David Mamet

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Leo Sauvage (review date 13 June 1988)

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SOURCE: Sauvage, Leo. “Mamet's Unreal Hollywood.” New Leader 121, no. 10 (13 June 1988): 20-1.

[In the following review, Sauvage contends that Speed-the-Plow displays good acting and directorship, but is a stagnant commentary on the Hollywood film industry.]

The new David Mamet play that opened recently at the Royale Theater is called Speed-the-Plow, apparently after an old form of farewell once used among farmers. This seems apt, given the author's fondness for spreading stercoreaceous metaphors around like manure. Yet we are probably meant to understand the title as applying to the field of sex rather than agriculture.

Speed-the-Plow wants to be a sharp and rousing satire of the American motion picture industry, still symbolized outside that urban dispersion known as Los Angeles by the name Hollywood. The play does give us a sardonic and entirely appropriate view of the process by which films are conceived there, if not necessarily born. But it ends up a lifeless essay on how an evening of idealistic entreaties, followed by a fling on the couch traditionally employed for casting, can bring about a total if fleeting intellectual transformation in a Hollywood producer who earlier had contentedly described himself as a competent whore.

Bobby Gould (Joe Mantegna) has just become head of production at a major studio, and can't wait for the painters to remove their protective canvas from the furniture before moving into his new office. Charlie Fox (Ron Silver), who started out with him in the mail-room 11 years ago, has not had quite the same luck in advancing his career and is a lesser studio executive. Notwithstanding the disparity in rank, the two are great pals, as they constantly reassure each other.

Charlie manages to secure a 24-hour option on what in Hollywood is bound to be considered pure gold: the rights to a prison movie built around a popular star who is sure to attract long lines at the box office. All doors are open to Charlie while he is holding this “hot property,” he does not fail to remind us, yet he brings it to his old chum Bobby. Carried away almost as much by the gesture of friendship as by the luscious financial prospects, Bobby proclaims his intention to make Charlie an associate producer for the film, on equal terms with himself. They merely have to get the official okay from the chief of the studio before the option expires at 10 o'clock the next morning.

A superficial complication arises immediately: The studio chief has just left for New York. His efficient secretary quickly locates him, however, and he promises to be back in his office in time to sign the big deal, whose promise he recognizes as quickly as Bobby did. The real problem, although we have no inkling of it as the first act draws to a close, is going to be Bobby's temporary secretary, Karen.

It is not because Karen is played by Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone—who with a certain lack of modesty uses only the first of these names as the moniker for her triumphant career—that she turns everything topsy-turvy. In fact, Madonna is given little opportunity to deploy the celebrated attributes that have made her famous everywhere (including Paris, where last summer Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, vainly hoping to become President of France this spring, personally received her like the First Lady). She does share a tender moment with Bobby on the sofa in his apartment. But that is only after she has used talents more typical of a televangelist than a pop star to persuade him to drop the sure-fire prison...

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screenplay and produce instead a movie based on a novel she believes is a profound masterpiece.

The book Karen has championed was originally left with Bobby by the studio chief for a “courtesy read”—a mildly flattering assessment that will permit the studio to reject it without seeming inconsiderate to the author. Bobby gave it to Karen to vet, with the ulterior motive of getting her over to his place for a late-night assignation. He is not really attracted to her. Charlie is the one who happens to be fascinated by her—he can't believe how clumsy, innocent, and yes, virginal this temp appears to be. In the exuberant mood created by the imminent deal, he wagered $500 that Bobby would not be able to “make her” by the following morning.

Bobby wins the bet, but David Mamet doesn't feel obliged to give us any insight into why. Nor can we fathom how the not very bright Karen has overwhelmed the rational faculties of a tough and cynical Hollywood exec, unless she was divinely inspired. Mamet has made her an enigma—an unpoetical, irrational and finally irritating enigma.

Karen does not have a real existence, or a dramatic one for that matter, and it would be idle to invent one for her. Nevertheless, I was moved to play detective and explore the hypothesis that she might be the particularly clever agent of the “Eastern sissy writer” whose novel was submitted to the studio, or perhaps his resourceful and devoted girlfriend. But the sleuth meets obstacles here more daunting than those encountered by the critic.

Let's suppose Karen somehow knew ahead of time that the book would land in Bobby Gould's office. Compounding the improbability, let us assume she found the means to insinuate herself into the new production head's office at exactly the right moment. Then we are still left with the impossible task of explaining how she could have foreseen the wager between Charlie and Bobby, which was the sole reason for the nocturnal tête-à-tête that provided her with the opportunity to deliver her pitch to the right man.

These implausibilities push us in the direction of accepting Karen as simply a virtuous and incompetent girl who is inclined to sudden enthusiasms. Yet the office of a big-time Hollywood producer is the last place on earth where her type could land a secretarial job one day and still have it the next. I'm not denying David Mamet's gifts as an observer. (Indeed, being a little better acquainted with Hollywood movie people than with Chicago real estate salesmen, I'm less bothered by the relentless use of four-letter words in Speed-the-Plow than by their abuse in his Glengarry Glen Ross.) But where in Tinseltown could Mamet have observed a specimen like Karen?

As for that pivotal book, Mamet gives us a copious sampling of its contents during most of the second act and part of the third. Karen recites passages in a hushed voice, with morbid conviction; later, Charlie—furious at the duping of his partner—reads from the work with explosive contempt.

What we actually hear is a string of pseudo-philosophical banalities about how atomic radiation can religiously regenerate the world in the process of destroying it, or somesuch. The selections are ridiculous, not funny, and certainly not in any sense compelling. Yet we are expected to believe that, with Karen as their medium, they bewitch Bobby Gould into resolving to throw away an assured commercial success and a $10 million budget—at least until Charlie helps him regain his senses.

I cannot guess whether Mamet thought the excerpts from the novel would reinforce the Pinteresque effect he is obviously striving for with Karen. But I do recall seeing a Mamet piece at the Goodman Theater in Chicago years ago that might shed some light on the matter. (Curiously, it was not listed among the playwright's works in the Playbill.) Purporting to dramatize the feelings of an explorer confronted with the mystical beliefs of a group of natives who inhabit a region near the North Pole, it displayed an awfulness quite similar to that of the book in the present play. Maybe Mamet fantasizes that such material might, under the right circumstances, actually transport an earthbound, dyed-in-the-wool Hollywood type to the extent that he would jettison a “hot property” in order to produce it.

An evening at Speed-the-Plow, though, is not an evening entirely wasted. The play's gaping flaws are partially redeemed by several scenes in the first and third acts that are written with ferocious sarcasm and executed with uninhibited rashness thanks to Gregory Mosher's direction. Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver, moreover, turn in superb performances throughout. And there is, after all, something special about the fact that this is Madonna's first appearance in a Broadway play.

Madonna's acting in Speed-the-Plow has elicited unkind observations from some critics. This strikes me as unfair. I have never seen her in concert or on screen, and I cannot appraise her dramatic skills with only the undefined and indefinable role of Karen to go on. Still, considering the magnitude of Madonna's fame, one cannot fail to be impressed by the disciplined way she submits to the obscure requirements of the playwright and the director not to mention the costume designer. On her visit to Bobby's apartment, for example, she is decked out in a dress that is both ill-fitting and unattractive. The point seems to have been to make her look and behave like the diametrical opposite of the star her admirers would flock to the theater to see.

A final, bizarre note. The night I saw Speed-the-Plow the standing room at the Royale was packed with Madonna fans (who crowded the sidewalk after the show waiting for their idol to emerge). Yet when she first stepped onto the stage she was greeted with not the slightest hint of applause. I wouldn't dare attempt to explain this unbelievable, absolute silence. Perhaps, however, Madonna should consider reappearing on Broadway in a part that would have more meaning for her and for the audience.


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David Mamet 1947-

(Full name David Alan Mamet) American playwright, screenwriter, director, essayist, novelist, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Mamet's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 15, 34, 46, and 91.

Best known for his plays and screenplays, particularly for efforts such as American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), and the film The Untouchables (1987), Mamet's works typically address power struggles and issues of dominance involving characters who use language to protect themselves and to advance their personal agendas. In addition to his many award-winning plays, screenplays, and essays, Mamet has also written novels, children's books, television scripts, and poetry, and has developed a reputation as an accomplished stage and film director. His creations for the stage and screen are noted for their unique use of dialogue which appropriates the vernacular and mimics the jargon of specific occupations and social groups.

Biographical Information

Mamet was born in Chicago and raised in a Jewish community on the city's south side. After his parents divorced, he lived with his mother in Olympia Fields, a Chicago suburb. He attended a private school and worked at the Hull House Theatre. At Goddard College in Vermont, Mamet studied literature and drama. He also studied acting in New York City, where he worked with noted dramatist Sanford Meisner. Meisner exposed Mamet to the ideas of Konstantin Stanislavsky, a Russian producer and dramatist, who remains a major influence on Mamet's work. Mamet taught for one year at Marlboro College in Vermont, where he wrote his first play, Lakeboat (1970), which his students eventually staged. After working at a variety of jobs, Mamet returned to Goddard as a drama instructor, where he wrote an early version of Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974). In 1972 Mamet returned to Chicago and formed the St. Nicholas Company with actor William H. Macy. During the 1970s, several of Mamet's plays—including Duck Variations (1972), Sexual Perversity, and American Buffalo—enjoyed successful and critically acclaimed productions in New York City. American Buffalo and Sexual Perversity each won an Obie award for distinguished playwriting. In 1977 Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse married, divorcing later in 1991. That same year Mamet married Scottish actress Rebecca Pidgeon. Mamet wrote his first screenplay in 1979, a film adaptation of the James Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Throughout the 1980s, Mamet wrote and directed numerous films and plays. He won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1984 for Glengarry Glen Ross, which was originally produced in London in 1983. Mamet has lectured and taught at several universities and colleges, including the University of Chicago, Yale University, New York University, and Columbia University. Mamet's work is often compared to that of English playwright Harold Pinter and Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. One of the few major American playwrights to also find success as a screenwriter, Mamet was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994.

Major Works

Lakeboat revolves around an Ivy League college student, Dale, who spends his summer working on a freighter in the Great Lakes. Expecting a thrilling experience filled with adventures, Dale is initially disappointed at the mundanity of daily life on the ship. However, as Dale befriends the various crew members—who each wrestle with their own issues of identity, regret, and sorrow—he learns more about himself and the world than he expected. The one-act Sexual Perversity in Chicago focuses on two young characters, Danny and Debbie, who are both involved in same-sex relationships. The two meet and begin to forge a relationship of their own, but Danny's loud-mouthed misogynist friend Bernie, and Debbie's former partner Joan, manage to destroy the burgeoning relationship through emotional manipulation and meddling. The two-act play American Buffalo takes place in a secondhand junk store and revolves around three characters. The store's owner Donny and his employee Bobby conspire to rob one of the shop's customers with the unwelcomed assistance of one of Donny's friends, Teach. Teach immediately questions Bobby's competence, which increases Donny's suspicion of Teach. The struggle for dominance and the distrust that occurs between the characters, coupled with a key misunderstanding, eventually erupts into physical violence. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mamet's first effort as screenwriter, concerns a wayward drifter's romance with the wife of a café owner. His next screenplay—for the 1982 film The Verdict—was based on a Barry Reed novel and centers on a downtrodden, alcoholic lawyer who battles injustice within the judicial system to win a malpractice lawsuit for a woman who suffered brain damage during childbirth. Glengarry Glen Ross, one of Mamet's most acclaimed works, is a satirical portrayal of four Florida real estate agents in competition to become their company's top salesperson while they victimize their unsuspecting customers along the way. Although Mamet portrays the agents as unethical and amoral, he shows respect for their finesse and sympathizes with their overly competitive way of life. Mamet's trademark dialogue—including staccato, interrupted utterances and a wealth of profanity—effectively conveys hidden meanings and is a constant presence throughout the drama. For the 1987 film The Untouchables, Mamet borrowed from the popular radio and television series about famed U.S. Treasury agent Eliot Ness, to create a storyline that follows Ness's fight to uphold Prohibition law and his legal battles with gangster Al Capone. House of Games (1987), Mamet's debut as a film director, explores the character of Margaret Ford, a psychiatrist, who becomes involved and later obsessed with a group of poker-playing con men operating out of a bar called the House of Games. Things Change, a 1988 film that Mamet co-wrote with Shel Silverstein, portrays an elderly man named Gino who is charged with murder when he is mistaken for a powerful gangster. A satire of the Hollywood film industry, the play Speed-the-Plow (1988) centers on a Hollywood producer, Bobby Gould, and his secretary, Karen. Karen is having an affair with Bobby and persuades him to produce a film adaptation of a literary work instead of a big-budget, crowd-pleasing Hollywood movie.

Mamet's 1991 film Homicide features a Jewish detective named Bobby Gold who becomes involved in a drug arrest where friction develops between the city police force and federal authorities. During the course of the film, Bobby strives to accept his Jewish heritage, becoming part of an underground Jewish organization that uses terrorism to root out society's racist elements. Oleanna (1992) explores a female student's sexual harassment suit against her male professor and analyzes relationships of power and gender in the world of academia. The balance of power—both real and perceived—shifts from character to character, culminating in a shockingly violent physical act. Mamet's screenplay for Hoffa (1992) focuses on the life of teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa. The film provides an overview of Hoffa's career and offers an alternative explanation for Hoffa's unsolved disappearance in 1975. Set in the 1950s, the Obie award-winning The Cryptogram (1994) depicts a month in the lives of a precocious ten-year-old name 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. In the 1997 screenplay The Edge, Charles Morse, an accomplished billionaire, finds himself stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with Robert Green, a fashion photographer who may be having an affair with Charles's wife. Despite their suspicions about each other, the two men are forced to rely on each other when they are attacked by a large grizzly bear. Another 1997 work, Wag the Dog, is based on Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero, which follows a presidential adviser and a Hollywood producer who join forces to manufacture a cover-up for a presidential scandal. Mamet's script was noted for its timely exploration of the power of the media, particularly because the film was released just before several political scandals were exposed within the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton. Mamet returned to directing with The Spanish Prisoner (1997), a film that revolves around a man named Joe who develops a mysterious formula that promises to make his company millions. Fretful about gaining adequate compensation for the formula, Joe befriends a mysterious comrade, Jimmy, who takes advantage of Joe's gullibility. In 1999 Mamet wrote and directed The Winslow Boy, a pre-World War I period drama based on Terence Rattigan's 1946 play. The plot centers around a deceitful boy who is expelled from military school for stealing and his father's unrelenting attempts to clear the boy's name. In 2002 Mamet wrote and directed State and Main (2000), a satire about Hollywood, film crews, and movie industry insiders. The film focuses on a temperamental producer who attempts to make a film in a small town and is forced to cope with a variety of problems—his leading actor has a penchant for teenage girls, his leading actress objects to the nude scenes she earlier agreed to do, and his talented new screenwriter has difficulties adjusting to Hollywood's version of the creative process. Heist (2001) portrays Joe Moore, an aging master thief who is reluctantly drawn into one final, masterful robbery involving large amounts of gold bars. Mamet has also written several essay collections which address a variety of topics including Mamet's Jewish heritage, the future of film, and the Information Age. He has also published a number of nonfiction works in which he includes lectures on filmmaking techniques and his opinions about the Stanislavsky method of acting. In addition, Mamet has written several novels, children's books, and a collection of poetry.

Critical Reception

Critical response to Mamet's unique use of dialogue, vernacular, and jargon has widely varied. Many critics, notably C. W. E. Bigsby and Anne Dean, have drawn attention to Mamet's use of language to create dramatic conflict and his skill at reproducing the speech patterns of various social groups. Other critics have strenuously objected to this technique, stating that such vernacular lends a stilted, unrealistic quality to his works. Some commentators have argued that Mamet's severely fragmented and interrupted dialogue is too formal and unnatural, becoming almost incomprehensible at times. However, supporters of Mamet's language devices have described his characters and their dialogue as eloquent and believable. A number of reviewers have additionally bemoaned Mamet's overabundance of characters who are con men, hustlers, criminals, and connivers operating in competitive and male-dominated environments. These critics have commented that Mamet's focus on complex games, aggressive and selfish characters, duplicitous relationships, and male camaraderie and machismo causes his work to rely too heavily on generalizations about gender and class. Feminist critics have argued that Mamet's male characters display blatant chauvinism and homophobia, and have lamented the strange absence of female characters in his works, citing these as evidence of his questionable perceptions about men and women. The critical reaction to Oleanna has epitomized this debate—with one faction of critics censuring Mamet for what they perceive to be a gross simplification of gender relations and harassment suits, while the other faction defends the play as an important and complex statement about the abuse of power in academic circles. In general, most critics have agreed that Mamet writes engaging and complex narratives, praising his ability to successfully write for a variety of genres. Many reviewers have asserted that Mamet is a worthy successor to such noted American playwrights as Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill.

David Van Leer (review date 29 October 1990)

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SOURCE: Van Leer, David. “Speed-the-Brow.” New Republic 28, no. 1 (29 October 1990): 32-6.

[In the following review, Van Leer discusses many of Mamet's works that were produced from the mid-1970s to 1988.]

In the past fifteen years David Mamet has established himself as one of our most powerful playwrights best known for Sexual Perversity in Chicago,American Buffalo,Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed-the-Plow, he is praised for the contemporaneity of his deadbeat settings and characters, for the honesty of his gritty dialogue, for the intensity of his moral vision. Not simply a chronicler of modern life, Mamet is a prophet decrying the dark underside of the American dream. Yet Some Freaks, his second book of essays, possesses so little of the style, wit, intelligence, or intensity usually claimed for him that one finishes the embarrassing collection wondering what Mamet's reputation for high seriousness could possibly be based on. Even more disappointing, Mamet himself seems totally unaware of his failure.

The volume is a hodgepodge of speeches and journalism, reprinted from such unlikely places as Sports Illustrated,Penthouse, and Lincoln Center Theatre Company Magazine. Every page exudes a self-importance far exceeding the originality of the thinking and the elegance of the writing. The only interesting essays are the few in which Mamet considers his Jewish heritage. Next best are the bland personal accounts of youth in Chicago or summers in Vermont, inoffensive pieces reminiscent of Jean Kerr or Erma Bombeck without the bite. But whenever Mamet aims for bigger game—art or politics or sex or kryptonite—he falls consistently short, in a sententious prose Solemnly Capitalized and religiously committed to the split infinitive.

Mamet's ideas are as haphazard as his sentences. The essays are full of specious generalizations—that some of Jesus' teachings are “weak” and “anti-labor,” or that “women do not, on the whole, get along with women.” Trite observations masquerade as insights. Shane and Bad Day at Black Rock are deemed “the true stuff of the American Dream” and, Mamet cautions, the Mouseketeers did not really like us. Most distressing, the arguments often reaffirm the very clichés that they mean to overturn. In the title essay, for example, Mamet examines the elitism and the self-congratulation built into the Romantic notion of the artist as an isolated “freak,” yet what begins as an attack on the belief that artists are better than businessmen ends by celebrating that “freakish” superiority.

Part of the problem is Mamet's difficulty reconciling his intellect with his notion of masculinity. Obviously well read, Mamet peppers his analysis with references to Veblen, Jung, Stanislavsky, and Eisenstein. Yet he favors a kind of intellectual anti-intellectualism—the desire to be profound and to deny that profound is the sort of thing a real man would want to be. Following the macho lead of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, Mamet flaunts his knowledge of poker tables, pool halls, guerrilla warfare, and prides himself on being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU and the NRA.” He applauds his sexual open-mindedness in characterizing straight male bonding as very latent homosexuality: “That Fun Which Dare Not Speak Its Name.” And in a predictably elitist inversion, he dismisses as insufferably highbrow the achievements of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, James, and Mozart, while proclaiming television's Tyne Daly as “surely one of our finest actresses, a model artist.”

Such neo-philistinism is a time-honored trick of the anxious intellectual, at least as old as Walt Whitman's unconvincing insistence that he was one of the toughs. And in general the inadequacies of Some Freaks would be unremarkable had the collection not been followed so quickly by two equally insipid volumes—The Hero Pony, Mamet's first book of poems, and We're No Angels, his most recent screenplay. Operating on the principle that Mamet's every syllable must see print, his publishers have in addition announced for winter a book on film directing (Mamet has directed two movies). In his verse, Mamet has mastered alliteration and some rhymes. Yet, as its cloying title suggests, The Hero Pony combines an inflated sense of self-importance with a disingenuously cute poetic voice. Mamet treats such familiar themes as marital love, artistic creativity, and cosmic absurdity in a wide range of styles from Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery to Mother Goose and Hallmark. Confusing inexperience with innocence, the poems alternate tired metaphors (“Our love is butter / And the world is bread”) with shallow profundities (“Below a world of transportation / There is a school of thought”).

The banality of The Hero Pony is not surprising. Many macho prose styles go limp when they turn to poetry. More distressing is Mamet's screenplay for last winter's critical and commercial failure We're No Angels, Mamet's reputation as a screenwriter is less secure than as a playwright. He began in 1980 with a rewrite of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (which was first filmed in 1946) and went on to convert Barry Reed's novel into the Paul Newman vehicle The Verdict (1982), for which he received an Oscar nomination. These adaptations were followed by original screenplays for The Untouchables (1987), House of Games (1987), and Things Change (1988), the last two of which Mamet directed as well.

The films lacked the strengths of Mamet's theater. The rapid-fire dialogue of the plays was replaced on screen by cryptic understatement and soulful art-film silences. The plots were sloppy and the characters were undermotivated. In the climactic trial sequence of The Verdict, the testimony by an eleventh-hour witness was dramatically irrelevant: it was declared inadmissible as courtroom evidence without revealing anything new about the situation or the characters. And in the surprise murder that ended House of Games, the victim spewed blood and theme lines as an easy way of wrapping up the film.

Despite the movies' moralistic tones, their morals were not even all that clear. Virtue rarely depended on anything as concrete as a good deed. The hero of The Verdict was a disillusioned lawyer so concerned with salvaging an ideal image of justice (and of his own self-worth) that he almost lost the case for his deserving clients; audiences tolerated such a sanctimonious prig only because he was played by Paul Newman. Corruption seemed more interesting. In The Untouchables neither Mamet, nor director Brian De Palma, nor actor Kevin Costner ever figured out how to breathe life into straight-arrow Eliot Ness, and Al Capone walked off with the movie and audience sympathies.

Given this uneven record, the publication of We're No Angels seems at best a miscalculation, at worst a mystery. In its 1955 movie version, this much recycled plot presented Humphrey Bogart as one of three nineteenth-century convicts escaped from Devil's Island to work miracles at Christmastide (with the aid of an obliging viper). Mamet updated the story half a century into the 1930s, relocated it near the Canadian border on the feast of the town saint, substituted Robert De Niro for Bogart, and eliminated the snake, yet the rewrite suffered from its own irrelevance. Except for the commercial pairing of De Niro with teen heart-throb Sean Penn, there was no reason for refilming so forgettable a movie.

It is hard to imagine a less likely author for such cornball material than Mamet, and all his attention to atmosphere and detail could not disguise the inappropriateness of the assignment. His secular cynicism worked against the story's Christian moralism, with its sentimental theme that strangers may be “angels unawares.” In Mamet's delineation of the character, Penn's spirituality was indistinguishable from imbecility, and the watery miracle that ended the film—half The Miracle Worker and half Butch Cassidy—seemed virtually sacrilegious. Mamet was not even able to construct from these raw materials a serviceable plot; he reduced the third convict to a sociopathic cameo, who reappeared with pistols blazing whenever the movie bogged down in its own piety, and the characters' goal—the escape across a bridge into Canada—was so uninteresting, and so lacking in visual suspense, that the camera all but forgot to remark its occurrence in the film's final frames.

The question is not why Mamet was reduced to writing Christmas movies (that answer is easy to guess), but why he permitted the screenplay's publication. To understand what is going wrong in Mamet's recent writing, however, we must recall his more auspicious beginnings. Mamet first received national attention with the New York productions of Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo in the mid-1970s. Perversity dealt candidly with modern relationships, depicting in a series of brief skits the coupling and subsequent estrangement of two insecure young people, as abetted by their cynical best friends. The dialogue was consistently vulgar, but it was clever:

Do you like the taste of come?
Dan, I love the taste of come. It tastes like everything … good … just … coming out of your cock … the Junior Prom … an autumn afternoon. …
It doesn't taste a little bit like Chlorox?
It smells like Chlorox. It tastes like the Junior Prom.

American Buffalo was more complex, examining our definitions of success and loyalty in terms of a symbiotic relationship between three would-be thieves. A low-rent version of Chekhov's The Three Sisters, the play took place in the shop of a junk dealer, who with an addict and a small-time hood dreamed futilely of stealing a coin collection. Superimposing the extreme vulgarity of street slang onto the deadpan rhythms of Beckett, Ionesco, and Pinter, Mamet created for his aspiring criminals a dramatic language both idiomatic and poetic, rivaling that of Marlon Brando's longshoreman in On the Waterfront.

I should have a nickel every time we're over at the game, I pop for coffee … cigarettes … a sweet roll, never say a word. … Someone is against me, that's their problem … I can look out for myself, and I don't got to fuck around behind somebody's back, I don't like the way they're treating me. Or pray some brick safe falls and hits them on the head, they're walking down the street. But to have that shithead turn, in one breath, every fucking sweet roll that I ever ate with them into ground glass. I'm wondering were they eating it and thinking “This guy's an idiot to blow a fucking quarter on his friends” … this hurts me, Don. This hurts me in a way I don't know what the fuck to do.
You're probably just upset.

To an audience still reeling from Vietnam and Watergate, Mamet's brutality and nihilism seemed healthy correctives to the platitudinous optimism of the 1960s. Yet there were limits to this technique. The vulgarity quickly became wearisome. As Mamet himself has admitted, people “say ‘Fuck’ in direct proportion to how bored they are.” The repetition through which he created his poetic inarticulateness left little time for characterization or plot development. His characters were simple types—young lovers, addicts, petty thieves. And his plots—boy meets girl, boy loses girl; thieves plan a robbery, thieves do not execute a robbery—were merely skeletons on which to hang his fleshy dialogue.

More important, the moral ambiguities that plagued the films subtly informed the plays as well. The verbal facility of the more reprehensible characters often obscured the plays' indignation at their behavior. In Perversity, the boy's overbearing male friend regularly stole the show with his misogynist accounts of sexual conquests. (The part made the career of James Belushi, both when he performed it onstage and when he revived it in the sanitized film version, About Last Night. …) Similarly, the moral center of American Buffalo lay in the relation between Don the junk dealer and Bobby the addict. Yet productions of the play invariably became star turns for the actor playing the flashier role of the violent hood Teach (Robert Duvall in the original Broadway staging, Al Pacino in the 1984 revival).

Comparable inconsistencies marred Mamet's finest play, Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Focusing on the competition within a real estate agency, Mamet explored one of his favorite topics—“the language of American Business”—in a series of rapid-fire exchanges (and scams) between the brokers. The script allowed for the kind of ensemble acting that guaranteed an electrifying evening in the theater. Yet the plot, which involved a theft within the agency, got lost in the dramatic fireworks. And the dialogue, in its fury, at times degenerated into mere invective:

Oh, fuck. Fuck. (He starts kicking the desk.) Fuck Fuck Fuck! Williamson!!! Williamson!!! (Goes to the door Williamson went into, tries the door; it's locked.) Open The Fucking … Williamson …

For all the power of the performances, it was difficult to know how to respond to such material. Mamet's distaste for the situation was clear enough. Still, nothing but a fashionable despair followed upon that distaste. And the amorality of huckster businessmen was not exactly news; it has been deplored everywhere on the American stage, from The Iceman Cometh to The Music Man. If anything, Mamet's outrage was less than that of his predecessors. While abhorring the vile means by which the salesmen succeeded, the play gloried in the ingenuity of their vileness. And Mamet's penchant for down-beat endings seemed in this case arbitrary and mean; in Glengarry's final minutes, its most sympathetic character, an aging spokesman for professionalism and team spirit, was without justification revealed as both thief and fool, leaving his heartless protégé to walk off with audience admiration (and acting honors). It was as if the opportunistic nephew Bernard had replaced Willy Loman as the protagonist of Death of a Salesman.

These tensions between moral outrage and cynical admiration became even less palatable in Speed-the-Plow. To date Mamet's most recent Broadway production, this three-character play of 1988 followed a producer's momentary dilemma about whether to film a star vehicle as his crass friend wishes or a prestigious novel about radiation as his secretary suggests. Full of witty (and knowing) jibes at Hollywood values, the play worked all of Mamet's customary moral inversions, finally exposing the secretary's high tone as opportunistic. And while the boss and his secretary wrestled with the niceties of the situation, the friend deflated all pretenses with his unapologetic greed (and, as always, copped the Tony).

In Mamet's previous work, the ethical uncertainty of the situation could seem tantalizing, perhaps even the point of the play. In Speed-the-Plow, however, the ambiguities were cheap and the ironies were self-congratulatory. Not only was the “classy” novel itself obviously a piece of pretentious dreck, but Hollywood superficiality was too easy a target. Instead of undermining his audience's sense of moral superiority, Mamet pandered to it. No one ever lost money preaching in New York the shallowness of Los Angeles. Moreover, the casting of the rock star Madonna as the secretary embodied precisely the commercialism that the script claimed to attack. The play itself became a star vehicle, a canny career move. Yet Mamet encouraged his audience to remain smugly aloof. We were not groupies, finally, for a box at the Royale Theatre was different from general admission to “Blond Ambition” at the Meadowlands.

Given the confusion, even the dishonesty, of Speed-the-Plow, one wonders whether Mamet, for all his anger, has ever been a reliable moral guide. His diatribes do not really take risks. In exploring the lower depths, he rarely attacks anything cherished by his middle-class audience. At the same time, the racism, the sexism, and the homophobia of his characters are not effectively defused by their author, and Mamet may seriously misjudge the psychological effect of so regularly venting those emotions in his work. As he himself implies in a disturbing scene in Edmond (1983), such hatreds always lurk beneath the surface of middle-class gentility, eager for expression. The venom in Mamet's plays permits audiences to credit their own worst biases under the cover of moral distance. And when we applaud (and award) Mamet's most villainous characters, we may secretly be celebrating the prejudices as fully as the performances.

Mamet would probably claim, like most postmodern artists from Wallace Shawn and Eric Bogosian to Andrew Dice Clay, that his satiric method (and his liberal upbringing) distinguishes his voice from that of his prejudiced characters. That is why the complacency of his non-fiction, where Mamet writes in his own voice, is so discouraging. His preoccupations—the language of business, the “American Loves” of the game of skill and the short con, sex as “the true nature of the world”—are of course all unapologetically (and perhaps exclusively) male. More important, they are relentlessly universalizing, assuming the existence of some underlying mythic abstraction, usually called Truth or America. His belief in homogeneous universals permits moral judgments, but it does so only by applying the same absolute standard to all people in all situations. Whatever the apparent modernity of Mamet's plays, his judgmental tone most recalls the work of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the other Jazz Age Jeremiahs. He reproduces not only their moral seriousness, but also their WASPish self-satisfaction with the spurious “truths” of manliness and inside knowledge.

Mamet's moralism is probably neither insincere nor intentionally old-fashioned. The problem resides not in his politics, but in his dramaturgy. Mamet's lack of interest in plot results from his development as a playwright. Beginning as an acting teacher, he turned to writing to provide his students with scenes to perform. It is not surprising, then, that sequences in Mamet's works play like acting exercises. Yet the sketchy plots and characterizations also reflect his fondness for abstraction. Despite the specificity and variety of Mamet's settings—a junk shop, a real estate agency, a producer's office, the Canadian border—all the plays take place in a single generalized landscape, vaguely urban and modern. Just as there is no difference between locations, so all people are essentially identical. Not only are all Mamet's characters stereotypes, but his lovers, brokers, producers, and convicts-turned-monks all speak the same Mametese. For him, “the model of the perfect play is the dirty joke,” drama stripped to the bare essentials of barn, salesman, and farmer's daughter.

Mamet's reliance on generalization and stereotype is the indirect legacy of Stanislavsky's influence on acting as practiced in America. There is no denying the contributions of Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, and other reinterpreters of Stanislavsky in training a sophisticated roster of American actors. Nor can one fault Mamet for providing showcases for some of our most talented performers, especially Robert De Niro and Joe Mantegna. Yet one must at the same time recognize that the cultural assumptions of this approach were specific to the time that produced it, and especially to the decade after World War II, when it exercised its greatest influence on American theater.

Stanislavskian performances in America emphasized the universality of the dramatic situation, in which actor and character (and presumably audience) were all roughly on the same level and in agreement. The method succeeded best with contemporary works sharing its faith in abstract truths. The plays' plots were commonly symbolic, as in The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire, or mythic, as in Death of a Salesman or A View from the Bridge. Their politics tended toward extremes—either conservative, as in the anti-union On the Waterfront, or radical, as in the pro-strike Waiting for Lefty. Their characterizations emphasized the psychological inevitability of Freud as he was understood in midcentury. With more alienating and ambiguous playwrights like Strindberg, Brecht, or O'Neill, the performance style was not successful.

The universalizing assumptions of American Stanislavskism hold little interest today. Symbolism and myth are no longer our preferred rhetorical vocabularies. The political excesses of 1930s Marxism and 1950s isolationism embarrass many former adherents. The sexism and the homophobia of midcentury Freudianism have led some to reinterpret Freud's original writings, others to reject him altogether. And although they are still considered powerful playwrights, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are currently admired less as great truth-tellers than as superior representatives of their particular literary traditions—Southern gothic, gay, Jewish-American.

For we are no longer certain that people are basically all the same. Modern cultural debates—from referendums on bilingualism to the Miss Saigon brouhaha—concern the importance of ethnic difference and subcultural integrity. And to the extent that Mamet's theatrical methods presuppose cultural uniformity, his moral pronouncements seem beside the point. We do not care whether “thieves” are loyal or “secretaries” on the make, for we doubt the similarity of all thieves and all secretaries. We want to understand, instead, the social conditions and individual temperaments that lie behind a person's descent into theft or drug addiction. And even fairy tales like Working Girl or Pretty Woman (not to mention “Material Girl”) represent more specifically than Speed-the-Plow the variety of ways in which women today negotiate the marketplace.

By chronicling the American love of “skill and the short con,” Mamet found dogmas that could pass for morality in the depleted 1970s. But to the extent that these were just the pieties of another age's theatrical technique, he has taken us not beyond Watergate, he has taken us back to Disneyland. And in fretting over the Mouseketeers' honesty, Mamet reveals himself to be just one more casualty of the very Hollywood platitudes that he aims to expose.

Principal Works

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Lakeboat (play) 1970

Duck Variations (play) 1972

*Sexual Perversity in Chicago (play) 1974

American Buffalo (play) 1975

A Life in the Theater (play) 1977

The Water Engine (play) 1977

The Woods (play) 1977

A Life in the Theater (television screenplay) 1979

The Postman Always Rings Twice (screenplay) 1981

Edmond (play) 1982

The Verdict (screenplay) 1982

Glengarry Glen Ross (play) 1983

House of Games [director and screenwriter] (film) 1987

The Untouchables (screenplay) 1987

Writing in Restaurants (essays) 1987

Speed-the-Plow (play) 1988

Things Change [director; screenwriter with Shel Silverstein] (film) 1988

Bobby Gould in Hell (play) 1989

Some Freaks (essays) 1989

We're No Angels (screenplay) 1989

The Hero Pony (poetry) 1990

Homicide [director and screenwriter] (film) 1991

On Directing Film (nonfiction) 1991

The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions (essays) 1992

Glengarry Glen Ross (screenplay) 1992

Hoffa (screenplay) 1992

Oleanna (play) 1992

The Water Engine (television screenplay) 1992

Oleanna [director and screenwriter] (film) 1994

The Village (novel) 1994

A Whore's Profession: Notes and Essays (essays) 1994

The Cryptogram (play) 1994

American Buffalo (screenplay) 1996

Make-Believe Town: Essays and Remembrances (essays) 1996

The Edge (screenplay) 1997

The Old Neighborhood: Three Plays [includes The Disappearance of the Jews,Jolly, and Deeny] (plays) 1997

The Old Religion (novel) 1997

The Spanish Prisoner [director and screenwriter] (film) 1997

True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor (nonfiction) 1997

Wag the Dog (screenplay) 1997

Boston Marriage (play) 1999

Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama (nonfiction) 1999

The Winslow Boy [director and screenwriter] (film) 1999

Lakeboat (screenplay) 2000

Jafsie and John Henry: Essays on Hollywood, Bad Boys, and Six Hours of Perfect Poker (essays) 2000

State and Main [director and screenwriter] (film) 2000

Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources (novel) 2000

Heist [director and screenwriter] (film) 2001

*This play was adapted by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue for the 1986 film About Last Night.

†Mamet's screenplay is based on the 1946 Terence Rattigan play of the same name.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 28 October 1991)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Crimes and Various Criminals.” New Republic 205, no. 18 (28 October 1991): 26-7.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann negatively assesses the film Homicide.]

Up to now David Mamet has usually been very sure about where he stood in relation to realism. In plays like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, he intensified realism past naturalism to the point of abstraction. In a play like The Water Engine or a screenplay like House of Games, he began with a species of abstraction and used realism as underpinning. But his second screenplay, Things Change, seemed less secure vis-à-vis realism. His third is even less secure. (I'm speaking only of the screenplays he wrote for himself to direct.) Homicide is worrisome.

The first half-hour or so is the best police film I can remember. Joe Mantegna, a Mamet stalwart, plays a Jewish metropolitan detective named Bobby Gold. (Mamet has written two plays about a Hollywood character named Bobby Gould; I don't get the connection.) As with most big-city police officers today, Gold's colleagues and his criminal opponents are a mixture of races and religions, blacks prominent among them. Racial and religious epithets get flung, joshingly and less joshingly.

At the start Gold is involved in a drug bust, in which the FBI is also involved, and friction between the cops and the Feds makes sparks fly. This, plus station-house jousting, plus an episode with a mad prisoner who steals a pistol, all show Gold to be a cool professional who knows the realities of his job in both the daily and the long-term senses. Mamet writes these scenes with his ear at its marvelous best, finding the rhythms in the vernacular, catching the lightning-play of minds in broken utterance. His taut directing, helped by Barbara Tulliver's editing, makes the picture feel crammed almost to bursting yet not overstuffed. We get just as much as every split second can possibly contain—of story, character, forward motion.

We begin to think we are in for a film that will do more than justify its familiar materials by using them better than anyone has done, a kind of Hill Street Blues in excelsis; and we look forward to its completion, the wholeness, which could have its own Mametian beauty. Then comes the derailment.

Speeding to a follow-up on their drug case, Mamet and his partner halt to help a uniformed cop investigating a murder. This interruption not only entangles Gold in a second case (against orders) while he is still on the first one, it soon gets him snared in the activities of an underground Jewish organization that combats local anti-Semitism with terrorism and is, or has been, connected with gun-running to Israel.

I pass no judgment on whether or not such groups exist. (I'm not sure that Kahane or his heirs quite fit the picture.) The relevant matter here is that this group and its activities are an intrusion into the film's schema. That there is no kind of preparation, in story terms, for these developments might be excused on the ground that a policeman's lot is not a predictable one. What's much more ruinous is that there is no real preparation in Gold's character for his reactions to this new involvement. The man who, a few film minutes before, was a hardened and capable detective soon says to a terrorist leader, “I want to help.” He volunteers to commit a crime in aid of the group, then finds himself being blackmailed to help the group further.

Only one element in Mamet's treatment of Gold helps these changes in character. We never see Gold's home, how he lives, whether he's married, and so on. Thus, when he says to the group that he wants to belong, that he has no home, the words have some small resonance. But Mamet puts too much strain on this one fiber. What's worse, he quickly slides from incredible character change to incredible, stale plot device.

Some instances. Gold's two cases, the Jewish matter and the drug matter, come to a head in the same evening, and he deals strenuously with both of them that night. This is Mel Gibson heroics, straight Movieland stuff. When his partner gets killed in the drug chase, Gold clenches his jaw and moves out—single-handed—to avenge him, like every hero of every cornball police (or Western) flick. The chase of a fugitive drug king takes place in an abandoned warehouse that seems to be passed on from film to film as the setting for a shadowy, menacing pursuit. Gold loses his gun en route and doesn't even know it. He is shot at close range—twice—and survives.

If Mamet has been blinded to these banalities by his intrusion of the Jewish material, the trouble doesn't end there. The picture is hurt in another, larger way. What might have been a police thriller that achieved some meaning through its very form becomes a broken-backed attempt at thematic statement. Nothing comes of this Jewish material, either in sheer story terms or in catalysis of Gold. The detective is simply left stranded and bilked. Did Mamet feel, because he is Jewish, some long-deferred obligation to deal with a Jewish subject? If so, this ungainly attempt to pay a debt has skewed his usually acute sense of realism and the territories on both sides of it, and has made some of this film (almost frantically) spurious.

Not Joe Mantegna, however. The part was tailor-made for him. It doesn't exceed the limits of his talent, as did his role in Things Change. Whenever Gold doesn't ring true here, it's the author's fault, not the actor's. Mostly, Mantegna comprehends what he has to do and lays it out for us with a skilled hand. The only other performance of note comes, in a short scene near the end, from Ving Rhames as the drug boss. He has power.

