I was studying at the acting school he founded, could very likely have gotten free tickets, and chose not to go. My loss. A recent reading of the play reveals it to be an American masterpiece, and probably his best play since Oleanna. The cast featured James Spader and David Alan Grier, two actors I adore. Yet I gladly deprived myself of the opportunity to spend an evening in the theater with two great actors while they performed a David Mamet play about America because, after all, it was David Mamet.
David Mamet’s excommunication was a warning that something nasty was brewing in our discourse. This new Puritanism has been brutal on the creative soul of this nation (and possibly Mr. Mamet’s work) but it is especially a pity that it sidelined Mamet, an American prophet with a profound mastery of the rhythms of American speech and thought. Are there two plays more in touch with the viscera of the American obsession than American Buffalo (1975) or Glengarry Glen Ross (1983)? Does not the avarice of the men in Glengarry—or perhaps better yet Speed-the-Plow (1988)—predict the decade in which it was written, the crash in 2000, the crash in 2008, the crash that will be coming by this year’s end or truthfully is already here? Is there a better play about the spiritual cost of being a part of those systems (and the resulting madness of the white American male) than Edmond (1982)? Is there a better play on the late-stage conflagrations of the ’60s’ campus revolution than Oleanna (1992)? Is there a better play on American race relations than Race (2009)?
None of Mamet’s plays are works of prophecy, of course. They are dramatic fictions. Mamet’s prophet’s mantle is The Secret Knowledge. I don’t remember when I first came to read it, sometime last year, only that in reading it I was struck by the near-constant prescience of his observations.
Toward the end of the book, Mamet opens a chapter by quoting Christopher Hollis from Foreigners Aren’t Fools, “The Left is atheist, and, simply because it is atheist, its religious fanaticism is worse than any of the other fanaticisms of history. For the romantic of the past has sometimes, if all too rarely, been restrained by the memory that God is Truth. But the atheist fanatic has no reason for such restraint.” That was written in 1936, and quoted by Mamet in 2012. Just this summer, noted atheist Sam Harris confirmed this insight by acknowledging that blatant suppression of truth is acceptable in certain circumstances, i.e., to prevent the reelection of Donald Trump. Hey, maybe David Mamet and his long-ago pals were onto something!
So if Mamet had his finger on the pulse of where we were headed so acutely in 2012, what truths is he sitting on in 2022? This summer, I called him on the phone to find out. I tried to get him to discuss prophets and prophecy, but he’s a wily subject. Contrary to the image of him frequently portrayed—as a bombastic and aggressive David Mamet character—I found him to be very thoughtful, measured, and full of humor and sincerity. When I told him that my father, a Chicago Jew of Mamet’s generation, loved his book, he said, “That means a lot.” When we concluded the call, he asked me to wish my father well. Like so many cultural boogeymen, it’s not that the person is actually dangerous or interpersonally threatening and obnoxious, but, most often, including in Mamet’s case, that his ideas threaten the comfort of the comfortable.
Here are a few:
On the cost of speaking out against the hegemonic view:
“Well, what’s the alternative? ... The big question of my generation and of show business, was how could these guys, during the McCarthy era, have sold their friends out, how could they do that? So when all of us here were shown the rack and asked how would you like to behave? That question reappeared and ‘Oh, I get it they had a choice, I guess I have a choice too.’ Now certainly I’m in a privileged position right? Because I’m in the final boarding process and I got a couple bucks in a sock under my mattress and there are people who aren’t in that privileged position and they may have to make a different choice.”
On the suicidal bent of the West:
“All cultures are suicidal because things go to a certain extent and then they die. It’s ancient wisdom that the great cultures aren’t overcome, they commit suicide. And Lincoln said, he said all the massed might of Europe could not take a drink from the Mississippi. And that’s true. But on the other hand we can give in to China.”
On the future of the faithful in America:
“I was in a gun shop a couple of months ago and I was talking to a guy, he was a Jewish guy, he worked at the gun shop and he said ‘Oh yeah a lot of Jews are coming in from the temples to buy guns’—and I said ‘Oh, the Rabbis are coming in to buy guns?’ And he said ‘No, the cantors.’ So I thought that was pretty fuckin funny.”
On the Malthusian inclinations of the Left:
“Part of this new wokeism is the idea that—it’s very Malthusian—it’s saying, there’s not enough, we have to stop breeding and I’ve heard from several people of my generation their kids don’t want to have kids because there are ‘just too many people’ so I thought that that was really limited of these kids cause if they really think there’s too many people, they should fuckin’ off themselves.”
On whether the Jews should decamp to the Republican party:
“Dennis Prager said the only thing that the Left has been successful at is in demonizing the Right and they demonized the hell out of the Jews so bad they can’t think clearly. My great aunt lives in Chicago and she’s 91 years old and she said you know ‘things have gotten so bad over here, the taxes are so bad, the homelessness is so bad, these kids are killing each other every week on the south side of Chicago and my friends had to move from a wonderful apartment because when they took over Michigan Avenue they got into the lobby of her building and things just couldn’t be worse’ and I said you know ‘Well keep voting democratic!’ and there was this long long long long pause and any of us who are Conservative know that pause and that look on the face of the Liberal and it’s a look of aphasia.”
