Mamet, David (Vol. 91)
David Mamet The Cryptogram
Award: OBIE Award for Best Play
(Full name David Alan Mamet) Born in 1947, Mamet is an American playwright, screenwriter, novelist, essayist, memoirist, and author of children's books.
For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 15, 34, and 46.
The Cryptogram (1994) focuses on the theme of betrayal and continues Mamet's innovative use of dialogue as a means of creating and representing conflict. Set in the late 1950s, the play depicts a month in the lives of a precocious ten-year-old named John, his mother Donny, his father Robert, and a family friend named Del. The play opens with John unable to fall asleep, too excited about an impending camping trip with his father. It is soon revealed that Robert, who never appears onstage, has abandoned his wife and child, and that Del has assisted in his deceptions. Struggling with the emotional consequences of Robert's departure and the nature of their own friendship, Del and Donny are unable or unwilling to meet John's most basic needs. Fearing that the truth would be too overwhelming, they avoid John's questions, which only increases his anxiety and sense of isolation.
Emphasizing issues of betrayal, abandonment, emotional abuse, and childhood angst, The Cryptogram has received mixed reviews. Mamet's use of language—which is marked by repetitiveness, interruptions, and long pauses—has been variously assessed by critics. While some commentators have faulted the minimalism of the dialogue as evasive, stilted, and fragmentary, others, such as Jack Kroll, have noted that the cryptic nature of the play reveals the characters' muddled perceptions of their world and their subsequent search for meaning and emotional stability. Kroll observed that "as we listen to [John] try to bring his broken world to order we realize that Mamet's language is at bottom a child's lingo, the trial-and-error, stop-and-start, nonresponsive speech tactic of kids. It's the sound of tainted innocence." Reviewers have also acknowledged the importance of The Cryptogram in Mamet's body of work, noting its autobiographical influences and disturbing portrait of the effects of divorce on families; they have particularly cited the emotional shock generated in the play's final scenes. As John Lahr has asserted: "With remarkable concision and insight, Mamet has mapped out the dynamics of a soul murder."
Lakeboat (drama) 1970
Duck Variations (drama) 1972
∗Sexual Perversity in Chicago (drama) 1974
Squirrels (drama) 1974
American Buffalo (drama) 1975
Reunion (drama) 1976
Dark Pony (drama) 1977
A Life in the Theatre (drama) 1977
The Revenge of the Space Pandas, or Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock (drama for children) 1977
The Water Engine: An American Fable (drama) 1977
The Woods (drama) 1977
Mr. Happiness (drama) 1978
Lone Canoe, or the Explorer (musical) 1979
The Sanctity of Marriage (drama) 1979
Shoeshine (drama) 1979
The Postman Always Rings Twice [adaptor; from the novel by James M. Cain] (screenplay) 1981
Edmond (drama) 1982
The Verdict [adaptor; from the novel by Barry Reed] (screenplay) 1982
Glengarry Glen Ross (drama) 1983
The Cherry Orchard [adaptor; from the play by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1985
Prairie du chien (drama) 1985
The Shawl (drama) 1985
The Untouchables (screenplay) 1986
Writing in Restaurants (essays) 1986
†House of Games (film) 1987
Speed-the-Plow (drama) 1988
†Things Change [with Shel Silverstein] (film) 1988
Uncle Vanya [adpator; from the play by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1988
Some Freaks (essays)...
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SOURCE: "Betrayals," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 23, August 1, 1994, pp. 70-3.
[Lahr is a prizewinning American critic, nonfiction writer, playwright, novelist, biographer, and editor. In the review below, he offers a highly favorable assessment of The Cryptogram, lauding the work's dramatic intensity and focus on betrayal, death, and emotional abuse.]