Further Reading

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Badenhausen, Richard. “The Modern Academy Raging in the Dark: Misreading Mamet's Political Incorrectness in Oleanna.College Literature 25, no. 3 (fall 1998): 1-19.

Badenhausen examines Mamet's study of language and power issues in academia in Oleanna.

French, Philip. Review of Heist, by David Mamet. London Observer (25 November 2001): 9.

French critiques the mixing of elements from the heist-genre film and the con man movie, but lauds what he perceives as wit and thrilling elements in Heist.

Hubert-Leibler, Pascale. “Dominance and Anguish: The Teacher-Student Relationship in the Plays of David Mamet.” Modern Drama 31, no. 3 (1991): 557-70.

Hubert-Leibler uses Michel Foucault's ideas concerning power relations to analyze the teacher-student relationships in numerous Mamet plays produced between 1978 and 1988.

Jones, Kent. Review of The Winslow Boy, by David Mamet. Film Comment 35, no. 2 (March-April 1999): 75-6.

Jones favorably reviews The Winslow Boy, lauding the emotional impact and larger context that Mamet gives to the events within the film.

Kazin, Alfred. “Oy Gevalt!” New Republic 217, no. 18 (3 November 1997): 36-8.

Kazin questions whether Mamet's plot in The Old Religion is satisfying.

Lahr, John. “Fortress Mamet.” New Yorker (17 November 1997): 70-82.

Lahr profiles Mamet's life and career, noting particularly Mamet's personal experiences and their influence on the use of dialogue in his plays and screenplays.

London, Todd. “Mamet vs. Mamet.” American Theatre 13, no. 24 (July-August 1996): 18-21.

London examines the strengths and weaknesses of Mamet's theater-writing and directing.

MacLeod, Christine. “The Politics of Gender, Language, and Hierarchy in Mamet's Oleanna.Journal of American Studies 29, no. 2 (August 1995): 199-213.

MacLeod derides what she views to be simplistic critical analyses of Oleanna and comments on the power struggle she contends is the play's defining tension.

Porter, Thomas E. “Postmodernism and Violence in Mamet's Oleanna.Modern Drama 43, no. 1 (spring 2000): 13-29.

Porter argues that the final violent act in Oleanna is a result of an “escalating continuum of aggression” and is indicative of how “difference” is handled in American culture.

Zinman, Toby Silverman. “So Dis Is Hollywood: Mamet in Hell.” In Hollywood on Stage: Playwrights Evaluate the Culture Industry, edited by Kimball King, pp. 101-12. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Zinman analyzes how key Mamet plays resemble the plot and characters in Dante's Inferno.

Additional coverage of Mamet's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 3; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 15, 41, 67, 72; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 9, 15, 34, 46, 91; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; Drama Criticism, Vol. 4; Drama for Students, Vols. 2, 3, 6, 12; International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Writers and Production Artists, Ed. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.

Richard Combs (review date November 1991)

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SOURCE: Combs, Richard. “Framing Mamet.” Sight and Sound 1, no. 7 (November 1991): 16-17.

[In the following review, Combs examines Homicide and House of Games, focusing particularly on Mamet's theater background and its influence on his cinematic approach.]

The plot of Homicide hinges on a word. But between the beginning and the end of the film the word changes. ‘GROFAZ’ is a clue that police officer Bobby Gold finds on a strip of paper while prowling a rooftop in search of a sniper. Or at least there might have been a sniper, and he might have been taking shots at a Jewish family, one of whom, an old woman who ran a corner store in a poor black neighbourhood, has just been brutally killed.

“It never stops, does it? Against the Jews,” comments the old woman's granddaughter. But Officer Gold, himself a Jew, resists the idea of conspiracy, and anyway he has other professional matters on his mind. He and his colleagues, particularly his Irish partner, Sullivan, were in pursuit of a big black villain, until Gold stumbled on the cornershop shooting and was reassigned. He resents this, and being pushed into the company of these ‘rich Yids.’ (His captain tells him that they're his people; “I thought I was your people,” he replies.) To Gold, the disaster that has hit this family seems to spring, self-inflicted, from their own hermetic world. “Four thousand years of anti-Semitism—we must be doing something to cause it,” he tells Sullivan.

Yet as he pieces together more of the evidence, of the dead woman's involvement in gunrunning to Israel in 1946, of a list of others involved who might now be in danger too. Gold begins to feel the tug of a connection. He starts to follow the evidence as if it might constitute a personal map.

GROFAZ, he is told, is an acronym, a term used in Nazi propaganda towards the end of the war to refer to Hitler (“the Greatest Strategist of All Time”), that has now been adopted as the codeword for a new anti-Semitic organisation. He is persuaded to join the conspiracy against this conspiracy, only to find that it is impossible to belong both to these militant People of the Book and the forces of law and order. GROFAZ, in the end, cannot be substantiated; what can be is a brand of pigeon feed (we see a pigeon coop on the roof where Gold hunts the sniper) called ‘GROFAZT.’

Nothing is proved either way, of course: the anti-Semitic conspiracy might still exist. But in trying to prove it, Gold has let down his other ‘family,’ in particular Sullivan, who dies in a shoot-out with the villain they've been pursuing throughout. It's an ironic coda that is common to the cop movie, where the policeman's lot is often an impossible one and the course of justice never runs smooth.

In an interview in Time Out (1989), Mamet has stressed the genre sources of Homicide. “Traditionally, cop movies either picture them as stoics, which is to say as philosophers to whom nothing is more important in life than doing right—doing right as the utmost happiness—or the plot gives them some kind of personal reason for doing their job, like their partner gets killed or their family terrorised. I've used all these routines shamelessly.” Indeed he has, but he has strangely rerouted them: the usual personal, social or institutional pressures become more contained and emblematic: in the end his characters always play on a solipsistic stage and eventually gather its darkness into themselves.

One film that makes instructive comparison with Homicide is Don Siegel's Madigan, where the need for self-justification, the need, in cop-movie parlance, to be ‘the first one through the door,’ drives Richard Widmark's hero. But during the two days Madigan has to recover the police revolver he loses at the beginning, his story intertwines with other characters—up and down the police hierarchy, across the social scale—who face similar crises of self-confidence and lost honour. By the end, there's a certain irony about the theme, a certain wryness about Madigan's personal quest. His need is extended, shaded, qualified by all the other lives the film has touched on and incorporated as mini-themes. Madigan's existential crisis becomes everyone's, in a non-denominational, across-the-board way.


In Homicide, the undoing of Officer Gold seems a particularly cruel joke, and it's a derisive Mamet touch that it should be done through a play on words. It's this which distinguishes the film from other cop movies—the definition of character and situation, loyalties and conflicts, not through action (or even narrative in the usual sense) but through language—and it is a powerful membrane for holding individuals together. In the first part of Homicide, dialogue is a ritualistic exchange of catchphrases and complaints, abuse and reassurance, between the members of Gold's squad. But it's an elusive medium for an individual, like Gold, suddenly provoked to define who, exactly, he is. Visiting the bereaved family, he can't tell whether they're speaking Yiddish or Hebrew.

The verbal directness of this conflict certainly makes Homicide seem Mamet's most theatrical film to date. Eventually Gold is driven to answer the question people keep pushing at him with a speech in which he acknowledges that being a policeman, a member of one team, is linked to his negative feelings about being a member of another. Specifically, “They said I was a pussy because I was a Jew.” So Gold has compensated both by trying to seem tougher than anyone else (“All my life I got to be the first one through the door … because I'm nobody”), and by turning that sense of weakness, of being an outsider, into his role. Jewishness and being like a woman have qualified him to become the ‘mouthpiece’ of the squad, the hostage negotiator, “because I knew how the bad guys felt.”

The sense of theatre here comes not just from the flow of words but from the flow of words but from the dramatic movement and even the look of the film. This becomes increasingly stark, a drive from cause to effect, from scene to scene, that is cleaner and more clipped than one is used to in naturalistic crime films. (Compare, for instance, the dense narrative texture of Sidney Lumet's Q & A, which deals with a similar issue of institutionalised racism in the police force.) Gold is isolated between the two groups—Jews and police—in a situation where no narrative resolution, and not much elaboration, is possible. He must choose between his squad members and the Jewish activists who then ask for some proof of identity and allegiance. Gold is only too willing to prove it, because again his sense of identity is tied up with being obliging—“I want to help”—and he agrees to bomb a store which is a front for a neo-Nazi organisation and anti-Semitic printing house.

Or is it? The film raises doubts about the reality of what Gold discovers or is told by emphasising the sense of ‘theatre’ in another way—by giving many scenes a self-consciously staged look. When Gold enters the targeted premises, the scene is very neatly laid out: an antique printing machine in a back room, flanked by an American flag and a Nazi flag and backed by an enlarged photograph of a wartime atrocity. There are several possible interpretations. One is that Mamet's scene-setting is inevitably theatrical but thematically meaningless. Another is that Gold is being forced to enter a ‘theatre’ of the self by suddenly being confronted with what it means to be a Jew. And another is that the scene looks so stagy because he is being set up.

The ‘set-up,’ of course, is endemic to the Mamet plot, and not just because the milieu is usually that of criminals or con men. Underlying Mamet's treatment of language, behaviour, family ties and group loyalties is the sense that meanings are unstable and that, at base, they are games. And games are always being played more or less consciously to deceive. Most extensive and fascinating in this regard is House of Games itself. Mamet's first film, which revealed ever more complicated pieces of trickery, until they all coalesced into one master con reaching back to the beginning of the film. To what end the Jewish organisation in Homicide might be ensnaring and taking advantage of Officer Gold scarcely matters, since in Mamet's scheme of things to belong is both a need and a weakness. In this world of (virtually) all-male competitiveness, macho fears are both parodied and reinforced.


In an interview in City Limits (1987), at the time that he was making the transition to film director, Mamet was in no doubt that his new métier would be a change from the old. “Writing for the screen is completely different. You're basically trying to make up pictures and you only resort to dialogue when you can't make up the perfect picture. I think.” If this is true, then it would seem to be further proof that the three films Mamet has directed are theatre rather than film. The flow of words has continued unabated, and the catchphrases of the con men in House of Games become an ear-catching sing-song: “The man can't play, he should stay away”; “It happens to the best, it happens to the rest.” But it is also true that the cinema is quite accommodating to elements that are non-cinema, and that the stylisation of Mamet's dialogue may have resulted in a stylised cinema that, thematically, serves the same ends. It could even be said that Mamet's theatre was waiting to find its consummation in the cinema.

Mamet's language, of course, is what has made him famous, his ear for vernacular, or for language that has been coded for particular uses—by con men, hustlers, petty criminals, a psychotherapist and other trick cyclists. It is a language that has been invented to manipulate and deceive, and so it always has a certain formality, a delight in the parabolas by which characters get from A back to A. Words are pushed and shunted through speeches with an assertiveness, a concreteness, that often seems to give them a reality—an independent life—greater than anything they might be referring to.

But this is only to say that words contain their own reality: that they embody fictions and fantasies that are traded back and forth, in a world whose reality is always open to negotiation. Most peculiarly, the reality, concreteness or truthfulness of whatever is being said often seems self-consciously detached from whoever is saying it. The dialogue of Mamet's plays, on the page, is full of italics and quotation marks, even individual verbs and pronouns being given that questioning emphasis, as if to suggest that there's no statement so simple it can't be turned to mean something else, and that no one in this world would want, syntactically, to limit their options.

In Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet's play about real-estate men, the possibility of stealing ‘leads’ (possible clients) from their own firm and selling them to another just sort of materialises between two salesmen: “Are you actually talking about this, or are we just …”; “No, we're just …”; “We're just ‘talking’ about it”; “We're just speaking about it. As an idea”: “We're not actually talking about it … as a robbery”; “As a ‘robbery’?! No,” The upshot of this is that what one man thinks of as an ‘abstract’ discussion, the other unilaterally decides to make ‘concrete,’ and claims his colleague as an accomplice in crime “because you listened.”

This slipperiness of language, the way in which it can even slip away from its user, easily inspires a cinematic ambiguity, a play of deceptive surfaces, of deliberately ‘rigged’ appearances, teasing the viewer to decode the unreality to discover whatever reality might lie beneath. Images don't have to replace words but can set further quotation marks round them, can do even more, in fact, to emphasise those separations—thoughts from actions, words from feelings, intentions from consequences—that are always Mamet's subject. In this respect, House of Games looks like a Hitchockian film, but one in which no Hitchcockian reference (kleptomaniac heroine notwithstanding) was intended. It's even conceivable that the film has gone one better than the Master.

An argument has been made (Film Quarterly, 1990) that House of Games is not only about the elaboration of a ‘master con’ but about the working through of the heroine's compulsions and their therapeutic resolution. In this view, the final scene at the airport, the least realistic in the film (and, by extension, the most Hitchockian in its levels of artifice), does not actually happen: that Dr Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) does not shoot her con man lover tormentor, but is simply completing a process of identification and projection in her mind, begun at the start of the film when she interviews a girl who has murdered an authority figure, her father.

But if this is true, then it is also possible that the therapeutic process reaches further back into the film, that it is an alternative narrative to the con man's game—a feminine alternative to the masculine one. The “House of Games,” in other words, is Dr Ford's invention, the staging ground for her therapy, ‘conceived’ in the first part of the film where she is forever writing. Her disconnected notes on the patient who leads her to the gambling den also have an obvious relevance to herself: “Compulsive succeeds in establishing a situation where he is out of control … The character of Mike—the ‘Unbeatable Gambler.’ Seen as omniscient, who ‘doles out punishment.’” Again, the quotation marks, and the use of the upper case, signal the separation of a character from herself, her actions and her understanding of herself. It's a separation that explains why Mamet has not adapted his theatrical world to the cinema, but has simply recreated one within the other.


It is not surprising to discover that the games which are so important in Mamet's plays and films are also significant in the way he goes about his work. In his introduction to the published script of House of Games, he declares. “Gambling was endemic in the cast and crew. One sequence of the film is a poker game, and many of us, for the week that sequence took, spent twelve hours a day in a staged poker game and the remaining twelve in a real one.” By making a benign game of work. Mamet makes it possible to imagine all the malign consequences of game-playing in human behaviour.

But benign games may not be that far removed from malign ones. Or they may contain rather interesting thematic clues of their own. Mamet talks about the many on-set gags that were played on House of Games, whose object were “almost invariably Lindsay Crouse.” Of these his favourite was the ‘Spawning Salmon.’ “Crouse did a scene on a bench overlooking an embankment overlooking Elliott Bay. She's supposed to be staring out to sea, and we sent a production assistant down below the embankment. On cue he was to heave this ten-pound salmon up into the air, where it lands at her feet. You can see it on the Joke Reel, but Crouse is staring a few degrees off to the side, and concentrating on her acting, and she didn't actually see the salmon.” Something very like that salmon is the pigeon feed that ends up in the lap of Officer Gold at the end of Homicide.

J. Hoberman (review date November 1991)

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SOURCE: Hoberman, J. Review of Homicide, by David Mamet. Sight and Sound 1, no. 7 (November 1991): 15-16.

[In the following review, Hoberman focuses on the portrayal of tensions between Jews and African Americans in Homicide.]

With the unselfconscious absorption of someone working something out for himself, David Mamet has concocted an urban policier that has a deracinated Jewish detective searching for his identity in a grim world of tribal violence. Homicide ostensibly pits Jews against blacks and Jews against neo-Nazis, but its underlying vision is that of Jews against the world. Mamet is a master of unpleasantness, but his latest is awful in a particularly timely way. Perhaps inspired by the new and widespread post-Gulf War concern for Israel reported among American Jews, as well as by the resurgence of political anti-Semitism in the former Soviet empire, Homicide opens in New York after a summer of black-Jewish tensions.

Times Square, where black Muslims sometimes sell the nineteenth-century forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, along with incense and herbal perfumes, was enlivened by a pair of street preachers explaining that the so-called Jews stole their identity from the black Jews of Africa and that's why Hitler wanted to kill them. This convoluted theorising was comic relief compared to events in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a once-genteel neighbourhood shared by West Indian immigrants and highly insular, ultra-traditional Hasidic Jews. In late August, a Hasidic driver ran a red light and hit a seven-year-old black boy. Fed by rumours that a Hasidic private ambulance rescued the driver and left the child to die, the accident precipitated four days of violence, during which stores were looted, synagogues attacked, homes trashed and a Hasidic student was fatally stabbed.

The chants of ‘Heil Hitler’ and ‘Kill the Jews’ heard in Crown Heights crystallised a tendency that had already surfaced in the anti-Semitic pronouncements of the militant rap group Public Enemy and the gratuitously caricatured Jewish club owners of Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues. They also fed the media firestorm already raging around Professor Leonard Jeffries, the popular chairman of the African-American Studies department at City College. Jeffries, who teaches that “rich Jews” financed the slave trade, made tabloid headlines with his assertion that “a conspiracy, planned and plotted and programmed out of Hollywood by people called Greenberg and Weisberg and Trigliani” had systematically denigrated black people. “Russian Jewry had a particular control over the movies, and with their financial partners, the Mafia, put together a financial system of destruction of black people.”

Ready made for exegesis by Dr Jeffries (or George Bush, who recently cast himself as “one lonely guy” battling against the “powerful political forces” of the pro-Israel lobby), Homicide is indifferent, if not hostile, to people of colour—evoking a shadowy network of powerful Jews who speak in a secret tongue and are concerned only with themselves. This clandestine society is as vast as it is unlikely—encompassing everything from retired Irgun commandos and European refugees to wealthy assimilationists and students of cabbala. (Jeffries would likely add the movie's producers to the melange—they must have underwritten this story for sinister reasons of their own.)

When detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) and his partner (William H. Macy) find a rookie cop pinned down in a candystore by a snarling guard dog, the absurd scenario darkens with the discovery of an old woman dead behind the counter, a Mogen David dangling from her neck. Black neighbours are already buzzing about the fortune the storekeeper supposedly kept in her basement when, as if by telepathy, her next of kin—a well-dressed doctor and his stylish daughter—materialise on the curb. Intuiting that Bobby is Jewish the same way they intuited the old woman's murder, the two demand that he be put on the case. We, of course, are already well aware that Bobby is a Jew—in his first scene a rampaging superior, black of course, has dressed him down as “a little kike.”

Shot in Baltimore, Homicide retails a generic asphalt jungle in which African-American officers run the police department and black cops routinely blame the white victims of senseless violence. That's the way it is, at least in Bobby's world. What really throws this seasoned cop off-kilter is having to deal with all manner of bitter, withholding, punitive Jews. Sent to the doctor's luxurious apartment because “someone took a shot at the Yids,” he's reproached for his indifference. Confused by the Yiddish he hears (if not the melancholy bass theme which must unavoidably accompany it), and angry to have been stuck with this case, Bobby phones his partner to ventilate. “They're not my fucking people,” he rants, oblivious of the comely Jewess (Rebecca Pidgeon) who has uncannily materialised in the background. “Do you hate yourself that much?,” she asks him, before vanishing from the plot.

In Homicide, as in medieval Christendom, Jews are defined by their ‘secret language’; as in the Mossad, they are measured by their muscle. Bobby fails on both counts. His reputation as a cop is based on his (crypto-Jewish) linguistic skill—his speciality is persuading cornered criminals to give up their hostages—but that's only a trick for the goyim. Even a traditional scholar turns muscular when faced with Bobby: “You say you're a Jew and you can't read Hebrew—what are you then?” It's a good question. Bobby Gold may not be the only Jew in the world ignorant of Hebrew, but it's hard to imagine any Jew so baffled by the mere existence of other Jews. Bobby has no companion, no family, no childhood memories. His background is a void, his only friend his Irish partner. By the end of the movie, he is an unhappy version of the abstract, essential Jew that Philip Roth evokes in the penultimate paragraph of The Counterlife: “A Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness, without a temple or an army or even a pistol, a Jew clearly without a home, just the object itself, like a glass or an apple.”

Of course, Jews can always be defined by anti-Semites. In one of Homicide's least lovely scenes. Bobby reveals his repressed jüdische Selbsthaas—the appropriately German term for the condition of Jewish ‘self-hatred’—to a sympathetic Israeli woman. Because he was a Jew, Bobby confesses, the other cops thought he was a “pussy,” a “broad” a “clown.” It's a sequence that cries out for application of the so-called Jewish science—particularly as the movie's muscle Jews similarly regard Bobby as a wimp. To complete the syndrome by which some Jews can excoriate other Jews with the identical qualities that anti-Semites associate with all Jews, the neo-Nazi propaganda which Bobby subsequently discovers also makes much of supposed Jewish effeminacy.

“I am neither expecting people to call [Homicide,] anti-Semitic, nor will I be surprised if they do,” says Mamet. Whatever the movie is, it is scarcely the prime example of jüdische Selbsthaas. That distinction belongs to the Coen brothers' Barton Fink. At the period when that Cannes laureate is set, the virtual acme of worldwide anti-Semitism. America's two most potent Jewish stereotypes were the vulgar Hollywood mogul and the idealistic New York communist—both presumably battling for the hearts and minds of the working masses. That Barton Fink contemptuously locks these stereotypes in a sadomasochistic embrace without permitting either to comment on it—while the filmmakers themselves remain aloof—is as savagely reductive as the patter in a minstrel show.

Unlike the grotesquely derisive Barton Fink,Homicide has an agenda. Mamet wants to plumb the divided souls of American Jews, explain the militarisation of what, for a thousand years, had been a non-violent culture (issues which, in a more encoded, convoluted fashion, inform Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors). Is America perhaps a mirage? An innocent toy store conceals a Nazi propaganda shop; the realistic Jewish civilians all pack guns, while the delusional Jewish cop can't hold on to his. This uniformed schlemiel act reaches its nadir when Bobby is captured and cowed by a gang of Jewish elders who operate out of an abandoned Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society office and nosh a weird assortment of ‘Jewish’ food (salami, shlivovits, Jaffa oranges). There are aspects of Homicide that are truly ridiculous but, given the current cultural climate, you can't laugh at them.

The Jews in Homicide seem other to Mamet, Gold, and even themselves. The film proposes that there is an international Jewish conspiracy—or, rather, a counter-conspiracy—and what's more, it's a necessary one. The fantasies of Jews that haunt the Gentile mind return to spook the Jews as well.

Gay Brewer (review date 1992)

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SOURCE: Brewer, Gay. “Studied Simplicity: David Mamet's On Directing Film.Literature Film Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1992): 167-68.

[In the following review, Brewer favorably assesses On Directing Film, contending that it provides insights on Mamet's filmmaking approach.]

David Mamet has never wanted for confidence. With workmanlike application of his talent, he has succeeded as playwright, but also as poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker. On Directing Film consists of revised lectures from a course Mamet taught at Columbia University. The preface apologizes for his scant experience behind the camera, only two films: “… I was the most dangerous thing around. I had unquestionably progressed beyond the neophyte stage but was not experienced enough to realize the extent of my ignorance” (xiii). However, Mamet's ideas on directing derive primarily from his more substantial work and study as a screenwriter. Much of the information offered on filmmaking is as useful to the aspiring author. Mamet keeps his theory, based on Eisenstein's montage model, simple; good film is “a succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between these images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience” (2). The film is told through the cutting together of the uninflected shots. The shots make the scene, the scenes make the movie. Period. Simple. This is, writes Mamet, “virtually the only thing I know about film directing” (2).

Mamet has presumably honed his montage skills during a decade of screenwriting, developing a full-fledged, or anyway functional, theory of directing. The most crucial component of such a method is the director's contemplative time before the cameras roll, when selecting the shot list. “The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on the set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humor. … It is the plan that makes the movie” (5). According to Mamet, the film is like a dream: both “are the juxtaposition of images in order to answer a question” (7). Mamet remains, as in his essay collections, a happy name dropper: Eisenstein, Stanislavsky, Freud, Jung, read these men to learn film. Read Bettelheim, too, for a good movie shares the unspecified quality of the fairy tale.

This simple rule of uninflected montage is the heart of Mamet's approach. The technical material contained in On Directing Film—a short book of 107 pages—would scarcely constitute one meaty essay. Mamet, however, then introduces his true agenda: to show these principles at work, in the process proving himself a teacher. Short theoretical chapters are sandwiched between two Socratic dialogues, where Mamet and students create and “direct” films. The author's fascination with the mentor-protege dynamic manifests in what are effectively little plays, with Mamet cast in the senior role. The class meticulously, laboriously constructs their shot list. Mamet expounds, elaborates, discusses mistaken suggestions, pontificates as he chooses: “… there is no such thing as character other than the habitual action, as Mr. Aristotle told us two thousand years ago” (13). He is dogmatic, aphoristic, endlessly repetitive, occasionally abrupt, and finally quite effective in ingraining the simple tenets of his approach. “The important thing is always apply the criteria. This is the secret of filmmaking” (18). And the criteria, recall, are to remember the objective of the scene, keep it simple, and cut together uninflected shots which will move the story forward.

“Make the beats serve the scene, and the scene will be done; make the scenes, in the same way, the building blocks of the film, and the film will be done” (35). Mamet's bludgeoning repetition of these basic precepts is the belief in filmmaking, and presumably all arts, as learnable craft: “Practice with these tools until you find them boring, then practice some more” (52). Clearly the discussions are revised chapters of text, not merely classroom transcriptions, but they are fascinating. Mamet is deservedly pedantic, and as well humorous, knowledgeable, and above all dedicated to his principle. “Any good drama,” he says, “takes us deeper and deeper to a resolution that is both surprising and inevitable” (95), citing Oedipus as the example. The creation of the film becomes analogous to its final effect: shot selection is a process of circularity, self-scrutiny, revision, and “a continually emerging aesthetic understanding of the story” (96). Mamet attempts to apply a blue collar pragmatism to film, reducing it to its component parts and reconciling a scientific approach to his mystical, which is to say artistic, ideals: “As you have devoted yourself consciously, honestly, and gently to the story, you will have created a certificate of deposit, if you will, in your subconscious, on which you can draw for simple answers …” (101).

The center chapters of On Directing Film lend the book its ideological cogency. Mamet has introduced his principles, shown them at work, and now discusses their aesthetic significance. The subtext of this credo of simplicity and storytelling is indictment of performance art, method acting, and theatre without knowledge of or respect for tradition. There is a reason, Mamet argues, why stories are told simply: to respond to the natural ordering faculty of the human psyche “to perceive two events, determine a progression, and want to know what happens next” (60). The artist should anticipate and thus capitalize on this tendency. “When the film is correctly designed, the subconscious and the conscious are in alignment, and we need to hear what happens next” (62); the audience, in other words, is willingly manipulated by the respectful artist/craftsman. Mamet adds, with understatement: “If you want to tell a story, it might be a good idea to understand a little bit about the nature of human perception” (65).

The more common questions of filmmaking, those ostensibly central, the author dispatches with frustrating disinterest. What do you tell the actors? “Perform the physical motions called for by the script as simply as possible” (68). Where do you put the camera? “That's the simple question, and the answer is, ‘over there in the place in which it will capture the uninflected shot necessary to move the story along’” (72-73). Both answers fit Mamet's equation of the writer/director. “Directing is just a technical skill. Make your shot list” (77).

Mamet has always been a moralist, lamenting lost classical values of unity and simplicity in art. Many have been surprised by his rapid, impressive move from a verbal to visual form (stage to screen), but it is the transference of the principle, a love of storytelling, that has ensured his cinematic success. “The task of any artist is not to learn many, many techniques but to learn the most simple technique perfectly” (106). Mamet plays a diversity of roles: both novice and expert, philosopher, raconteur, scientist, magician, technician, prophet, alchemist. On Directing Film is clearly a book he enjoyed writing and is an educational and challenging text to read, in its few pages both instilling a practicable film method and challenging preconceptions of performance and presentation.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 26 October 1992)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Deaths of Salesmen.” New Republic 207, no. 18 (26 October 1992): 30-1.

[In the following review of Glengarry Glen Ross, Kauffmann studies the structural differences between the film version and the original play.]

David Mamet wrote the screenplay of Glengarry Glen Ross, and the difference from his original play underscores one of his attributes: his sensitivity to form. It clearly wasn't enough for him to do the usual rotisserie slicing of a play for film serving, cutting it up and rearranging it differently on the platter, with a garnish of material that was only described in the play and can now be shown. Mamet obviously wanted to reshape the work, to gather it back into himself and give it a new manifestation.

The play is in two acts, designed so that their two differing shapes support the inner action of the piece. Act One has three scenes, each between two men, each in a Chinese restaurant. (The place connotes low-price luxe.) Each scene virtually slams us face-to-face with its characters in a situation that leaves them disclosed, quivering. Four of the six men are salesmen for the same pressure-cooked real estate firm; one is their boss; the sixth is a stranger who ends up as a customer of one of them. Overall, the act is like a triptych depicting a series of secular crucifixions.

Act Two is the secular Calvary, the real estate office, the place from which those three scenes derive and toward which they return. This act is one long continuous scene. To change figures, it's as if the three tributaries of the first act fed into and swelled a stream.

For the film, Mamet decided that the abutment of two different “act” structures would not serve. Apparently he thought that the opening three duologues, so gripping in the theater, would look stagey on the screen. He opted then to give the whole picture the same texture throughout.

Working backward, so to speak, he rendered the materials of Act One to blend filmically with Act Two, though not in one setting, not in one continuous scene like the second half. He reworked Act One into short scenes, so that, instead of three substantial scenes feeding into a long one, the film is a set of small pieces that assemble into a mosaic. I can't say that the new form is as powerful as the original, but perhaps this is because I so admire the play. In any case, the new form functions well on film and is in its own way a conduit for several kinds of darkness.

The place, unspecified, is presumably Chicago; the time is unspecified but presumably it's the 1960s. (Mamet, I've read, worked in a Chicago real estate office when he was young.) Four salesmen are scrabbling to sell chunks of real estate in Florida and elsewhere to middle-class people as investments. The film's title is the name of a real estate development. The four men have been pitted against one another in a sales contest with a Cadillac as first prize. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize: “You're fired.”

Here are the four salesmen, three of them worn, one of them rapt. Shelley Levene, the oldest, almost but not quite over the hill. (In the play he mentions a daughter. In the film Mamet puts that daughter in a hospital to turn up the heat on Levene.) George Aaronow, a plodder. Dave Moss, a wiry schemer. And Ricky Roma, the youngest, the ace of the team, cocky, successful because he is intoxicated with the rituals of selling.

Their immediate chief is John Williamson, a stooge for the main office downtown. For the film, Mamet has added Blake, a slick emissary from downtown. Blake is there to crack the whip and to crystallize the contempt in which the salesmen are held. (Roma is absent during Blake's one scene.) This he does in the usual vile language of the play.

A note on that language. It jars only for the first few minutes. Unlike the gutter spillage of so many films, which never ceases to jar, Mamet's dialogue quickly shows that it's not vulgar just because vulgarity is now licensed: it comes out of these men as a petty revenge on the lives that they are in.

“Leads” are the key to their selling. These leads are the names of prospects provided by the firm; and the quality of those leads, good or less good, is a sentence of success or failure, almost self-perpetuating. A salesman who does well gets good leads, others get dimmer ones. So failure spawns failure, unless there's a stroke of good luck—with leads or with customers.

This condition produces the second half of the film (Act Two originally), which follows a robbery in the office. Someone broke in and stole a fresh, juicy set of leads. Management has called the police. The ending is in one way surprising, in another way not.

The actors understand Mamet's dialogue: the racing, the broken sentences, the sense that the mouth is trying frantically to keep up with frantic thoughts and with the hints of response in others—all this varied with occasional unfurlings of rhetoric. Good dialogue is always contrapuntal: what is said runs alongside what is not said. Mamet, somewhat under the tutelage of Pinter (whom he reveres), has widened the space between the two concurrent lines of force. (Was he on hand to work with these actors?)

As Levene, Jack Lemmon suppresses much of the surface “indicating” he has been doing lately and cuts much closer to the bone. Alan Arkin breathes mild mediocrity as Aaronow, and Ed Harris gives Moss the bitter slyness he needs. The office boss, Kevin Spacey, is adequate, and, in his brief appearance as Blake, the bastard from downtown, Alec Baldwin wields smoking iron. Another leading actor in a small role: the English star, Jonathan Pryce, is reticently pitiful as the stranger whom Roma overwhelms. But acting honors go, as inevitably they must if Roma is well played, to Al Pacino.

Pacino is a Mamet veteran. His theater performance in American Buffalo remains in the mind as a landmark of naturalistic acting plumbed so far that it went deeper than detail and found essence—the same poetic essence that any artistic style, well practiced, must reach. Pacino understands that Mamet's purpose is not mere stenography, at which he easily excels, but the contemporary music of the gab and the agony under it. Pacino reminds us here that Mamet's antecedent is not Gorky but the expressionism of Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller.

But Roma's role, as adapted for film, brings up my one real grievance. In Roma's first scene, he strikes up a conversation with a stranger in the Chinese restaurant, and after much talk, almost all of it his, he succumbs to his habit, his fix, his obsession. He starts to sell real estate to the stranger just because he can't help doing it, even as he disparages what he's doing. The whole monologue, which it virtually is, from conversational start through pungent musings to the sheer ecstasy of selling, is one of the finest Dionysian swirls in twentieth-century American drama. In the film it is interrupted by a cut to another pair for a while, after which we return for the finish of the soliloquy. I regretted the interruption very much.

James Foley directed with emphasis on large close-ups, perhaps trying to recapture the feeling of the theater's Act One on film. Juan Ruiz Anchia's cinematography is too lush. It didn't need to be grim, but these rich colors are inapt without being ironic. Still, the film is a harrowing rendition of the excellent play. It confirms that Mamet achieved the work about the fake-smiling drudges of the business world that, some thirty-five years earlier, Arthur Miller had been groping for. Mamet's salesmen don't literally die. They don't need to. A worse death has already begun.

Elaine Showalter (review date 6 November 1992)

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SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “Acts of Violence.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4675 (6 November 1992): 16-17.

[In the following review, Showalter contends that Mamet fails to objectively address harassment in Oleanna.]

By all counts, this should be a championship season for the playwright David Mamet. The movie version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross, opened to rave reviews and a prediction of an Oscar for Jack Lemmon; there's great anticipation of another movie, Hoffa, for which he wrote the screenplay, and which is expected to garner more Oscar nominations for its star, Jack Nicholson; his latest book of essays, The Cabin, is about to be published; and his new play, Oleanna, takes a controversial plunge into the raging rapids of the American debate over sexual harassment, political correctness and academic elitism.

A disciple of Stanislavsky and the Method, the master of a rough, spare, often very funny dialogue that draws on the American urban vernacular, Mamet has been associated with the rise of a number of distinctive actors, including Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver. With his last play, Speed-the-Plow, which cleverly cast Madonna in the role of a secretary to a cut-throat Hollywood producer, he had a Broadway commercial success satirizing Los Angeles players; and he has done some interesting, although flawed work as a film director, most notably in the offbeat Jewish cop film, Homicide, and the confidence sting, House of Games. Mamet currently enjoys a reputation as a serious intellectual, an American Pinter, a worthy successor to Miller, Williams and O'Neill. He has plans to direct Hamlet later this year, and he invokes Aristotle (and Mel Blanc) in discussions of Oleanna. In a deeply respectful chapter of his recent book, Modern American Drama, C. W. E. Bigsby calls Mamet an outsider who has “produced a series of plays which seem to add up to an excoriating assault on American values.”

Yet it has always been hard to determine where Mamet's excoriation of American macho, commercial, competitive American values begins and where his delight in their cultural forms leaves off. Not only in comparison to the epic range of passionate younger playwrights like Tony Kushner, Anna Deveare Smith and Howard Korder, but also in contrast to the surprising depth of old dogs like Clint Eastwood, whose new film, Unforgiven, relentlessly deconstructs the cherished frontier mythology of American gunslingers, Mamet's stylized minimalism seems repetitive, stale and unevolved. Trying out new roles has not taught him new tricks; his attitudes are beginning to look like prejudices, while his techniques are starting to sound like shticks.

Mamet has always been a testosterone Kafka, a locker-room Beckett who loves poker, the National Rifle Association, Soldier of Fortune magazine, hunting and fishing; and who writes about the dying subcultures of crooks, conmen, hustlers, cops, longshoremen—and Hollywood producers. Glengarry Glen Ross is his wryest hymn of praise to the American tradition of masculinity, appearing here in its upmarket rhetorical guise as “manhood.” In the words of the ace salesman Ricky Roma, “A man is his job,” and the job, however contemptible or unmuscular, must be made to seem worthy of a man. Thus the small-time real-estate salesmen at Premiere Properties, peddling their worthless Florida and Arizona properties through cold calls and purchased “leads,” have verbally transformed their bitching, schmoozing and noshing, their job of phoning, “sits,” lying and waiting, into manly conquest.

On one level, the film brilliantly sends up the self-deceiving fantasies of these pushers and hacks, but it also celebrates them. Their aggressive jargon has a great athletic rhythm, its breaks, dips and stresses perfectly timed by the all-male acting ensemble, who play it like a jazz combo—the Duke Ellington and Al Jarreau score reinforces the improvisional effects—or the Chicago Bulls. The haggardly sulphurous Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) makes a shrewdly-calculated existential pitch to a pussy-whipped mark, James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce, cast against type): “When you die you're going to regret the things you don't do. You think you're queer … ? I'm going to tell you something: we're all queer. You think that you're a thief? So what? You get befuddled by a middle-class morality … ? Get shut of it. Shut it out. You cheated on your wife … ? You did it, live with it.” As Blake, the hatchet man dispatched from “downtown” (a character invented by Mamet for the film version), Alec Baldwin, younger, sharper, crueller than Pacino, brandishes a pair of brass balls, and lays down the jungle law of the sales contest according to the offstage bosses, Mitch and Murray: first place, a Cadillac El Dorado; second place, a set of steak knives; third place, get fired.

Set in some anonymous edge of New York, the film has a haunting urban vagueness. Exterior night shots of coffee shops and restaurants resemble the paintings of Edward Hopper or Reginald Marsh, and hint at the literary habits Mamet described in his book, Writing in Restaurants—one of a number of subtle parallels between the salesmen and the playwright. There are warring generations in the theatre as well as the office, and a fight to get on the scoreboard. Ricky Roma's lament for the “dying breed” of real salesmen (“It's not a world of men … it's not a world of men, Machine … it's a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, officeholders … what it is, it's a fucked-up world … there's no adventure to it”) is also a lament for a kind of art, most admired by Mamet in what he calls the “virile certainty of risk and danger” of the Moscow Art Theatre. The sales motto, “Always Be Closing”—in other words, get the customer to sign, make the sale—also applies to Mamet's grab-the-audience technique. The stage play was dedicated to Pinter, and while Mamet's desperate Shelly Levene (a bravura performance by Jack Lemmon) has neither the depth nor the comic pathos of Pinter's tramp in The Caretaker, he has riffs that stand comparison to Pinter's great set speeches about the Islington buses and the papers in Sidcup.

Seeing Glengarry Glen Ross blown up on the big screen, however, one also sees its affinities to buddy films like Lethal Weapon, and its addiction to what Norman Mailer called “the language of men.” Thematically, but also stylistically, Mamet struggles with the problem that has frequently plagued American male writers, an imagined conflict between writing and masculinity. Mamet gives us the trappings and rituals of masculine combat—the scoreboard, the cars, the salaries—and the predictable hierarchy of emasculating insult which accompanies it, starting with “asshole” and “shithead,” moving to “faggot” and “cocksucker,” and culminating with his most abusive term: “You stupid fucking cunt. … Whoever told you you could work with men?” There is a woman on the movie's cast list (the hat check girl in the Chinese restaurant), but no female characters, only allusions to trouble-making wives, sick daughters, or memorable fucks. The closest thing to a seduction is Roma's pick-up of James Lingk in the bar.

But these are traditional genres of Hollywood film, and Glengarry Glen Ross is an effective and entertaining movie. It's in Oleanna (subtitled “A Power Play”), where the Mamet techniques are stretched to cover larger and more complex social issues, that the limitations of his talent become clear. There are two programme graphics for Oleanna; one shows a seated man with a target on his chest, the other a targeted woman. He is John (William H. Macy), a middle-aged professor who has just been recommended for tenure, and is in the process of buying a house, a premise which allows Mamet to make more real-estate gags and to interject some amusing one-sided phone conversations. She is Carol (Rebecca Pidgeon), a failing student who comes to his office, ostensibly to argue about her grade on a paper. Sexless and childlike in a baggy dress worn over two pairs of long underwear, Carol anxiously protests that she has not understood anything of John's lectures, and not a word of his book. At first preoccupied, self-centred and harsh, John gradually is moved by (and identifies with) her desperation, her hopeless incomprehension, her slavish note-taking, her sense of being stupid and out-of-place; he offers to wipe her failing grades from the slate, and to tutor her in his office. Recklessly, he promises her an A in the course, and in answer to her persistent, wide-eyed questions, confides that he too had difficulties in school, that he too has problems—with his wife, with his job—and that he does not feel contempt for her ignorance, but likes her. When she seems to break down in despair, he attempts to comfort her with a hug, from which she springs away with a start. Carol's attempts to express herself and, at one point, to confide in John, are interrupted, either by the telephone, or by his educational theorizing. At another point, he uses a tasteless sexual metaphor: “The rich copulate less than the poor but they take off more of their clothes.”