On the Jewish response to his 2006 book on internalized antisemitism, The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews:
“I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it means to be Jewish and why my people are so fuckin stupid, and what I realized from reading the Torah is that’s the story of the Torah, is that Moses is chosen by G-d to lead the Jewish people to freedom and he has no trouble with anybody, he doesn’t have any trouble with Pharaoh, he doesn’t have any trouble with the Egyptians, with the Hittites, the Amorites, the Jebusites, the Hivites, the Philistines.
“The only people he has any trouble with are the Jews. Because, in every instance of Moses’s life, the Jews want to go back to slavery.”
On the theatre community (and their rejection of him):
So what has Mamet done for us lately as an American theater artist? There are fair critiques to be made of his more recent works, that they’re simply not as thrilling as Race and everything that came before, half of which were written into the teeth of howling excommunicatory disapproval. I could only get my hands on two of those recent plays, China Doll and The Anarchist. China Doll, which premiered in 2015, consists almost entirely of a character on the phone, having one-sided conversations; and I’m told even Al Pacino couldn’t make it leap off the page. But Mamet was trying to say something about the increasing power of the State, and while the character in his play was a rich piece of shit being hounded by State power, we now live in a country where it appears everyone is subject to ludicrous governmental overreach.
The Anarchist, from 2011, about a female prisoner loosely modeled on Weather Underground types, is too cryptic to be popular. If you don’t know who Frantz Fanon is, the play might seem a tedious exercise. But if you’re able to place it in context, it’s a very interesting examination of Western radicals and how they are radicalized. Far from trivial, in any case.
The point is, whatever one’s critique of Mamet, he’s an essential American voice. Sometimes he takes huge swings, e.g. making a point about men being predators, or saying, in The Secret Knowledge that, “School shootings and the increased enrollment in postgraduate Liberal arts studies may be seen as two unconscious attempts at adaptation of a culture evolving away from the exigencies of staffing a trained workforce.” You may or may not agree with the sentiments Mamet expresses with those big swings, but you cannot deny that they force you to think, and to reckon with ugliness -- in your society, in government, in yourself. Is that not the role of the artist? For Mamet, it is. For the Mamet Haters, of course, the problem is never themselves and their friends: It’s David Mamet and his friends. Which as an artistic stance, seems less than courageous.
In Edmond (1982) which may be his masterpiece—an exposed nerve of a play, an aching wound, a self-flagellation, an opus far bleaker but no less vital than Tony Kushner’s Angels —Mamet follows the journey of Edmond Burke, a white mid-level corporate drone in New York City on the ugliest night of his life. Edmond leaves his wife and embarks on a journey into the seedy underbelly of New York, hoping to feel something, anything, that will make him feel alive. As Edmond is scammed, brutally beaten, and mocked by the city and its denizens, he begins to unravel and ends up attacking a Black pimp in a racist fury after the pimp tries to rip him off, and killing a waitress with whom he’s just had sex, after she won’t admit that being in an acting class is not the same thing as being an actress.
The play is filled with sexist, racist, and homophobic invective, and sometimes you want to look away. It’s too much ugliness, though no uglier than the average day on Twitter. Then the play evolves, it becomes something else, mysterious and beautiful.
In prison, Edmond becomes the submissive lover and companion of his Black cellmate, and they opine on questions of the soul and the nature of existence. Upon their first meeting, Edmond launches into a speech about how he’s never felt safer than in jail. It has something to do with his latent fear of and also, desire for, his Black neighbors. The scene deals with race, yes, but it also deals with a larger kind of existentialism, what some people might call “late-stage capitalism”:
Edmond: … What I know I think that all this fear, this fucking fear we feel must hide a wish. ’Cause I don’t feel it since I’m here. I don’t. I think the first time in my life. (Pause.) In my whole adult life I don’t feel fearful since I came in here.
I think we are like birds. I think that humans are like birds. We suspect when there’s going to be an earthquake. Birds know. They leave three days earlier. Something in their soul responds.
Prisoner: The birds leave when there’s going to be an earthquake?
Edmond: Yes. And I think, in our soul, we, we feel, we sense there is going to be …
Prisoner: … Uh-huh …
Edmond: … a cataclysm. But we cannot flee. We’re fearful. All the time. Because we can’t trust what we know. That ringing. (Pause.) I think we feel. Something tells us, “Get out of here.” (Pause.) White people feel that. Do you feel that? (Pause.) Well. But I don’t feel it since I’m here. (Pause.) I don’t feel it since I’m here. I think I’ve settled. So, so, so I must be somewhere safe. Isn’t that funny?
Edmond is one of the most challenging plays I’ve ever read, as pointed and unsettling as Equus or anything by Churchill, or Pinter, or O’Neill. I don’t think it’s likely it will ever be produced again by any major theater in this country, because doing so would be tantamount to institutional suicide. And that’s where we are at.
Meanwhile, David Mamet, himself, will be fine, out there in his garden, listening to Glenn Gould, thinking of how he tried to fuckin’ tell us.
Clayton Fox writes Tablet’s daily newsletter, The Scroll, alongside Sean Cooper and Jacob Siegel. He has written independently for Tablet, Real Clear Investigations, Brownstone Institute, American Theatre Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @clayfoxwriter