David Mamet, like the characters he puts onstage, tells us only so much about himself, and no more. We know, for instance, that he likes tricksters and magic. We know that he enjoys guys' things, like hunting and poker and cigars. We also know that he's divorced, and that, like any divorced parent, he has had to live with the grief of imposing on his children the bewildering pain of separation which he felt when his own parents divorced. In "The Rake," the first chapter of a 1992 memoir entitled The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions, Mamet has provided a rare and chilling snapshot of himself and his sister, Lynn, growing up with their new stepfather in a Chicago suburb. Mamet dredges up from the mystery of childhood a few images and scraps of half-understood conversation which have etched themselves on his imagination. He tells of his sister's hearing raised voices and following them down the corridor to the master bedroom, where she pushed open the door to see their mother coiled in a fetal position on the floor of the closet "moaning...
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SOURCE: A review of The Cryptogram, in The North American Review, Vol. CCLXXIX, No. 6, November-December, 1994, p. 51.
[In the following review, King provides a negative assessment of The Cryptogram.]
In London's West End, David Mamet's Cryptogram had its world premiere. Set in Chicago in 1959, the piece centers around the anxieties of John, a ten-year-old boy. The clues in character, time and place all point to a personal allusion in the coded title—Mamet must be revealing something about himself. His director of twenty years standing, Gregory Mosher, claims not to have raised the question; after all, he says, "The pleasure of the play lies not, of course, in whether the young boy's journey was Mamet's, but in whether it is ours." The Cryptogram runs for under seventy minutes, a brief journey at best; two of the three characters deliver set speeches at a high emotional level, enough to measure acting but not enough to equal a play.
In each of the three scenes, the boy, John, can't sleep. At first, he is excited in anticipation of the next day's outing with his father; the curtain lines to the end of scene one, however, tip us off to expect a less pleasant revelation. His mother reads a note and says, "Robert's leaving me," and her friend Del replies, "Why would he want to do that?" At the opening of scene two, the young boy is speculating on the nature of reality...
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SOURCE: "Mamet in a Bleak Living Room of Childhood," in The New York Times, February 10, 1995, p. C3.
[Canby is a novelist, playwright, and film critic. Here, he offers a highly favorable assessment of The Cryptogram.]
The Cryptogram, David Mamet's spooky, very good new play, is elliptical but far less minimal than it initially looks. It's stuffed with the emotional bric-a-brac that leaves permanent scars on children, splits husbands from wives and rests lifelong friendships.
Under Mr. Mamet's direction The Cryptogram had its American premiere here on Wednesday night at the C. Walsh Theater. Though the American Repertory Theater's home is the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, it's presenting the play at the smaller theater in Boston, just behind the State House, as part of its New Stages '95 series. The Cryptogram, which has three characters and runs a scant 75 minutes without intermission, should be something of a coup for the group, which presented the first production of Mr. Mamet's Oleanna in 1992.
The new work doesn't have the topical kick of Oleanna, the temper-testing box-office hit about sexual harassment. Instead, it's a characteristically condensed Mamet consideration of matters that seem both more timeless and, in view of the playwright's stories about his own hair-raising childhood, more personal.
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SOURCE: A review of The Cryptogram, in Variety, February 13, 1995, pp. 59-60.
[In the excerpt below, Taylor offers a mixed assessment of The Cryptogram. Taylor praises Mamet's directing and writing abilities, but argues that the play seems incomplete and borders on the banal.]
Directed and acted with exactly the right Mametic rhythms, harmony and counterpoint, this American premiere of David Mamet's The Cryptogram reveals it as a prime example of style triumphing over content that teeters on the brink of banality. Unlike the play's world premiere in London in June, which was helmed by American director Gregory Mosher, this version is directed by the author and gives every evidence of being precisely what he wants. As such it's almost always verbally fascinating, but it also raises the strong possibility that other productions not directed and acted with such apt precision would have a high irritation factor.
Set in 1959, with references to World War II, the play is not the puzzling matter of codes or ciphers its title suggests. What unfolds is a familiar tale of a marriage breaking up, betrayal by a friend of the separating couple, and the impact of the breakup and betrayal on the wife, 10-year-old son and friend. Neither the three characters seen in the play nor their tale is of riveting interest per se. But that's not taking into account Mamet's highly quirky...
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SOURCE: "Crypto-Mamet," in The Village Voice, Vol. XL, No. 9, February 28, 1995, p. 83.