But by Act II, it appears that the scene we have witnessed, in which the professor is vain and foolish, but basically well-intentioned, and the student is more worried about grades than about learning, but basically grateful for the professor's effort to help, was not at all what we had supposed. Carol has made charges to John's tenure committee that she has been the victim of sexual harassment. She has rewritten the narrative of Act I in the most sinister terms—a man having problems with his wife has made sexual overtures, and promised her an A in his course if she will meet privately with him in his office. She now reappears alone, at his extremely unwise and unrealistic request, to listen with unshakable self-righteousness to his efforts to sort things out.

While in Act I she could barely understand words like “paradigm” and “transpire,” Carol is now given to solemn polysyllabic oratory on questions of legal propriety, class exploitation and academic morality. Boyishly dressed in a little vest and trousers, she sits primly in a straight-backed chair, writing John's remarks in a blue ledger like a recording angel. And where before she seemed isolated and waif-like, in contrast to John, who has a wife and son, now she is the representative of an unidentified “group,” in whose name she makes her accusations. When she insists on leaving, John, who seems not to have figured out what he is up against, attempts to hold her back.

By Act III, she has called this gesture an act of attempted rape; his tenure has been revoked; and he is about to lose his job. Their roles are reversed; he is dishevelled, in his shirtsleeves, and distraught; she is calm and neatly garbed in a man's suit. His pleas for human sympathy are met first with her sermons about his cynicism and elitism, and then with a proposal: if he will accept her group's list of books to be removed from the reading list, including his own, she will withdraw her charges. On a realistic level, it's an absurd situation; even in the dire terms of the play, such a demand could immediately backfire on the accuser, while the withdrawal of criminal charges would not bring instant reinstatement. But instead of handing the blacklist to his lawyer, his supporters, the press and the union, John makes an impassioned speech in favour of freedom of thought, and, after a final taunt from Carol, the play ends with a long-anticipated act of violence (the programme credits a Fight Director), which, though not calculated to help John's legal position, certainly provides a much-desired catharsis for the audience. As the man sitting next to me commented, “I nearly climbed up on the stage to kick the shit out of the little bitch myself,” and while various New York reviewers remarked on the unusual phenomenon of audience members shouting one-liners back to the actors, “Right on, sister!” was not among them.

It may safely be said that Oleanna is an involving theatrical experience, although the nature of that involvement is highly questionable. Frank Rich in the New York Times described Oleanna as Mamet's “impassioned response to the Thomas hearings,” and told his readers to “imagine eavesdropping on a hypothetical, private Anita Hill—Clarence Thomas confrontation in an empty room,” to get an idea of “what the playwright is aiming for and sometimes achieves.” This is nonsense: the Hill—Thomas hearings, which continue to have unforeseen repercussions in American political life, constituted a social drama, played out before an audience of millions, in which the original conversations, a decade past, played a minor role. What the hearings displayed were the massive inequalities of gender and race within American democracy, not the communication problems of two conservative, upwardly-mobile African-American lawyers. And, of course, Thomas was confirmed and took his seat, for life, on the Supreme Court.

Mamet himself has explained that he drafted the play eight months before the Hill—Thomas hearings, drawing on the experience of a college teacher friend who had been “the target of a sexual harassment charge,” but pulled it out of the drawer while they were going on. Asked by the New York Times what had drawn him to the subject to begin with, Mamet replied, “That's like asking Capa why he took pictures of war.”

These combative metaphors make clear why Oleanna does indeed exploit the audience's reservoir of emotion from the Hill—Thomas hearings, or from other widely publicized cases of sexual harassment. Like Strindberg's dramas of sexual combat, or Patrick Buchanan's anti-feminist rantings (“a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”), hyped-up charges of female vengeance and sexual warfare will readily tap a latent male rage, especially in fin-de-siècle periods of political confusion and economic decline. On the whole, critics have been too soft on Mamet's failure to distance himself from his characters' violence. An exception is David Van Leer, who noted in a prophetic essay in the New Republic in 1990 that “the racism, the sexism and the homophobia of his characters is not effectively defused by their author, and Mamet may seriously misjudge the psychological effect of so regularly venting those emotions in his work … The venom of Mamet's plays permits audiences to credit their own worst biases under the cover of moral distance.”

Mamet expresses his own biases at some length in his essays as well as his plays; he believes, for example, that “women do not, on the whole, get along with women”; that “the true nature of the world, as between men and women, is sex, and any other relationship between us is either an elaboration, or an avoidance”; and that “the joy of male companionship is a quest for and can be an experience of true grace, and transcendent of the rational, and so, more approximate to the real nature of the world.”

In the all-male plays, like Glengarry Glen Ross, even a feminist spectator can take pleasure in the dramatic conventions Mamet has developed to express this grace. But Oleanna gives Mamet little scope for his usual gifts. There's very little humour, and little of the staccato, aphasic obscenity which gives his dialogue its driving rhythms. Only in the ultimate confrontation (“Rape you? I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole, you little cunt”), does he get to use the magic words. Moreover, his usual stylistic tricks—rhetorical questions, unfinished sentences, italics, pauses—fall flat because these characters do not speak the same language; they simply declaim to each other. Bill Macy, a long term associate of Mamet's who was in the original Chicago cast of American Buffalo, seems more at ease with the dialogue than Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife, although her failure to elicit any sympathy is more the playwright's problem than her own.

In making his female protagonist a dishonest, androgynous zealot, and his male protagonist a devoted husband and father who defends freedom of thought, Mamet does not exactly wrestle with the moral complexities of sexual harassment. What he has written is a polarizing play about a false accusation of sexual harassment, and that would be fair enough—false accusations of harassment, rape and child abuse indeed occur—if he were not claiming to present a balanced, Rashomon-like case. The disturbing questions about power, gender and paranoia raised in Oleanna cannot be resolved with an irrational act of violence. Mamet's haste to end the play recalls his harried salesmen: “I got to close the fucker or I don't eat lunch.”

Stefan Kanfer (review date 14-18 December 1992)

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SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Problems of Craft.” New Leader 125, no. 16 (14-18 December 1992): 26-7.

[In the following review, Kanfer asserts that Oleanna is “inconsistent” and possesses a “confused purpose.”]

Hero is the surprising word that men employ when they speak of Jack the Ripper.

Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will

Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.

Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

Decently married bedrooms across America are the settings for nightly rape.

Robin Morgan, Editor of Ms.

I present the exhibits above in defense of David Mamet. In the public print and on numerous radio call-in shows, hard-line feminists have been attacking his new play, Oleanna. They claim that it distorts their aims and rhetoric. But how could anyone—even a lowly male—draw caricatures more ludicrous than the ones provided by the ideologues themselves? Had they attacked the dramaturgy or the direction they might have scored some telling points. But then, sense and sexual politics are strangers in America.

Oleanna unfurls at the office of a sociology professor. John (William H. Macy) is a bearded, bespectacled pedant peering down at his failing student, Carol (Rebecca Pidgeon). The little sophomore is baffled. Classroom discussions are meaningless; she cannot comprehend a single passage of the textbook he wrote. “What does it mean?” she wonders. “What is everybody talking about?” As Carol edges toward hysteria, John becomes a bit patronizing, putting a hand on her shoulder, inviting her to sit down, offering a few autobiographical scraps. When he was a student, the professor recalls, he too was regarded as stupid. But he was only naïve, even about sex. Why, he used to believe that the richer you were, the more clothes you took off while making love. He …

Almost every time John starts to make a point the telephone rings. Now that he is about to receive tenure, he has decided to buy a house. Calls come in from his real estate agent, his lawyer, his wife, with yet another anxious query. Alternately negotiating with them and with Carol, the professor assumes several roles: avuncular counselor, harassed consumer, browbeaten husband.

This argumentum interruptus is typical of Mamet, fragmenting the dialogue so that his characters have trouble making themselves understood. At the conclusion of Act One, Carol wanders off, as confused and unenlightened as before. Or is she? As Act Two begins, the student has abruptly emerged from her chrysalis to become a full-grown gorgon. John now stands accused of sexual harassment. According to Carol, he told lewd stories and made suggestive remarks. Furthermore, he manhandled her. The tenure committee delays John's appointment to investigate the complaint.

John attempts to reason with Carol: Surely she has misinterpreted his well-meaning anecdotes and gestures. He has only a few days to close on the house. Unless she withdraws the charges he will lose the down payment, causing his innocent wife and child to suffer. Surely she won't be vindictive. Surely this is just a misunderstanding. But John is no longer talking to the dumb undergraduate; Carol has become the highly articulate spokesperson for all the women in her unnamed “group.”

Neither logic nor anger can reach her. To Carol this is plainly and simply a struggle for power. Once upon a semester the professor had it, and now the students do. How does John like that turn of events? Before he can make a proper reply she heads for the exit, taunting all the way. Furious, John tries to restrain her, causing Carol to scream until the lights fade out. In the next scene she has taken full control. If the new charge of attempted rape is to be retracted, he must agree to the group's terms. He is not to call his wife “baby” anymore. No sexist works will be taught. She hands him a list of proscribed books. At the very top of the roster is his own work. It would be improper to reveal the conclusion; suffice to note that the program credits “fight staging” to B. H. Barry.

For addressing the subjects of multicultural despots and academic freedom, Mamet is to be applauded. His play leaps from the headlines, and the arguments it triggers have been as heated as the ones onstage at the Orpheum Theater. If theatrical works were only judged on their ability to provoke, Mamet would be en route to another Pulitzer. Alas, the best moments in Oleanna are only a small fraction of a short evening (the curtain rises at 8:06, and you are out on Second Avenue at 10:15).

The play's most obvious flaw is a lack of consistency. When the plot calls for Carol to be moronic, she claims ignorance of the word “indict.” Yet when she turns into a villainess she has no trouble using “hierarchy” and “impinge.” The only way to justify Carol I and Carol II is to assume that this is a case of entrapment: John has been set up for his crash. But there is nothing in the text to justify such an assumption. The conclusion is ours, not Mamet's. It could, of course, be argued that the playwright deliberately left out some pieces in order to have the audience fill them in. I don't think so. Oleanna has the marks of a drama written in haste, yet directed and acted with a worshipful attitude toward the author. No doubt it was: Mamet is his own director, and the mannered Pidgeon happens to be his wife. Macy, an excellent craftsman, is the only outsider, and he is practically a member of the family, having appeared in several previous Mamet productions.

Then there is the patented Mametian dialogue, all staccato exchanges and repetitious phrases. Although she is as contemporary as the 6 o'clock news, Carol is forever yammering '60s bromides: “I don't want revenge. I want understanding.” Not to be outclichéd, John either spouts his own worthless aphorisms—teaching is the process of getting students “to retain and spout back misinformation”—or he is forever stepping on his own lines like a centipede tripping over its own feet: “Did you call Jerry? Will you, will you just call Jerry?”

The most significant fault of Oleanna, though, is its confused purpose. Shaw once observed that in a good play everyone is right. In this editorial cartoon both characters are wrong. Carol is more wrong than John, that's all. Incidentally, the title has nothing to do with the text or the personae. According to a publicist, Mamet simply liked the sound of Oleanna, mentioned in a song about a 19th-century utopian community. Arch is the last word I thought I would ever use to describe this playwright. I was wrong, too.

Eva Resnikova (review date 18 January 1993)

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SOURCE: Resnikova, Eva. “Fool's Paradox.” National Review 95, no. 1 (18 January 1993): 54-6.

[In the following review, Resnikova writes that Mamet has merely presented “his theory of sexual anger” in Oleanna.]

David Mamet's latest play, Oleanna (the infelicitous title refers to a fool's paradise), now at the Orpheum Theater, has been touted in several quarters as a response to the issues raised in last year's Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. But the connection turns out to be spurious: not only did the real-life hearings make for more gripping theater than Mamet's gerrymandered play, but Oleanna is not even primarily about sexual harassment.

Nor is it about the inherent ambiguity of spoken and gestural language, which balloons alarmingly when the interlocutors are of opposite sexes (witness the phenomenal success of Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand) and could very well lead a woman to believe she has been sexually harassed when the man intended nothing of the sort. This scenario is one that Mamet, with his intense interest in language and its failures, might have explored with profit.

Instead, he has written a play that sets forth his theory of sexual anger. According to Mamet, women are angry at men because of the power they wield by virtue of their sex, but women refuse to acknowledge this unpleasant emotion, thus placing themselves on a higher moral ground. Men, in turn, are angry at women for this deception, but men must suppress their anger in order to function in civilized society. This mutual anger explodes when the delicate balance of deception and suppression is upset by the intrusion into these personal sexual politics of a nebulous radical—feminist “group.”

Mamet's play has elicited heated reactions not because of his subject matter, but because of the guile with which he sets up and manipulates the characters and the action. He purports to present an ambiguous situation in a balanced manner and then asks the audience to make up their own minds, based on the evidence. (To underscore this, there are even separate-but-equal versions of the Playbill, one with a man, the other a women on the cover, each with a target superimposed on his or her chest.)

But a play is not a trial, with a prosecutor and a defender each working to make his case. It is not even a hearing, with witnesses on each side presenting evidence. In a play, one person—the playwright—gets to create and select all the evidence. In Oleanna, Mamet has even eliminated any possibility of leavening through directorial or thespian intervention by taking on the role of director himself and casting compliant actors—his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Mamet veteran William H. Macy—who dutifully fulfill his dictum on the role of the actor: “to accomplish beat by beat, as simply as possible, the specific action set out for [him] by the script and the director”—in this case, the director being identical with the script. It is in this airless kangaroo court that the action unfolds, and the answer to the unspoken question “Who is the real victim?” is never seriously in doubt.

Perhaps Mamet thought he was presenting his characters as equals by making them both thoroughly unsympathetic. John is a fortyish college professor—mildly pedantic, mildly vain, conventionally insincere (his repetitions of “I love you, too” on the telephone to his wife elicited the biggest laugh of the evening)—on the brink of gaining tenure, and with it the upward mobility of homeownership and private school for his son. Carol is a dim, mousy student who shows up at his office to complain that she hasn't understood anything she has heard in the classroom or read in the assigned books all semester.

Though John assures Carol that she is “incredibly bright,” we are never given any indication of intelligence behind the vague, whiny complaints, either from her or from him. On the contrary, the only evidence of her scholarship is a line that John reads from an essay she has written: “I think that the ideas contained in this work express the author's feelings in a way that he intended, based on his results.” At the end of the evening, when one tots up the character flaws, John emerges as a well-meaning fool, while Carol is an emotional terrorist who has no qualms about destroying not only John but his innocent wife and child as well.

Sometime between the first and second scene, Carol undergoes a character change too radical to be explained away simply as the result of her having fallen into the clutches of her “group.” (This undermotivated volte-face is the greatest flaw in the play and remains a serious stumbling block to the suspension of disbelief.) Suddenly articulate, she is permitted to make a few valid points about John's unconscious sexism—though that a baby-boomer academic with a liberal bent would use the phrase “good men and true” to describe a tenure committee that includes a woman is a clumsy dramatic contrivance. However, these points are rendered trivial by the sheer looniness of her later charge of attempted rape. In this uneven contest, is it any wonder that, especially given the demographics of even the off-Broadway theater-going public, it is the middle-aged, middle-class family man John who engages the audience's sympathy?

Indeed, Mamet works up the audience into a state of such righteous indignation that John's final outburst of physical violence is made to seem, if not justifiable, well, then, somehow understandable. But his exhilaration is brief. By getting John to beat her up, Carol has won by losing (the ultimate in female passive-aggressiveness): she has gotten him to seal his own doom. “Yes, that's right,” are her—and the play's—final words.

On another theatrical occasion, in another time, another professor who offered to give special instruction to an ignorant young woman was driven to complain, “Why can't a woman be more like a man?” Mamet seems to share both Professor Higgins's frustration and his solution. What Mamet doesn't share with Higgins (the 1950s musicalized version, that is, not Shaw's) is his grumpy charm and self-deprecating humor. There is no room for charm or humor in the fool's paradise of Oleanna or the politically correct dystopia imagined by Carol. And therein lies the clear and present danger in the current war between the sexes.

Murray Kempton (review date 11 February 1993)

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SOURCE: Kempton, Murray. “The Jumper.” New York Review of Books 90, no. 4 (11 February 1993): 31.

[In the following review, Kempton criticizes Hoffa's portrayal of Teamsters' union leader Jimmy Hoffa.]

Danny De Vito's Hoffa is artfully constructed, masterfully played, and travels at speeds beyond the prescriptive norm. It weaves back and forth across the dividing line between truth and myth with the controlled recklessness of an over-the-road trucker making up time by breaching the peace of mind of drivers slower than himself. Jack Nicholson's Jimmy Hoffa is magnificent, but it is not Jimmy Hoffa. Nicholson has caught and occasionally even come close to incarnating Hoffa's tragedy. But he cannot define it for us because a misconception of the hero as an idealist keeps getting in his way.

De Vito's tale, as told by David Mamet, begins with the fallen president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters sitting with his last loyal liege and waiting outside a Detroit road-house for a sitdown with a Cosa Nostra don. Now and then in these empty hours his mind runs back to past events, and one of them is re-created, returning us to Hoffa at his lonesome vigil, until we are borne on to the next reminiscence.

This recurring device is neatly contrived for packaging the goods and moving them down the road. It nonetheless pays an extortionate price in violations of the probabilities. The clock in the roadhouse has to run nearly six hours for Hoffa to wait for his unfulfilled rendezvous, with no occupation except to read about himself in Robert Kennedy's The Enemy Within and to muse over old once-happy far-off places and battles long ago.

No one who knew Hoffa, however distantly and untrustingly, could imagine him, exhausted and desperate as he may then have been, idling through an afternoon on the diminishing chance that he might not have been stood up after all. Jimmy Hoffa would not have bided his time that long for the Lord God Jehovah Himself. To look at him carefully was soon enough to mark impatience as the motor of his nature. The late Edward Bennett Williams was Hoffa's defense counsel in the 1950s and accomplished the prodigy of getting him acquitted after his client had been lured into paying a bribe for a peek into the files of the Senate Committee on Investigations.

On the night after the jury retired, Williams talked about Hoffa. “This guy is a jumper,” he said. “This time he jumped from the eighth floor. If he gets up and walks away, he'll climb right back to the ninth floor and jump again. He'll go on doing that until he gets to the thirty-second floor. He has a genius for improving a misdemeanor into a felony.”

Personages so wildly larger than life have doom woven into their very souls. Their reflections in the hours before they meet its final appointment have a character too sacred to admit memories other than absolutely authentic ones. No tragic hero of such size can be taken to be true to himself unless everything he remembers is true to the elementary facts of personal history; and DeVito, Mamet, and even Nicholson have damagingly flawed their portrait, because so many of the happenings their Hoffa recalls never happened to Jimmy Hoffa at all.

He never captained a war upon a great capital establishment in numbers so immense and tempers so pitiless that seven or eight pickets died from the bullets of policemen and the clubs of strikebreakers. Hoffa's evocation of this brutal passage is exhilaratingly spectacular as agitprop; but its real scenes took place far from any experiences of Jimmy Hoffa's, and happened not in Detroit, but outside the South Chicago Republic Steel Mill where police slaughtered seven strikers and reddened the annals of the old CIO with the blood of the martyrs of the 1937 Memorial Day massacre.

Such epical pitches of the class war were not for Hoffa or for an AFL Teamsters Union that was too strategically well placed to need them. All powers for binding or loosing the shipment of commodities belonged to the unionized driver; and the business agents who booked the drivers' trips were free to dictate the drivers' side in any strike. The union manager could help either the union by cutting off deliveries or the employer by letting them through the picket lines. He was the gatekeeper who could choose as he pleased between supporting his class or collecting a fee from its enemies. The quarrels of the barricade were outside the jurisdiction of the individual teamster; his will could hardly express itself except as a translation of the desires of his union business agent, whose option it was either to gratify his fraternal sentiments for the strikers or to satisfy his greed with a payoff from the employers.

These were enormous powers; and traditional teamsterism had widely distributed them among local business agents, each of whom exercised his command over a narrow regional fief jealously guarded against intrusion from any National Teamster president. Hoffa early understood that sovereignty in a union like his was more usefully served by taming his local business agents than by battling less frequently resistant trucking corporations. His only memorable wars were of the fratricidal sort; and he was always more agreeable in bargaining union contracts than he ever was in quarrels with rival teamster bravoes.

His major achievement as an organizer was to convert the Teamsters Union from a confederacy of autonomous regional barons to a monarchical structure obedient to every command from national headquarters. The construction of this monument was not quite complete when he went to jail; and the endemically anarchic impulses of Teamster habit soon enough wrecked its foundations. Every professional went back into business for himself delighted to be free of Hoffa's overbearing interferences and unable to regard his return from prison as other than the gravest of perils to the independence of subordinates, who, having wept to see him go, found themselves rejoicing to have him gone.

If he had enjoyed enough time to harden the union into his instrument from top to bottom, it is hard to conceive what he would have done with it. There is small likelihood that he would have used it to bring low the grand proprietors of capitalist enterprise, for whom he had a respect that came rather close to kindred feeling.

Hoffa's disabling misapprehension is indeed to think of Jimmy Hoffa as a social radical rather than the antisocial rebel he really was. His genuine hatreds were reserved not for those who owned the country but for those who wrote and enforced its laws. He cherished the Teamster rank and file and, in the main, it adored him; but his services did less to forge the bond than to reinforce a shared alienation that expressed itself in his lawless contempt for society's speed limits. He was out to own the road and so is the interstate truck driver.

And thus he did not go to prison, as Hoffa tells us, for one of those illicit collaborations with organized crime that the investigators incessantly tried and regularly failed to nail him with. He was instead found guilty of trying to bribe a juror to avoid conviction for a puny flier at real estate fraud. He had thus ruined himself with an incautious defiance of the behavioral codes of organized society, making inevitable the misdemeanant's improvement into the convicted felon. And he had acted in accordance with the one consistently heroic side of his nature, which also happens to be the one that Hoffa almost insistently overlooks.

But then we may suppose that Hollywood was especially drawn to Hoffa because they have in common the illusion of an America governed by the Mafia. Hoffa had indeed an outsized reverence for the authority of organized crime, because he had grown up unionizing laundries, dry-cleaning establishments, and like appurtenances of its petty domain. When he set out to displace the Teamster Old Guard, it therefore suited his acquired predisposition to recruit an unquestionably faithful New Guard from the gangster cadres.

I once pressed him to explain why he had put so many ex-felons, if not all else but ex-felons, in charge of so many Teamster divisions. “The best guy to work for you is the guy with the rap sheet,” he replied. “No one else will hire him. He's got to be loyal to you.” I was never privy to many other of his philosophical observations; and those Mamet has put in Nicholson's mouth sound to me less plausible as Hoffa's actual style in discourse than as evidence of this playwright's wonderful talent for making his characters say far better things than they could ever have thought to say in real life.

I myself can certify just that one sample of Hoffa's table talk, and it is striking for having turned out to be dead wrong. The felons he trusted to be his servants because they had no alternative master were the quickest to abandon him in his fall; he was on ice in Lewisburg, and his seat had been usurped by successors glad to keep such felons in office and be rewarded by their availability for employment as his assassins.

Those who ran the Teamsters Union and exploited its members had cast the real Jimmy Hoffa away, and all his hopes for reasserting command now depended on the rank and file. He must have thought of the ordinary Teamsters and their cause with a tenderness long forgotten and have approached the hour of his end with livelier stirrings of being both victim of and warrior against class oppression than he had entertained for a long time.

So then the mind that waited in the car would be more persuasively imagined as at last settling into the key of “Had I but served my people with half the zeal I tried to serve myself, I would not have been left thus in my decrepitude naked unto mine enemies.” That would have been the moment of recognition appropriate for destiny's disposal of the hero this awful man in some way was. But it would also have been the appropriately telling note of high tragedy that seems always too troublesome for Hollywood to bring off. What we get instead is a most ingenious murder and no catharsis, however splendid and bloody a go Jack Nicholson has had at giving it to us.

David Skeele (essay date December 1993)

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SOURCE: Skeele, David. “The Devil and David Mamet: Sexual Perversity in Chicago as Homiletic Tragedy.” Modern Drama 36, no. 4 (December 1993): 512-18.

[In the following essay, Skeele discusses how Mamet's early works mimic medieval morality plays, especially Sexual Perversity in Chicago.]

It has frequently been noted that David Mamet is a moralist, a keen social critic who uses the groping inarticulations and dizzying verbal constructions of his characters to form a chorus of complaint against the spiritual emptiness at the core of America. What has less frequently been noted is that Mamet is sometimes very nearly a medieval moralist, using themes, structures, and characterizations that recall actual morality plays of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The influence of medieval drama is perhaps most overt in his Bobby Gould in Hell, a play which features the Devil as a character and a plot lifted directly from the medieval morality formula. Some of his earlier works, however, foreshadow this appropriation of morality-play techniques, and in fact they express the debt in subtler, more interesting ways. Perhaps the most intriguing example of this medievalism in Mamet's early works exists in his Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Virtually every element of this play, from its title down to its structure and characters, contains clear echoes of the medieval morality play, and more specifically, of the sixteenth-century subgenre known as the “homiletic tragedy.”1

Before proceeding to make specific comparisons between Sexual Perversity in Chicago and the earlier dramatic forms, it might be useful to offer a general description of the qualities that define both the morality play and the homiletic tragedy. In the well-worn words of W. Roy Mackenzie: “A Morality is a play, allegorical in structure, which has for its main object the teaching of some lesson for the guidance of life, and in which the principal characters are personified abstractions or highly universalized types.”2 Examining these elements one at a time, the moralities' “lesson for the guidance of life” tends to vary little from play to play. It usually consists of a warning about the dangerous temptations to sin which surround us, coupled with reassurances that redemption is always possible, no matter how great the fall. The “personified abstractions” and “universalized types” are similarly formularized, tending to fall into three different categories. First, there are those representing specific virtues or forces of good—allegorical beings such as God, Good Angel, Mercy, Temperance, and Pax. Second, there are those from the other side of the fence, characters representing the forces of iniquity—Bad Angel, Mischief, Worldliness, etc. The actions of these forces are usually orchestrated by a leader—either the Devil himself or a particularly potent allegorical evil who is sometimes simply referred to as Vice. The third category is of course the protagonist, the “universalized type” representing all of humanity, known variously as Man, Mankind, Everyman, and Humanum Genus. The “allegorical structure” that Mackenzie speaks of is generally Psychomachean in nature,3 and the allegory it enacts is usually that of a “war” between vice and virtue for the soul of mankind. One might add that this structure is also essentially comic—the obstacles and complications resulting from the protagonist's sins are eventually resolved by a kind and forgiving divinity who ends the play by welcoming him into heaven (in this regard, the morality play surpasses traditional comedy, not only implying “happily ever after,” but actually assuring it).

As its name suggests, the homiletic tragedy differs in structure from its comic prototype. Homiletic tragedy was a fairly late development, reflecting the sixteenth-century rise of Calvinism and its attendant emphasis on the solitude of the individual in dealing with his or her own spiritual fate. In plays of this type, far less stress is placed on redemption, far more on punishment. While these dramas still feature a protagonist who is guaranteed entry to heaven at play's end, they differ from their predecessors in that they also feature a second protagonist, whose fate is a tragic mirror of the first. An unrepentant sinner, he inevitably winds up being driven off, his Vice in tow, to suffer the eternal torments of hell. This dark plot twist is important, for it is in this tragic form that the morality play has the most relevance to Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

Obviously, the moral message in Mamet's plays is somewhat more ambiguous than the dogmatic sermons of the moralities. Though he often addresses specific sins in his plays (rampant greed is the most common), he seldom tells us directly that he is doing so, and even more rarely offers any kind of clear solution to the problems that succumbing to the sin creates. Sexual Perversity in Chicago is unique in this regard, however. For one thing, its overtly allegorical title precisely pinpoints the offending sin: “Sexual Perversity” is unquestionably the dominant force in the world of the play. Although this title suggests sexual perversion (the play's opening in London was attended primarily by men in raincoat),4 Mamet clearly uses the term “sexual perversity” to refer to any degrading or dehumanizing use of sex. The perversity is that sex, which should be the ultimate act of union, often exists as an insurmountable barrier between men and women.

Yet, ironically, in this play it is sex that seems to offer the clearest road to redemption, a condition which might exist, Mamet suggests, in the genuine connection between two people. As Dennis Carroll has noted, “contact ripening into communion is the salvation that Mamet hints at.”5 Unlike a morality play, which inevitably contrasts the purity of the soul with “that stinking dunghill” of the body6 and its animal needs, Sexual Perversity in Chicago offers sex as both sides of the moral equation, as both sin and salvation. The split is not so much between soul and flesh as it is between Healthy Sex (or sex that connects), represented in the brief flowering of human understanding that occurs between Danny and Debby in the middle of the play, and Sexual Perversity (or sex that distances), exemplified by the swaggering sexual violence of Bernie and (to a lesser extent) the prim hostility and anxiety of Joan.

The play's characters also contain echoes of the morality formula. Though each is drawn in recognizably lifelike hues, they also fulfil an important allegorical function within the moral framework of the play. For instance, as the protagonist of Sexual Perversity, Danny bears an uncanny resemblance to the Humanum Genus figure. Though ostensibly a realistic, individualized character, Danny too is almost a universalized type, as Mamet has endowed him with a curious facelessness. While an actor playing Danny would obviously have to supply internal motivations and specific character traits, he would be doing so with little help from the playwright. For this reason, young actors are sometimes perplexed by the role, finding Danny to be something of a cipher.7 This is particularly true in the beginning of the play, where we see him engrossed in Bernie's fantastic sexual tale. It is immediately obvious that Danny is completely subordinate in this relationship, a wide-eyed novice in the medium of sexual exploits sitting at the feet of a master teacher. While Danny does join Bernie in the sexual talk, his comments and questions serve merely to prop up Bernie's story—he even makes suggestions to help (consciously or unconsciously) patch up the story's inconsistencies. Walter Kerr commented on this in his review of the original production, saying his responses “are the quick, liquid, uninterruptive assents of a dummy sitting on a ventriloquist's knee, and it is the story-teller who is dictating the questions he should be asked.”8 Like the innocent, newborn Humanum Genus in The Castle of Perseverance, Danny is introduced to the world of the play as a blank slate, ready to be filled up by the most persuasive voice. And as with his medieval counterpart, it is the Dark Angel who first captures Danny's ear.

It is the parallel between Bernie and the Vice figure, however, that gives the play its strongest ties to the medieval morality. Alan C. Dessen defines the Vice as “a character who embodies a quality, force, idea or sin pervasive in the world of the play, something to be acted out in a variety of ways, one of which may be the corruption of individual figures.”9 This definition fits Bernie precisely, for his main action throughout the course of the play is to corrupt Danny, tearing him away from his one chance at salvation. And as the play's main corrupter, it is almost entirely through this character that the allegorical force suggested by the title manifests itself—Bernie is Sexual Perversity.10 In the first scene we see him spellbinding Danny with a sadomasochistic tale that equates sex with the violence of war. In his next scene with Danny, he continues his instruction in the ways of women, informing Danny that “The Way to Get Laid is to Treat 'Em Like Shit.”11 From there he goes on to descriptions of women having sex with dogs, equation of women with animals (“time she's twenty two-three. You don't know where the fuck she's been” [39]), diatribes against the Equal Rights Amendment, and so on and so forth. As Sexual Perversity, he is a being who seems to exist solely for the purpose of dehumanizing the idea of sex with a woman.

Another element Bernie shares with his medieval counterpart is what Dessen calls the “two phased”12 relationship between the Vice figure and the audience. In the odd blend of moral instruction and popular entertainment that made up the average morality play, the Vice served a double function, existing as both the play's primary symbol of evil and as its primary entertainer. It was this latter function that made up the first phase of the Vice's relationship with the audience—it was his job to delight the audience with his pranks and his obscenity (making a refreshing contrast to the dull Virtues and the faceless Humanum Genus), in this way seducing the audience into his world of sin just as effectively as he seduced the Humanum Genus (who is in fact a symbol of the audience). At some point, however, the hilarious antics of the Vice began to lose their humour, eventually degenerating into something downright sinister. Theoretically, when this second phase was reached, the dullness of the virtuous figures suddenly appeared to be highly desirable, a haven from the chaos and wanton destruction that the Vice had come to represent.13 Perhaps the best example of this “two-phased” relationship comes from the play Mankind, which begins with a tedious, latinate sermon being given to the audience by Mercy, the play's chief Virtue. This is soon interrupted by the Vice Mischief and his friends. They proceed to make fun of Mercy, hilariously mocking his speechifying with a sermon of their own—one that consists of a colloquial blend of sexual and scatological humour. The protagonist, Mankind, begins the play in Mercy's corner, but Mischief and company woo him as easily as they undoubtedly did the audience, and soon he becomes a world-class libertine, drinking, whoring, and gambling. When the plans change from sex and ale to thieving and killing, however, the vices' true colours begin to show, and they actually become frightening, nearly destroying Mankind before Mercy miraculously reappears.

Bernie's relationship to the audience is two-phased in exactly the same way as Mischief's. Initially he is an immensely appealing figure. His opening story, for all its violence, is hilarious and captivating. The same is true of his vicious diatribe against Joan in the second scene—it somehow manages to be extremely funny. In fact, for the first half of the play, Bernie is the most amusing and compelling character we see, achieving this distinction in the same manner Mischief achieves it in Mankind—through language. Mamet's gorgeous sense of sound, dynamics, and rhythm in language has been well documented and it needs little explication here except to say that Bernie, with lines such as “A lot of these broads, you know, you just don't know. You know?” (39), is one of the prime repositories of Mamet's special brand of poetry. Just as Mischief's colourful country vernacular would have been far more appealing to a rustic medieval audience than Mercy's dull didacticism, Bernie's colloquially poetic flair makes the other characters sound particularly terse and bland. Interestingly, just like his medieval counterpart Mischief, Bernie often presents his arguments in a kind of parody of religious speech. His pronouncements to Danny are sometimes printed with the first letter of every word capitalized, as if they were commandments coming down from the Mount. And in his short monologue between the scene in which Danny picks up Debby and the one in which they first make love, he lords over their union like a preacher, delivering a veritable sermon on the necessity of “[giving] thanks to a just creator” every time one is able to “moisten the old wick” (24). Again, this parodic pseudo-religious commentary is engaging and funny, and through his Vice-like antics Bernie is able to seduce both audience and protagonist, drawing us towards him just as he does Danny.

Inevitably, however, our Vice figure manifests his second phase, becoming less funny and attractive and more dangerous and destructive. This begins to happen when the focus shifts from the Danny/Bernie relationship to the Danny/Debby relationship. The budding romance appears to us as something at once highly desirable and extremely fragile. As Bernie's sabotage attempts grow less subtle, we perceive him as more and more of a threat, until at the end he clearly stands as the primary agent of Danny's fall.

Debby's place within the Psychomachean scheme of the play is somewhat more complex. If we accept Danny as the main protagonist (and considering the disproportionate amount of time that Mamet spends on him, this is not unreasonable), then Debby takes on some of the characteristics of a force of virtue. For she represents Danny's one true hope for a non-perverse relationship—his short-lived salvation reaches its zenith in a beautiful and playful scene in which he and Debby exchange the secrets of maleness and femaleness. Her most obvious function, however, is that of a Humanum Genus-like protagonist alongside Danny. As in a homiletic tragedy, Mamet has bifurcated his protagonist, giving us two parallel journeys to follow. Interestingly, Mamet has even followed the medieval practice of giving the dual protagonists like names, his Danny and Debby recalling similar oppositions in the earlier form such as Lust and Just, and Heavenly Man and Worldly Man. In the homiletic tragedy, the line of demarcation between the two protagonists is sharp, with one a successful resister of temptation and the other an irredeemable sinner. Yet Sexual Perversity is even more pessimistic than the average homiletic tragedy (which was fairly pessimistic), and in this modern morality play Debby hardly exists as an exemplar of virtuous living. The moral difference between Debby and Danny is a matter of slight shading rather than stark contrast, and really only manifests itself in the final two scenes of the play.

It is these scenes that most closely ally the play with homiletic tragedy, as each represents a “fall” for its respective protagonist. In Debby's final scene, we find her back in her old apartment, trying to recover from the breakup with Danny. She is sitting dismally in the company of lonely, embittered Joan, who has succeeded in wresting her friend away from Danny through her own brand of Sexual Perversity (a profound, generalized distrust of men). Joan is giving her an “I told you so” lecture when Debby suddenly bristles, forcing Joan to back off nervously. In this reaction, Debby registers some level of perception about the situation—some recognition of the Perversity that helped to destroy her relationship.

If there is a modicum of hope suggested in Debby's vague awareness, Danny's wilful obliviousness suggests a far grimmer future for him. Danny's final scene finds him and Bernie on the beach cruising chicks, united bachelors once again. This time, however, we see a change in Danny. He is no longer merely a listener, echoing Bernie and feeding him lines. He now initiates conversation as well as returns it, matching Bernie crude observation for crude observation, until in his final line he almost out-Bernies Bernie. When a passing woman ignores his greeting, he snarls out “Deaf bitch!” (69). Here Danny has reached the nadir of his sexual development. Where Mankind eventually signifies his salvation by taking on the ornate speaking style of Mercy, Danny signals his fall by adopting the language of Sexual Perversity. As in any homiletic tragedy, Danny and his Vice finish the play in hell, and it is a hell that is particularly appropriate for them: sitting in blazing heat, surrounded by beautiful women that they will never be able to touch. In the Psychomachean world of the play, Vice may win the battle for the protagonist's soul, but David Mamet, the medieval moralist, does not allow Sexual Perversity to go unpunished.


  1. Coined by David Bevington, in From Mankind to Marlowe: Growth of Structure in the Popular Drama of Tudor England (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), 161.

  2. W. Roy Mackenzie, The English Moralities from the Point of View of Allegory (Boston, 1914), 9. Mackenzie's definition has been nicely deconstructed in recent years, most notably by Natalie Crohn Schmitt, in Drama in the Middle Ages (New York, 1982), who takes him to task point by point. For instance, she argues with the term “abstraction,” arguing that moralities in fact constitute “medieval realism” of a sort, as the earthly world was held to be much less substantial than the divine (305).

  3. Robert Potter, in The English Morality Play: Origins, History and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition (Boston, 1975), has rightly questioned the primacy of the Psychomachea as an influence on the morality play, noting, for instance, that Virtues and Vices rarely confront each other directly in a morality (37-39).

  4. Related by C. W. Bigsby at American Society for Theatre Research conference, Newport, R.I., November 1992.

  5. Dennis Carroll, David Mamet (New York, 1985), 21.

  6. From Mankind, in Glynne Wickham, ed., English Moral Interludes (New Jersey, 1976), 12.

  7. Based on my observations as a teacher of “Introduction to Performance” at the University of Pittsburgh, 1987-91.

  8. “Easy Does It Playwriting Comes of Age,” New York Times, 15 Aug. 1976, 14.

  9. Alan C. Dessen, Shakespeare and the Late Moral Plays (Nebraska, 1986), 34.

  10. Attilio Favorini, in a lecture at the University of Pittsburgh (12 Nov. 1989), added some interesting observations to the idea of Bernie as Vice. He noted the closeness of the name Bernie to the word “burn” (and Danny to the word “damned”), and pointed out Bernie's association with heat and flames in several of the scenes. His opening tale ends with the room in flames, and in another tale he has chained a woman to the radiator.

  11. Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Duck Variations (New York, 1974), 22. Subsequent references will appear in the text.

  12. Dessen, 24.

  13. C. L. Barber, in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, 1959), calls this process “release to clarification” (29), meaning that the initial sense of joyous release at the overturning of societal norms is soon replaced by the realization that such a situation is inadequate as a permanent living condition, and one is then able to return to those norms with a fresh appreciation of them.

Jim McCue (review date 15 July 1994)

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SOURCE: McCue, Jim. “Will Somebody Please Tell Him?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4763 (15 July 1994): 21.

[In the following review of A Whore's Profession, McCue summarizes several key points of the collection and then pans The Cryptogram for what he judges to be wandering, fragmentary dialogue.]

David Mamet is forthright with opinions, so it is fair to use his collected “Notes and essays” as a bundle of sticks with which to beat his new play at the Ambassadors Theatre. A Whore's Profession, recently published by Faber, includes many prescriptions for drama on the stage and in film, emphasizing always advancement of the action. But any action in The Cryptogram is merely latent in its piecemeal, three-way conversation and some unresolved but imposing symbolism about a knife, a torn blanket and “issues of sleep.”

Mamet's ideas about storytelling revolve around the protagonist's overriding objective. In this case, we are told—by a programme note—that the protagonist is John, a precocious ten-year-old, who is afraid to go to sleep and wants his father. His existential terrors (“maybe there's no such thing as thought … maybe we are just dreaming … we don't know it's real”) are instilled by his mother, Donny, or by the family friend, Del, because they, too, are adrift. Sending him repeatedly to bed, they never go with him up the stairs that dominate a static and neutral set. Instead, they make insubstantial deals: “I promise you won't be afraid,” “He'll be here when he gets here, I think.”

In so little as it's about anything specific, this is a play about betrayal of a child by insecure adults. It is unfair, and increasingly common, to treat a child as a grown-up or to confront him prematurely with the sad truth that a parent is not God. But childish needs, met or unmet, lack the tension of contradictory adult wishes. And because John has no power, he cannot unleash any drama.

To ask a child-actor to project bewildering, non-consecutive dialogue is another (though less terrible) way to burden him unfairly. Danny Worters, as John, obeys direction well, but undermines Mamet's claim that an actor need not understand the whole shape of a play. As both actor and character, he needs to know what is going on. Lindsay Duncan, playing Donny, is never maternal (some mothers, tragically, are not), while Eddie Izzard, as Del, is ill at ease and theatrical.

The hyperactive boy believes that misfortunes come in threes. He tears a rug (or thinks he does). His mother breaks a teapot. So what else? The loss of daddy, obviously, but since we never see that Godot, we can only mistrust the account of him offered by his “friend” Del, a queen (his word) who lives in a hotel. Nominally, in the end, the father, Robert, has deserted for another woman, but there is all that stuff about the knife, so who knows? And since no one in the audience cares, Mamet must admit that something is wrong with his design. There isn't enough story-line here for the form he is so good at: the disillusioning anecdote.

In his prose, Mamet is apocalyptic about social disintegration. Surprisingly reactionary, he believes that our age is violating necessary laws and disciplines. He is prepared to “talk turkey” about what men are like, about “countercultural architecture,” Muzak and America's failure of nerve. He speaks out against the neglect of communication in favour of self-expression, but in this new play he is as indulgent as any performance artist. His anti-rhetoric—“And that's how it is on this bitch of an earth”—has always, hitherto, been about something; but what pious delusion is challenged by a play that says people betray each other?

In Oleanna, he wrote a first act in which nothing seemed to be happening, so that the acrimony of the second act, culminating in a provoked burst of violence, was the more shocking. People who didn't see the political correction coming went to the show twice, surprised to think that so much had happened without their noticing. In The Cryptogram, despite a comparable second-act outburst from Donny, the fragmentary dialogue of the first half—which never sounds spontaneous—meanders on, without ever imparting or achieving significance. No one will imagine there is a meaning encrypted.

The usually pragmatic Mamet has hampered himself. Setting the piece in Chicago in 1959, the place and time of his childhood, suggests that the material has a “deep personal meaning” for him—which, he uncompromisingly writes, is a warning that it should “certainly” be discarded. But worse, he is writing for three people whose relations are bound to be intractable to him.

“For the true nature of the world, as between men and women, is sex, and any other relationship between us is either an elaboration, or an avoidance. And the true nature of the world, as between men, is, I think, community of effort directed towards the outside world. …” This is refreshingly clear. In the play, though, the relationship between Del and Donny is, presumably, asexual; that between Del and Robert, whatever their bond, is unseen; and no one at all relates to John.

One of Mamet's finest, hardest-working essays diagnoses The Cherry Orchard as possessing neither the logic nor the through-action that Mamet considers essential. So why do we cherish Chekhov's series of sketches? Because, he says, we respond to the frustration of the characters' (sexual) desires. The problem with The Cryptogram is that the adults don't know what they want and the boy always looks destined to be thwarted.

Reflecting on his whore's profession (“it's not the men,” says an epigraph, “it's the stairs”), Mamet writes: “We discard our first principles at the moment they cause us unpleasantness—when they might send the author back for another draft, or the piece back for another week or month of rehearsal … or cause the producer to say, ‘You know, on reflection this piece is garbage, I think it would be better for all concerned if we didn't put it on.’ … Yes, but we have seats to fill. …”

Well, it's not a disgrace. Good dramatists sometimes write bad plays. But who will be unmannerly enough to tell him it needs fixing?

David Worster (essay date fall 1994)

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SOURCE: Worster, David. “How to Do Things with Salesmen: David Mamet's Speech-Act Play.” Modern Drama 37, no. 3 (fall 1994): 375-90.

[In the following essay, Worster examines the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross, their discussions about speech, and what their conversations reveal about their respective social status.]

Stanley Fish once called Coriolanus Shakespeare's speech-act play, because it is “about speech acts [and] the rules of their performance. … It is also about what the theory is about, language and its power.”1 If Coriolanus is Shakespeare's speech-act play, then Glengarry Glen Ross is David Mamet's, for many of the same reasons. The ideological world of Mamet's play is not the legal institution of Roman law, but rather the economic institution of American capitalism (mythologized as the American Dream), within which Mamet's characters are constituted as salesmen, pivotal figures in the economic world of business. The institution has already predetermined how the salesmen will define themselves, their relationships to each other and to their conditions of existence, and how they will employ language to compose those definitions.2

Writing of the central action/talk paradox in American Buffalo, Thomas L. King suggests that talk is “an active agent in shaping the world and the terms of human relationships.”3 What is true of Mamet's earlier work is even truer of Glengarry Glen Ross, in which a particular way of using language (the ability or inability to “sell”) is central to the characters' identities and relationships to each other. This play is about salesmen and selling, and, since selling is almost entirely utterance, the play is thus about talk and sales talk. According to speech-act theory, discourse acquires meaning in the context within which it is uttered, so any play that is about language must also be about speech context—the ideological, social, and cultural conventions and rituals which constitute and are in turn constituted by language.4Glengarry Glen Ross reveals to its audience how the discourse of capitalism posits within its subjects what it means to be a success, to be a man, to be a salesman, as well as what it means to be anything else (like a failure, a woman, a customer—these terms are all vaguely synonymous pejoratives to the salesmen). The play also identifies the manipulation of language within the ritual of selling—the ability or inability to articulate effective, or “felicitous,” speech acts—as a primary constituent of identity. Close attention to language and how the salesmen use it reveals the distance between the way the characters define themselves through their discourse and where they are actually positioned in the American business system. The language of the salesmen is emphatically self-referential, saturated with characteristics typical of “sales talk,” pervasively sexual, and indicative of real and imagined power relationships.

In no other Mamet play is talk so insistently about talk. Aside from the ubiquitous “fuck” (a verb which itself becomes a metaphor for aggressive talk), verbs that denote utterance occur more frequently than any other significant words in the play. Say, said, tell, told, talk, talking, and speaking appear a combined total of over two hundred times. These verbs frequently are used as seemingly unnecessary reminders that the speaker is speaking and the hearer is listening: “what I am saying is …” In this play, talking is so critical to the composition of identity and power that just to speak is not enough, the speaker must call attention to his speech. The constant reminder of the speaker/hearer relationship may be seen most clearly in the subject/tells/object construction, “let me tell you,” or “what I am telling you is …” The proclamation of utterance is particularly aggressive because it firmly positions the hearer as the listening object, the non-speaker. This pointed construction also appears more frequently than any other self-referential utterance, at least twenty-eight times by my own count; the three most aggressive salesmen in the play (Levene, Moss, and Roma) employ it the most frequently (twenty-five out of twenty-eight times).

In the first scene of the play, the aging salesman Levene has failed to convince the sales office manager, Williamson, to give him better sales leads:

Well, I want to tell you something fella, wasn't long I could pick up the phone, call Murray, and I'd have your job.5

Levene's reference to his own utterance, “I want to tell you something fella,” is superfluous and could be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence significantly; it serves as a vain device for asserting a verbal authority which, in this speech context, Levene does not have.

In addition to asserting verbal authority, this semantic construction often acts as a verbal “filler” in Glengarry Glen Ross, a way for the speaker to keep talking and to prevent the hearer from taking his turn in the conversation. The second scene of the play is a dialogue between Moss and Aaronow, two older salesmen who are not doing well in the office sales competition. At one point, Moss performs the equivalent of a musical “vamp” as he tries delicately to approach the subject of robbing the office to steal the sales leads:

… I want to tell you something.
I want to tell you what somebody should do.


Aaronow does not have “permission” to speak; he can only respond with a verbal prompt as he waits for Moss to continue. As is the case with Levene's line above, Moss prefaces his utterance by saying that he wants to say something. In addition to italicizing his own speech act and preventing Aaronow from speaking, this construction (“I want to tell you”) expresses a need on the part of the speaker to speak—a need that is about to be self-fulfilled. A key component of salesmanship is the creation or identification of the customer's needs which the salesman can then offer to meet (a point to which I shall return). As the speeches of Moss and Levene reveal, the very act of speaking is a consummation of a desire to tell—a desire almost sexual in its implications (a point to which I shall also return).

All speech communities categorize important information through use of language. In fact, a close examination of the way a language orders and composes reality reveals much about the users of that language.6 The salesmen talk about talking in a way that indicates the significance they attach to distinctions between different kinds of talk—another indication of how important utterance is to them. The most amusing and obvious example of this categorization of talk occurs during the second scene of the play. After Moss finally suggests the possibility of breaking into the office, he and Aaronow discuss it:

Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just …
No, we're just …
We're just “talking” about it.
We're just speaking about it. (Pause.) As an idea.
As an idea.
We're not actually talking about it.
Talking about it as a …
As a robbery.


As these lines show, just “speaking” about a subject keeps it in the comfortable realm of abstract “idea”; actually “talking” about a subject crystallizes it as an action—a robbery, or a business deal or a sale (in this play, these actions are roughly equivalent).

Although the difference between “just speaking” and “actually talking” is not maintained throughout the play in those specific terms, the distinction between ineffective talk and effective talk is. In the first scene of the play, Levene makes a differentiation between different kinds of talk: “Marshal the leads? [ … ] What the fuck talk is that? [ … ] That's ‘talk,’ my friend, that's ‘talk.’ Our job is to sell” (19). The impression that real talk is talk with the intent to transact business (and every other talk is just “talk”) is reinforced moments later when it looks to Levene as if Williamson might be willing to make a kickback deal in return for some sales leads: “Good. Now we're talking” (25).

The distinction between just talking and actually talking is similar to the distinction between infelicitous and felicitous speech acts. In Glengarry Glen Ross, talk cannot perform as actual talk unless it contains some element of authority: the parties have the power and the desire to negotiate a deal, strike an agreement, or close a sale. As long as Aaronow and Moss are only talking about breaking into the office as an intangible “idea,” their conversation is “just speaking.” After Moss reveals that he really wants to do it and he wants Aaronow to join him, suddenly they are “actually talking” about an act:

You went for it.
In the abstract …
So I'm making it concrete.


Just as Levene earlier had tried to maintain a verbal authority over Williamson which did not exist, here Moss attempts a different kind of verbal transformation: making the abstract concrete simply by saying so. As John Austin wrote in How to Do Things with Words, this type of utterance is the most blatantly “performative” kind, a statement that enacts as it is uttered. “I'm making it concrete” is the equivalent of “I now pronounce you man and wife” in that reality is changed as the words are spoken if the utterance is recognized as carrying the intended illocutionary force. Such recognition is dependent upon the authority of the speaker to make such statements felicitous, or valid. A priest can felicitously say “I now pronounce you man and wife,” a college professor cannot. Whether or not Moss has the authority to do what he says he is doing depends upon whether or not Aaronow recognizes his authority to do so. As the audience eventually will discover, he does not. The salesmen, who make their living through the use of language, are not only acutely aware of utterance (their own and others'), they also have a vague but powerful sense of the difference between infelicitous speech acts (“just talk”) and felicitous ones (“actual talk”). Glengarry Glen Ross is not only about speech, it is about speech acts.

The primary illocutional function of utterance in Glengarry Glen Ross is to persuade, to sell, and the practical business maxim, “Always be Selling,” hovers over the play like a perverted golden rule. Not only are the salesmen always selling, they talk about selling almost as much as they talk about talking; the words sell and close occur at least forty-five times in the play. According to J. R. Searle, the following appropriateness conditions must obtain if a request (under which category persuasion and selling fall) is to be performed felicitously:

  1. There exists the proposition of a future act (A) of the hearer.
  2. The speaker wants the hearer to perform A.
  3. The hearer is able to perform A, and the speaker believes the hearer is able to perform A.
  4. It is not obvious to both the speaker and the hearer that hearer will do A in the normal course of events of his own accord.
  5. The illocution “counts as” an attempt to get the hearer to do A.7

In the making of a request, the hearer has power over the speaker—the speaker makes the request, and the hearer has the ability to agree or to refuse. This relative power relationship is the reverse of an order or a command, in which (if the speech-act is to be felicitous) the speaker has authority over the hearer. This distinction is important because, although the salesmen are obviously in the position to make requests, they always speak as though they are in the position to give orders. An utterance will carry the intended illocutionary force of a command only if the hearer recognizes the authority of the speaker to do so, an authority which the salesmen simply do not have (thus the relationship between customer and salesman is analogous to the one between Moss and Aaronow in their scene together). This irony raises the interesting possibility that, if a customer does recognize and obey the salesman's non-existent authority, that recognition indicates a need on the part of the customer not so much for whatever the speaker is selling, but for an authority—someone to tell him what to do and how to act.

During the second act of the play, Levene, while describing to Richard Roma the successful close of a sale to Bruce and Harriet Nyborg, reproduces part of his sales talk:

“I don't want to go round this, and pussyfoot around the thing [ … ] Why take an interim position? The only arrangement I'll accept is full investment. Period. The whole eight units. I know that you're saying ‘be safe’ [ … ] But this won't do, and [ … ] That's not the subject of our evening together.” Now I handed them the pen. I held it in my hand. I turned the contract, eight units eighty-two grand. “Now I want you to sign.”


Because he believes that “business transactions hinge on personal domination over another,”8 Levene attempts to establish himself as in control; he clearly articulates to his prospective customers what will and will not “do,” which arrangements he will and will not accept. The reality of the situation is that the customers, recognizing Levene's sales talk as having the illocutionary force of a request, should have the authority to say yes or no. However, Levene's verbal acrobatics transform the request into a demand, and the issue subsequently becomes whether or not the customers will obey that demand. If the customers do recognize the saleman's authority, the speech act becomes felicitous and carries the illocutionary force of an order. If the customers do not recognize it, the utterance is infelicitous—it becomes “just talk” not culminating in a sale.

Levene also tries to establish a sense of urgency about the deal that is typical of sales talk (“act now to take advantage of this incredible offer”). Earlier, Levene had told the Nyborgs “This is now. This is that thing that you've been dreaming of” (72). “Now” and “today” are the habitual words the salesmen employ to create an artificial imperative to buy; these terms are often used in conjunction with dynamic action verbs like “act” or “do.” For instance, Richard Roma offers the following as part of his sales routine to James Lingk:

“I do today with what draws my concern today.” I say this is how we must act. I do those things which seem correct to me today. I trust myself. And if security concerns me, I do that which today I think will make me secure. And every day I do that, when that day arrives that I need a reserve, (a) odds are that I have it, and (b) the true reserve that I have is the strength that I have of acting each day without fear.


Within this short stretch of monologue, the profusion of the verbs “to act” and “to do,” in combination with the frequent repetition of the words “today” or “each day,” has the cumulative effect of a command: “act today.” Roma also attempts to assert verbal authority over his customer—he does not hesitate to inform Lingk how we must act. Roma has, in fact, usurped his customer's power, and subsequently offers to sell it back to him. Lingk, apparently eager to acquire the ability to act with authority and certainty, ironically surrenders his real power to say “no” to Roma as he obeys the salesman's command to listen and to buy. Roma's line to Lingk which closes Act One is a request in the form of an imperative command: “Listen to what I'm going to tell you now” (51, emphasis added).

Roma's sales talk to Lingk reveals not only two qualities typical of such utterance—requests in the form of commands and a sense of urgency to act—but also indicates a third hallmark of sales talk which has already been mentioned in passing: the attempt to create a need or manipulate one already present in the customer. As Thomas L. King has written of American Buffalo, “Words relate not to things but to human motives and desires.”9 Roma manipulates Lingk's need for security in an unstable world, offering the strength to act each day without fear. Levene exploits the Nyborgs “something-for-nothing” capitalist desire for wealth, telling them “this is that thing that you've been dreaming of, you're going to find that suitcase on the train, [ … ] the bag that's full of money” (72). Later in the play, Levene describes his sales success in the old days:

Walk up to the door. I don't even know their name. I'm selling something they don't even want. You talk about soft sell [ … ] before we called it anything, we did it.


The salesmen may be selling something consumers don't even want, but the ideology of capitalism posits that happiness is purchasable, and whatever needs the customers do have can be met within the system: just buy the right material possessions as quickly as possible, and you will be happy. The salesmen exploit that belief to meet their own far more desperate needs; they are involved in a cutthroat sales competition and have an urgent need to act—to talk in order to sell—NOW (those who lose the sales competition will be fired at the end of the month). As Anne Dean has written, the specific and immediate predicament of the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross presents a “paradigm of capitalism.”10

Sales talk expresses the salesmen's vision of reality, transferring the most obvious and urgent needs from the salesman to the customer, and the power from the customer to the salesman. The existence of this transformative attempt in the context of a salesman/customer discourse is interesting enough, but the salesmen talk in all contexts as if they were selling something to the hearer, and always explicitly seek to address the listener's needs (although linguistic constructions like “I want to tell you” indicate whose needs are really at stake). In scene two, David Moss, realizing that George Aaronow is not doing well in the sales competition, is trying to persuade him to steal the sales leads from the office:

And it's a big reward. (Pause.) It's a big reward. For one night's work. (Pause.) But it's got to be tonight.
You're, you're saying so you have to go in there tonight and …
You have to go in. (Pause.) You have to get the leads. (Pause.)


Although Aaronow has the right to refuse Moss's proposal, Moss couches his conversation in urgent, imperative demands: Aaronow has to do it, and it has to be tonight. Like Levene with the Nyborgs, Moss tries to emphasize the material opportunity he is presenting, the “big reward.” Moss keeps the conversation focussed on what Aaronow needs, although Moss himself urgently needs the money and someone to do his dirty work:

You need the money? Is that the …
Hey, hey, let's keep it simple, what I need is not the … what do you need … ?


By the end of the scene, Moss seems to have persuaded Aaronow that he is already implicated in the crime because he “listened” (46). Yet in Act Two the audience will discover that it is Levene who has broken into the office and is working with Moss, not Aaronow. Moss lacks the authority to make his request a demand, to make the abstract concrete; Aaronow ultimately recognizes this lack, and Moss's speech act is infelicitous.

The urgency with which the needs are expressed, the demands which are actually pleas, and the desirability of the object (material gain, security, happiness, money) transform the sales talk into seduction—another form of persuasion. In the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, the measure of a real man is how successfully seductive a salesman he is. As Levene says early in the play, a “proven man” is a “closer” (15). Since the salesmen live by their golden rule, “always be closing,” the most successful salesmen are always selling, always trying to persuade a listener to close with them—actions which are often described in sexual terms.

In the first scene of the play, Levene is attempting to convince the office manager, Williamson, to give him some of the premium sales leads. “Put a closer on the job,” Levene demands, “put a proven man out …” (15). Moments later he asserts, “Our job is to sell. I'm the man to sell” (19). The conflation of a man and his job is solidified later in the play, again by Levene: “A man's his job” (75). Accomplishment as an aggressive salesman translates into enhancement of one's stature as a real man. As Roma says to Moss in Act Two, “[If] you make a close the whole place stinks with your farts for a week [ … ] what a big man you are” (71). Near the play's conclusion, Roma sadly confides to Levene that they are the last of a dying breed: “It's not a world of men” (105).11

This professional definition of a real man as a persistent closer becomes easily and consistently fused with the sexual definition of a real man as an accomplished sexual aggressor. David Mamet has defined the capitalist American Dream as “basically raping and pillage,”12 so it follows that a successful capitalist, a good salesman, a “proven man,” would play a brutally aggressive sexual role. The continuous use of variations on the verb “to fuck”—far from a mere gratuitous and liberal proliferation of obscenity—is an important component of the defining metaphor of the play: salesmen as violent sexual males. The law of the jungle has become sexually mutated: rape or be raped. A successful salesman is a sexual predator who achieves many closings because he has “the balls.”13

If a good salesman is always a sexual aggressor, then customers are denigrated into sexually passive roles; they become rape victims. Customers, “by definition, are there to be screwed.”14 More than once, Levene crows, “I closed the cocksucker,” creating an image of the customer as a sexual object, kneeling and humiliated before the dominant salesman. Levene's description of his sale to Bruce and Harriet Nyborg provides an excellent example of sexual metaphor applied to the closing of a deal. As Levene describes it, he is in total control—he does all the talking, while the Nyborgs are silent, listening:

Now I handed them the pen. I held it in my hand. [ … ] I sat there. Five minutes. Then, I sat there, Ricky, twenty-two minutes by the kitchen clock.


They signed, Ricky. It was great. It was fucking great. It was like they wilted all at once. No gesture … nothing. Like together. They, I swear to God, they both kind of imperceptibly slumped. And he reaches and takes the pen and signs.


As Guido Almansi has written, “What a great erotic scene”: Levene holding the erect pen out to the Nyborgs, the tension building for twenty-two minutes, then the physical release as they finally take it from him and sign.15 Later in the same scene, Levene explains to Williamson the effect this sale has had upon him:

I turned this thing around. [ … ] I'm the one's going to close 'em. [ … ] And now I'm back, and I got my balls back.


The successful sale has given Levene his confidence back, and his description indicates that the successful seduction has restored his sexual potency.

If the most successful salesmen—the real men—are always sexual aggressors and seducers, then less successful salesmen, like George Aaronow, are “fucked” in the sales competition and “can't close 'em” because of a lack of seductive ability. This metaphor of those who fuck and those who are fucked applies not only to the salesman/customer relationship, but also to the salesmen in their relationships to each other. All their talk is sales talk, and their sales talk is sexual. The favorite insults are “[I'm going to] Fuck you” and “You're fucked,” comments that verbally reduce the listener to a seminal receptacle and claim for the speaker the dominant sexual role of a “real man.” The claim to dominant sexual positions is a verbal trick similar to putting a request in the form of a demand—it is a way of transferring power from the hearer to the speaker. The violent sexual metaphor does give a clear indication of where the real need lies, however. Rapists, even metaphorical ones, rarely act out of consideration of the needs of their victims.

During another interesting moment (and one that gives valuable insight into the true position of the salesmen within the system), Moss is complaining about the company-sponsored sales competition:

you find yourself in thrall to someone else. And we enslave ourselves. To please.


[men] build your business, then you can't fucking turn around, enslave them, treat them like children, fuck them up the ass.


While the subject of the conversation is clearly Moss's sense of economic bondage in a system he earlier described as “medieval,” the language he uses creates a metaphor of sexual slavery as well. He says his role is to please someone else; he is being treated like a child, who has no sexual identity, or like a humiliated object for some other man's sexual pleasure. Economic power (or lack of it) is described in terms of sexual power (or lack of it). The allusions to slavery, children, and sexuality convoluted here also plant a vague and unsavory idea of these men as catamites for their supervisors in the firm; like all abused children, the salesmen, in turn, become abusers themselves.

The more closely the use of language in Glengarry Glen Ross is examined, the more evident it becomes that the primary purpose of utterance is not to communicate, but to claim power or to withhold it from others. “[D]ominance and subservience are established independently of the lexical content of the exchanges.”16 It is a language that requires the object to listen, but not, necessarily, to hear. If it is true that he who speaks is asserting dominance (and he who listens is passive), then the assertion that “I am talking” and “you are listening” is the primary function of utterance—the construction of a power relationship that has nothing inherently to do with locution.

Further evidence for this point might be seen in the constant misunderstandings between the characters. Often, even if they appear to be listening to the speaker, they do not, apparently, hear. “What?” is by far the most frequently asked question in the play, and “what does that mean?” or “what do you mean by that?” occur at least a dozen times. Similar questions like “what are you saying?” or “what are you telling me?” also abound. In the following exchange, Moss and Aaronow discuss the possibility of starting up their own office:

[ … ] you know what the hard part is?
Starting up.
What hard part?
Of doing the thing. [ … ] The hard part is … you know what it is?
Just the act.
What act?
To say “I'm going on my own.”


Aaronow, in spite of giving every indication that he is listening intently, doesn't seem to hear or understand what Moss is saying. Also of interest in this exchange is the equating of speech to action. The act of going out on one's own is equated by Moss with the speech act of saying “I'm going on my own.” As is typical of the way Moss (and other salesmen) think, to say it is to do it.

In Glengarry Glen Ross, utterance is a claim to power—verbal, sexual, and economic. If an insistence upon speaking, and calling attention to one's own speech, is a claim to have power, then an insistence (subtle or blatant) that others shut up and listen is a move to take that power away from the hearer. But in the world of this play, perhaps the most brutal speech act is forcing another person to speak when he wishes to be silent. If utterance is power, then controlling the utterance of another is stripping all power away from him. Two of the most humiliating moments in the play occur as characters are forced to speak. At the conclusion of the play, Williamson has discovered that Levene is the one who broke into the office and stole the leads. Williamson insists that Levene tell him with whom he was working:

If you tell me where the leads are, I won't turn you in. [ … ] I'm walking in that door—you have five seconds to tell me: or you are going to jail.
[ … ] How much did you get for them?
Five thousand. I kept half.
Who kept the other half? (Pause.)
Do I have to tell you? (Pause. Williamson starts to open the door.) Moss.


A moment similar to this one represents perhaps the lowest point in the play. Roma forces Lingk to confess that he has no power to make a deal. In the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, where speaking is by ideological definition a claim to power, to force a person to speak a renunciation of power—to say that he cannot really “talk”—is the ultimate humiliation:

What does that mean?
That …
… what, what, say it. Say it to me …
I …
What … ?
I …
What … ? Say the words.
I don't have the power. (Pause.) I said it.
What power?
The power to negotiate.


The power to negotiate—to utter “actual talk” for the purpose of making a deal—is the only power that counts to the aggressive salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross. That power lies with Mrs. Lingk and her ability to say “no” to the salesmen. Roma reassures Lingk that “we'll talk to her,” but Lingk demurs: “She won't listen” (90). A customer who will not listen cannot be sold.

A very different kind of power—unrecognized by the characters in the play but there nonetheless—is the power to remain silent under great pressure to speak. It is a power that James Lingk and Levene do not possess, but one character does: the least respected and most laconic of the salesmen, George Aaronow. Not only does he ultimately retain his authority to say “no” to Dave Moss's command to rob the office, he also does not reveal that conversation to the police detective, Baylen, in spite of what Aaronow describes as a brutal interrogation (“gestapo tactics”) (89). It is a credit to Mamet's artistry that Aaronow's strength in silence is easily missed. At that point in the play, the audience is far more likely to be distracted by the entertaining efforts of Roma and Levene to keep James Lingk from canceling a sales contract. If the audience does think of Aaronow, it is likely to be in the interest of discovering whether or not he was persuaded by Moss to break in to the office. The fact that Aaronow knows of Moss's probable guilt but did not reveal it is apt to be overlooked. This silence presents Aaronow as a character in contrast not only to Lingk and Levene, but also to Williamson, who does not hesitate to betray Levene and Moss once he knows of their guilt. The quietest (but perhaps most significant) irony of this play is that, in spite of the pervasive insistence on speech as action and power, the refusal to speak is also action and power.

The power of a speech-act analysis of Glengarry Glen Ross lies in its revelation of the depth of irony in the way language is used by the salesmen. These characters claim their power with almost every word they utter: verbal power through imperative demands and the ubiquitous insistence that they are talking and others must listen, and sexual power through metaphor which equates talking with aggressive sexual seduction, listening with passive sexual submissiveness, and the closing of the deal with sexual intercourse of the most mechanical and degrading kind. However, for all this verbal thrusting, the salesmen fail to enact. During the course of the play, we see no deals successfully concluded. Lingk cancels his deal with Roma, and Levene's deal with the Nyborgs “kicks out” when it turns out their check is no good. Their efforts to sell each other also fail: Levene does not convince Williamson to give him better sales leads, Moss does not convince Aaronow to participate in the robbery, Roma and Levene fail to form a partnership.

The only successfully concluded agreement is the one between Moss and Levene, made offstage, for the purpose of ripping off the office, and betrayed by Levene at the play's conclusion when he “tells” on Moss. The claims to enact felicitous speech-acts abound in Glengarry Glen Ross; the actual felicitous speech-acts we see may be counted on one hand. Levene and Roma insist that they closed deals with the Nyborgs and the Lingks, respectively, so it might be argued that those customers recognized the illocutionary force of Levene's and Roma's commands to buy.17 But Mrs. Lingk withdraws her recognition when she changes her mind, and the Nyborgs apparently recognize everybody's authority to order them around. Williamson reveals at the play's conclusion that the Nyborgs have no money: “The people are insane. They just like talking to salesmen” (104) (they would have to be insane to like talking to salesmen). By Williamson's definition, neither of these deals closed.

In fact, of all the characters in the play, only Williamson has the position and power to make what he says reality. He has the authority to set the conditions of a hypothetical deal with Levene, and when Levene asks “why?” Williamson is accurate in his response, “Because I say so” (26, emphasis added). Mrs. Lingk, who does not appear in the play, also possesses the power to negotiate—the authority to utter “actual talk.” As a woman, she reconfigures the gender-power hierarchy in sharp contrast to the salesmen's claims about the need for balls to enact powerful speech-acts.18 It is surely no coincidence that two characters who possess verbal authority (Williamson and Mrs. Lingk) are not salesmen, and a third character who retains a measure of strength and dignity by refusing to speak (Aaronow) is perceived by the other characters as an unsuccessful salesman.

The salesmen verbally have constructed an artificial identity (which is very real to them) as “proven men” and successful salesmen that is at odds with their actual position of powerlessness within the ideology of capitalism. Their function as salesmen is vital to business, but they are merely the necessary interface between those parties really in control: the Williamsons of the system whose “because I say so” is authoritative, and the Mrs. Lingks of the world who have the power to negotiate. If, as is the case according to speech-act theory, what their words do or fail to do affect what characters are or fail to be, then Mamet's salesmen are failures acting (or failing to act) under the delusion of success.19 Most of their locutions fail in their illocutionary intent; ultimately all of their talk is “just talk” masquerading as “actual talk.” They are always closing, but they never close.


  1. Stanley Fish, “How to Do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech-Act Theory and Literary Criticism,” Is There A Text In This Class? (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), 244. By calling Glengarry Glen Ross Mamet's speech-act play, I do not wish to imply that I agree with Fish when he claims that speech-act theory is applicable only to works of fiction about what the theory is about. I align myself rather with the tradition of Mary-Louise Pratt (Towards a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse, 1977), Sandy Petrey (Speech Acts and Literary Theory, 1990), and Shoshana Felman (The Literary Speech Act, 1983), and others who maintain that speech-act theory is applicable to a wide range of texts because of its power to illuminate the way characters productively or unproductively use language in speech contexts. Glengarry Glen Ross is a “speech-act play” because it is about language in a particular context, as well as being composed of language in a particular context.

  2. Mamet has expressed his own opinions in ideological terms, noting that the “code of an institution ratifies us in acting amorally.” Mamet goes on to observe that even actions which might, in other contexts, be considered immoral are “somehow magically transformed and become praiseworthy” when performed “in the name of some larger group, a state, a company” (as quoted by C. W. E. Bigsby, David Mamet [London, 1985], 123).

  3. Thomas L. King, “Talk and Dramatic Action in American Buffalo,Modern Drama 34 (December 1991), 539.

  4. Speech-act theory was first developed and articulated by John L. Austin in his book, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), and further developed most notably by John R. Searle (Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language [Cambridge, 1969]). According to speech-act theory, in speaking we perform at least three different kinds of speech acts: (1) we utter a sentence (Austin called this “locution”); (2) we perform an illocutionary act; and (3) sometimes we also perform a perlocutionary act.

    The illocutionary act is what the locution “counts as” in the speech context within which it was uttered. The same sentence may, in different speech contexts, count as a command, a question, a request, a promise, or any one of a number of different illocutions. The prime criterion for an illocutionary act is not its truth or falsehood, but whether or not the act has been performed successfully or unsuccessfully (Austin's terms are “felicitously” and “infelicitously”). The felicitous performance of any illocutionary act depends upon “appropriateness conditions” which obtain for that act, which are the understood linguistic, social, or institutional conventions shared by competent speakers and hearers of a language.

    For instance, to felicitously issue a command, a speaker must have the authority over the hearer to make such a command, the hearer must be capable of performing what is commanded, and so forth. If all of the appropriateness conditions are not met, the hearer will not recognize the illocution (Austin's term for this recognition is “uptake”), and it will be infelicitous (for a more detailed description of speech-act theory, see M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th ed. [1993], 277-80).

  5. David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross (New York, 1984), 26. All subsequent references to the play are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in my text. All emphasis is Mamet's own unless otherwise indicated.

  6. For instance, Peter Farb notes that Americans think of chairs and couches as related to each other because they both belong to the category in English of “household furniture.” But some African speech communities might lack a category of “household furniture.” altogether, or think of “chairs” as related to “spears” since both are emblems of a ruler's authority. This difference in categorization reveals different ways of thinking about domesticity and civil authority (Word Play: What Happens When People Talk [New York, 1974], 215).

  7. J. R. Searle, Speech Acts (Cambridge, 1969), 66.

  8. Edward Lundin, “Mamet and Mystery,” Publication of the Mississippi Philological Association (1988), 107.

  9. King, 547.

  10. Anne Dean, David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action (London, 1990), 192.

  11. Hersh Zeifman has recently written a valuable essay on machismo in the work of David Mamet. Zeifman argues that the “values of machismo—toughness, strength cunning—which have become appropriated and apotheosized by American business” (125) are the sole criterion of worth in Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo. See “Phallus in Wonderland: Machismo and Business in David Mamet's American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross,David Mamet: A Casebook, ed. Leslie Kane (New York, 1992).

    I would qualify this statement as it applies to Glengarry Glen Ross by noting that the values of machismo are the sole criteria of worth according to the salesmen. During the second act, Williamson, the office manager, upsets an elaborate ruse constructed by Roma and Levene to keep Jim Lingk from canceling the deal he has made with Roma. The very worst pejoratives the aggressive salesmen can articulate impugn Williamson's role as a mature heterosexual male; to them, he is a “stupid fucking cunt,” a “fucking child,” and a “fairy.” Women, homosexual men, and children are sexually powerless objects, worthy only of scorn and ridicule, to be used and discarded by “real men.” Yet characters scorned by the salesmen ultimately possess greater power and authority then they do in the play; Williamson gets the last word on both Roma and Levene. The values of machismo are false values.

  12. Quoted by David Savran, In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights (New York, 1988), 133.

  13. Recently, columnist Debra J. Saunders wrote about the neologism “O.P.P.” The terms stands for “other people's pudendum” and is “rap” slang for sexual affairs, particularly those which “betray a pledge of fidelity.” “There's something highly competitive in the motives of O.P.P. practitioners,” Saunders wrote. “People aren't people; they're other people's possessions. Hence, a sexual fling is a way of cleverly absconding with someone who belongs to someone else. It makes every cheater into a Donald Trump and turns adultery into a sharp deal” (“Calling others ‘O.P.P.’ on MTV must be commercially correct,” News and Observer [Raleigh, NC] 3 December 1991: All). This comparison of a sharp business deal to a sexual act is a fascinating contemporary manifestation of Mamet's sexual metaphor in an age of Trump, Michael Milken, and Ivan Boesky.

  14. Zeifman, 130. Another clue as to how the salesmen view the customers may be seen in an odd transformation in which the indirect object (object of the preposition “to”) of the sentence: “I sell the land to the customer” becomes the direct object, and the original direct object (“the land”) is deleted, producing the sentence: “I sell the customer.” Moss advises Aaronow, “don't ever try to sell an Indian” (29), when what he clearly means is something like “don't ever try to sell (something) to an Indian.” (In this speech context, Aaronow knows exactly what Moss means; he assures Moss that he'd “never try to sell an Indian.”) The actual commodity has vanished and the customer himself has become the object in the transaction. Williamson describes Roma's deal with Jim Lingk: “You closed him yesterday” (54). Late in the play, Levene rhapsodizes over how the salesmen closed deals back in the good ole days: “The old ways. The old ways … convert the motherfucker … sell him … sell him … make him sign the check” (72).

  15. Guido Almansi, “David Mamet, A Virtuoso of Invective,” Critical Angles: European Views of Contemporary American Literature, ed. Marc Chénetier (Carbondale, Ill., 1986), 206.

  16. Bigsby, 115.

  17. Further incidental evidence for the primacy of utterance in the imaginations of the salesmen is the distance between their definition of “closing” and Williamson's. Early in the play, Levene and Williamson disagree over whether or not Levene closed two previous real estate sales:

    [ … ] One kicked out, one I closed …
    … you didn't close …
    … I, if you'd listen to me. Please. I closed the cocksucker.


    Later, Williamson insists that both deals “kicked out,” to which Levene responds that “They all kick out” (22) and continues to maintain that he closed them, anyway. As far as the salesmen are concerned, once they have successfully concluded the verbal negotiation and secured the customer's promise to buy, the deal is closed regardless of the customer's actual economic power to meet that commitment.

  18. Guido Almansi has written of Mamet that “His best plays are immune from any female contamination; the existence of women only filters on the stage through the preconceived ideas of the opposite sex” (191). Yet Mrs. Lingk succeeds in screwing up this deal for Roma (a comment by Levene earlier in the play foreshadows this possibility as he describes a sale that was canceled because of the customer's ex-wife). Hersh Zeifman admits that Mrs. Lingk “implicitly challenges” the salesmen's macho code of behaviour (132), but she accomplishes more than that; she has the power to negotiate the deal (or refuse to negotiate the deal) and, as such, defies the code of machismo and the derogatory preconceptions of women articulated by the salesmen.

  19. This delusion is a very necessary one, already written into the discourse of capitalism. If the salesmen are to continue to perform their role within the system, they must continue to perceive their own success or at least the future potential for success. As Sandy Petrey has written, “one of the things we do with words is make a life we can get through” (103).

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 21 November 1994)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Office Hours.” New Republic 211, no. 21 (21 November 1994): 24-5.

[In the following review, Kauffmann assesses Oleanna, arguing that the film version is only slightly better than the play.]

David Mamet dazzles. Here are a few selections from his crowded career (and he's not yet 50). Film: House of Games, which he wrote and directed; the screenplays of The Verdict and of Hoffa. Theater: The Water Engine,American Buffalo,Glengarry Glen Ross,The Shawl,Speed the Plow, a version of Uncle Vanya (now filmed, reviewed here two weeks ago). He has published books of essays, and his first novel has just appeared. He has taught acting in several universities.

His plays and his original screenplays differ in style and intent, but most of them share some characteristics: a sense of life as tangle, of truth as prismatic and mercurial, of secrecy and deception as contemporary dynamics. Now a change arrives. His most hotly discussed play—recently filmed—has almost none of these qualities. Oleanna is a two-character work about a 40ish university professor and a female student, which tackles the subject of male attitudes toward women, of women's changing attitudes toward themselves. It is much leaner, more two-dimensional, more argumentative than most of Mamet.

Possibly this was inevitable because Oleanna attempts to deal with concrete social ideas. Perhaps, too, that's why he stripped his characters of the mysterious or quasi-mythical qualities that often attend his people. But if he did indeed tell himself that he had to put aside his characteristic art in order to do this job, he paid a price for the choice.

I saw Oleanna last year on stage and much admired Mamet's courage in confronting this thorny issue—one that's complicated both by oppressive tradition and bumptious innovation. But the play left me uncertain, distanced. I hadn't expected a “solution,” but I had expected to be more greatly involved. Now the film medium has done ruthlessly to Oleanna what it often has done to other plays. This film, directed by Mamet himself, exposes what was ungainly in the play.

Let's look first at the writing, and we might as well begin with the title. As epigraph, Mamet quotes a folk song in which Oleanna is a place where the singer would rather be than “be bound in Norway / and drag the chains of slavery.” I'm in no position to say that Mamet invented the song because he liked the sound of the name, but I dare to question the title's relevance. It's no more relevant than Speed the Plow is to a play about the pyrotechnics of Hollywood deal-making.

Unlike the earlier play, however, this fancy title is the only non-prosy element in Oleanna. At the start, the student, Carol, comes to the office of John, a professor of education. She has read his book, which is the text of his course, but she can't understand what is happening in class, and she thinks she is failing. He is the one with power; she is the suppliant. The play's action, over several days, brings about a reversal of positions: at the end John needs Carol's help. Her persistence in her feminist views, as a base for her relations with this professor, her corkscrewing into his code of male acceptances, her newly realized insights about the (often unconscious) chivvying and patronizing of women, eventually unsettle John drastically—a man who had thought he was decently behaved and who finds that the social territory in which he has lived is slipping under his feet.

A highly promising subject for a play. But from the start Mamet loads his characters with broken dialogue that does nothing but impede character and thematic development. It seems an attempt to give these people familiar Mamet verism but without the inner counterpoints that so often take his dialogue past stenography into revelation. From the opening scene of Oleanna:

Don't you think … ?
… don't I think … ?
… did I … ?
… what?
Did … did I … did I say something wr …

John hasn't interrupted her; there's a pause before he replies.

Now, since this kind of writing seems inflicted on the characters, rather than internally generated by them, we're made to feel that Mamet is uneasy in this new territory, that he must “Mametize” what otherwise might have been pungent straight dialogue. Thus, from the very beginning, the dialogue itself suggests that the author is ill at ease.

Oleanna suffers, too, from distention. Mamet had here the material of a substantial one-act play in three scenes, but he wanted more bulk to provide more sense of the passage of time and possibly for practical reasons of theater production. (A long one-act play is, pragmatically, a bit of a white elephant.) So throughout the play, he braided long telephone conversations for John with his wife and his lawyer about the possible purchase of a house to celebrate his expected promotion to tenure. The telephone has long been suspect as a dramaturgic device, and it rarely has been used so blatantly to pad and to vary.