[An American educator and critic who frequently writes on drama, Kalb has served as managing editor of Theater and is the author of the 1989 Beckett in Performance. In the following, he offers a negative review of The Cryptogram, arguing that in the play, particularly as staged by Mamet, Mamet focuses more on mood and atmosphere than on plot development and character motivation.]
David Mamet has always had his detractors, but until this misbegotten premiere I have never known him to offer them succor himself. In directing this desiccated production of The Cryptogram, he seems at loggerheads with actors who either cannot or have been told not to animate his mannered language, invest it with their own creativity. And the result is that his style comes off forced, overdetermined, a sort of overwriting camouflaged as austerity—just as the skeptical critics used to say in the 1970s, before performers such as Al Pacino and Joe Mantegna gave them reasons to look closer.
The Cryptogram is what its title implies—an encrypted dramatic puzzle in the tradition of Pinter, designed to entice us into an obsessive search for solutions. Set in a cheaply furnished, nondescript living room in 1959 (when Mamet was 10 years old), the play deals with the effect of a father's leaving...
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SOURCE: "David Mamet's Child's Play," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 7, April 10, 1995, pp. 33-4.
[In the essay below, the critic relates Mamet's thoughts on his childhood and family life, language, and unhappiness, particularly as revealed in The Cryptogram.]
At the far end of the pine table in the basement kitchen of David Mamet's town house, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his six-month-old daughter, Clara, bobs in her baby bouncer; at the near end, the playwright himself is also bobbing, but with his mouth open to snare the mushrooms being lobbed at him from the other side of the stove by his actress wife, Rebecca Pidgeon (Becs to him), who is whipping up a pasta primavera. In the mushroom-catching department, Mamet is all chin and playfulness, but in the playwriting department he is all heart and ferocity. At home, Mamet seems to have found his bliss, and in his latest play, The Cryptogram, he seems to have faced the source of his fury.
The play, which Mamet is directing, and which arrives Off Broadway, at the Westside Arts Theatre, on April 13th, dramatizes a child's emotional abuse in a way that no other American play has ever attempted: from the child's point of view. Mamet's gift for dramatic dialogue may be God-given, but his scrutiny of language—that nervy vigilance in which the pauses, the coded words, and the sludge of speech are registered, picked over, and served...
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SOURCE: "A Tale of the Cryptic," in New York Post, April 14, 1995.
[An English-born editor and critic, Barnes is the author and editor of several books about the performing arts. In the following excerpt, he praises Mamet's emphasis on childhood and the pain associated with the dissolution of a family in The Cryptogram.]
A Cryptogram—a message in code or cipher. Code, mystery, solution. What we are is what we were, and our present is largely a secret message from our past.
Things happen to a child. A father leaves. A family friend disappoints. A mother goes shrewish into the bad night. We need to understand, to grapple with the frozen moments of the past, the moments that stopped us in our tracks and made us what we are.
Psychobabble? Of course! If you go to David Mamet's new play The Cryptogram expecting anything more than conventional enlightenment you may well be disappointed.
Mamet is no original thinker, but he is an original playwright. Using time-stained materials, he has invented an original and vastly interesting play that opened at the Westside Theater/Upstairs last night (pushing out Charles Busch's You Should Be So Lucky and igniting a controversy in the process).
It has been suggested that this very brief play, set in 1959, is partly autobiographical, because some of its facts—primarily a father leaving...
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SOURCE: "David Mamet's Attempt to Decode Family Life," in The New York Times, April 14, 1995, p. C3.
[In the review below, Canby offers a laudatory assessment of The Cryptogram, extolling Mamet's use of language and disturbing dramatization of family life and "emotional games."]
The Cryptogram, David Mamet's radical, elliptical new work as both playwright and director, is not casually titled: it speaks in code.
The play is thick with spare Mamet language, which is delivered in such a relentless way that commonplace words take on an edge and a ferocity that have little to do with the meanings and emotions they usually evoke. The words sometimes punish. They also illuminate, creating a child's vision of the world with a poignancy seldom experienced in the contemporary theater.