The prospective purchase of that house and the real estate agent's pressure might have made a good accompaniment to the onstage action if Mamet hadn't used them so baldly. (Worse, at the one moment in the play when Carol reaches a point of self-revelation—“I have never told anyone this”—the phone interrupts her, and John goes into still another long phone aria. Her story is never resumed, which makes us think that Mamet is teasing: he didn't really know what Carol was going to say.)

Other bothersome matters. Early in the play John quotes a wisecrack about copulation so obviously out of character that it seems thumpingly planted for Carol's later accusation of abuse. Later, when she is about to leave, John grabs her by the shoulders and forces her to sit, an action that is extremely hard for us to believe—again a plant for later citation. And John's closing explosion, which finishes the story and him, comes after another phone talk with his wife in which he calls her “baby” a couple of times. When he hangs up, Carol tells him not to call his wife baby. This ignites him. I could believe her noting to John that he had used the word but not her ordering him to stop it. It's another contrived provocation. Add further that Carol, who in the early scenes had to ask for definitions of some common words, becomes competently articulate when Mamet needs her to be so.

Several commentators have said that Oleanna forces us to take sides. Exception, please. I felt tugs of sympathy for both characters from time to time, but the blunt mechanics of the work intruded between me and conviction either way. Oleanna seems to me a chunk of ore that needed greater refinement. Mamet, I'd say, needed to live longer with this idea before he began to write.

His direction of the film gives it some suppleness of movement without egregiously “opening up” a theater work. Debra Eisenstadt has more color as Carol than Rebecca Pidgeon had in the New York stage production. W. H. Macy repeats his theater performance as John. Mamet is devoted to Macy and often has used him in plays and films. This devotion may be understandable as friendship but not otherwise. Macy is a modestly adequate actor without distinction of face or voice or presence. He seems born for secondary roles at best and is out of place in larger ones—especially when he is half the cast.

Pidgeon, who is Mrs. Mamet, wrote some old-timey songs for the soundtrack, and Mamet supplied old-timey school-song lyrics. Their intended satire on the action before us is only mildly helpful.

David Radavich (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Radavich, David. “Man among Men: David Mamet's Homosocial Order.” In Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy, pp. 123-36. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Radavich examines Mamet's male characters in works such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, and others. Radavich asserts that many of Mamet's male characters portray a fear of both homosexuality and women.]

Apart from C. W. E. Bigsby's booklength study (1985), curiously little scholarly attention has been paid to the insistent masculinity of David Mamet's plays. Published in editions frequently bedecked by the author's tauntingly phallic photo-portrait with cigar, the major plays either totally exclude or marginalize women, concentrating instead on myriad variations of homosocial male order. Mamet's dramatic world is both self-consciously and half-consciously male, with references to homosexuality, fear of violation by other men, insistent desire for male friendship, and pursuit of domination and acceptance operating at the core of the dramatic conflict. In one interview, Mamet admitted, “I don't know anything about women. … I'm more around men; I listen to more men being candid than women being candid” (Fraser 1976). Only two of his more successful plays, Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1978) and Speed-the-Plow (1987), include female characters at all, who, in both instances, are experienced by the male characters and by the audience as essential disturbers of the natural male order. The central body of Mamet's work concentrates on a single-minded quest for lasting, fulfilling male friendship protected from the threats of women and masculine vulnerability on the one hand and the destabilizing pursuit of power and domination on the other.

Mamet's concerns about masculinity take on a particularly intense resonance in the latter part of the twentieth century, as the traditional bastions of male companionship have increasingly been called into question. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985) has described homosocial desire in a “pattern of male friendship, mentorship, entitlement, rivalry, and hetero- and homosexuality … in an intimate and shifting relation to class” (1). This reference to class may be expanded to include age, rank, and other social factors creating a functional inequality. Chapter 1 of her path-breaking Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire details “male homosocial desire within the structural context of triangular, heterosexual desire” (16). Mamet's Sexual Perversity and Speed-the-Plow highlight this triangular configuration, whereas other of his plays deal with the struggle to form and define exclusively male bonds. A desire for dominance, usually between men of unequal rank or age, battles with an equally strong desire for loyalty and acceptance, resulting in a hard-won, intense, fundamentally unstable intimacy established in the absence of women.

From the outset, Mamet's plays have asserted the primacy of male friendship: “A man needs a friend in this life. … Without a friend, life is not. … It's lonely. … It's good to have a friend. … To help a friend in need is the most that any man can want to do” (97-98). This excerpt from the Seventh Variation of The Duck Variations (1978) represents a paean to such friendship, as two men in their sixties engage in “Spectator Sports” together, in this case observing ducks (not “chicks”), as a means of solidifying their bond. The men of Mamet's later plays bond through frequenting bars (Sexual Perversity, 1978), performing together (A Life in the Theater, 1977), or driving business deals (Glengarry Glen Ross, 1983; and Speed-the-Plow, 1987), but in each case the primacy of close male friendship is asserted in the face of intruders, either rival men or, more seriously, women.

Sexual Perversity presents the challenge in the form of Deborah, erstwhile lesbian, who becomes involved with Dan, the steady buddy of Bernie. In the course of the play, many sexual perversions are trotted out for verbal display, as the title suggests, but most involve the degradation of women: “The Way to Get Laid Is to Treat 'Em [Women] Like Shit” (22). In an early extended narrative, Bernie describes his encounter with a “chick” who dresses for sex in a Flak Suit, asks him to make war noises, then douses them both with gasoline and sets all on fire. A later narrative centers on King Farouk, who arranges to have “his men run a locomotive right through the broad's bedroom” and later “whacks her on the forehead with a ballpeen hammer” (34-35). Bernie acts as spokesman for most of these “perversities,” though Deborah and Joan act out some of the vicissitudes of lesbian affections and jealousy. The one “perversion” omitted in the play—probably the most common variation from heterosexuality in our culture—is adult male homosexuality. Its absence appears all the more striking as Bernie successfully undermines and fights off the challenge Deborah presents to his relationship to Dan, so that at the end the two men reunite in a friendship that, although nominally situated in a heterosexual context of “casing chicks,” nonetheless posits a male bond of superior endurance.

Although lacking some of the intellectual trappings of traditional comedy, Mamet's plays embody many of its major elements, including the disruptive intrusion by an outsider followed by chaos and the final reunion of the happy couple (in this case male). In Sexual Perversity, Dan's sexual interest in Deborah threatens to shatter the male bond, forcing Bernie to counterattack with measures that one usually associates with heterosexual dating: outings to the movie house, evenings in Bernie's apartment, and sojourns to the beach. After this concerted effort on Bernie's part, Dan succumbs to his eventual partner's way of thinking, explaining to another co-worker, “And he [Bernie], he puts his arm around my shoulder and he calms me down and he says, ‘Dan, Dan … don't go looking for affection from inanimate objects’” (53). The subtextual reference to women as “inanimate objects” brings the supremacy of male bonding full circle by play's end.

In the absence of a clear cause for Dan's break-up with Deborah, the bonding activities with Bernie that negate or exclude women serve to reassert the primacy of their same-sex friendship. Both men find it difficult to appreciate the otherness of female experience, which they consider either frivolous or irrelevant. While in bed with Deborah, Dan cannot imagine “having tits”: “That is the stupidest question I ever heard. What man in his right mind would want tits?” (40). When Deborah confesses to having fantasized about other women the last time they made love, Danny responds, “The last time I masturbated I kept thinking about my left hand” (40). The solipsistic impulse, albeit in a comic context, serves to isolate both men from a deeper experience of the feminine. The fear of the female, and of female sexuality in particular, dominates Mamet's early plays, as males jostle for position and affection among themselves apart from women.

American Buffalo ([1975], 1981), one of Mamet's most successful plays, features an all-male cast in a Chicago pawnshop where homosocial desire finds its decadent arena. Unlike Duck Variations, with its placid contemplations, this play foregrounds homosocial pursuit and defense and introduces the cuckolding and rape imagery important to Mamet's portrayal of American capitalism. In an interview Mamet reiterates the important link: “Look at Delorean. He completely raped everybody in Northern Ireland with that scheme” (Roudané 1986, 74-75). Although in Sexual Perversity Bernie and Dan work together in a faceless contemporary office, the underworld of second-rate business functions in American Buffalo as a more symbolic setting for Mamet's portrait of capitalism gone awry.

At the outset of Buffalo, Dan chastises Bob for incompetence, exerting his dominance in a pattern that clearly establishes Mamet's concern with the man “above” and the man “below.” In Sexual Perversity, Bernie functions as Dan's superior in experience, offering fatuous advice and controlling much of the subsequent action. Don maintains supremacy in American Buffalo more clearly through financial control of Bob, and through his rôle as teacher/mentor and status male. The allusion to education embodied in Joan is transferred here to both Teach and Don, who continually moralize, philosophize, and pontificate about the nature of life, people, and business. The “knowledge” actually taught, however, is both corrupt and clumsy, so that by the end, the traditional mentoring of males in the world of business has collapsed into mutual incompetence.

American Buffalo differs from other Mamet works in the intense triangular relationship among the men, where Teach clearly poses a threat to the central if unequal bond between Don and Bob. Their friendship is only haltingly acknowledged—at the end, after injuries and humiliation/threat bring them together—but Teach recognizes it and hopes to establish his own relationship with Don by replacing Bob and ousting Fletcher. The men jockey for one-on-one friendship within whose boundaries emotional loyalty can be assumed and women can be regarded with mutual distrust. Denigrations of women abound: “Only … from the mouth of a Southern bulldyke asshole ingrate of a vicious nowhere cunt can this trash come” (803-4). And whenever Teach seeks to vent frustration with himself or his fellows, he resorts to homosexual slander (“you fruit”) or images of impotence/emasculation (“dick on the chopping block”) (884, 893). Clearly, insults that homosexualize or womanize men negate their potency, thereby diminishing their status and value.

Anxiety about manhood pervades these plays, at least partly the result of “improperly construed [masculine] initiations” (Raphael 1989, 144). “Makeshift” males struggle with “the deep-seated fear that [they] might never become ‘men’” (145, 190). In American Buffalo, Teach responds to Don in anger, “I am not your wife. … I am not your nigger,” where, presumably, the secondary status of both doubles the rhetorical effect of his outburst (888). Later, feeling rejected, he laments, “There is no friendship,” and “I look like a sissy” (895). The threat of being emasculated, either by women (Grace and Ruthie, a lesbian couple) or by men, is ever-present, only to be allayed through a strong male bond that empowers each male in it. Hence the “honor among thieves” element in American Buffalo maximizes potency through a supposed pooling of expertise (in this case, a shared incompetence) (Roudané 1986, 76). At the end of the play, Don, through a clever Mametesque pun, tacitly acknowledges the intimate connection between sex and business: “It's all fucked up. … You fucked my shop up” (894). The twisted initiation ritual embodied in their struggle results in closer male bonds but leaves in its wake both physical wounds and the destruction of the locus of their enterprise.

Supplementing the central, all-male triangle in American Buffalo is a recurring motif of cuckoldry, whereby coins function as the battleground for sexual revenge on the successful man (“fucking fruit”) as well as on the wife (“dyke cocksucker”): “Guys like that, I like to fuck their wives” (847, 820). For the first time, Mamet ties business practices to the sexual/power act of rape in a singularly evocative metaphor of masculine revenge for perceived inadequacy. Indeed, rape and prostitution, primarily of men by men, becomes the central metaphor for American capitalism in Mamet's later plays. The desire for an enduring male bond is inextricably linked to a mutually conceived crime for the dual purpose of perpetration and profit. Beneath the comic surface, the dramatic structure reveals the swirling, conflicted emotions of men for and against other men.

A Life in the Theater (1977) contains the most penetrating stage metaphor of homosexual interconnection in all of Mamet's work. The older actor, Robert, discovers that his zipper is broken and reluctantly agrees to allow his younger colleague, John, to pin his fly for him. As Robert stands up on the chair, he urges John in the endeavor:

Come on, come on. [JOHN puts his face up against ROBERT'S crotch.] Put it in. … Come on, for God's sake. … Will you stick it in?
Hold still. There. [Pins fly awkwardly.]
Thanks a lot.


This arresting metaphor captures the latent homosexual desires and fears implicit in the playwright's characterization of male friendship. Robert, symbolically emasculated by a broken zipper, stands physically above John on the chair and metaphorically above him by age and experience, while the young man attempts to “pin” him—a clever pun on sexual penetration and domination. At no point in the entire scene, clearly intended as a stage ruse for the audience's titillation, do the two males acknowledge either the humor or the sexual implications of their actions; subsequent interactions reflect no awareness of this sequence of events. The symbolic failure of the pinning suggests a taunting almost-consummation that results instead in collapse and lack of connection.

The sexual triangle implicit in several Mamet plays receives up-front treatment in A Life in the Theater, although the shared woman never appears. John accuses Robert of impregnating his wife, Gillian, but in a consummately comic scene, does not seem overwhelmingly shattered by the revelation: “What are we going to do about this?” (31). Elsewhere, the two men assert the primacy of their bond as Robert denigrates his female co-star, “When we're on stage she isn't there for me,” and John responds by acknowledging his desire for substitution: “I wanted to be up there with you” (14-15). Later, John wipes the makeup off Robert's face, and they go out to dinner together, an occasion reported subsequently by John in a telephone conversation as “going out with … an Actor” (24). At the end of the play, Robert cries, complaining that John makes him “feel small” (49). The transaction becomes complete when the older man gives the younger one money, solidifying the reversal in power and the insistent connection between (unconsummated) sex and lucre.

In contrast to A Life in the Theater,Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) showcases the sexopolitical battle of the male “pack,” with one-on-one friendships relegated to somewhat lesser status. In yet another all-male play of characters now middle-aged, the focus shifts to male rape (“fucking up the ass”) and enslavement (18). And the “screwing” is not merely verbal. The audience watches Moss “screw” Aaronow by forcing him into a criminal plot, one of many attempts by the men to emasculate other men, either psychologically or financially. In a moment of frustration, Roma declares, “We're all queers,” and Levene accuses Williamson of “not having balls,” establishing a figurative equivalence between homosexuality and castration (27, 49). As Leverenz (1989) has pointed out, such cut-throat sexual dueling among males “has to do with manhood: a way of empowering oneself through someone else's humiliation” (245).

The sexual images in this play therefore turn correspondingly negative. Moss insults the police investigator by referring to him as a “cop without a dick” (41). Roma turns later to Williamson: “You stupid fucking cunt. … I don't care … whose dick you're sucking on” (65). Here, the eunuch, the homosexual, and the female become equally debased versions of the male, as gender slurs are used to harass, insult, and blackmail other males. Such language of bravado, domination, and humiliation is immediately understood and never questioned by any of the characters. When Levene thinks he has made a legitimate blockbuster sale, he announces his triumph in genital terms: “And now … I got my balls back” (70). The phallus thus valuates the currency not only in business but also in society at large. In the ethos of Mamet's plays, a man symbolically deprived of his penis through personal insecurity or deprecation by other males becomes, by definition, a faggot or a cunt, debased both sexually and professionally.

What's curious about Glengarry, and about most of Mamet's better-known works, is the marginalizing of any real sex. Gould and Karen spend a night together (on a male wager) in Speed-the-Plow but say virtually nothing about the love-making itself afterward. In Sexual Perversity, Dan and Deborah lounge together in bed, discussing the apartment, Deborah's lesbian experiences, and the virtues of “come” and penises. The noticeably tentative affection disappears altogether later in the play, for reasons unknown. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Roma declares sex essentially meaningless: “The great fucks that you may have had. What do you remember about them?” (28). In the masculine world of Mamet's early plays, men primarily pursue not sex but position (“above” or “below”), power, and male loyalty.

Somewhat later, in The Woods and Edmond (1987), what Sedgwick (1985) calls “homosexual panic” emerges as a central theme (89). In the latter play, Edmond and Glenna discuss their hatred of “faggots”:

Yes. I hate them, too. And you know why? … They suck cock. (Pause.) And that's the truest thing you'll ever hear.


The context here, decidedly tongue-in-cheek, provides a stark contrast with Nick's confessions to Ruth in The Woods. Having invited Ruth to share a vacation by the lake, Rick makes clear his disinterest in making love: “Why don't you leave me alone?” (86). Finally, Nick confesses to a homosexual past:

I have to tell you something. … I have to tell you we would come up here as children. [Pause.] Although some things would happen. … Although we were frightened. … And many times we'd come up with a friend. With friends. We'd ask them here. [Pause.] Because we wanted to be with them. [Pause.] Because. … [Pause.] Wait. Because we loved them.
I know.
Oh, my God. [Pause. He starts to cry.] I love you, Ruth.


Ruth's knowledge and acceptance in this passage provide the essential absolution, allowing Nick to break down and purge his anxieties. If the play ends inconclusively, Nick nonetheless moves tentatively beyond what Ruth calls “this manly stuff” he has “made up” (102).

Speed-the-Plow (1987) seems to move beyond the homophobia articulated in Mamet's earlier plays. Here, the homosexual imagery is noticeably positive and comic, accepted without reservation by the two main characters. Rather than hurling gay-bashing insults at each other, as in earlier plays, Fox and Gould refer to themselves as “two Old Whores” and the “Fair-haired boys” (23, 31-32). References to “your boy” and “my boy” turn males into commodities, and other gay references flow freely in the assumedly more tolerant atmosphere of the Hollywood movie set. Fox proposes filming a “Buddy picture” featuring black guys who “want to get him [the protagonist] … going to rape his ass” (12). The intimate link between rape and business is reiterated: “It's ‘up the ass with gun and camera’” (27). As studiously as Mamet's earlier male characters refused to acknowledge homosexual elements in their behavior, Gould and Fox trade gay one-liners with a new-found freedom of expression: “They'll french that jolly jolly hem”; “Just let me turn one more trick” (33).

Like Sexual Perversity and American Buffalo,Speed-the-Plow again features a tight male bond threatened by an intruder and eventually reestablished after a threat of dissolution. Karen's rôle emerges more fully than in Sexual Perversity, partly because Joan and Deborah have become fused into one voice, offering a direct frontal attack on the bastion of male unity. Again, the relationship between Gould and Fox is noticeably unequal (Gould has been “bumped up” above Fox), and sexual references link directly to business:

You put as much energy in your job as you put into kissing my ass …
My job is kissing your ass.


Their relationship dates back some eleven years, with Gould, in his new position, functioning as Fox's protector. As archetypal woman, however, Karen represents a severe threat to this male harmony, advocating the “moral high ground” that both Gould and Fox have abdicated in their pursuit of success in the world of men.

Karen is a secretary, symbolically temporary both professionally and sexually, with no surname, rendering her several stages inferior to either man, so that Fox, with obvious impunity, can threaten to have her killed if she does not leave. Unlike Gould, Karen exhibits a complete awareness of the sexual implications of their appointment to discuss the merits of the radiation screenplay, offering to palliate their mutual loneliness in a night together. Gould, the same man Fox wagered could not bed Karen, seems caught off guard by the straightforwardness of her proposition. Karen's probing dialogue reduces Gould to monosyllabic questions: “You came to? … I asked you here to sleep with me? … I'm frightened. … Why did you say you would come here anyway …” (76-77; final ellipsis in original).

Fox counterattacks by calling Gould a “wimp,” a “coward,” a “whore,” and a “ballerina” (92-94). In one of his most extreme insults, Fox claims, “You squat to pee” (92). The womanizing deprecations, noticeably lacking homosexual equivalents in this play, finally collapse as Fox utters his two quintessential claims on Gould's attention: “I love this guy, too” and, more poignantly, “Bob: I need you” (102, 104). In all of Mamet, this is the baldest statement of homosocial desire for intense male friendship, forceful enough to overrule any female objection. When Karen later admits that she probably would not have slept with Gould had he not favored the “radiation script,” their night together crumbles into a sham of (self-)deception and strategy, with whatever affection they might have exchanged evaporating into silence. Gould decides in favor of the “Buddy play,” and the work ends suitably with the male “couple” reunited, albeit without any overt sexual interaction.

In Speed-the-Plow, the perception of women as sexual “weakeners” or “corruptors” of men receives its most direct expression. Karen's influence on Gould diverts his attention and attitudes from what works in the male world (the “Buddy play”) to what works in the world of higher, more humane values traditionally associated with women (the “radiation play”). More cogent than Deborah's in Sexual Perversity, her point of view nearly persuades Gould to take the “high-road” he has abdicated in a long climb up the professional ladder. But Fox's claim proves the stronger, and Gould succumbs to the pressures of male bonding implicit in the world of business. Once again in Mamet, male friendship emerges as more powerful, more significant, and, ultimately, more enduring. As Roland Barthes (1978) described the potential threat of women in another context, “A man is not feminized because he is inverted but because he is in love” (14).

The male characters in Mamet's plays inhabit a homosocial milieu where male bonds offer the primary reality, where women threaten the tightly stretched, fragile if enduring fabric, and where sexuality is largely expressed in words and distorted transactions rather than in mutually satisfying love-making. The Mamet males, with the possible exception of Fox and Gould, fear the sexual intimacy their bond implies, turning that fear outward instead into a denigration of females and of other males as homosexuals and castrati. Sedgwick (1985) sees this “homosexual panic” as a central motivating force in the maintenance of the capitalist patriarchy (89). Not surprisingly, Mamet's plays wed male bonding to the often corrupt practices of business. The instability of the bonding, the fierce competitiveness with which his characters struggle to escape the dichotomy of their announced desires for women and their more enduring preference for the company of other men, suggests both the decay of the relatively comfortable old professional order and the panic of being forced to acknowledge the needs such relationships imply.

As Leslie Fiedler so provocatively pointed out in his Love and Death in the American Novel (1966), the masculine desire for an innocent, intimate bond transcending sex and operating outside the perceived strictures of female society has remained an enduring theme in American literature: “In our native mythology, the tie between male and male is not only considered innocent, it is taken for the very symbol of innocence itself; for it is imagined as the only institutional bond in a paradisal world in which there are no (heterosexual) marriages or giving in marriage (350).” Mamet's characterizations of male friendship establish him firmly within this tradition, evoking images of latter-day Huck and Jim attempting to negotiate the shoals of modern life on a raft. But the contemporary playwright's interpretation of this theme differs considerably from earlier manifestations by foregrounding the tensions inherent in such relationships and by deconstructing their self-willed innocence. The agitated “casing” of Dan and Bernie, the hard-won, unstable intimacy of Don and Bob or Gould and Fox, ranges far from the stylized boyhood innocence of Twain's Huck and Tom. More than any other American playwright, Mamet enacts a searching, multivalent drama of homosocial desire questioning and assessing itself.

As strategist, Mamet is essentially a comic satirist, with an underlying sense of anxiety and pain. On the one hand, his plays can be savagely funny in attacking the predatory instincts of Western enterprise capitalism. And his exploitation of sexual taboos for ridiculous effect places him squarely in the comic mainstream of verbal dexterity and social “tweaking.” On the other hand, the central quest for satisfying male friendship underlies all his works, adding a more serious element that encourages audience sympathy for men seeking to find loyalty and acceptance in a world disturbingly competitive, hostile, and transitory. The duality of this conception results in a darkly comic artistic vision suited to a society in transition, moving from the comfortable economies of empire to the new, less stable realities of shared power and enterprise.

The structure of Mamet's major plays typically revolves around fortifying and defending besieged male friendships that nonetheless cannot be fully acknowledged or relied on. This sets up an inherently ironic perspective. Although most of Mamet's work results in a united male “couple,” the dénouement cannot assure much equilibrium, given the professed heterosexual imperatives and inherent competitiveness of males as the playwright portrays them. Male friendships in Mamet are also destabilized by inequalities of age, rank, or experience, as well as by the men's inability to weave male friendships into their relations with women. The men in the later plays seem more comfortable with the terms of their bond, but without successful integration into the larger world of dual-gender interactions, such friendships must remain fragile, isolated, and defensive.

Yet the troubling, contradictory elements of Mamet's view of masculine reality provide much of the taut intensity of his dramatic view of decadent, wounded patriarchy. The old loyalties have broken down or become corrupt, and the formerly comfortable structures of male interactions have given way to confusion and dissatisfied longing (Robert Bly's, 1990, “grief for the absent father”). Pervading the major plays is a spirit of melancholy for something lost, a kind of lamentation for male friendship that seems ever-volatile and subject to unpredictable dissolution. Mamet's contribution has been to articulate the intimate connection between sexual and business practices and to underscore the homosocial desire driving relations among men. His characters seem caught in a shifting social pattern they do not comprehend, locked into what Rich (1984) calls “archaic sexual attitudes” (B4). Yet whatever faults they may have, whatever incompetence, stupidity, or dishonesty, they are driven by the extremity of their situations to admit a need and affection for each other that hitherto remained unvoiced. Mamet's searching, half-articulated stage vision of contemporary masculinity dramatizes the struggle of American males to accept and affirm one another in a shifting climate of gender expectations and identities.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Bigsby, C. W. E. David Mamet. Contemporary Writers Series. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Bly, Robert. A Gathering of Men with Bill Moyers. PBS Interview. WILL-TV, Champaign-Urbana. January 8, 1990.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.

Fraser, C. Gerald. “Mamet Plays Shed Masculinity Myth.” New York Times, 5 July 1976, A7.

Leverenz, David. Manhood and the American Renaissance. Ithaca. NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Mamet, David. American Buffalo. 1975. In Nine Plays of the Modern Theater. Ed. Harold Clurman. New York: Grove, 1981.

———. The Duck Variations. In Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Duck Variations. New York: Grove, 1978.

———. Glengarry Glen Ross. New York: Grove, 1983.

———. A Life in the Theater. New York: Samuel French, 1977.

———. Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Duck Variations. New York: Grove, 1978.

———. Speed-the-Plow. New York: Grove, 1987.

———. The Woods; Lakeboat; and Edmond. New York: Grove, 1987.

Raphael, Ray. The Men from the Boys: Rites of Passage in Male America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Rich, Frank. “Theater's Gender Gap Is a Chasm.” New York Times, 30 September 1984, B1, 4.

Roudané, Matthew C. “An Interview with David Mamet.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 1 (1986): 72-81.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Leon Wieseltier (review date 24 April 1995)

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SOURCE: Wieseltier, Leon. “Machoball Soup.” New Republic 212, no. 17 (24 April 1995): 46.

[In the following review, Wieseltier compares Mamet's short novel Passover with his film Homicide.]

As a boy, I was pretty good with a knife. I carved wood, I cut line, I cleaned fish, I hurled my finely weighted, mother-of-pearl-handled pocketknife with cool accuracy, blade-first, usually in competition with the other nice Jewish boys who summered in the same hills and woods, and once with deadly accuracy, right between the eyes of a copperhead snake that threatened a friend who was trapped on a rock in a brackish corner of Swan Lake. I was a local hero after that exploit, but only until the sun started to set, when I put my tiny weapon tenderly away, since it was forbidden to me on the Sabbath. In the city, of course, I enjoyed no expression of my Jim Bowie fantasies. In the city, a knife was not what we carried. We were not, most of us, timid. We just didn't like violence; it was pitiable and it was goyish. Once a year I picked up a knife, a serrated one, in the happy kitchen of my parents on the eve of Passover, to slice apples and to chop walnuts, for the purpose of producing the disagreeable paste that would represent, a few hours later, the mortar that made the bricks that made the cities that the Jews built in their bondage.

Now David Mamet has written a short story about the knife and the mortar, in a little book called Passover. It is a typical Mamet contraption: banality followed by apocalypse followed by a trick. A granddaughter is slicing and chopping with a grandmother, and making Hebrew school patter about the preparation for the seder, but there is no joy in this kitchen. There is only dread. The girl is fascinated by the knife. It holds a secret.

“You said that this wasn't the same knife,” the girl said.
“No. That knife was lost.”
“Would you tell me about it?”
“… My grandmother,” the woman said, “had come back to their house on Erev Pesach, You see?”
“That's right. In the shtetl.
“… she'd gone to the market. And she heard there was going to be an attack …”
“A pogrom,” the child said.

It was the knife that saved the family's life, the child learns. The grandmother's grandmother used the knife to destroy her own home, ripping the pillows and smashing the windows, slitting the throats of chickens and spreading the blood, and her bloody handprints, everywhere, and hiding the menfolk, in this way fooling the murderers; and so the pogrom passed over, and “her house was spared.” This is “the traditional end of the story.” But Mamet's story is a few lines longer:

They heard the sound of the key in the door. But neither moved. The old woman went to the child and pulled her head toward her, and stroked her hair once, and again, and then kissed the top of her head; and then they both turned to the sound of activity in the entranceway.

End of story. It can happen here. Have a nice holiday.

Passover may be read as the sequel to Homicide, a dead and ugly movie that Mamet wrote and directed in 1991, about a cop who discovers his Jewishness in the course of his investigation of the murder of an old Jewish woman in a candy store. “It never stops,” the murdered woman's grandaughter tells the cop. “What is it that never stops?” he demands to know. “Against the Jews,” she replies. He doesn't believe her. Then he is summoned to the grieving family's tony apartment because they say that a man on the roof shot at them. He doesn't believe them. “You're dealing with what? Hysterical Jews?” Mrs. Klein retorts. “We're making it up, right? We're always making it up!” And then Mr. Klein: “It's always a fantasy, isn't it, when someone wants to hurt the Jews?” And then Ms. Klein: “Do you hate yourself so much? Do you belong nowhere?” That does it. The cop is called to the tribe. It doesn't hurt that almost everybody he meets that day calls him a yid or a kike, or that the person with the answers is a leggy brunette dressed slickly in black. He begins to believe that the old lady was murdered because she ran guns to Palestine in 1946. He attends a secret meeting of a Jewish underground in which a crew of paunchy and balding Jewish men with heavy sighs and heavy accents mutter about guns and Hebron and loyalty. “I would do anything,” he tells them. He hears Hebrew. “Whatever you're doing,” he pleads with the woman in black, “let me help.” And so he blows up an anti-Semitic printing press in the back of a toy store.

It turns out that our hero was being used, but the foul fundamentals of Mamet's Jewishness are clearly established. The whole world wants the Jews dead. There is no difference between the paranoid view of the world and the Jewish view of the world. History has left the Jews no choice but to die or to kill. Violence is a lovely and legitimate expression of Jewish identity. A kind of secular Kahanism, pure and simple. Mamet is the latest in a long line of Jews who owe their Jewishness entirely to anti-Semitism. In Mamet's case, though, the religion of tough guys is especially virulent.

For Mamet adds a gender primitiveness to an ethnic primitiveness. “It is expected,” he once observed in the journal of Jewish thought called Penthouse,

that we and our fellows will strive and succeed in the traditional pursuits of a landless people, in the pursuits of the mind. But a Jewish football player … that person would stand as a magnificent and welcome freak. That person is an image which gets the heart beating a bit faster with pride.

And he once wrote an essay comparing his desire for Jewish authenticity to his desire for a great body. “What was so shameful about wanting a better physique?” For Mamet, Jewishness is not for sissies. It is another form of virility. He is sick and tired of intelligent Jews who don't have the kneidlakh to stand up and fight. He is a real Jew who says “fuck” a lot.

This is the sort of identification with the oppressed that is really an identification with the oppressor. In the history of the relationship between persecution and testosterone, after all, testosterone was the problem, not the solution. But the Jew-brute is ignorant of all this, and a good deal else. And so he can compose these unbelievable sentences:

God bless those in all generations who have embraced their Jewishness. We are a beautiful people and a good people, and a magnificent and ancient history lives in our literature and lives in our blood; and I am reminded of Marcus Garvey's rhetoric, in addressing the black populace: “Up you Mighty Race, you Race of kings, rise to your feet, you can accomplish what you will.”

Hey, blood boy. We are on our feet. Our fuckin' feet. And in our hands … look. Can you fuckin' see it? A book. Can you read it? Yeah, you. It. Such beauty in the brains. Happy fuckin' Pesach.

Ronald C. Wendling (review date 23 September 1995)

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SOURCE: Wendling, Ronald C. Review of The Village, by David Mamet. America 173, no. 8 (23 September 1995): 26-7.

[In the following review, Wendling comments favorably on The Village.]

One impulse of our postmodern culture has been to place the grandest triumphs of spirit on a level with the banalities of everyday life (for instance, a Michelangelo T-shirt). The effect is to defy modernist urges to glorify the past or to give art an ideality and separateness that somehow debases the lives we live now. This first novel by dramatist and screenwriter David Mamet, already a Pulitzer Prize-winner for Glengarry Glen Ross, avoids such simple iconoclasm.

Far from diminishing achievements of spirit, past or present, The Village instead elevates the most humdrum activities, such as fishing or “fixing” a clock only thought to be broken, into emblems of some timeless resilience in the human spirit. As readers, we feel affection for Mamet's characters because, defeated and lost as they all are, they exist along a human continuum of defeat and loss. We would like these people less if their ills were merely peculiar to them or lent themselves to professionally standardized cures. But the dissatisfactions of these villagers belong to their very existence in this world, and it is this metaphysical incompleteness that binds them (and us with them) into a community that can be called, without sentimentality, human.

Unlike Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Mamet's novel does not leave us vividly remembering the eccentricities of its characters, or the houses and stores in their town, nor is there any one character who provides a unifying perspective of what happens. Mamet desolidifies character and setting, along with plot in the usual sense, so as to carry his readers more fully into the interior landscapes of his multiple protagonists. Their external situations are various: Henry and his wife move about their house selfconsciously unsuccessful in their efforts to deepen their contact with each other; Dick tries to stave off both the bank's foreclosing on his store and the guilt he feels because his wife does not blame him; Maris acts out with men generally because of the rage she feels at the man living with her mother; meanwhile Rose and Mrs. Bell gossip about it all at the post office.

Mamet presents each of these mini-plots in snippets of narrative that sometimes leave us straining to sort out who is talking about whom. But this effort of reading almost parallels the heartbreakingly brave strivings of the characters themselves to see something luminous through their observed experience of life. Henry, for example, noticing one night the light blue and brownish black stripes the moon makes on his lawn, thinks to himself: “Well, if that ain't magic … then I don't know what is.”

The Village is strikingly contemporary in the issues it raises as well as its style. Everywhere, lives are threatened by job loss, divorce, uncaring sex, physical and psychological abuse, the death of children. The villagers find it hard to feel the wisdom in the local clergyman's advice to find the potential for rebirth in the pain of all these losses. Nor are they much helped by their acute self-consciousness, as when Dick, applying a squeegee to a car window after giving a customer gas, carefully studies his effect on the girl in the front seat as she studies her effect on him, while the customer reflects on his relationship to them both.

Some characters do find solace, however, when wholly absorbed in satisfying activity or ritual. Henry finds a perfect moment just before the beginning of a country auction as, sitting with coffee and a doughnut, book and cigarettes at the ready, he is simply overwhelmed with a sense of belonging to that beautiful time and place. In one sense, the moment seems a twentieth-century equivalent of Emerson's sense of divine immanence in the quiet of a church before, rather than during, the service. But this epiphany is also amusing in that it soon needs to be supplemented by a paperback novel.

Mamet gives depth to his short novel by making its present resonate with the past, associating his characters' movements with those of prehistoric animals and figures from Greek, medieval and American history. Occasionally, his writing acquires truly extraordinary narrative power, as in a deerhunting episode late in the novel when, despite losing his compass in the snow, the hunter finds his way back home with seemingly miraculous determination. This return appears an apt metaphor for Mamet's underlying hopefulness about human existence despite its destructive potential.

Roger Bechtel (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Bechtel, Roger. “P.C. Power Play: Language and Representation in David Mamet's Oleanna.Theatre Studies 41 (1996): 29-48.

[In the following essay, Bechtel interprets Oleanna through the ideas of literary theorist Stanley Fish.]


I don't … lots of the language …
… please …
The language, the “things” that you say …
I'm sorry. No. I don't think that that's true.(1)

David Mamet is nothing if not provocative. Critics and scholars have long held differing interpretations of his plays, and wildly differing opinions of their merit. What they all recognize in common, however, is that Mamet's theatre is one of language. Certainly one of the most striking first impressions of Mamet's writing is the driving sense of rhythm and, in most cases, the abundance of “foul” language. He has more than once been called a “virtuoso of invective.” By his own admission, his aim is to write dramatic poetry—a contemporary, colloquial free verse.2 Yet Mamet is concerned with language not merely as form, but as theme. Borrowing a line from Beckett's description of Joyce's work, Anne Dean asserts that in Mamet's drama, “form is content, content is form.”3 Dean and numerous other scholars have found a variety of language-related ideas and themes in Mamet's plays: among others, that language is dramatic action, language is identity, and language is in a state of decay that reflects the decay of our institutions, society, and spiritual well-being.4

Oleanna, David Mamet's latest offering, is perhaps his most conscious and complex examination of language to date. In previous plays, language was often addressed as a corollary to some other theme, such as the demise of business and business ethics in American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross.5 While language was always encompassed in Mamet's treatment of the worlds of these plays, the worlds themselves did not encompass language as a political issue. For the characters of these plays, language is the tool to achieve some personal material gain, not the gain itself, and not the thing at risk. Oleanna, however, is a new arena. At what couldn't be a more charged moment, Mamet has set his sights on the university and the core issue of the political correctness debate: language and power. In Oleanna, Mamet addresses many of his previous language-related themes, but they acquire new meaning and particular resonance in the context of the p.c. debate. This article will explore how Mamet's representational strategy focuses Oleanna squarely on issues of political correctness, and then move on to analyze the play's treatment of language, identity, and action within the context of the university at this historical moment. Finally, it will position Oleanna as an artifact within the “metadrama” of the p.c. debate, and explore specifically how it challenges Stanley Fish's analysis of the issue.


Political correctness sprang into life in the academy in a number of manifestations, including debates over core curriculum, multiculturalism, and the canon—with identity politics as the thread that joins them all. Issues of political correctness have expanded from the academy throughout the culture, encompassing virtually all the arts as well as popular culture and the media. If one of the primary goals of political correctness is to expose the racism and sexism implicit in much of our language and cultural production, then it has clearly served the very useful purpose of consciousness-raising, an important first step toward any social change. But despite this broad social impact and its potential benefit, the main battleground for political correctness nevertheless remains the campus, where the impact of some aspects of the p.c. agenda are much more questionable. The real heat of the controversy emanates from the attempts of activists to place restrictions on certain language and behavior within the academic community. The language they would prohibit is that which they define as racist, sexist, elitist, and homophobic, to name only the most representative categories. The crux of their argument is that such speech constitutes harassment and denies those who are subjected to it the equal opportunity to pursue their education in a fruitful way. One of the practical upshots of this movement has been the institution of speech codes on some campuses. Such codes typically prohibit derogatory references to “race, sex, sexual orientation, or disability,” categorizing such language as “hate speech,” and mandate punishment for perpetrators that ranges from a reprimand to expulsion or dismissal.6

The response, of course, has been fierce. Opponents to the p.c. movement have protested that speech codes violate the First Amendment right to freedom of expression (at least at public universities), and that, even when such codes are not in force, political correctness in general places a pall of repression over institutions where the free exchange of ideas should be paramount. Benno Schmidt characterized the conflict as follows: “The assumption in some quarters seems to be that the purpose of education is to inculcate correct opinion rather than to search for wisdom and to liberate the mind. Perhaps the most important lesson universities can teach their students is to think and search for truth in freedom.”7

One of the more thought-provoking responses to the controversy is that of Stanley Fish. His article “There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too” has become a bona fide artifact of the P.C. debate, appearing first in the Boston Review, anthologized later in both Debating P C. and Are You Politically Correct?, and finally appearing in Fish's own collection of essays bearing the same title.8

The essence of Fish's argument is that expression is never absolutely free, but always operates in the space carved out by restrictions, whether those restrictions are codified or embodied tacitly in the fundamental principles of a given institution. Speech, therefore, always operates in relation to these restrictions and principles, and thereby gains it tolerability or intolerability. what this implies, of course, is that speech is not, and cannot be, and independent value.9 Turning specifically to the First Amendment, Fish notes that all the exceptions carved out of its categorical protections of speech have been achieved by manipulating the distinction between speech and action. But, he argues, all speech is action because all speech is consequential—there is no such thing as “mere speech.”10 He goes on to state:

… there is no class of utterances separable from the world of conduct … because everything we say impinges on the world in ways indistinguishable from the effects of physical action, we must take responsibility for our verbal performances—all of them.11

Having equated speech and action, he notes the “grievous and deeply wounding” injuries that speech can inflict. And while Fish claims to argue neither for nor against speech codes and regulations as a “general principle,” he nonetheless concludes by advocating such measures for “hate speech.”12 This article will argue that Oleanna supports Fish's idea that language is action, but that it arrives at an antithetical conclusion. As will be explicated further, Oleanna demonstrates that the rhetoric of political correctness is itself speech that can be “grievous and deeply wounding,” and that the proponents of p.c. have not addressed their own responsibility in advancing such rhetoric. Such a reading of Oleanna positions the play as rigorously opposed to these aspects of the political correctness movement, a stance with which this article explicitly agrees.


The commercial critical response to Oleanna (as yet there has been virtually no response from scholarly critics) has been widely split. One common criticism, however, is that John and Carol, as dramatic characters, are only two-dimensional. Comments range from John Simon's “Mamet has created two wooden dolls …”13 in New York magazine, to Frank Rich's observation in the New York Times that “… Oleanna might be a meatier work if its female antagonist had more dimensions, even unpleasant ones …”14 In this same vein, the play is criticized for being “unrealistic.” Again, John Simon leads the charge with, “There is no drop of human reality anywhere,”15 and Elaine Showalter, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, examines the plot turn of Carol's demand that John comply with book censorship and concludes, “On a realistic level, it's an absurd situation. …”16

Yet Mamet has long eschewed the notion of an objective realism, as he makes clear in his essay on the subject:

Most American theatrical workers are in thrall to the idea of realism. A very real urge to be truthful, to be true, constrains them to judge their efforts and actions against an inchoate, which is to say against an unspecified standard of reality. … that to which the artist must be true is the aesthetic integrity of the play.17

By refusing to craft Oleanna in a manner that adheres to strict objective “reality,” or critics' preconceived ideas of “reality,” Mamet has developed a representational strategy that achieves other ends. What these critics seem to find lacking in John and Carol is a certain psychological realism, especially as reflected in behavior that is internally consistent or completely rational in the circumstances. Simon can't believe that Carol could be so seemingly inarticulate in act one and so articulate in acts two and three; he dismisses both the possibility that Carol had been indoctrinated in the language of the “Group” in that time, or that her behavior in act one was a deliberate ploy to entrap John. Showalter's complaint is that, realistically, when confronted with the list of banned books, John would instead take the list to “… his lawyer, his supporters, the press, and the union.”18

It is this very representation of “psychological reality,” however, that Mamet has avoided in order to explore the political correctness phenomenon as on of language and power. Exploring the individual psychology of these characters would prevent the audience from viewing them as typical. Giving either John or Carol more “dimension” would only entice one to see them as neurotic aberrations, turning the play into a character study set within the context of political correctness debate, but not about the debate itself. As Jack Kroll, one of the few critics who did not criticize the “realism’ of the play, commented, “… the play isn't about two people; it's about two worlds colliding. …”19

The critics also insisted on viewing Oleanna in the context of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy, and invariably, and unfavorably, pointed out that the alleged incident of harassment in Oleanna is plainly unambiguous. Daniel Mufson, writing in Theatre, proposed that, “Oleanna's working title could have been The Bitch Set Him Up.”20 In National Review, Eva Resnikova commented, “It is in this airless kangaroo court that the action unfolds, and the answer to the unspoken question ‘Who is the real victim?’ is never seriously in doubt.”21 In the most curious analysis, Frank Rich would seem to want it both ways. In his opinion, “the alleged incident of sexual harassment that gives the play its premise is ambiguous,” but he goes on to say that, “once Carol inflates her accusations for rhetorical purposes … Mr. Mamet's sympathies often seem to reside with the defendant,” and further, that “… it is also hard to escape his (Mamet's) tendency to stack the ideological deck.”22

What all of these critics failed to see, however, is that Oleanna is structured so as not to frame sexual harassment as its central issue. Mamet himself was quick to denounce the idea that Oleanna was a response to the Thomas hearings, and emphasized that the play was started before the Senate hearings took place, and that he hadn't even watched them on television.23 This deliberate distancing from what has proved to be the defining moment for the issue of sexual harassment in America, and the lack of ambiguity in the alleged harassment in Oleanna, are again representational strategies on Mamet's part. Had Mamet squarely addressed the issue of sexual harassment, his play could not have addressed the related but very different issues of political correctness. Although they share many of the same concerns, including offensive language, sexual harassment and political correctness are not coextensive. If Mamet had structured Oleanna so that John's speech and behavior were questionable, the focus of the play would have been whether or not John's intentions were sexual, and/or how to define the boundary between speech and behavior that is acceptable and that which constitutes harassment—the questions that define the very issue of sexual harassment. Oleanna, however, directly addresses neither of these questions. The play does not suggest that John had the slightest of sexual intentions toward Carol, nor does it invite us to question the boundary between the offensive and the inoffensive by placing his speech or behavior even close to that gray area. When Carol confronts John in the second and third acts, her complaint is never about harassment per se, but about something else:

… What has led you to this place? Not your sex. Not your race. Not your class. YOUR OWN ACTIONS … You are going to say that you have a career and that you've worked for twenty years for this. Do you know what you've worked for? Power. For power. Do you understand? And you sit there, and you tell me stories. About your house, about all the private schools, and a about privilege, and how you are entitled. To buy, to spend, to mock, to summon. All your stories. All your weak guilt, it's all about privilege; and you won't know it.


It is the issue of power, specifically through and over language, that Mamet is really getting at, and it is the difference in issues of power that separate sexual harassment and political correctness.

Sexual harassment is acquiring its definition and weight as a social issue in the workplaces of business and government as much as in the university. While Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas may have played out their drama on a national stage, the alleged events took place in a government office. In that context, the power relationship is clear—the employer always has power over the employed. The concern with language in that case is only as a function of the power relationship—that the employer not abuse his/her power through the use of language. What isn't questioned is the inherent validity of the power structure itself. Political correctness, too, is concerned with abuses of language by those in positions of power, but there are fundamental differences. Political correctness ideology assumes the power structure itself, as a product of western culture, to be inherently oppressive, and thereby questions its very validity.24 It also implicitly defines all those who theoretically are part of the ruling cultural hierarchy—essentially, but not necessarily exclusively, white males—as perpetuating the hierarchy through their use of language. Further, it assumes that the language of those in positions of power (including those privileged by the hierarchy) will be oppressive. So, on two counts, it seeks to preemptively restrict the use of any language it deems oppressive or offensive. Simply put, political correctness attempts to use language to control language, and thereby control, to some degree, the power structure of an institution, particularly the power structure of the university.

Given the ironic title of the play, Mamet is obviously concerned with addressing the institution of the university, rather than merely using it as a convenient setting for his drama. “Oleanna” was originally a song about a nineteenth-century Norwegian-American utopian community in the Midwest where Mamet purportedly once went camping. The idea of the university as a utopia of thought, expression, and enlightenment is the clear parallel to the song “Oleanna,” and the subject of Mamet's scathing ironic examination. The idea of the subversion and the reversal of power at the university, taken to its logical extreme, is ludicrous. The students running the university is almost like the inmates running the asylum. Yet this is essentially the scenario of Oleanna. By the final act, the teacher/student relationship has been turned on its head. Carol holds virtually all of the power, and she even says to John that her purpose in coming to his office is “to instruct you.” (67) This is, of course, an extreme situation. Still, it can be seen as powerfully emblematic of the shift in power that the political correctness movement is effecting. As Robert Brustein characterized the p.c. controversy: “This befuddled situation … reminds me of nothing so much as an academic version of the Stalinist purges.”25


The relationship between language and power extends into the individual makeup of Mamet's characters. The inhabitants of Mamet's plays find their identity, and thus their personal power, through language. As Robert Storey expresses it:

Because so much of the activity of his characters is prescribed by their speech, it is often fruitless to analyze their ‘psychology.’ … Mamet's characters … are their language; they exist insofar as—and to the extent that—their language allows them to exist. Their speech is not a smokescreen but a modus vivendi.26

This equation of language and character applies with particular effect to Oleanna. A close look at each character reveals an identity fashioned out of language; an identity which, when language is stripped away, exposes only emptiness.

The language that constructs John's identity is that of the academy. When he is engaged in professorial discourse, when he can tap into an academically-oriented stream of rhetoric, his language becomes complete: sentences end, rules of grammar and syntax are adhered to, and his communication achieves closure. Outside this mode of expression, however, his language echoes that of the majority of Mamet characters: disjointed, inarticulate, incomplete. In professorial mode, too, he dons his identity. His language has earned him the identity of teacher; a title which, ironically, lends his language a credibility it would not otherwise have. Thus language has bestowed upon him a certain privileged use of language. But scratch the surface of even his most practiced rhetoric and a hypocrisy which betrays an ultimate hollowness is quickly exposed. Perhaps the best example occurs in act one, when John espouses the thesis of his work:

… Now: I said “hazing.” It means ritualized annoyance. We shove this book at you, we say read it. Now, you say you've read it? I think you're lying. I'll grill you, and when I find you've lied, you'll be disgraced, and your life will be ruined. It's a sick game. Why do we do it? Does it educate? In no sense. Well, then, what is higher education? it is something-other-than useful.


The hypocrisy is soon discovered:

You said that education was “prolonged and systematic hazing.”
Yes. It can be so.
… if education is so bad, why do you do it?
I do it because I love it.


Of course, Carol's question was unnecessary to deconstruct the rhetorical construction of John's identity. John is guilty of everything he accuses education of doing: he has shoved his own book at his students, told them to read it, and, in the scene quoted at the beginning of this article, all but accused Carol of lying when she claims not to have understood it. By his own definition, John has perpetrated an act of hazing on Carol.

Referring to Mamet's earlier plays, Anne Dean observes that the characters, “seem to dissolve into what is expected of them in their (adopted) social roles. … It is as if the language they have plundered from already debased sources such as television soap operas and advertising jargon denies them the means of genuine communication.”27 Certainly, John seems to have dissolved into the role of professor; we can't really define him outside of it, and certainly not in the disjointed and harried phone conversations with his wife. There are also countless instances in the play when his pedantry precludes any genuine communication with Carol. Of course, the source of his language and identity isn't soap operas or advertising, but the academy. Read this way, Mamet can be seen as aiming critical salvos at the verbiage of higher education. In John's case, the language of the academy is debased—it's full of sound and fury, yet signifies nothing. Obviously, John has put his acquired language to best use in the task of self-promotion.

The same kind of analysis can be applied to Carol, whose identity is just as clearly constructed from her language. As mentioned earlier, critics have split in their interpretation of the role—either that she came to John's office in the first act as an innocent whose only agenda was to salvage her failing grade, and it was after the visit that she encountered and was transformed by the “Group”; or, alternatively, that she was operating under the Group's purview all along, and her express purpose in going to John's office was to entrap him. In either reading, and both seem equally plausible, the issue of language and identity remains the same.

If Carol is interpreted as an innocent in act one, she can be seen as going through a crisis of identity precisely because the language of her environment is not available to her. That is, Carol cannot form an identity within the community of the university because she cannot understand the language of the university. The first act is filled with examples of her frustration, even hysteria, at her inability to comprehend John or his book, the most pointed being:

… And everybody's talking about “this” all the time. And “concepts,” and “precepts” and, and, and, and, WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? And I read your book And they said, “Fine, go in that class.” Because you talked about responsibility to the young. I DON'T KNOW WHAT IT MEANS AND I'M FAILING


If we interpret Carol as exhibiting genuine frustration here, and not just some rather good histrionics, we see the other side of Mamet's critique of the language of the academy. If, to borrow again from Fish, we can view John's language as having little if any inherent meaning or value, here we see that it nevertheless has tremendous consequence. It is action. John's academese, which ideally should elucidate, only obscures. Yet, as professor, his language is privileged, inherently credible—leaving Carol to assume the fault in understanding must be her own.

If, in act one, we interpret Carol's speech and behavior to be feigned for the purpose of entrapping John, we see a more obvious and troubling connection between language and identity. In this case, all of her language has become misrepresentative of her true identity, and constitutive of a false one—John is confronted by a distressed student and cannot see the political agent underneath. Both language and identity are lies.

In act one, regardless of which interpretation we give it, Carol exhibits the same kind of incompleteness of language and thus identity that we saw in John. To an even greater degree than his, her language is scrambled, almost never achieving full expression of thought or any sense of closure. This stands in marked contrast to her use of language in acts two and three. Whereas in act one Carol has difficulty comprehending words and “something-other-than-useful,” “predilection,” and even phrases such as “index,” “provoke,” acts two and three find her in much greater command of language, using words like “countenance,” “patriarch,” “transgress,” and “hierarchy,” to name but a few. Her speech in these acts more often than not is expressive of full thoughts, and is complete and fairly articulate. This renaissance of language in Carol seems to have everything to do with a renaissance of identity. Depending on the interpretation, in the space between acts one and two, Carol has either established or recovered an identification with “the Group.” While the university community at large may have alienated her with its use of a language that is prohibitive in its obscurity, the Group has welcomed her into its community, and she has learned its language.

While John's identity has become bound up with what is his essentially empty academese, reducing him to something of a hollow shell, the language of the Group likewise colonizes Carol's identity. In response to John's pathetic state of being in the final act, Carol shows a glimmer of compassion, but represses it:

Don't you have feelings?
I have a responsibility. I …
… to. … ?
To? This institution. To the students. To my group.
… your “group” …
Because I speak, yes, not for myself. But for the group; for those who suffer what I suffer. On behalf of whom, even if l, were, inclined, to what, forgive? Forget? What? Overlook your …
… my behavior?
… it would be wrong.
Even if you were inclined to “forgive” me.
It would be wrong.


If Carol does have some feeling of compassion for John, and the scene seems to indicate she does, she cannot exercise it because it is no longer her prerogative to do so. She no longer speaks or acts as an individual, but only as an agent of the Group. The Group has subsumed her identity into its own, and she has become as rigid and unforgiving as it must be. Just as John dissolved into his social role as professor, adopting a “debased” language that denies genuine communication, so, too, has Carol dissolved into her role as agent of the Group, which likewise denies her opportunity for true communication. Unlike the language of academia, which is debased in it deliberate obscurity, the language of the Group is debased in its rigidity. It is absolutist, inaccessible to interpretation, compromise, or negotiation:

I have read. (Pause) And reread these accusations.
What “accusations”?
The, the tenure comm … what other accusations …
The tenure committee?
Excuse me, but those are not accusations. They have been proved. They are facts.
… I …
No. Those are not “accusations.”


And later:

In which it is alleged …
No. I cannot allow that. I cannot allow that. Nothing is alleged. Everything is proved. …


If it is in regard to language that Mamet levels his critical guns at the academy, it is on this account, too, that the forces of political correctness come under his fire. The Group is clearly a generalized epithet for those interest groups, of whatever stripe or color, that compromise the political correctness movement as a whole. While the Group must de facto include members like Carol—that is, white, female, and, as Carol herself puts it, of “doubtful sexuality” (68)—its total composition is left ambiguous. Again, this representational strategy on the part of Mamet allows the audience to confront the complex language and power issues of the political correctness movement by seeing what is typical among the various groups promoting p.c. while not getting lost in the specific politics of a given group. In other words, Mamet cannot be accused of a narrow political attack on, for example, feminists, or gays, or ethnic groups—his critique must be read as appertaining to all groups or interests that operate in the manner of the “Group.” And the clear parallel here between the p.c. movement and the Group is this unbending, desensitized, absolutist use of language. What is doubly damning about this modus operandi, as Oleanna demonstrates, is its utterly debilitating effect on both those who use the language and those who are subjected to it. John is rendered powerless by it; his own language (even if it were effective in its own right) is of no avail against its impregnable walls. At the same time, its confines become inescapable for Carol, who is unable to consider any compromise or compassion despite her natural inclinations. Thus both are robbed of their individuality. One particularly telling example occurs in act two:

I don't care what you feel. Do you see? DO YOU SEE? You can't do that anymore. You. Do. Not. Have. The. Power. Did you misuse it? Someone did. Are you part of that group? Yes.


Thus the battle has been framed, not individual against individual, but Group against group. Of course, in such a situation, language can have consequence but no inherent meaning—it has lost its usefulness as a tool for communication, it can no longer serve to negotiate, mediate, compromise, or reconcile. Its consequence, however, can be dire—it can serve to stifle other voices than its own.

One thing that is particularly disturbing in Oleanna is that both John and Carol seem utterly oblivious to the consequences of their language. The loss of individual identity and the corresponding inability to use language to communicate have produced a sort of social myopia, and, by the end of the play, the impossibility of empathetic response. From the outset, John fails to see that his flood of language is anything more than just that—a flood of language. Its consequence, for John, is simply the establishment of his place within the community. He seems to place no real value in his own discourse, and is surprised to learn that someone else does:

No. No. No. I want to understand it.
What don't you understand? (Pause)
Any of it. What you're trying to say. When you talk about …
… yes … ? (—he consults her notes.)
“Virtual warehousing of the young” …
“Virtual warehousing of the young. If we artificially prolong adolescence.
… and about “The Curse of Modern Education.”
… well …
I don't …
Look. It's just a course, it's just a book, it's just a …


What John fails to see is that the language of his course and book does have a consequence; again it is action. Whether Carol is feigning here or not, we see that his language has the power to confuse, and that, in this community, a failure to understand can become an index of self-worth.

In the final act, Carol seems almost drunk with the power she has discovered in language, saying things like, “Who the hell do you think you are?” (66) and calling him a “little yapping fool.” (71) Yet, while she revels in the power inherent in language, she is unable to understand its very real consequences:

… But we worked to get to this school. (Pause) And some of us. (Pause) Overcame prejudices. Economic, sexual, you cannot begin to imagine. And endured humiliations I pray that you and those you love never will encounter.


The irony here is tangible. What she can't see is that there is no greater humiliation for John and his family than his dismissal from the university on charges of sexual harassment. The cruel truth is that John, too, has worked to get to this school, and she has used her power of language to vanquish him from it—a fact she seems not to have grasped.


As mentioned previously, Mamet's earlier plays addressed social themes that were not necessarily political ones. If, for example, American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross are indeed about the decline of capitalism,28 it does not follow that Mamet is advocating the salvation of the system, or, alternatively, a move to some other system like socialism or communism. He is simply documenting the decline of capitalism. He can claim, and rightfully so, that he is merely expressing the truth as he sees it—a mission which he has explicitly claimed as his own.29Oleanna, however, places Mamet on different ground, whether he wants to go there or not.

The political correctness debate, as was shown, is essentially one for control of language—proponents advocating restraints on certain speech, and opponents advocating free expression. It is an inherently political struggle, and it is being conducted, of course, through language. The essays and speeches of people like Nat Hentoff, Benno Schmidt, and Stanley Fish, among many others, are the weapons with which the war is being waged, and when all the words have settled, their language will have had very real consequences: speech codes will or will not have been instituted on college campuses, First Amendment rights and strictures will or will not have been extended legislatively to private universities,30 individual students and teachers will or will not have been reprimanded or dismissed as a result of their speech. We live in an age when it is virtually impossible to imagine any writing, fact or fiction, and especially one that addresses a political issue, as being free from ideology. Although Mamet argues that there is nothing overtly political about Oleanna,31 it cannot but be read for its ideological stance. One cannot address such a highly-charged, polarizing political topic and claim objective truth. Indeed, Oleanna, coming as it does at the height of the p.c. controversy, is destined to become a player in the political correctness “metadrama”—it takes its place alongside the essays and speeches of Hentoff, Schmidt, and Fish. Its language functions on two levels: language within the context of the play operates, as we have seen, as dramatic action, and the language of the play as artifact operates as social or political action. And if language is action, Oleanna may prove to have consequence in this war of words.

If the goal of the political correctness movement is the suppression of certain types of language, a narrowing of the existing restrictions, to use Fish's terminology, its strategy is to argue that this language is inherently harmful. In other words, it seeks to delimit a certain category of language because its use is assumed to be always harmful, whether or not it actually is. What Mamet accomplishes in Oleannais a refutation of this idea by taking it to its logical extreme.

In the play, Mamet refers to the following tenet of stoical philosophy:

The Stoical Philosophers say if you remove the phrase “I have been injured,” you have removed the injury.


Of course, logically, we see the flaw—no amount of verbal denial will close a bleeding wound. But on a social or political level, we can see the practical implications—removing the phrase wipes the slate clean, it restores social order. What John, and Mamet, are really getting at, however, is the inversion of this idea: if there is no injury, but you invoke the phrase “I have been injured,” you have created an injury. This is precisely what Carol has done in the course of the play. John can be read as sexist, elitist, patronizing, pedantic, and arrogant—Mamet certainly seems to want to level these criticisms at members of the academic community vis a vis John—but he is obviously not guilty of harassment. Yet Carol's statement, “I have been harassed,” has made it so. The parallel to the strategy of the advocates of political correctness is evident—its cry of “We have been injured by this language,” has sufficed to make it so. But again, the logical flaw is readily apparent—no amount of crying “injury” will open a bleeding wound. In this logical construction, however, there is no ameliorative social or political effect—instead of restoring social order, it upsets it.

It could be argued that Mamet has created a fictional situation that allows for this tidy kind of analysis, but that his world is not representative of the “real world.” However, examining one of the more recent incidents to garner national press attention shows Oleanna to be quite representative in this respect. The site of the incident was the University of Pennsylvania, where five African-American women accused white freshman Eden Jacobowitz of calling them “black water buffalo.” The women were conducting a sorority celebration outside Jacobowitz's dormitory, and, according to Jacobowitz, were being too noisy. He admitted calling them “water buffalo,” but denied using the word “black.” Penn began disciplinary proceedings which could have led to Jacobowitz's expulsion, but the women dropped the charges, claiming Jacobowitz's public statements “compromised the fairness of the proceedings.”32 The scenario is utterly different from that of Oleanna, but the same dynamic is at work. The women in this case had claimed that the words “black water buffalo” had injured them, and thus the injury was assumed. What they did not need to prove in the disciplinary proceedings was that they had actually been injured, or that Jacobowitz had intended to injure them (two tenets, by the way, which are fundamental pillars of American civil and criminal law, and which are based on ideals of fairness and justice), merely that Jacobowitz had spoken the words. Which leads to the fundamental question of truth.

In this case, it seems, the central question of truth is whether Jacobowitz called the women “black water buffalo,” or simply “water buffalo.” In Oleanna, the central question of truth could have been whether or not John actually did and said all the things Carol's report alleges. It isn't, however; the drama of the tenure committee attempting to determine the truth in a “he said/she said” situation is wisely left offstage. Similarly, the conflict between John and Carol never deteriorates into “you did so/I did not.” What seems to be the real question of truth in both these examples lies in the statement “I have been injured.” This is not to deny the possibility that in the very real world of Pennsylvania these women may, at some time, have suffered real hurt caused by racial prejudice, but did they suffer real injury on the noisy night that Eden Jacobowitz called them “(black?) water buffalo”? Although fictional, we can imagine Carol having endured humiliations of a sexist nature, but did she suffer the injury at the hands of John that she claims to have suffered? We can never know the answer to the first question, but as Oleanna shows us, the answer to the second question is clearly “no.”

What Oleanna exposes is not only that categorical restrictions on speech suffer from a logical flaw, but that they rest on a presumption of dubious truthfulness. “I have been injured” becomes an almost talismanic phrase, one need only invoke it to make it true, whether it is true or not. Returning to Stanley Fish, we see that the first step in his argument for adopting speech restrictions is that they already tacitly exist in the fundamental principles of any institution. What he is really trying to do with this analysis is upset our common assumption, tied to the First Amendment, that restricting speech is fundamentally wrong and that it should be done only very rarely. However, one category of speech that has often been denied First Amendment protection, and which the fundamental principles of our society tacitly and not-so-tacitly seek to restrict, is that which is untruthful. Laws prohibiting defamation and perjury are just two examples that attest to this fact. To subject someone to censor and/or punishment based on a claim the truth value of which would always be in question flies in the face of both the First Amendment and the institutional principles of both the State and, hopefully, the university.

Oleanna also exposes another flaw in Fish's argument, in part by agreeing with one of its basic premises: all speech is action because all speech is consequential. As Oleanna demonstrates time and again, to quote Fish, “everything we say impinges on the world in ways indistinguishable from the effects of physical action. …”33 While Fish uses this idea to point out the damaging effects language can have, and thereby justify the suppression of “hate speech,” he never clearly defines “hate speech.” As Oleanna highlights any speech can be hate speech. A mendacious use of the phrase “I have been injured” can prove just as damaging, both psychologically and materially, as the vilest sexist or racist slur. On the surface, this analysis would appear to critique Fish on a slippery slope basis—Where do we draw the line? How do we decide what words are “hate words” and what are not?—which is no necessarily the worst of arguments. What it really points to, however, is the futility of preemptively restricting any language based on its “meaning” given the very indeterminacy and malleability of language. Assuming, for a moment, that the phrase “black water buffalo” could induce harm. Can we isolate the word “black” as being the carrier of injury? Not really, as the word itself can have either positive or negative connotations. Can we then isolate the words “water buffalo” as the injurious part of the phrase? Not in actuality as this seemed to be the turning point of the Jacobowitz case—he would have been exonerated upon proof that he had said merely “water buffalo.” The assumed injury clearly lies in all three words together. But is this really true If Jacobowitz had intended to launch a racist verbal assault wouldn't the words “water buffalo” have sufficed? And, because language is malleable when certain words are removed won't other words be found to replace them? In a language system where all reference to race is deleted, “water buffalo” could easily become the sine qua non of racial slurs. As Fish himself points out, speech has no independent value. If there is no such thing as “free speech” then there is no such thing as “hate speech”—words themselves do not carry hatred or injury, it is the intention with which they are used that carried the injury. Of course, therein lies the rub. The indeterminacy of language often makes it impossible to know the user's intention; it is the source of a miscommunication. If we have trouble interpreting Carol's motives in act on it is because we can't decipher the real intention behind her language—which may be precisely Mamet's point in representing her in this ambiguous way Just as removing the phrase “I have been injured” cannot remove a real injury, removing “hate speech” cannot remove real hatred. It can only make the hatred more difficult to spot. Hatred will always find a language to express itself, whether it is a stinging sexist epithet or an insidious, untrue us of “I have been injured.” The words may be different, but their action will be the same.

While Oleanna implicitly addresses the futility of proscribing speech it explicitly examines its potential dangers. The climax of the play revolve around two startling attempts by Carol to control John's language. The first is Carol's offer to withdraw her complaint if John will support the Group attempt to ban a set of books which includes his own. His reply is “Get the fuck out of my office,” (75) which is the first time in the course of the play that John has used language that might be deemed “offensive.” The second comes in response to John's phone conversation with his wife, during which he calls her “baby”:

(exiting) … and don't call your wife “baby.”
Don't call your wife baby. You heard what I said.
(CAROL starts to leave the room. John grabs her and begins to beat her.)
You vicious little bitch. You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life?
(He knocks her to the floor.)
After how I treated you … ? You should be … Rape you? Are you kidding me … ?
(He picks up a chair, raises it above his head, and advances on her.)
I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. You little cunt


This torrent of physical violence and verbal abuse could “realistically” have come even earlier in the play, and certainly Mamet constructs the play to build John's rage to a peak at this moment. But it's interesting to examine what pushed him over the edge. What has driven John to this point is a series of actions which have rendered the language of his public “self” impotent: Carol's blatant misrepresentation of his statements to her during their first meeting; in the offstage drama, the tenure committee choosing to believe Carol's testimony over his; his inability to use language to reason or negotiate with Carol: and, finally, having his status as professor and its inherent privilege of language stripped away. If identity is constructed of one's own language, and Oleanna shows that it is, not only has John lost his public language, he himself has become publicly impotent. His last vestige of identity resides in his private language—the very language Carol's parting comment seeks to control. “Don't call your wife ‘baby.’” goes to the core of John's private self, and threatens him with utter impotency. Violence is never justified, and Mamet seems to want to make John's attack so savage as to be appalling. John can be interpreted, too, as having exercised extremely poor judgment (among other things), and thus a cause of his own demise. But violence exists, and what Mamet does here, in extremis, is show us the kind of dynamic that can lead to violence in people normally considered extremely civilized. When language is rendered impotent, when one's mode of expression is repressed, what expression remains but violence? And who else but the repressor will be its victim?

Of course, the argument can be made that Oleannais a fictionalized extreme, not representative of the true nature of the political correctness controversy. Still, the dynamic at work in Oleanna can be extended to the usually less extreme “real world.” The repression of “politically incorrect” speech may not generate violence, but it is likely to generate resentment, frustration, anger, and even hatred. Just as Carol's extreme assault on John's expression brings him to a place of extreme hatred and rage, more moderate acts of repression have the power to generate more moderate forms of resentment—yet it is resentment just the same. Let's look at a hypothetical Eden Jacobowitz, one we know had no intention of perpetrating a racial attack. If, as has been shown, the actual words used are not necessarily as decisive as the intention behind them in interpreting a speech act, how can Jacobowitz ever assert his right to study in peace? Conflict must be strictly avoided for fear that, whatever is actually said, the intention will be interpreted as racist or sexist. This externally prompted self-censorship in the face of what one perceives as a violation of one's own rights will undoubtedly produce anger and resentment. As Stanley Fish said, speech is action. This is true for what he would call “hate speech,” and for phrases like “I have been injured.” But it is also true for whatever construction of language is promulgated to restrict other language. “You cannot use that language” will obviously have the consequence of eradicating whatever language falls under its rubric—a consequence, however, that is not prophylactically sealed. “You may not have known it but the language you used was sexist and elitist and you must now be punished” will also have consequences. Oleanna demonstrates those consequences. We need only extend its example to see the disastrous consequences that occur whenever one tries to control the language of another.


This last section will serve not so much as a conclusive summing-up as it will a final episode in the political correctness “metadrama.” As mentioned previously, the critical response to Oleanna was radically mixed, with a healthy share of detractors, many of whom seemed angry about the play. One, however, was blatantly vituperative. Alisa Solomon, writing for the Village Voice, began her review this way:

I took a women's self-defense course a few years ago, where we worked, among other things, on how to respond to men who make lewd remarks to women passing on the street. The instructor warned us of such tempting reactions as topping his aggression … condescending explanations … or sexual put-downs … Such rejoinders … could only escalate the situation and increase the possibility of violence. Nor did she advise that we stride silently by, pretending not to hear. That, she said, always ended up feeling like a defeat … He knew you could hear—and that he'd gotten your goat. It's in this spirit that I feel compelled to write about David Mamet's twisted little play Oleanna, an act of name-calling meant to provoke—and especially to provoke feminists …34

The review continued in this same vein, devoting itself almost exclusively to the politics of the play rather than its aesthetics. It ended with:

In the self-defense course, the instructor suggested that the best way to handle “hey-babying” men was to stand firmly, put our hands up to define the boundaries of our space, look the man straight in the eye, say, “Stop harassing women,” and then move on without a glance. Of course, it wouldn't change his consciousness, but it might shift the terms of the exchange.35

What Solomon has done, in essence, is accuse Mamet of harassment on the basis of his play Oleanna. Solomon doesn't have the popular critical cachet of, say, Vincent Canby, and her scathingly negative review obviously didn't affect the box office in such a way (if at all) that the show was forced to close. Yet if it had, wouldn't this have been a mirror-image metadrama of the play itself. Certainly it would have been a repression of Mamet's speech based on an allegation of harassment—a scenario not unlike that of John and Carol. If Mamet were a young, first-time playwright, it might even have caused him financial distress. The crucial difference is that this alleged harassment didn't take place behind closed doors, and because of that, a single cry of “I have been injured” was insufficient to silence this play. Which gave us all a chance to judge for ourselves.


  1. David Mamet, Oleanna (New York: Vintage, 1993) 6-7. All Subsequent references are to this edition.

  2. Ann Dean, David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1990) 17.

  3. Dean, 15.

  4. See Dean: Robert Storey, “The Making of David Mamet,” The Hollins Critic 16 (1979); Thomas L King, “Talk and Dramatic Action in American Buffalo,Modern Drama 34 (1991).

  5. See C. W. E. Bigsby, Contemporary Writers—David Mamet (London: Metheun, 1985) 112.

  6. Nat Hentoff, “Speech Codes on the Campus and Problems of Free Speech.” in Debating P.C.: The Controversy Over Political Correctness on College Campuses, ed. Paul Berman (New York: Laurel, 1992) 221.

  7. Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., “False Harmony: The Debate Over Freedom on Expression on America's Campuses,” Vital Speeches 58 (1991): 46.

  8. Stanley Fish, “There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too.” in Berman; in Francis J. Beckwith and Michael E. Baumaen, eds., Are You Politically Correct? Debating America's Cultural Standards (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1993); and in There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It's a Good Thing, Too (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). The essay appearing in Fish's book is a substantial revision of the earlier work: all subsequent references are to this edition.

  9. Fish 103-4

  10. Fish. 105-6.

  11. Fish. 114.

  12. Fish. 109, 111, 115. In the earlier version of the essay, Fish made no disclaimer concerning “regulation and speech codes” as a “general principle.” Although the focus of this essay seems to have shifted to local political action, Fish persists in addressing the regulation of hate speech in a general way.

  13. John Simon, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Turkey,” New York, 9 November 1992, 72.

  14. Frank Rich, “Mamet's New Play Detonates the Fury of Sexual Harassment,” New York Times. 25 October 1992, C:11-12.

  15. Simon, 72.

  16. Elaine Showalter, “Acts of Violence: David Mamet and the Language of Men.” Times Literary Supplement 16 (1992): 16-7.

  17. David Mamet, “Realism,” in Writing in Restaurants (New York: Penguin, 1986) 130.

  18. Showalter, 16.

  19. Jack Kroll, “A Tough Lesson in Sexual Harassment,” Newsweek, 9 November 1992, 65.

  20. Daniel Mufson, “Sexual Perversity in Viragos,” Theatre 24 (1993): 111-13.

  21. Eva Resnikova, “Fool's Paradox,” National Review, 18 January 1993, 54-6.

  22. Rich, C12.

  23. Richard David Story, “David Mamet Raises Outrage to an Artform in Oleanna,New York, 14 September 1992, 58.

  24. See, Beerman, introduction.

  25. Arthur Homberg, “The Language of Misunderstanding,” American Theatre (October (1992): 94-5.

  26. Storey, 3.

  27. Dean, 32.

  28. See Bigsby, 112.

  29. Dean, 18.

  30. Schmidt, 47; see also Hentoff.

  31. Storey, 58.

  32. See “A Campus Case: Speech or Harassment?” New York Times. 15 May 1993, A:10. “Penn to Alter Harassment Rules to Balance Free Speech and Privacy,” New York Times. 17 November 1993, A:6.

  33. Fish, 112.

  34. Alisa Solomon, “Mametic Phallacy,” Village Voice, 24 November 1992, 104.

  35. Ibid.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 16 September 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Shop Talk.” New Republic 215, nos. 12-13 (16 September 1996): 28-9.

[In the following review, Kauffmann criticizes the casting choices for the film version of American Buffalo, but provides a positive assessment of the work overall.]

Obviously the one-set play with very few characters is not suitable for filming—except that, like so many obvious wisdoms, it's untrue. Precepts bend to talent. Stevie and The Caretaker and My Dinner with André, all made from small-scale theater works, are valuable films. American Buffalo is another.

David Mamet made the screen adaptation of his play and has done only a little physical “opening up”: most of the film takes place where the play does, in Don's Resale Shop, a junk shop crammed with all kinds of odds and ends. One of the play's fascinations is that it seems to put that shop under a microscope. A minuscule speck of the world is hugely enlarged, like the eye of a fly in magnifying photography; so, paradoxically, the shop becomes massive in veristic detail at the same time that it becomes an abstraction. In the film the paradox is heightened with a simple device. The streets outside are always empty, whether we glimpse them through the windows or occasionally go out there. Once in a long while, a car drives by. Not one other person is seen, other than a few partially glimpsed faces in a poker game right at the start. Thus this intensely realistic shop is simultaneously anywhere and nowhere.

It's in a dingy part of whatever city it is. Opposite Don's is a vacant movie theater, for rent. Diagonally across the way is the coffee shop that figures in the dialogue, but the doorway is not exactly busy. Sometimes it rains, heavily, and, as heavy rain will do, this increases the sense of enclosure.

Mamet's language in itself underscores the paradox of verism-cum-abstraction. The general texture is naturalistic, nearly stenographic—the broken sentences, the repetitions, the litanies of everyday; then, suddenly, with a word or a phrase, the vernacular lifts into an arch. “This is admirable.” “You know, this is real classical money we're talking about.” “The shot is yours, no one's disputing that.” “The path of some crazed lunatic sees you as an invasion of his personal domain.” With a lesser writer, such lines might seem fissures in verism; but Mamet so thoroughly certifies the accuracy of his ear that we feel we are flying past the character's actual powers of expression into the thoughts in him that he isn't always able to express. Like the physical context, the real is lifted into the abstract.

Two men are the center of the piece, Don, who owns the shop, and Teach, of no known occupation except burglaries now and then. They gab and fret and discuss and pass the time until, almost obliquely, a plan for a burglary is broached by Don. There's a third character, a young gofer called Bob, a sort of apprentice to Don, who is also involved in the burglary plan. The title refers to an American buffalo nickel that a customer bought in Don's shop a week or so earlier.

Don suspects, though he's not sure, that the coin is worth more than he got for it and that the customer has other rarities. Don decides to rob the customer's house, and it's around this scheme that the play simmers and boils. The scheme is inchoate—very loose indeed if these are experienced burglars—but the play's emphasis is not on the burglary itself, it's on the dialogue around it, the verbal volleyball that the two principals keep playing. In Beckett's Endgame Clov asks, “What is there to keep me here?” Hamm replies, “The dialogue.” Beckett's pair are inside an empty sphere scraping its top; Mamet's pair are also inside, scraping the bottom. Both pairs live and breathe through interchange.

American Buffalo is full of opportunities for the eager symbolic interpreter. The junk shop as the detritus of an errant, wasteful society, Teach (which is only his nickname) as an instructor who can't instruct; and (bingo!) the quest for the coin whose true value isn't known, plus the fumbling of that quest—all this is fodder for symbolists. For me, however, the play is a species of incantation, profane and desperate, by vacuous men trying to create through their “dialogue” some sense of being, some environment for that being.

The producer of this film was Gregory Mosher, long experienced in the theater, who directed the world premiere of American Buffalo in Chicago in 1975. The director was Michael Corrente, who has written and directed one previous film, Federal Hill, unseen by me. Corrente was trained for the theater and has worked there, including a production of American Buffalo. Presumably aided by Mosher and certainly aided by the editor, Kate Sanford, he keeps the film moving without jostling it. Corrente never seems worried about the one-room venue, and his freedom is even clearer in those few scenes where we go outside—they never seem frantic attempts to escape four walls. The film just takes place, naturally and energetically, where it takes place.

About the performances themselves, some question. Dustin Hoffman is Teach, long-haired and scruffy, loping around like a man who has nowhere to go and is, from moment to moment, inventing a dynamic for his life. Hoffman was implicitly up against tough competition in this part. Some of us have seen Robert Duvall and Al Pacino as Teach, and each was, in his own temper, superb. Hoffman, ultimately, is not. He has all the technique, the vigor of address, the experienced actor's ravening of actor's chances, but sometimes these attributes become apparent. A gesture is too clearly enjoyed, an intonation slips upward from this mucky world; and we become aware of Hoffman, the star, slumming. Remembering his Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy twenty-seven years ago, in some measure an antecedent of Teach, I hoped to see Ratso much more full and complex. But in those twenty-seven years Hoffman has become so stellar that he can't keep every wisp of his success out of this performance.

Don is played by Dennis Franz, known for his running role in NYPD Blue. Here his performance exemplifies the freeze that TV acting can inflict. I've seen that TV show a few times and have seen how Franz presents his bulky presence, his taciturnity, his knowingness week after week in episodes that are in part tailored to keep him turning out the Franz product. He keeps doing it here. Franz certainly has some substance but only to the degree that his predetermined persona allows. He renders the same brusque authority, and, as on TV, his expression scarcely alters throughout the picture. “This is what you bought,” he seems to say, “and this is what you'll get.”

Bob is done by a teenage black actor, Sean Nelson. He is completely competent, but Nelson adds another element to the mix. Bob has usually been played by someone in his early 20s. The use of Nelson in the part puts Don and Teach in the position of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Two further notes. When, toward the end, Teach trashes the shop, it's done much more violently than I've ever seen. This takes Don's passivity past the credible. And Thomas Newman's music is incomprehensibly harsh at the start and finish.

At any rate, American Buffalo is now available on film, in a lucid version. Whatever that version's flaws, Mamet's incantation works again.

Stevan Ryan (essay date fall 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5195

SOURCE: Ryan, Stevan. “Oleanna: David Mamet's Power Play.” Modern Drama 39, no. 3 (fall 1996): 392-403.

[In the following essay, Ryan examines Mamet's intended messages about power relations, especially those found in academic settings as portrayed in Oleanna.]

Although playwright David Mamet has stated that he began working on Oleanna before Anita Hill's testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas made sexual harassment in the workplace a topic of conversation in the early 1990s, there is no doubt that the play's timeliness was used to boost ticket sales. The play's promotional mailout, for example, announced that ticket buyers could “be among the first to take a seat—and take a side—at Oleanna.” Even Playbill's cover helped polarize responses by featuring, for the first time in the magazine's history, two different covers for the production. One cover depicts a bespectacled man seated on a chair with a bullseye emblazoned on his chest, while the second cover pictures a female in exactly the same position.