At the end of the 75 intermission-free minutes, you may be moved and mesmerized, as I was. Or, like some others, you may be as ready to leap in front of a cruising taxi as to hail it. The Cryptogram is tough, but it rewards. The production, which opened last night at the Westside Theater Upstairs, is a virtual replica of the first-rate production staged by Mr. Mamet in February for the American Repertory Theater in Boston.
The Cryptogram is a family drama so pared down that it almost seems generic, though it's not. It's specific and idiosyncratic. There...
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SOURCE: A review of The Cryptogram, in Variety, April 17, 1995, p. 45.
[In the following, Gerard positively reviews The Cryptogram, discussing, in particular, the horror generated by the play's final scene.]
It's impossible to imagine anyone being prepared for the closing seconds of The Cryptogram, a quietly shattering finale that caps 80 of the most densely packed, emotionally searing minutes this season—or any recent season, for that matter—has offered. As one would expect from David Mamet, the scene is played with a spareness of affect that belies an ambiguity beneath the surface: It is only a young boy climbing a staircase to the attic of his home, as his mother and a family friend look on. But the boy is carrying a hunting knife, and what use he will make of it is almost unbearable to imagine.
As the play's title demands, we find ourselves searching for the meaning of the scenes in The Cryptogram leading to that moment. Yet the play is one of the least elliptical Mamet has written; indeed, it's skeleton key to the work of a playwright who has electrified the stage for more than 20 years, provoking fist fights as often as praise along the way.
Skeleton key, hell—it's the key, the door and the whole closet, an unfinching look at the depthless emotional fractures that occur with the dissolution of a family, and, by inference, at...
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SOURCE: "Broadway Goes Off," in New York Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 17, April 24, 1995, pp. 76, 79.
[An American essayist and critic, Simon has served as a drama critic for New York Magazine as well as a film critic for Esquire and the New Leader. In the excerpt below, he faults The Cryptogram for its lack of content and Mamet's use of language and dialogue.]
"A playwright who imprisons his characters within crippling verbal debris" is how Jeanette Malkin of Jerusalem's Hebrew University describes David Mamet in a book. I agree with this completely—except that she intends it as praise. It's one thing to imprison Mamet's characters—in Sing Sing, an underground oubliette, or crippling verbal debris—but another to so incarcerate the audience. Mamet's characters, after all, are guilty of having become involved with one of our most pretentiously vacuous playwrights; the audience, however, save for having been suckered into a shell game, is relatively innocent.
The Cryptogram starts out with what appears to be a typical middle-class family on the eve of a stay in their cottage in the woods. The seeming paterfamilias, Del, is reading on a sofa in their living room in 1959. The date, given by the program, is meaningless except perhaps to Mamet, but let's not quibble about a minor meaninglessness here. Offstage upstairs, John, circa 10, should be asleep....
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SOURCE: "Codehearted," in The Village Voice, Vol. XL, No. 17, April 25, 1995, p. 97.
[Feingold is an American critic and educator. In the following, he offers a favorable review of The Cryptogram.]
"Auch kleine Dinge können teuer sein," runs Wolf's bestloved song, "Even little things can be precious to us." David Mamet's The Cryptogram is made up of little things—memories, household objects, verbal slips—that are precious as clues to the explanation of a childhood trauma. Magnified by it, they become objects of both veneration and horror, things that are not so much cherished as burned into the awareness.
The central figure is a child, but the action is conducted in rigidly adult terms, a puzzle that a child can only decipher in retrospect. It feels like a deep-buried memory of the playwright's own, striking with a force at once more personal and more profound than his other works: Under the cold, terse phrases, the spare structure, the formalized tableaux, its vulnerability is tangible, almost unbearable.
The adult's secret code that the child will have to crack in the future is paralleled by a puzzle to be solved in the play's present: Why isn't Daddy home? Del, the only man on the scene, is neither father nor husband, one of those spinsterish, sexually wavering "friends of the family" who is supportive to the absent man's wife, affectionate to the son,...
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