Almost on cue, most critics and audience members did line up to “take sides” in the debate: had Mamet depicted the polarized positions of his antagonists fairly or had he chauvinistically “stacked the deck” in the male's favor? If Mamet's male character, a professor, is wrongfully accused by his student, why does he eventually resort to violence against her? Does the playwright's nightmarish depiction of the female student in the final scene set the women's liberation movement back twenty years? While such debates about sexual equality and harassment are logically engendered by Oleanna's context, the playwright perceives the play to be about an altogether different subject. Oleanna, Mamet stated at a question and answer session shortly after the drama's opening, “is a play about failed Utopia, in this case the failed Utopia of Academia.”1

The work's title, a relic dredged from the playwright's memories of boyhood nights around summer campfires, supports this comment. “Oleanna” was one of many doomed European attempts to create a Utopian community in the American wilderness during the nineteenth century, but its memory lives today only in an old folk song: “‘Oh! to be in Oleanna, that's where I'd rather be / Than to be bound in Norway and drag the chains of slavery.’”2

While a play about the failure of academia to evolve into a Utopian paradise—or even a play centered around sexual harassment in higher education for that matter—may seem to be startlingly different soil for this playwright, Oleanna is developed around one of Mamet's most basic themes: human beings' never-ending battle to dominate one another. This need to obtain power, closely linked to our most basic survival instincts, is the sole force that drives such earlier predatory Mamet characters as Bernie Litko from Sexual Perversity in Chicago; Teach from American Buffalo; Roma, Moss, and Williamson from Glengarry Glen Ross; the gambler Mike in House of Games; and Charley Fox from Speed-the-Plow, all of whom rely, or try to rely, on manipulation and intimidation to accomplish self-serving goals. Mamet's depiction of the power struggle in Oleanna is unique, however, in that neither of the play's two characters, a college professor named John and his student Carol, appears to be talking about power throughout the entire first act of the play. It is only after intermission that the implications of the initial act's subtext clearly emerge, immersing both characters in a vicious struggle for control that climaxes in the play's final seconds.

While the subtleties of the first half of the play barely seem to prepare the audience for the blunt battles that dominate the second, Oleanna does, in fact, exemplify its creator's frequently articulated belief that unity is the cornerstone of dramatic structure. In numerous essays, most of which have been collected in either Writing in Restaurants or Some Freaks, as well as in interviews, Mamet has stated his conviction that a playwright needs to work relentlessly in order to excise superficial elements from a script: “Every time the author leaves in a piece of nonessential prose (beautiful through it may be), he weakens the structure of the play.”3

Mamet's strict adherence to this principle has engendered some of his most notable hallmarks: staccato, often elliptical dialogue; small casts; Spartan stage settings; and conclusions that leave the audience searching to find words capable of defining what the characters' behavior has implied. Even more importantly, however, the one constant that unites all of the works in Mamet's dramatic canon is the existence of a central concept—business, human relationships, eschatology, growing up—underneath the surface that holds every aspect of the play firmly in place. In a 1987 interview, Mamet succinctly defined the roots of this stagecrafting technique to interviewer David Savran while answering a question about the influence that Sanford Meisner has had upon his work: “‘the most important thing I learned at the Neighborhood Playhouse was the idea of a through-line, which was Aristotle filtered through Stanislavski and Boleslavsky.’”4 Clearly, the through-line that unifies Oleanna, from the play's first moment to its final curtain, is not provided by an intellectual debate about sexual equality but by Carol and John's struggle to overpower each other. ‘“The play's central interaction,” Oleanna's author told interviewer Leonard Lopate, “is not about sexual harassment. It's about power.”’5

To be a playwright, Mamet maintains, one must be “‘a total schizophrenic.’” The writer must believe, absolutely, every word that each character says. Accusations that he, as a man, is innately on the side of his male character fail to consider the playwright's bond with his female student: “‘I was always astonished as a student in higher education because I never had any idea of what everyone was talking about. … I think that's reflected in the student's point of view.’”6 Asserting kinship with both of his characters, the playwright maintains, “I agree with what she says as much as what he says. She may do some things that are dishonorable, but then so does he. For me, it's a play about the uses and abuses of power, and the corruption is on both sides.”7

Allowing such a through-line to evolve without having it side-tracked by distractions demands, in Mamet's words, “the subjugation of all aspects of the production—not just the script, but the acting and the plastic elements—to the through-line of the play.”8 For example, the sparse setting employed in the New York production of Oleanna, the barest outline of a professor's office, supplied, like the minimalist settings employed in such earlier works as The Duck Variations and The Disappearance of the Jews, only “the scenic element essential to the dramatic thrust of the play.”9 The set's major function at the beginning of Oleanna, then, is to establish the professor's inherent power by eliminating the extraneous and, instead, focusing the audience's attention on how the characters' relationship to the few accoutrements that are depicted on stage—the desk, chairs, and even the telephone—helps define the characters' dealings with each other.

For example, in the play's New York production at the Orpheum Theatre, Mamet, as director, immediately established the relationship of his two characters at the play's onset. John stood behind his desk, absorbed in a personal telephone conversation with his wife, seemingly oblivious to Carol, seated by herself, across the desk from him, waiting for the professor to grant her attention. His unconscious dismissal of her presence during his opening monologue testifies to the importance the playwright attaches to subtext. “No one,” Mamet has explained, “really says what they mean, but they always mean what they mean.”10 While John's words to his wife do not illuminate his relationship with Carol, his attitude and the characters' respective placement on stage can.

Like the stage setting, character development is also subordinate to the demands of the through-line:

There's no such thing as “character.” “Character” doesn't exist. If you take a piece of writing, what you're going to see is twelve to twenty lines on a page for a hundred and twenty pages. If you turn it upside down, nothing's going to fall out. There isn't any “character” there. It's a bunch of words that people say, period. That's what Aristotle told us, and it's true today. There's no such thing as “character.” It's just little words that the writer made up.11

Amplifying this theory, Mamet explains that when these “little words” are “sketched correctly and minimally, they will give the audience the illusion that these are ‘real people.’ …”12 Clearly, the implication of these remarks is that, like every other aspect of the play, characterization must not detract from the through-line: in the case of Oleanna, how humanity's inherent need to wield power manifest itself in academia. This is a crucial point because many of the play's reviewers questioned the legitimacy of Carol's change of behavior between the play's two acts. Self-effacing and timid in the play's initial act, she evolves into a verbal tyro by the play's conclusion.

One suggested explanation for Carol's metamorphosis is that she or the people that she calls her group have “planted” her in John's class to exploit his vulnerability, in which case she is feigning imbecility in the first act in order to trick the professor into making statements that can subsequently be twisted into evidence against him. However, only one statement that she makes in the entire play even hints at any premeditation on Carol's part: “I saw you. I saw you, Professor. For two semesters sit there, stand there and exploit our, as you thought, ‘paternal prerogative,’ and what is that but rape. … You ask me why I came? I came here to instruct you.”13

Rather than establishing premeditation, however, these lines, which occur during the last scene of the play, reflect how new the concepts that her group has bestowed upon her are to Carol. Grammatically, the statement is nonsensical: surely, John never stood “there,” presumably in the front of the classroom, exploiting “our … ‘paternal prerogative.’” Carol's inarticulate linguistic groping here signals both her zealous but incomplete adoption of her “group's” cherished dogma as well as her, and their, inability to prove her charges against her professor analytically. Instead, Carol believes that simply hurling shibboleths like “paternal prerogative” and “rape” at John will shatter all of his rationalistic defenses. Such negative and simplistic labelling of John's methodology also erases the twin stigmas of shame and failure for Carol: how could she have possibly succeeded in such a hostile, chauvinistic environment with such a monstrous mentor? When she tells John that she came back to his office to instruct him, she is gloating over the apparent victory that these words, whose full import she hasn't yet digested, have given her.

Furthermore, any attempt to cast Carol as a scheming, veteran soldier in some noxious “political correctness” brigade, must fail because it places nearly impossible demands on Carol's characterization in the entire first act. The implication of perceiving Carol as a “plant” is that virtually everything she says in the first act is a lie, an almost impossible feat for even an experienced professional performer to sustain, given the rapidly-changing, impromptu nature of her conversation with the professor. More likely, Carol is, at the beginning of the first act, almost exactly as John initially sees her: a bright, but weak victim of a judgmental educational system. He believes that she needs only to redefine herself, as he himself once did, in order to gain the confidence to become someone just like him. John reaches out to her because her inabilities challenge his confidence in his power to work educational miracles. Blithely announcing, “I understand you,” (24), assured that he can define Carol correctly, John prepares to remold her into his own image.

However, John lacks the power to force Carol into a comfortable pigeon-hole that will allow an easy recasting of her personality. Carol's socio-economic background, her sex, and her educational experiences are, in truth, incomprehensible to the professor. For Carol, John's class, and probably most of academia as well, is a Tower of Babel, where each professor hawks his—or her—own peculiar, contradictory doctrine. John is the proverbial last straw in her academic life, the catalyst who drives her into the arms of the “group,” who minister to her bewilderment by providing a comforting illusion of certainty that renders her confusion about the academic world completely comprehensible. And so, John is redefined as a cancer, an exploitive, chauvinistic enemy whose presence must be eradicated from the battlefield of academia so that a more perfect world can be created.

The subtext of John and Carol's initial conversation in the play immediately defines Carol's need to cast the professor as an infallible authority and thus foreshadows the conflict that erupts in the second half of the play. Under Carol's questioning of his use of the words “term of art” after he hangs up the phone, John inadvertently reveals his human fallibility to her: “I'm not sure that I know what it means. It's one of those things, perhaps you've had them, that, you look them up, or have someone explain them to you, and you say ‘aha,’ and, you immediately forget what …” Surprised that John could be unsure of a term that he has just used, Carol cuts him off with an astonished, “You don't do that,” and then follows his later remark “… forget things? Everybody does that” with an assertive “No, they don't” (3-4).

Carol finds John's admission of uncertainty so upsetting because, as she states repeatedly throughout the first act, she craves certainty and desires John to mold his theories into a concrete body of information that she can copy down in her notebooks, memorize, and recite at will. Instead, Carol finds John's ruminations pointless and begs him to alleviate her frustration. She desires fodder for her notebook, not incoherent academic jargon about the “‘virtual warehousing of the young’” and other—to her—meaningless “‘concepts’” and “‘precepts’” that say nothing tangible or useful: “WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?” she screams out in bewilderment, “I DON'T KNOW WHAT IT MEANS AND I'M FAILING” (11, 14).

Her impassioned plea “Teach me. Teach me” underscores the linguistic gap that surrounds both characters. While John believes that he is doing his best (“I'm trying to teach you”) to introduce Carol to educational marvels that she can later accept or reject, he fails to recognize either his own instructional prejudices or the source of Carol's frustration. Desperate not to fail, Carol frantically searches for the objective information that will assure her of that most concrete of realities, a passing grade. When John proves unable to provide the requisite responses to her needs, she will eventually, with the aid of her group, shift the blame for her failures onto him. Her cry that “I did what you told me. I did everything that, I read your book, you told me to buy your book and read it” (9) anticipates the transference of guilt from herself to her professor, which will make all of her accusations in the second half of the play unassailably valid to her and safe from John's attempts to refute them logically.

Never simplifying his ideas into more easily digestible data, John, perhaps better as a theorist than as an instructor, chooses instead to reminisce with his student. Responding to her lament that she is “stupid,” John tells Carol about his own youthful experiences with education: “… my earliest and most persistent memories are of being told that I was stupid. … The simplest problem. Was beyond me. It was a mystery” (16). Even though John understands that he and Carol are, perhaps, “similar” in having been labelled as “stupid” by educational authorities, he fails to perceive their different responses to this labelling. Generationally a “child of the 60's,” John rebelled against “the Artificial Stricture, of ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Student’;” against tests “designed, in the most part, for idiots. By idiots;” and, even now as a professor, against “the Great Tenure Committee,” where “they had people voting on me I wouldn't employ to wax my car” (21, 23).

Unfortunately, as John gained credentials through his attacks on an educational system riddled with inconsistencies, he never considered the inconsistencies within his own belief system and his own temperament. For example, as a professor, it is John's job to grade students' work, but he fails to see a connection between his actions and those of the teachers who graded his own work because he unconsciously adopts the position that his rebelliousness against the system has made him, de facto, impervious to charges of academic, to use his own word, “hazing.” In a similar vein, he condemns Carol's statement on her paper, “‘I think that the ideas contained in this work express the author's feelings in a way that he intended, based on his results,’” as being worthless because it says nothing analytically insightful about the subject. However, Carol's evaluation is more than vapid; it offends his understanding of his purpose as an educator. The subtext behind his critique of Carol's paper is that she has not followed his own methodology and dissected the author's position, an attack that students should make on any thinker other than himself.

Projecting a belief that the Tenure Committee's preliminary report has provided him with a mantle of invulnerability, John sets about redefining the course so that it will become a worthwhile experience for Carol. She will no longer be judged as the other students in class are; she is guaranteed an ‘A’ for the course even though it is the middle of the semester and she is currently failing. He will forget about her poor performance on her paper if she will just meet with him a few times in his office. After all, as John says, “What's important is that I awake your interest, if I can, and that I answer your questions. Let's start over” (26). How can such a seemingly generous offer fail?

For Carol, John's words have implications that escape the professor completely. On a personal level, such snippets of conversation as “Because I like you,” “I like you. Is that so difficult for you to …,” and “There's no one here but you and me” (21, 27) both place Carol on her guard and go directly into her notebook, where they can later be stripped of context and evolve new meanings. To her, John's critique of higher education, loosely modeled on the thoughts of Thorstein Veblen, is bewildering. She misunderstands John's statement that Americans have “a prejudice toward” higher education to mean that “higher education is prejudice.” She is baffled by his remark that his job is “[t]o provoke you,” and wonders why “… to make me mad is your job?” Most importantly, she believes that she is being forced to endure both his anecdotal use of a childhood story about the amount of clothing that the rich and poor wear when they copulate and his noxious, self-serving characterization of the public school system as “The White Man's Burden.

Once again, she explodes:

NO, NO—I DON'T UNDERSTAND. DO YOU SEE??? I DON'T UNDERSTAND. … What are you talking about? What is everyone talking about? I don't understand. I don't know what it means. … you tell me I'm intelligent, and then you tell me I should not be here, what do you want with me?


Appearing to be deeply touched by Carol's pain, John, acting more like a therapist than a professor, reaches out to her as the first act comes to an end, and Carol responds to his concern:

I always …
… good …
I always … all my life … I have never told anyone this …
Yes. Go on. (Pause) Go on.
All of my life …


Apparently, Carol is prepared to trust John with her most personal secrets, but the telephone, ever-present symbol of the external pressures that hound human existence, suddenly rings again. At this crucial moment in the play, John turns away from Carol's pain, picks up the phone, and insensitively commences arguing about the house he is planning to buy, only to discover that all the phone calls he has been receiving are a ruse to trick him into attending a surprise party in honor of his tenure announcement. Ironically, John's attempts to secure his new house—in conversations that actually have nothing to do with that house—will cost him his career.

John and Carol's final attempt at communication at the end of the first act is a microcosmic presentation of their inability to interact. After John extracts himself from his phone conversation, Carol reaches the conclusion that the party is being held because “They're proud of you.” As usual, unfortunately, John denies her the satisfaction of an acceptable conclusion; “there are,” he smugly announces, “those who would say” that “a surprise” is “a form of aggression” (41) as the first act concludes. When Carol leaves her professor's office, she is even more confused than when she entered. Is it any wonder that she accepts the answers that the group provides her? They, at least, give her the illusion that their understanding of education can provide answers to life's confusion.

In the two short scenes that comprise the second act, the implications of the first act's subtext emerge, and the characters' physical positions at the onset of act two help define each's status. Now, the telephone is unused, and the two characters sit facing each other, separated only by John's desk. The professor's opening monologue makes it clear that his position is under siege. He first attempts to intimidate his student with his vocabulary: “And, so, I asked and ask myself if I engaged in heterodoxy, I will not say ‘gratuitously’ for I do not care to posit orthodoxy as a given good—but, ‘to the detriment of my students’” (43). He expects that Carol, confronted by such verbiage, will wither. Further, he claims that he is trying to protect Carol and not his own vested interests when he attempts to bully her into withdrawing her accusations against him. Ironically, this sixties rebel, or “maverick” as Carol later sarcastically labels him, has evolved into an advocate of individual security and the status quo because it is now personally advantageous for him to do so. His hypocrisy is most clear when he redefines the previously despised tenure committee as “Good Men and True.” Carol's reminder that a female sits on the committee bluntly drives the professor's shortsightedness home.

“Basically,” Mamet told an interviewer, Robert Feldberg, in 1984, “in any profession—doctors, lawyers, even social workers—when you get past the rhetoric, people are out to make a living. What people do is different than what they say they're doing.”14 While these remarks were formulated to demonstrate that the actions of the real estate salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross were akin to economic procedures engaged in by all of humanity, Oleanna exemplifies the consistency of Mamet's perceptions about human motivation. Even scholars have vested interests, and John's vulnerability is grounded in his dishonesty about his own.

Dismissing John's attempt to use language as an intimidation tactic, Carol challenges John with elemental terms against which he is defenseless: “You can't do that anymore. You. Do. Not. Have. The. Power” (50), “You love the Power” (52), “Do you know what you've worked for? Power. For power” (64), “You want unlimited power” (66), “Why do you hate me? … Because I have, you think, power over you” (68), and “Now you know, do you see? What it is to be subject to that power” (70).

Unfortunately, Carol's (and her group's) own hunger for power is as ravenous and self-serving as John's. Incapable of embracing such concepts as “dialogue,” “compromise,” and “agreement,” Carol, sudden spokeswoman for her group, reveals in her newly found power, flatly stating: “You have an agenda, we have an agenda,” once she perceives that the balance of power has changed. She relentlessly presses her attack with such McCarthyesque tactics as a list of banned, “questionable” books and “a statement … which we need you to … (75);” Mamet hardly needs to add the word “sign.” At first, the suddenly powerless professor mouths vagaries about “Academic freedom” in response, but when he finds that his book, his intellectual legacy for his son, is on the list of books to be shunned, he feels Carol at his jugular.

The through-line of a drama, Mamet has said, must move towards a conclusion that is “both inevitable and surprising,”15 but, perhaps because of the strength of Oleanna's secondary themes (gender conflict, the relationship between mentor and student, and the meaning of the word “education”), constructing the ending that best accomplishes the author's goals for Oleanna proved to be a challenge. Mamet's close friend, actor W. H. Macy, who portrayed John in both the original Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the New York productions of Oleanna, noted, just after the play opened at New York's Orpheum Theatre in November 1992, that:

We tried many variations on the ending. In one version I read a statement at the end. We kept toying with the ending as we got closer and closer to the New York opening. I'm not even sure that Dave is finished with the ending yet. He may suddenly come up with a new version even after the opening.16

While the playwright himself has written that he has “no comment on multiple endings” for the play,17 debate about Oleanna's conclusion resurfaced when Harold Pinter, as director, revived the so-called “original” or “Cambridge” ending for the play's London run. However, Mamet's decision to both direct and publish the “New York” ending (Random House and Methuen) clearly indicates his own preference and relegates the “Cambridge” ending to a discarded possibility supplanted by, in the author's mind, a superior ending. When asked by Leonard Lopate about how this earlier ending worked, the playwright tersely dismissed the query, saying “I can't remember.”18

The ending the playwright did choose both rocks the audience's sensibilities and brings the playwright's presentation on how power is wielded within his academic microcosm to a logical and unsettling conclusion. Facing public repudiation of his entire life's work, John gathers enough courage to stand up to Carol's onslaught: “You're dangerous, you're wrong, and it's my job … to say no to you” (76). But the professor quickly finds himself in an even more desperate situation when the next phone call reveals the accusation that, as Carol phrases it, “you tried to rape me. … According to the law” (77). Carol has had such success manipulating people into accepting her perceptions of John's words that re-interpreting his behavior when he tried to keep her from leaving his office as attempted rape is a logical step for her to take.

Brilliantly, Mamet uses Carol's Maoist tactics to switch the audience's sympathies to John. The professor may be patronizing and less effective as an educator than he had ever dreamed, but a rapist? Carol's feckless charge denigrates the plight of true rape victims and cheapens many of her earlier, excellent points about sexism and abuses of power in academia. But Mamet, never one to let the audience leave the theater with too facile a conclusion, readjusts the characters' relationship one last time in the closing moments of the play. Faced with the loss of job, house, and perhaps family as well, John reacts to Carol's final intrusion into his life “… and don't call your wife ‘baby’” with rage:

You vicious little bitch. You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life?

(He knocks her to the floor.)

Rape you … ? Are you kidding me … ?

(He picks up a chair, raises it above his head, and advances on her.)

I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. You little cunt


In an essay entitled “True Stories of Bitches,” Mamet stated:

… the ultimate response the man feels is, of course, physical violence. … If I get pushed just one little step further, why I might, I might just—(FILL IN THE BLANK) because she seems to have forgotten that I'M STRONGER THAN HER.19

Surprisingly, some audience members—both male and female—cheered John's violent response to Carol's overblown assault because they felt that Carol had supplied sufficient provocation; however, Carol's last words leave no room for comfortable conclusions: “Yes. That's right. (She looks away from him, and lowers her head. To herself:) “… yes. That's right” (80). Never questioning the legitimacy or morality of her own tactics, Carol's final words affirm her belief that John's after-the-fact physical battering of her body justifies all that she has previously done to him.

Whether the audience sympathizes with either of his characters at the play's conclusion is beyond the artist's control, the author says. “‘I neither do nor do not want us to side with one character or the other. It's not my job to make the audience do anything.’”20 Instead, his principal duty as a writer, Mamet maintains, is to tell the story and let the audience draw its own conclusions: “To write a play with a stringent plot is wonderfully, incredibly demanding. That's what I do when I write a play: stick to the plot. If I do that, the rest will take care of itself. The theme is a post facto consideration”21

Nevertheless, Oleanna rapidly marches to a disturbing conclusion that engenders arguments on issues ranging far beyond John and Carol's individual behavior because, as in all of Mamet's major work, the through-line is subject to a greater purpose. Mamet has often acknowledged the powerful influence that the Russian dramatic theorist Constantin Stanislavsky has had upon his life and art; in fact, just after Oleanna's opening the playwright remarked:

Stanislavsky said that the purpose of the theater is to bring to the stage the life of the human soul. If anyone ever needed an excuse to make fun of me, there's the fact that I just said that. But I believe it to be true. The purpose of theatrical art is to bring to the stage in all its variety and terror and humor and delight the life of the human soul.22

Like so many earlier Mamet works, Oleanna is painted on a seemingly small canvas, featuring only two characters and a very static, minimalist stage setting. Nevertheless, the play's rigid adherence to its through-line and the author's stated intention to bring the human soul to life in his work results in a ripple effect that stimulates responses, not just to John and Carol's individual struggle against each other, but also to how their confrontation reflects on more universal aspects of the human condition, including sexism, avarice, the relationship between generations, and self-awareness, not just in academia but in life in general.


  1. David Mamet, “Mamet on Playwriting,” The Dramatists Guild Quarterly, 30 (Spring 1993), 10.

  2. Louis Botto, “Mamet's Oleanna,Playbill: The National Theatre Magazine. Off-Broadway edition, 92 (November 1992), 47.

  3. David Mamet, Writing in Restaurants. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989, 26.

  4. David Savran, “David Mamet,” In Their Own Words. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1988, 136.

  5. Leonard Lopate, “Interview with David Mamet,” New York and Company. Broadcast: WNYC (25 October 1994).

  6. Lopate.

  7. Benedict Nightingale, “More Aristotle Than Hemingway,” The London Times (15 September 1993), 37.

  8. Savran, 136-7.

  9. Ibid., 143.

  10. Ibid., 137.

  11. “Mamet on Playwriting,” 10-11.

  12. Ibid., 11

  13. David Mamet, Oleanna. New York: Random House, 1993, 67. All subsequent page references are to this edition.

  14. Robert Feldberg, “Fame is a 4-Letter Word,” The Record, 89 (17 April 1984), B-1.

  15. “Mamet on Playwriting,” 11.

  16. Botto, 48.

  17. David Mamet, Note to the author, 8 September 1994.

  18. Lopate.

  19. Restaurants, 44.

  20. Lopate.

  21. “Mamet on Playwriting,” 11.

  22. Ibid., 13.

Thomas H. Goggans (essay date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Goggans, Thomas H. “Laying Blame: Gender and Subtext in David Mamet's Oleanna.Modern Drama 40, no. 4 (winter 1997): 433-41.

[In the following essay, Goggans asserts that protagonist Carol reveals consistent signs of child sexual abuse in Oleanna.]

“The Bitch Set Him Up”—that's what Daniel Mufson thought the working title of Oleanna could have been, after he appraised the critical responses to the play's 1992 New York production, adding that “one can expect few other reactions when Carol is such a viper.”1 Mamet's presentation of the conflict between a professor and his female student is marked by ambiguous discourse, troubling physical contact, and subsequent charges of sexual harassment.2 Mufson found, in the seventeen reviews of the play he considered, two typical responses: some critics, including John Lahr, seem to defend the play's political message because they “[loathe] what Carol represents,”3 while others, Elaine Showalter among them, lament the construction of a play which “targets a woman as an ugly representative of the group that challenges the white masculine ruling class.”4 Each condemns Carol, some feeling that Mamet went too far in creating such a harridan in order to support his misogynistic views. As Deborah Tannen wrote, “we don't need a play that helps anyone feel good about a man beating a woman.”5 Mufson shares Tannen's view, remarking that “Oleanna's aesthetic merit, if it has any, has become parenthetical to its polemics.”6 Significantly, none of these reviewers seems to have found any justification for Carol's actions. Mufson mentions “the annoying little problem that one of the two characters in Oleanna is a cardboard cut-out, a nightmarish phantom conjured by the paranoid fantasies of a patriarchy peering over a cliff to see … egalitarianism.”7 He quotes approvingly Tannen's observation that Carol is “all surface: just a stereotype that audiences can join in hating,” and David Richard's remark that Oleanna is “rigged” so that its action “slips out of control without our really understanding how or why.”8 Mufson also cites John Simon, who voices three possible interpretations: “Was [Carol's] near imbecility in Act One … an elaborate act of entrapment? Or is she a genuine idiot savant whom the Group has coached in some fancy lingo? Or is Mamet simply playing fast and loose with authorial responsibility?”9

The failure of these critics to uncover any dramatically consistent subtext for Carol within this “rigged” plot recapitulates Carol's plight within the play; Mamet achieves a wonderful irony in constructing a text which the audience must decode just as the characters are required to do. In fact, Carol's critics have ignored the behavioral motivations implicit in the play. Christine MacLeod notes this absence in her study of gender and power in Oleanna, focusing on the fruitlessness of imposing a Manichean gender interpretation onto the text. She observes, “the consensus is that the play has constructed Carol in such one-sided negative terms that no genuine debate about the merits of her position is necessary or even possible.”10 MacLeod instead sees questions of power within the pedagogic relationship as the central concern in Oleanna, noting that “the gender difference between student and teacher is not the crux of the matter.”11 In her analysis, gender becomes a factor merely as a tactic Carol can employ to change her position within her power relation with John, the sort of pragmatic strategy also employed within the power relationships in Mamet's other plays, such as Glengarry Glen Ross.12

MacLeod is sensitive to the significance of popular culture and contemporary sexual politics as the interpretive field in which Carol maneuvers, yet she fails to recognize a series of transparent “hints” within the play which call to mind certain clichés within pop psychology that permeate the contemporary American consciousness. The reading I propose offers a subtext for the apparent contradictions in Carol's personality which appear throughout the play. Such a reading honors the play's dramatic complexity without resorting to polemics on either side of the struggle Carol wages with John. Without undermining valuable analyses of power and sexual politics in the play, and without diminishing the oppressive implications of John's patriarchal assumptions, an awareness of the clues offered as a subtextual context for Carol's actions frees Oleanna from charges that its plot is rigged. I think this interpretation bolsters MacLeod's argument by nesting her consideration of power strategies within a concrete dramatic context.

Carol's inability to recognize the normative, undistorted terms required to understand John's actions is implicit in the language of Act One and further supported by later passages in the play. If we as readers can interpret those misunderstood terms as examples of an aberrant, distorted contextual standard in her own life, she ceases to be “a cardboard cut-out” or simply a stereotype. Intimations of Carol's past experiences appear throughout the play: though one cannot make definite biographical inferences about her based on these cues, they do supply a plausible context within which she operates. Significantly, the first words spoken by Carol provide a clue to uncovering her subtext, as she asks “What is a ‘term of art?’” to which John responds, “It seems to mean a term, which has come, through its use, to mean something more specific than the words would, to someone not acquainted with them … indicate” (2-3).

In Act One of Oleanna, Carol constantly traffics in the code words of incest and child sexual abuse, speaking and responding in ways that are recognizable to anyone familiar with the representation of sexual abuse in today's culture. She exhibits low self esteem, depression, and guilt, remarking: “Did … did I … did I say something wr[ong]” (3); “I'm stupid” (12); “I'll never learn” (14); “nobody wants me” (14); and “I know what I am. [ … ] I know what I am” (14-15). Psychologist Dianne Cleveland has written that:

Considerable evidence is mounting that some females who experience incest in childhood consider themselves permanently injured and therefore seek therapy. … Frequently these women report low self-esteem, sexual dysfunctions, depression, guilt, shame, feelings of isolation, and mistrust of both males and females.13

Therapist Laura Davis describes such characteristics in her patients: “Every survivor I've ever met has battled with shame, with the awful sense that there was something wrong with them deep down inside that caused the abuse.”14 Davis also notes that in adult survivors of child sexual abuse

[t]he litany of verbal abuse becomes internalized, and instead of hearing it from the outside, you record and store it, and end up saying the same self-hating things to yourself. … you get depressed and a voice inside says, “You'll never amount to anything.”

These voices … are the regurgitated lies of the abusers.15

In the revised ending Mamet added to the play for its New York production, Carol replicates the phenomenon Davis describes. As John menaces her with a chair and bellows, “I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. You little cunt,” she seems to regress into a familiar pattern:

“Yes. That's right. (She looks away from him, and lowers her head. To herself:) … yes. That's right.”


These allusions in Mamet's portrayal of Carol do not represent the necessary cause of her actions, of course; but they do repeatedly echo an accessible discourse most of his audience should be familiar with, providing them with a possible pattern with which to interpret Carol's actions.

Sexual confusion and shame are confirmed later in Act Three as Carol accuses John of viewing her as an “abandoned young thing of some doubtful sexuality,” a statement reflecting her own insecurities (68). Carol also acknowledges that something other than her course grade is troubling her when the professor tells her she seems angry: “It is true. I have problems …” (7). Late in the play, she refers to her past: “But we worked to get to this school. (Pause) And some of us. (Pause) Overcame prejudices. Economic, sexual, you cannot begin to imagine. And endured humiliations I pray that you and those you love never will encounter” (69). This “sexual” allusion can be viewed as a generalized term exposing patriarchal oppression. But it can also be viewed as a personal reflection. In the film version of Oleanna, directed by Mamet, the actress Debra Eisenstadt gasps the word “sexual” and physically recoils during an otherwise assertive, self-contained oration.16

The student-teacher relationship depicted in Act One is a pastiche of phrases and clichés associated with the secrecy and psychological manipulation of incestuous abuse. Carol's “misunderstanding” lies in this coincidence. I suggest that she finds herself in a situation which replicates through her interpretive screen some sort of previous abuse. She is disturbed because the present seems to be repeating the past as she obeys the demands of a male authority figure and yet cannot “satisfy” him: “I'm doing what I'm told. It's difficult for me” (6), and “I did what you told me. I did” (9). Several exchanges with John on the subject of his teaching principles follow the patterns of molesters seducing children. This is clearly so as he offers Carol an “A” if she will submit to unorthodox but well-intentioned instruction:

I say we can. (Pause) I say we can.
But I don't believe it.
Yes, I know that. But it's true. What is The Class but you and me? (Pause)
There are rules.
Well. We'll break them.
How can we?
We won't tell anybody.
Is that all right?
I say that it's fine.
Why would you do this for me?
I like you. Is that so difficult for you to …
Um …
There's no one here but you and me. (Pause)


She cannot contextualize this interchange properly because she lacks the normative experience necessary for recognizing an ideological abuse of language. She identifies John's words as similar to a molester's rap, and therefore misinterprets them.

Further evidence of Carol's contextual confusion appears as John ironically (and perhaps disingenuously) attempts to explain that his role as teacher differs from that of a conventional authority figure:

Now, look: I'm a human being, I …
I did what you told me. I did, I did everything that, I read your book, you told me to buy your book and read it. Everything you say I … [ … ] I do. … Ev …
… look:
… everything I'm told …
Look. Look. I'm not your father. (Pause)
Did I say you were my father?
… no …
Why did you say that … ?
I …
… why … ?


In the film, this exchange is a slowly paced interlude, emphasizing its significance, during a frenetic conversation. It also recapitulates Mamet's pregnant allusion to parental abuse in his film House of Games, in which the psychiatrist Margaret Ford unwittingly exposes her own troubled psyche when discussing an abused patient with another doctor:

I know why she is in the hospital. she's sick. [ … ] That poor girl, all her life my father tells her she's a whore, so all her life she seeks out …
“My father …”?
I'm sorry?
You said, “My father says that she's a whore.”
My father … ? (Beat.) I said, “My” father … ?(17)

An earlier Freudian slip by Ford, substituting “pressures in my life” for “pleasures,” heightens the impact of this passage.18 Mamet seems to employ this strategy in both works in order to insinuate character motivation.

Returning to Oleanna, Carol's abrupt defensiveness appears to mask a particularly sensitive secret which she nearly confesses later in Act One:

I feel bad.
I know. It's all right.
I … (Pause)
I …
What? Tell me.
I don't understand you.
I know. It's all right.
I …
What? (Pause) What? Tell me.
I can't tell you.
No, you must.
I can't.
No. Tell me. (Pause)
I'm bad. (Pause) Oh, God. (Pause)
It's all right.
I'm …
It's all right.
I can't talk about this.
It's all right. Tell me.
Why do you want to know this?
I don't want to know. I want to know whatever you …
I always …
… good …
I always … all my life … I have never told anyone this …
Yes. Go on. (Pause) Go on.
All of my life … (The phone rings.)


In Mamet's film, this interchange takes place in the shadows of a half-lit conference room adjacent to John's office, accentuating the secrecy of Carol's past as well as its tortured relevance. The passage serves as the hook on which my interpretation depends. This unspoken secret lies behind the “hints” previously described, compelling us to interpret them as echoes of Carol's actual experience as well as reflective manifestations of John's pedagogic hegemony.

With the beginning of the second act, Carol gains a voice she did not possess in Act One. This change involves the use of inflammatory language employed by her “Group,” a pugnacious style which goes hand in hand with the rhetoric of abuse to which Carol seems so sensitive. Controversial feminist legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon, arguing for restrictive laws against pornography in Only Words, describes the effect of sexual abuse on women:

[C]onsider what it does to one's relation to expression: to language, speech, the world of thought and communication. You learn that language does not belong to you, that you cannot use it to say what you know, that knowledge is not what you learn from your life, that information is not made out of your experience. You learn that thinking about what happened to you does not count as “thinking,” but doing it apparently does. You learn that your reality subsists somewhere beneath the socially real—totally exposed but invisible, screaming yet inaudible, thought about incessantly yet unthinkable, “expression” yet inexpressible, beyond words. You learn that speech is not what you say but what your abusers do to you.19

This seems an apt characterization of Carol's frustration and estrangement, serving as another key to the context through which she confronts the conflicts in the play. In Act Two she rebukes John:

You think, you think you can deny that these things happened; or, if they did, if they did, that they meant what you said they meant. Don't you see? You drag me in here, you drag us, to listen to you “go on”; and “go on” about this or that, or we don't “express” ourselves very well. We don't say what we mean. Don't we? Don't we? We do say what we mean.”


With the help of the Group, she has become assertive and confident, and now exhibits indignation rather than guilt. No longer timorous and helpless, she can proclaim: “I don't think that I need your help. I don't think I need anything you have” (49).

This transformation is derived from the Group, which provides her with support and advice, unlike John, whose pedagogic role is simply a reformulation of other patriarchal structures, including the family. John Lahr notes this fact, though he fails to place it within a convincing dramatic context:

Carol, who lacked words before, has got educated in a hurry by what she refers to as her Group, and she speaks now with the righteous fervor of a woman whose day has come. This transition is jarring but intentional. She has acquired a new voice and a new vocabulary, whose authority precludes ambiguity. She adopts political correctness as an intellectual carapace that substitutes dogma for thought, mission for mastery. Naming is claiming, and since Carol won't work to master a world she can't comprehend, she changes the frame of reference to a world she can.20

Lahr correctly describes the process Carol follows, but he seems to feel that her motivation is her “adamant dimness” and “the awful spoiling power of envy disguised as political ideology.” He insightfully remarks, “Carol's rigidity is a sign of her insecurity,” but errs in seeing ignorance as the sole source of that insecurity.21

Most importantly, the ideological rigidity of the Group is antithetical to Carol's previous abusive context, providing her with meaning, purpose, and hope. It serves as the answer to her plea at the end of Act Two: “WOULD SOMEBODY HELP ME PLEASE … ?” (57). But though it seems to free her, in fact it merely replicates the manipulation of her abusive past, allowing her to repress rather than excise her secret. The evasive effect is clear as Carol remarks: “What I ‘feel’ is irrelevant” and “The issue here is not [ … ] my ‘feelings,’ but the feelings of women” (49, 63). Thus, rather than gaining her own voice at last, Carol merely becomes the Group's mouthpiece. As in so many of Mamet's works, power structures pursue their own preservation, often disregarding those whom they claim to serve. In this sense, Carol's relation to the Group mirrors her relation to John. In echoing the rhetoric of the Group, she is again merely reading back her notes as she did in John's class. For example, she does not fully understand John's use of the words “precepts” (14), “index” (24), “predilection” (31), “paradigm” (45), “indictment” (63), and “transpire” (66). Yet she parrots without hesitation the terms she undoubtedly learns from the Group: “to countenance continuation,” “manipulative” (51), “impinge” (56), “derive” (72), and “amenable” (74).

Carol appears to embrace the ideological rigor of the Group because it provides her with a ready-made tool allowing her to identify and challenge a world which she perceives as her victimizer. And John's fatuous pedagogy, revealing an essentially patriarchal position, is worthy of measured criticism. But the specific allegations of sexual harassment and assault seem unreasonable. And the harassment she perceives does not seem to be drawn from a “willful misinterpretation,” as Lahr describes.22 Instead, it seems to be misinterpretation fated by her personal history and merely mis-channeled by the self-interested Group which pursues, in John, a legitimate perpetrator of hierarchic abuse, but the wrong representative of Carol's literal “patriarchal” abuse. Carol's relationship with her Group thus becomes a type of exploitation itself, which emphasizes the complexity of Carol's role within the text and validates the significance of her struggle within the context analyzed by MacLeod. The truths and errors Carol utters must then be acknowledged rather than dismissed as merely the tactics of a stereotyped p.c. “bitch.”

In Act Three, Carol tells John, “I've profited nothing from your, your, as you say, your ‘misfortune’” (68). But she has profited in overcoming the self-loathing and uncertainty of Act One. In this sense, she has clearly benefited from her contact with the Group, though, I would argue, she is avoiding the authentic source of her unhappiness. John is only partly correct in proclaiming early in Act Two, “I'm not a bogeyman. I don't ‘stand’ for something” (50). One of the tragedies of Oleanna is that he does come to “stand for something” to Carol, as illustrated by the terms of child sexual abuse Mamet employs in the play. Daniel Mufson's reading of the play exhibits a failed understanding of Carol when he describes her as “femme fatale and p.c. fascist rolled into one,” a stereotypical character constructed only to produce fury in the audience.23 Such angry responses to Carol fail to recognize the dramatic progression she experiences.


  1. Daniel Mufson, “Sexual Perversity in Viragos,” Theater 24:1 (1993), 111-12.

  2. See David Mamet, Oleanna (New York, 1993). Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  3. Mufson, 112, referring to John Lahr, “Dogma Days,” review of Oleanna, by David Mamet, as performed by the Back Bay Theater Company at the Orpheum Theatre, New York, New Yorker (16 November 1992), 121-25.

  4. Mufson, 113, referring to Elaine Showalter, “Acts of Violence: David Mamet and the Language of Men,” review of Oleanna at the Orpheum, Times Literary Supplement (6 November 1992), 16-17. See note 1.

  5. Deborah Tannen, “He Said … She Said … Who Did What?” New York Times (15 November 1992), Arts and Leisure 6, quoted in Mufson, 113.

  6. Mufson, 111. See note 1.

  7. Ibid., 112.

  8. Mufson, 113, quoting Tannen, 6, see note 1; David Richards, “The Jackhammer Voice of Mamet's Oleanna,” review of Oleanna at the Orpheum, New York Times (8 November 1992), Arts and Leisure, 5.

  9. Mufson, 112, quoting John Simon, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Turkey,” review of Oleanna at the Orpheum, New York (9 November 1992), 72. See note 1.

  10. Christine MacLeod, “The Politics of Gender, Language and Hierarchy in Mamet's Oleanna,Journal of American Studies, 29:2 (1995), 200-01.

  11. Ibid., 204.

  12. For an illuminating study of such strategies in Mamet's earlier plays, see Pascale Hubert-Leibler, “Dominance and Anguish: The Teacher-Student Relationship in the Plays of David Mamet,” Modern Drama, 31:4 (1988), 557-70.

  13. Dianne Cleveland, Incest: The Story of Three Women (Lexington, MA 1986), 11. Cleveland's clinical text provides an interesting series of images which have entered American popular discourse.

  14. Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal Workbook: For Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (New York, 1990), 256. Self-help books such as this illustrate the widespread rhetoric of abuse, easily recognizable in the popular culture, which Mamet exploits in Oleanna. For relevant insights into this topic, see also David Mamet, “Self-Help,” in Make-Believe Town: Essays and Remembrances (Boston, 1996), 161-66.

  15. Davis, 281. See note 14.

  16. Oleanna, dir. David Mamet, Samuel Goldwyn, 1994.

  17. House of Games: A Screenplay by David Mamet (New York, 1987), 30.

  18. Ibid., 8.

  19. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Only Words (Cambridge, MA, 1993), 6. MacKinnon's polemic is yet another example of the pervasive rhetoric of abuse available for Mamet to appropriate in alluding to Carol's past.

  20. Lahr, 124. See note 3.

  21. Ibid., 122, 121, 124.

  22. Ibid., 124.

  23. Mufson, 111. See note 1.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 27 October 1997)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Wait a While.” New Republic 217, no. 17 (27 October 1997): 26-7.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann comments on the predictability of The Edge.]

This, as it turns out, is National Forbearance Week—anyway, I hope so. Three important artists have produced wavering work, and without blinking the present facts, it's the moment for those of us who value those artists to remember what they have done and to await what may come from them.

David Mamet, a premier American dramatist, is essentially an urban writer. Most of his best plays—The Water Engine,American Buffalo,Glengarry Glen Ross, for instance—have looked at city grittiness the way a microphotograph looks at the eye of a fly, finding mystery in enlarged detail. A film he wrote and directed, House of Games, drew us into the mazes of urban chicanery. Most of the screenplays he has adapted from other people's material, such as The Verdict, have the scent of city streets.

Very occasionally, as in his play The Woods, Mamet feels the urge to put urban people in non-urban environments. This is his Jack London mode, and this impulse to test sophisticated characters in primitive conditions reaches its extreme in his screenplay for The Edge. Here a middle-aged billionaire, his young wife, and some companions go to a lodge in the Alaskan mountains, after which the billionaire and a couple of other men fly farther north to find a hunter. Out in the wilds, the plane crashes, of course.

“Of course” because: Why would the billionaire be placed in the wilds if the plot weren't going to pit him against nature in the raw? And why would we have had all those warnings about bears If a 1,400-pound bear weren't going to show up shortly after the crash? These inevitabilities arrive, together with incidents almost equally foreseeable; and unfortunately for the film, the confrontations of bear and billionaire are so pat, the outcome so predictable (do stars get eaten by bears?) that we feel we're watching a sort of ballet arranged for kinetic design rather than for drama.

The plot has other elements, including a very sub subplot about the billionaire's young wife. His three companions all die along the way in the wilds. One of them (a lesser actor) is actually eaten by the bear. The scenes with the bear are mildly exciting but only because we wonder how they were done; the really interesting point is that in every crisis, it's the billionaire who has the best ideas and behaves most sensibly. We must infer, though this point may surprise Mametians, that billions denote character and brain power, that one doesn't amass so much money unless one is a truly calm and courageous character, and that if you're going to be stranded in the wilderness, it had better be with Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.

Well, sursum corda. Advance word on a new film that Mamet has written and directed, The Spanish Prisoner, is enticing.

Stefan Kanfer (review date 29 December 1997)

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SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Diverting Sorrows.” New Leader 80, no. 19 (29 December 1997): 35.

[In the following review, Kanfer provides a negative judgment of the three plays in The Old Neighborhood.]

David Mamet has made a considerable reputation out of staccato and scatology. When his characters are not strafing each other with threats, they saturate the air with the language of the barracks and the gutter. Often this has the effect of candid, vigorous expression—capturing the way people actually talk under pressure. Such was the case in full-length works like Speed the Plow and Glengarry Glen Ross. It is not the case in his latest effort.

For one thing, The Old Neighborhood is not really a play. The intermissionless show at the Booth Theater amounts to three autobiographical one-acters centered on the middle-aged Bobby (Peter Riegert) as he makes a sentimental journey to his past. In the first, The Disappearance of the Jews, he discusses the vagaries of faith and sex with his boyhood friend Joey (Vincent Guastaferro). In the second, Jolly, he visits his unhappy sister and her relentlessly suburban husband (Patti LuPone and Jack Willis). Finally, in Deeny he parts from his old inamorata (Rebecca Pidgeon).

The encroaching years have made Bobby ponder the consolations of Judaism. He and the others are uncomfortably aware that faith has slipped away in the rush of contemporary life. Fantasy, rather than religion, now seems their common refuge. Joey dreams of destroying his current attachments and seeking God in a forest, like some Old Testament prophet; Jolly wants to remake her marriage; Deeny plans to cultivate a garden. Clearly, none of these ambitions will be realized. They will simply be talked away, as yearnings usually are in Mamet plays, with the participants continually interrupting each other or repeating phrases—“Am I right? Am I right?”; “You don't want to hear it”; “I don't want to tell it.”

Through the years the playwright has become famous for creating characters of inarticulate eloquence, people who cover their psychic wounds with a carapace of curses. Most of the time Mamet's dialogue is so effective that what he says has seemed less important than how he said it. That was all very well when he was splashing around in shallow water, commenting on the hypocrisies of Hollywood or the double-dealing of real estate operators. But here he is after something much deeper, and much less congenial to his gifts. The Playbill makes a point of quoting Mamet's petulant essay about Reform Judaism. Today, with a “growing sense of the reality of God,” he remembers the religion of his youth as “inconclusive and unfortunate … [even] though the God Jehovah, the God of Wrath and Strength and Righteousness spoke through the mouth of Charles Atlas, he was deemed quite out of place in the Sinai Temple.”

The problem of how far Jews may depart from tradition and still call themselves Jews may seem a revolutionary topic to Mamet, but among thinking people it is old news. On stage, too, it has grown long whiskers. Paddy Chayefsky's play, The Tenth Man, questioned whether liberal Judaism would be overwhelmed by American materialism and the anxiety to assimilate. That tragicomedy featured a rabbi demanding of a colleague, “How in heaven's name are you going to convey an awe of God to boys who will race out of your Hebrew classes to fly model rocket ships 500 feet in the air exploding in three stages? To my boys, God is a retired mechanic.” That was back in 1959.

Scott Zigler has directed The Old Neighborhood with panache. The quartet of actors have responded briskly. Riegert is especially effective when he listens, and LuPone when she talks. Kevin Rigdon's sets and Harriet Voyt's costumes are suitably bleak. A pity these talents had to be squandered on an antique masking as postmodern art. If Mamet was determined to comment on American-Jewish anomie, he could at least have taken the trouble to look at the Samuel French catalogue before he sat down to write.

Juliet Fleming (review date 10 April 1998)

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SOURCE: Fleming, Juliet. “Now You're Talkin' Sense.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 1958 (10 April 1998): 19.

[In the following review, Fleming evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Wag the Dog and The Edge.]

David Mamet's voluminous work exists in a variety of forms and relations. Since 1970, he has written more than thirty full-length stage plays, from Duck Variations (1972), Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), American Buffalo (1975), to Glengarry Glen Ross (for which he won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize), Speed-the-Plow (1988) and Oleanna (1992). Other publications include three collections of dramatic sketches, three books of essays, a book of poems, a novel, some short stories, two children's books, Five Television Plays (1990), two books about acting and one On Directing Film (1991). In 1978, looking for a more absorbent market for his talents, he started writing screenplays: these now include The Postman Always Rings Twice (1978), The Verdict (1982), The Untouchables (1985), Hoffa (1990), House of Games (1987), Things Change (1988), Homicide (1990), and, soon to be released, Oleanna (the last four all original screenplays also directed by Mamet).

Throughout his work, Mamet's consistent concern and working idiom has been the idée reçue: “This is what I'm saying to you. One thing. Makes all the difference in the world. … Knowing what the fuck you're talking about. And it's so rare, Don. So rare.” Mamet's characters express their desires, commit their crimes, and care for each other within the elastic and often hilarious register of the invented truism:

It's all got a purpose. The very fact that you are sitting here right now on this bench has got a purpose.
And so, by process of elimination, does the bench.
Now you're talking sense.
Darn Tootin'.

Characterized by banality, misprision and a carefully achieved wrong-headedness, Mamet's diseased language is a beautiful thing. The short spoken line lures his characters to participate in conversation with each other; while his demotic diction moves audiences to overlook the metrical compulsion of that line, and to believe that characters are speaking an authentic idiolect (for example, that of the Chicago mob).

Although Mamet is resistant to the tenets of psychoanalysis, his plots typically concern counter-transferential relationships, such as those between an analyst and her clients, a teacher and his student, a confidence man and his victims, an older and a younger friend. And every Mamet character wants to give himself up to the language of someone else, feel himself taken by the desire of another:

Being a loner in this world …
Is not my bag of tea.
Is no good. No man is an Island to himself.
Or to anyone else.

Mamet once corrected an interviewer who had suggested that his dramatic language was “inarticulate”: “You understand exactly what the character is saying. … You can't have a drama with inarticulate people in it.” In fact, for good or bad, Mamet's characters understand each other because they are themselves anxious to be understood, because they are listening for what they want to hear, and because, occasionally, they are able to show compassion for these impulses in each other.

Strangely, Mamet does not approve of such language games. In his critical writing, he treats the world as if it were the stage, and castigates it for that linguistic “corruption” which is his own best invention: “We live in an illiterate country. The mass media—the commercial theatre included—pander to the low and the lowest of the low in human experience. They, finally, debase us through the sheer weight of their mindlessness.” For Mamet, corrupt language corrupts thought. And one way to do battle with the resulting “moral cowardice” is to establish a properly revitalized American theatre.

Mamet's advice to aspiring actors, contained most recently in True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, counsels staying out of acting school, eschewing the excesses of Method acting, and adding nothing to what the playwright has written. Beyond this, the actor must learn more difficult tasks: to “be true and simple,” to “act to desire your own good opinion of yourself,” and to engage heroically with the “truth of the moment” on stage. None of these things can be taught, but they can be learned in the school of the theatre, which also provides its participants with an ethical education: “The theatre affords an opportunity uniquely suited for communicating and inspiring ethical behaviour. … In a morally bankrupt time we can help to change the habit of coercive and frightened action and substitute for it the habits of trust, self-reliance, and co-operation.”

To a cynical mind, it may appear that to think so, or to think so in these terms, is to remain trapped in the unanalytic continuum of received thought that is Mamet's dramatic world. As if by some horrid fatality, critics of Mamet's drama (including Mamet himself) rarely get beyond the simple reproduction of his most overt, and least interesting, ideas. A encyclopaedia of such ideas would be all too easy to write:

Characters: are their language. The attempt to make contact is crucial. Have no sense of personal values. Conclude, “Yearning for contact, characters isolate themselves.”

Comparable to: Beckett, Miller, O'Neill, Pinter. Concerns: moral and spiritual bankruptcy of American society; alienating consequences of capitalism; loss of masculine identity in a world that has lost its epic dimensions. Say, “A moralist lamenting society in its death throes.”

Influences: Aristotle, Artaud, the Bard, Beckett, Eisenstein, Stanislavsky. Say, “almost a Chekhovian subtext.”

Language: Brilliant distillation of Chicago blue-collar talk. Naturalistic. Stylized. Try, “Chicagoan-Pinteresque.”

Non-theatrical influences: Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Campbell, Freud, Hemingway, Karl Marx, the Stoics, Tolstoy, Thorstein Veblen (list compiled by Mamet).

On politics: “We are spiritually bankrupt—that's what's wrong with this country” (Mamet).

On theatre: “The most essential aspect of modern life” (Mamet).

On women: “Women want men to be men” (Mamet). “‘What are women?’ I asked myself, and, one day the answer came, ‘They are people too’” (Mamet).

On the evidence of his own writings, Mamet is a flexible thinker, with a varied stable of hobby-horses. One minute finds him advocating the rights of women and gay people; the next, he is asserting that “the true nature of the world, as between men and women, is sex, and any other relationship between us is either an elaboration, or an avoidance.” In fact, like many of his characters, Mamet will say anything—or say nothing—in its season: “Art is an expression of joy and awe. It is … an act of spirit. Our effect is not for us to know. It is not in our control.” The problem here is not only that Mamet is his own worst critic, but that such formulations begin to sound like the park-bench platitudes of his own wooly-headed characters. In fact, since Mamet is an extremely witty writer, with some talent for self-directed humour, the reader of his non-dramatic writings is increasingly haunted by the possibility that they are an elaborate joke.

One tangible benefit of Mamet's maverick intellect is that he has been able to combine his loud, sub-Marcusean cultural politics (“today's vast amusement parks, ‘theme parks,’ offer not amusement but the possibility of amusement”) with the successful pursuit of a Hollywood career. Although his two most recent screenplays both sound a call to arms against the forces of illusion, each ignores its own technological and financial investments in today's film industry, with the result that its nostalgia for a social contract seems quaint. Wag the Dog imagines an America so deluded and apathetic that a non-existent war can be engineered by the media (Oscar-nominated Dustin Hoffman as Hollywood producer Stanley Motss—“I haven't had this much fun since live TV”), the politicians behind the media, and the spin doctor behind them all (Robert de Niro as mysterious King-maker Conrad Brean—“What difference does it make if it's true?”) The relationship between De Niro and Hoffman (well-cast as the innocent narcissist Motss) is often extremely funny, as Motss and Brean collaborate to produce the war, with the help of Willy Nelson (lyrics) and presidential aide Anne Heche. The moral of the film is also pure Mamet: while Motss, claiming credit for the war that never happened, says “it's not the event, it's the treatment of the event” that matters, Mamet wants to insist that truth can and should be separated from its representations. The film invokes two extraordinary moments in the recent history of the image: the Gulf war (1991), when it first became possible to watch a war on television; and, in the same year, the release of Terminator 2, with its digitally produced and infinitely manipulable images. So, Brean claims to have witnessed the studio production of the Gulf war's famous “bomb falling down a chimney”; while a delighted Motss uses digital imaging to impose a cat in the arms of a fleeing “refugee.” But while Mamet sees this as the height of irresponsible cynicism, the film itself is finally, delightfully, on Motss's side—on the side, that is, of the simulacrum.

Staging its own escape from the corrupting superficialities of contemporary life (here represented by the world of fashion), The Edge argues that the world can be redeemed through the strength, courage and compassion of individual men, in this case the autodidactic billionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins), who clearly deserves to be as rich as he is. Venturing into the severe, astonishing wilderness of Alaska in a small seaplane with his wife's clandestine lover (bully of the fashion industry Robert Green, played by Mamet regular Alec Baldwin), Morse is forced to put his encyclopaedic knowledge and leadership skills to the severe tests of a plane crash, a long hike, the death of his companions, repeated encounters with a murderous bear, the confirmation of his wife's infidelity, and a final attempt on his life by Green. Through it all, Morse keeps his head (“Just because you're lost, doesn't mean your compass is broken”), his dignity (“Do you know why people die in the wilderness? … they die of shame”), and his belief that he will survive.

The Edge is a strikingly beautiful film, one that sets Charles Morse's wilderness lore slightly athwart the demoralizing realities of survival, in order to meditate on life, death and male friendship. Morse survives because he believes in the strength of men—of himself, of Green and of those who have gone before him (“what one man can do, another can do,” he reminds himself before killing a Kodiak bear with a pointed stick). But in its celebration of male rectitude and effort, The Edge sails dangerously close to Mamet's own private convictions (“to be in the Company of Men is, to me, a nonelective aspect of a healthy life”). Once there, once Morse and Green have killed the bear, skinned it, and made themselves natty skin tunics with matching bear-tooth necklaces, the movie begins to reveal itself as a risible fantasy. Something in Mamet's best work will not allow him to sustain a fully serious register. In this, it is wiser than he knows.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 27 April 1998)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Trickery and Tradition.” New Republic 218, no. 17 (27 April 1998): 26-7.

[In the following review, Kauffmann comments on the role of trickery and deceit in The Spanish Prisoner, and bemoans the film's transformation from business drama to crime thriller.]

Deception is a key theme in David Mamet. House of Games, for instance, moves through a series of seeming truths to revelations that expose those truths as mere tricks. Life, Mamet frequently reminds us, may possibly not be worse than it seems, but certainly is different from what we think it at first.

In the new film that Mamet has written and directed, The Spanish Prisoner deception is enlarged. It is not only the theme of the story, it engrosses the very form of the film. It begins as a tense, high-voltage business drama couched in secrecies. An inventor, Joe Ross, who works for a large New York company, has devised a new process (unspecified) that can bring his bosses many millions. Joe goes to a meeting in the Caribbean for a very private discussion with the company's CEO and some others. Through the first 20 minutes or so, the film whips along, taut and gleaming, with the fine Mamet dialogue that ingeniously seasons common conversation with inversion or odd phrases that lift it from the naturalistic into quasi-abstraction. And under Mamet's directional hand, all the purrs and plosions of Mamet rhythm are teasingly exploited.

As the film proceeds, it changes—not in texture but in intent. The business drama, which promised some tussles about power and money between visible forces, metamorphoses into a crime thriller, a scheme to steal Joe's process, with most of the forces invisible. Joe meets a man on that Caribbean island, meets him seemingly casually, who leads him and the film into another genre.

The title refers to a con game—it's explained somewhat fuzzily—of which this plot is a variation. Joe gets further and further enmeshed in troubles as he struggles to protect his process and as his position becomes more and more dangerous. At last, desperate and alone in his fight, he confides in Susan Ricci, a young woman who works for his company and who has been forthright about her personal interest in him. This confidence leads to more twists that keep exploding like a string of firecrackers, and then comes a final twist.

That last twist alters the whole film. Until then, it has been a set of machinations slickly executed. They are overly dependent on coincidences that could just as easily not have happened, but the whole is a nest of Mametian Chinese boxes. Then the ending changes the film from a progress of cruel enlightenments into arrant melodrama.

What is melodrama, quintessentially? A usable definition: drama in which, un-failingly, justice is ultimately done. The good, who are usually in physical danger, are rewarded; the bad are punished, no matter how things seem right up to the very finish. Seriously viewed, melodrama is an assurance, however dainty, that a supervising eye is always on duty in the cosmos and will ensure that virtue is rewarded. Thus, through centuries, melodrama has been a consolation to those trapped in the travails of life who may feel that their plight is unnoted.

This archetype, not quite the same as the conventional happy ending of romance and comedy, is all very well for James Bond and his many cousins, but for an author of Mamet's distinction it verges on the cheap. The quality of his dialogue and his directing makes the basic sentimentality of the ending all the more discomfiting. Throughout the film Joe is varyingly deceived, but the last change in the very being of the film means that we have been deceived.

Mamet is not greatly helped by two of his leading actors. Campbell Scott, as Joe, is merely capable of being credible, with no greater resonance or depth. Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, who plays Susan, is no deeper than Scott and, as a woman supposed to have charm, does not provide it. Steve Martin is well cast as a smoothie.

Raphael Shargel (review date 4-18 May 1998)

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SOURCE: Shargel, Raphael. “Fallen Innocents.” New Leader 131, no. 6 (4-18 May 1998): 20-1.

[In the following excerpt, Shargel praises the complex plot and enthralling nature of The Spanish Prisoner, lauding Mamet's use of suspense and surprise.]

David Mamet's favorite game is the high stakes con. In his best movies, a team of conspirators fleeces a privileged and gullible individual. But while most examples of this generally lighthearted genre focus on the machinations of the sharpers, Mamet's much darker works put the sucker at the center. His protagonists risk everything they hold dear—their financial resources, their integrity, their honor, even their sanity—and, in most cases, are forced to relinquish them. His heroes suffer considerably, yet Mamet constructs his plots so that the audience will thrill to the scheming of the antagonists. The traps they set are admirably subtle, entrancingly sneaky. Becoming involved in a Mamet piece means taking delight in the downfall of the vulnerable. His films are a sadistic pleasure.

There is also, of course, an element of masochism to our enjoyment, as there is in viewing a magic act or listening to a long joke. Watching The Spanish Prisoner, written and directed by Mamet, we are not able to predict the next step of its tricky plot, even though in retrospect each new development seems inevitable. The film enthralls us precisely because, try as we might, we cannot guess its outcome. It was made by a storyteller with extra-ordinary and deserved confidence in his ability to surprise.

Conventionally, movies about confidence tricks disorient us by tossing out red herrings. Mamet instead constantly changes our relationship to his main character. There are instances when we feel completely in tune with Joe Ross (Campbell Scott); the decisions he makes are precisely those we would hit upon were we in his situation. But we are not always on such steady ground. Ross is aware of certain matters that are never made clear to us. He has invented something called The Process, a long mathematical formula he has written out in a large red notebook. He claims that his brainchild will control the global market, but never tells us what part of the market he is referring to or how The Process will accomplish this feat. All we know is that the formula stands to bring an enormous windfall to his company.

We accept that Ross is a creative genius, yet there are a number of occasions when we feel superior to him. At such moments, Mamet lets us know Ross is being toyed with, and invites us to cringe at the bad judgment behind his impulsive choices. We learn much more quickly than Ross that creating The Process means dealing with heartless, mercenary people. Mamet accentuates the chilliness by coaching his actors to deliver their lines in a deadpan manner. It's as if his performers had found themselves in a film by Alfred Hitchcock.

The Spanish Prisoner owes a lot to Hitchcock, particularly to North by Northwest. Both mingle corporate life with the world of espionage, telling the story of a man whose greatest weakness and greatest strength lie in his innocence. Both depict heroes framed for conspiracies involving a grisly knife murder and then denied the opportunity to prove the true villain's guilt. Like Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill, Ross is made to suspect his boss, his friends and his coworkers, to reevaluate and betray the codes that have guided his life. But while Thornhill found new love and acceptance after his trials were over, Ross does not seem capable of recovering what he discarded.

Hitchcock's paranoid movies always concluded by revealing that certain apparently sinister forces were in fact harmless. The Spanish Prisoner never abandons its suspicion of all social organizations. Any time a Mamet character mentions allegiance to “my group,” it's time to run for the hills. Ross, by contrast, has no ties: He is a single man with few friends and only a vague sense of allegiance to his company. He is open, straightforward, and unsuspicious—so much so that his secretary Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon) repeatedly refers to him as a Boy Scout. Wide-eyed and flirtatious, she nevertheless acts as a moral barometer, continually reminding Ross that those driven by a desire for money and power will gladly band together to destroy anyone standing in their way.

The visual style of the film is appropriately economical, as if it too were reacting against the omnivorous people it depicts. In fact, Mamet is one of the few contemporary directors who errs on the side of restraint. The meticulous calculation that goes into each of his shots is often distractingly evident. But the movie has so much going for it that it can be forgiven for showing its seams. Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara, Steve Martin, and longtime Mamet crony Ricky Jay are excellent as figures who have different deep motives for befriending Ross. And Mamet's terse, twisty script is his finest since Homicide, fleshing out the sinister, manipulative motivations that lie beneath gracious gestures and banal actions that only appear to be benign.

Bharat Tandon (review date 8 May 1998)

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SOURCE: Tandon, Bharat. “An Important Topic for a Novel.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4962 (8 May 1998): 22.

[In the following review, Tandon asserts that The Old Religion is a departure for Mamet and comments on the novel's focus on meditative introspection, whereas he believes many other of Mamet's works rely heavily on external action and dialogue.]

In David Mamet's 1991 film Homicide, Bobby Gold (played by Joe Mantegna, a Mamet regular), an assimilated Jewish detective, visits a Jewish library to seek the meaning of what may be a murder clue: the word “GROFAZ” scrawled on a scrap of paper. And as he waits, he encounters another seeker after clues in words, a Hebrew scholar fascinated by the acrostic possibilities in the Book of Esther, a document which Gold cannot read. “You say you're a Jew,” says the scholar, “but you can't read Hebrew. What are you then?” It is a pivotal moment in the film, but an odd one nevertheless. Not because it jars with the work's varied concerns with identity and betrayal, but because it seems in retrospect to be coming from a different level of sincerity than the other dilemmas in Homicide. Amid the elaborate layers of double-crossing for which Mamet is justly celebrated, this guilty little epiphany of Gold's plays it straight. Seven years later, The Old Religion, Mamet's resolutely strange, fact-based novella, picks up some of Homicide's worries, and, similarly, plays it straight. However, as in his flawed but compelling first novel, The Village, Mamet often sounds here as if he is holding something back. And one reason for this can be traced in his recurring device of the scam, which underpins works as diverse as American Buffalo and House of Games; Mamet is a dramatist of great integrity, but his is a peculiar integrity, for at its heart lies a talent for being, in the most productive sense of the phrase, a confidence man.

“You and I,” said Mamet in 1988, “that is to say, the audience, will accept anything we are not given a reason to disbelieve.” Likewise, the logic of selection and implication plays a major part in many of the artistic practices to which he is drawn, both as a playwright and a critic, such as montage and sleight of hand. In this light, perhaps the most significant influence on his technique (and one which he discusses at length in On Directing Film) is Alfred Hitchcock's notion of the “MacGuffin,” as memorably expounded to François Truffaut:

Well, it's the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after … the “MacGuffin” is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn't matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it's beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatsoever.

It is easy to see why Mamet should have such an affinity for the MacGuffin. The situations from which his plays derive could hardly sustain spies and secret plans with ease. Nevertheless, many of them make great use of the opportunities afforded by objects or actions which appear to offer the “key”; but turn out, to all intents and purposes, to be red herrings: the coin in American Buffalo, the real-estate “leads” in Glengarry Glen Ross, the macho wager in Speed-the-Plow. One might think that Mamet is simply being wilful at such moments; after all, his critical writings, for all their salutary candour, cannot always avoid the charge of being contrary for the sake of it (his preference for Theodore Dreiser, of all people, over Charles Dickens, springs to mind). But Mamet's disappointing of the audience's expectations of what the work is going to be “about” has motives that run deeper than artistic caprice. Fond as we may be of all activities which are both rhythmical and obscene, his famous dialogue may be less central to his writing than his MacGuffins; which is why Christopher McQuarrie's excellent screenplay for The Usual Suspects feels closer to the spirit of Mamet than the more obviously derivative Quentin Tarantino.

One of the great strengths of much of Mamet's work is its resistance to any easily “thematic” readings; he is suspicious, both in the texture of his work and in his comments on it, of the idea that works of art are neutral display cases for thematic abstractions, issues or questions which could be settled just as easily outside the works themselves. And in discussing such areas of poetic responsibility, he has, once again, consistently confounded expectations. In “A National Dream-Life,” he argued thus:

As in our dreams, the law of psychic economy operates. In dreams we do not seek answers which our conscious (rational) mind is capable of supplying, we seek answers to those questions which the conscious mind is incompetent to deal with. So with the drama, if the question is one which can be answered rationally, e.g.: how does one fix a car, should white people be nice to black people, are the physically handicapped entitled to our respect, our enjoyment of the drama is incomplete—we feel diverted but not fulfilled. Only if the question posed is one whose complexity and depth renders it unsusceptible to rational examination does the dramatic treatment seem to us appropriate, and the dramatic solution become enlightening.

In addition, his more recent attack on modern art has maintained the line of argument. “That a play is on an Important Topic,” it claims, “does not mean that it is a good play. The play is not meant to ‘help.’ The artist is no more equipped to ‘help’ than the deluded Ivy League graduate.” It is not that Mamet considers these rational and political questions to be irrelevant; although he chimes with Henry James's contrasts between the size and depth of ideas, he could scarcely be accused of aestheticism. Rather, he recognizes that it is possible to act from the best intentions, in a way that runs against the grain of those intentions—a lesson lost on people such as Oliver Stone. Mamet's work does not lend itself readily to that impoverished model of literary value, all too common from the 1980s onwards, whereby stories are good in proportion to the extent to which one identifies directly with the characters, and which has spawned whole genres of parochial self-regard in modern fiction. At his best, Mamet can persuade us to care about the fate of his characters, without our needing to seek the echo of our own voices, or the lineaments of our own faces.

Only a writer with Mamet's talent (and nerve) could make dramatic success from such a blend of Hitchcock and cod-Freudian dream theories; but then his achievement is so often inseparable from his bullishness or sheer bloody-mindedness. When Jeremy Isaacs asked him recently whether his plays had “subtexts,” Mamet paused briefly, looking, perhaps, for a hidden joke in the question before replying, “Well, I hope so.” And while this may have sounded smug or infuriating, the dramatic counterpart to such evasiveness is what often gives his plays their force; consider how hard it is to paraphrase a Mamet play, or, for that matter, what exactly Aaronow and Moss are on about as they conspire in Glengarry Glen Ross:

Yes, I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just. …
No, we're just. …
We're just “talking” about it.
We're just speaking about it. (Pause.) As an idea.
As an idea.
We're not actually talking about it.

What Mamet is so good at doing is offering the superficial semblance of an issue—something that borders on being a “theme” to take home and discuss over a drink—only to snatch it from beneath the audience's nose. To see Oleanna, for example, merely as a realist or philosophical piece would be to ignore why it is, in its own way, as uncomfortable for men as it is for women. And Glengarry Glen Ross, despite its real-estate setting, plays explicitly off some of the corniest conventions of detective stories, as hinted by Mamet's authorial note: “This appointment was called a lead—in the same way that a clue in a criminal case is called a lead—i.e. it may lead to the suspect, the suspect in this case being a prospect.” To begin with, we are offered a very obvious “lead,” as Moss's plan to rob the office in Act One is met, at the opening of Act Two, by “The Real Estate Office, Ransacked”; but Mamet even has the audacity to make the real perpetrator commit that one “small, but crucial error” so beloved of Agatha Christie and Columbo:

Williamson: Well, I'm saying this, Shel: Usually I take the contracts to the bank. Last night I didn't. How did you know that? One night a year that I left a contract on my desk. Nobody knew that but you. Now how did you know that?

Which is not to say that picking up on the leads helps us that much; on the contrary, it is the play's movement beyond this obvious hook that gives it its disquieting energy.

The Old Religion is set largely inside the head of Leo Frank, an assimilated Jewish factory owner in Atlanta, who was tried in court, and then lynched by a mob in 1914, for raping and murdering a Gentile employee—a crime he did not commit. Given the gravity of his historical source material, it would have been in extremely bad taste for Mamet to play the kinds of bait-and-switch game that characterize his plays. That said, the claustrophobic density of The Old Religion displays its anger so near the surface as to make it not only uncomfortable reading, but on occasion a genuinely unfriendly experience. As Homicide showed at the beginning of this decade, assimilation, and the varieties of racial self-deprecation that go with it, have been recurring objects of Mamet's criticism in recent years—as seen in his famous dismissal of Schindler's List as an “exploitation film.” Bobby Gold realizes during the course of Homicide that he has spent years being the first through the door at crime scenes in order to ingratiate himself; and it is only the ordeal of the false trial that brings home to Leo Frank the fact that, to the people of Atlanta, it matters less that he is assimilated than that he is a Jew. The best parts of the novel are those edgy moments when Frank and his friends manoeuvre around the truths of their own identity (“He pronounced the word ‘kosher’ gingerly, as if to say, I don't disclaim that I have heard it, but I do not wish to say it freely, as to arrogate it to myself on the mere precedent of blood.”) Mamet objected to Schindler's List, on the grounds that, to him, it simply allowed the audience to feel superior. Whatever else it does, The Old Religion never allows a reader to feel superior, but it does suffer somewhat from the strange reversal in Mamet's fictional technique. Where his drama is all lived through externals, both The Village and The Old Religion rely to a great extent on meditative introspection; and seen in these terms, the new novel doesn't wholly convince a reader that its questions could not be posed in another way. Even Homicide finds room for a sick joke involving Hitler's nickname and a brand of pigeon food; The Old Religion, in comparison, is a work of unimpeachable moral integrity, but one that feels too artistically well-behaved for Mamet's peculiar genius to exercise itself fully. That a novel is on an Important Topic does not mean that it is a great novel.

Kate Kellaway (review date 26 June 1998)

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SOURCE: Kellaway, Kate. “Thanks for the Memories.” New Statesman (26 June 1998): 49.

[In the following review, Kellaway praises the cast performances, the sets, and the writing in The Old Neighborhood, lauding the subtle, dark nature of the three plays.]

A little light shines on a brown case, which casts a shadow. The Old Neighborhood, a trio of plays by David Mamet now at the Royal Court, is about a man cut through at the roots. Bobby's relationships—even with family and old friends—are so insecure they cannot hold him for long. His case waits on the stage like a warning. Bobby is played by Colin Stinton. It is impossible to believe that he is acting: he conveys with absolute naturalness—in the slumped way he sits, in his defeated way of listening—the weight of depression under which he lives, like a wood-louse under a rotten beam.

The first play, The Disappearance of the Jews, is, on the surface, jocular. Mamet understands the empty comedy of reminiscence. Two old men run through the lives of mutual friends at a tilt, with biographies that are concluded within a couple of sentences. But there is desolation hard on the heels of entertainment: loneliness, loss of connection, fear.

Bobby and Joey are linked by their Jewishness, but it also leaves them unbound. One of them blames the break-up of his marriage on his failure to marry a nice Jewish girl. There is a deadly moment when he reports his wife saying, “If you have been persecuted so long, you must have brought it on yourself.” Little silences grow long in this conversation; they are silences from which, it seems, there may be no return. Like the accounts of old friends, the men's fantasies are short, lasting no longer than a cigarette might take to burn—the cigarettes they are so determined not to smoke.

“Everything is a mystery, Bob,” Joey says. Linal Haft is excellent in the part. He moves between monkeyish high spirits and casually expressed despair. Patrick Marber's direction is admirable and meticulous: the talk is conducted like music. The dips and rises in register are always surprising, always right. And William Dudley's set ingeniously links the three different plays with an image of loss: a sepia montage of lost faces, like a suspended photograph album.

In the second piece, Jolly, the main speaker is Jolly herself. Playing her like a lost child—though she is a mother—Zoë Wanamaker brings integrity to the part, living every bittersweet line of it. Jolly does not—cannot—live up to her name. At one point she and her brother make fun of counsellors and of therapy and of those dominated by the first person singular, congratulating themselves on “facing the past.” But, with glancing irony, Mamet shows us Jolly unable to face her past and equally unable to forget it. She cannot leave her old grievances alone. She goes at them like a sad cur desperately scratching at fleas.

Her husband Carl (Vincent Marzello) contributes curt interjections to support her. But there is no help at hand. The play is full of keys but the doors are missing. So when Jolly says she believes her parents loved her brother but not her, it is an illumination that brings no light.

All three plays combine tenderness and estrangement. The cast shows eloquently how the two may converge. Deeny is the third and shortest play and my favourite. Deeny was once a girlfriend of Bob's. Diana Quick is as diffident as a young girl but hers is the uncertainty of a disappointed, late middle age. She leans forward in her scarlet suit and her lonely talk is a weaving together of the aimless and the profound or, as Deeny herself would put it, of mystery and convenience.

Quick makes one feel that Deeny's talk is an escape from silence and that its wisdom, poetry and poignancy are incidental. Like the other characters in the plays, she is trying in some way to give herself a pep talk, to make herself feel better about being alive. It is a moving performance.

Tempting as it is to see Bob as someone who specialises in being a receptacle for the outpourings of women, there is a sense in which he always has the upper hand. When he finally tells Deeny he has come to say goodbye, the light fails altogether—like a heart missing a beat or the sudden onrush of night.

These are subtle, dark vignettes. Short but deep, they occupy and trouble the mind long after the evening is over.

David Mamet and Nick James (review date October 1998)

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SOURCE: Mamet, David, and Nick James. “Suspicion.” Sight and Sound 8, no. 10 (October 1998): 23-4.

[In the following interview, Mamet and James discuss the details of writing and shooting a script, and in particular the adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Winslow Boy for the screen.]

In his 1991 book On Directing Film, David Mamet says that, “the work of the director is the work of constructing the shot list from the script. The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on the set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humour.” Sitting on a crate outside an Edwardian townhouse of imposing grandeur on the edge of Clapham Common, watching his crew prepare for the first shot of a cold spring day, Mamet seems as good as his word. Genial and courteous, he answers my questions and watches the proceedings with seemingly equal attention. There's barely a trace of his trademark suspicion, though he does occasionally bark: “So what's on your mind?”

Mamet's answers come at you much like the dialogue of his groundbreaking plays American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross—short, telegrammatic, to the point. The interlocutor is not going to get any long winded digressions in which the director muses about what he does for a living as if for the first time. Yet as extras in Edwardian costume arrive in twos and threes, watching this writer-director best known for dramatising urban America's con artists and street hustlers orchestrate a British costume drama feels slightly grotesque. With his green quilt jacket, flat cap, sunglasses and grey-flecked beard, Mamet might be any American tourist fresh from a spree in Harrods. And to some extent that's what he is, for in shooting a costume drama Mamet is visiting the one genre the UK industry would claim as its own. As producer Sarah Green concedes: “You have the talent that does this kind of drama all the time—we could never stretch the pound in Boston as we can here.”

With The Winslow Boy (1946) dramatist Terence Rattigan—whose work has only recently returned to favour after years of supposed class-bound irrelevance to the post-60s world—made a self-conscious attempt to revisit the Shavian “well-made play.” Ronnie Winslow, a 12-year-old naval cadet, is expelled from the prestigious Osborne Academy for allegedly stealing a postal order from a fellow pupil. He returns home in fear of his doting father, Arthur, but when Ronnie is compelled to tell all his father is convinced of his innocence and begins a wealth-devouring legal campaign to clear his son's name, which has serious consequences for Ronnie's grown up brother and sister. Dickie and Catherine. At first sight it's hard to imagine why Mamet should choose such an old theatrical war-horse, especially after the dazzling logic-play of his current release The Spanish Prisoner—but then Mamet is nothing if not a compulsive presenter of duplicitous enigmas. In his presence you want to question everyone's motives—why is that woman painting out yellow smudges on the road?

For a lifelong student of interpersonal power politics. Mamet is strangely unbothered by the nuances through which the British classify one another. “This would be an area of great ignorance of mine,” he cheerfully admits. “My main concern is another aspect of the story. When does a fight for justice become an arrogant pursuit of personal rectitude? Arthur is constantly asking himself that question. At what point does one give up the fight for an abstract principle?”

In a review of Mamet's new novel The Old Religion in the London Review of Books, Michael Rogin identifies the writer's work as being about the constant search for the pure victim of the confidence games he so often describes, which themselves derive from Mamet's well catalogued near-abusive childhood. But The Old Religion, Rogin claims, shows Mamet steering his identification with victimhood into a “cul de sac” figure and a religion his immigrant parents had left behind: “In The Old Religion [Mamet] has finally found his home, alone with the persecuted Jew.” To the extent that The Winslow Boy is about a child who becomes a national laughing stock, it fits the pattern of victimhood. But as Mamet explains, the play could also have been about religious persecution: “I've done some reading about the Edwardian period and the Archer case on which Rattigan's play is based. He abstracted the actual case, which really hinged on the Catholic question. The kid was one of a small minority of Roman Catholics, which is why he was unjustly singled out. It's at that point I believed in the movie. It's pretty like An Enemy of the People, I think.”

“It's a very dialectical piece,” he continues after the first run-through. “Any play happens to be set somewhere—you can set a play among petty criminals in Chicago, among royalty during the War of the Roses, but that's not why we love those plays. It's because of some internal struggle and you realise that the hero and heroine are just ourselves and that Edwardian England or the War of the Roses is basically just ‘once upon a time.’”

Once upon a time in this case is England in 1910. The shot being prepared is for a scene near the end of the screenplay, where Nigel Hawthorne as Arthur, having just found out he's won the case, steps out of his house to address the press. Left pretty much to his own devices, cinematographer Benoìt Delhomme is perched at the business end of a crane set on a short straight track crossing the road towards a tall hedge. The shot starts in close on a man carrying a plank and follows him briefly as he walks quickly towards the hedge. As he and another member of the press set this plank on boxes to make a platform for a box camera, Delhomme's own camera rises to take in the whole scene on the doorstep as Hawthorne's stand in steps forward to address the throng. Mamet watches another run-through on the video assist and seems mostly concerned with the rhythm of the movement. There's no doubt he's keeping faith with his shot list.

“Somebody once said, ‘the better the play, the worse the movie it's going to make.’ So a lot of my work here has been lifting passages of narration that can be better explained through montage and by dramatising the purely narrative.” Mamet has written books on most aspects of his related crafts; just as he has his shot list, he also has his answer list, and in theory one ought to be left in no doubt about what he's up to. But somehow, because this is David Mamet, doubt remains. You feel certain his interest in The Winslow Boy derives from a brilliant Mamet-like scene in which the famous barrister Sir Robert Morton cross-examines Ronnie at home in front of his family in a terrifying, accusatory manner. And yet, as we talk, the writer-director seems more delighted to be playing with Edwardian English and visiting tourist sites. “Because it's a one-set play, a lot of stuff we learn over the telephone in the play has been filmed outside. We go up to the House of Commons, we go to the Inns of Court, Catherine's fiancé is a member of some regiment, we don't know what, so we're shooting the Horse Guards.”


Anyone who saw Mamet's agonised performance on the South Bank Show in 1994, answering each of Melvyn Bragg's often bland and puff-friendly questions with deep unease, will realise how ingrained is his lack of faith in the interview process. Suspicion is David Mamet's métier—a permanent state of mind for his most memorable characters from Teach in American Buffalo to Stanley Motss in Wag the Dog. But where Mamet is concerned, suspicion seems to be a two-way process. He operates across so many areas of media so prolifically and successfully, having written at least 22 stage plays and more than a dozen screenplays as well as two novels and several theory monographs, that the sincerity of his stake in his output is often questioned. To take a recent example, Juliet Fleming—in a composite review in the Times Literary Supplement of Mamet's acting-theory book True and False and the Mamet-scripted movies Wag the Dog and The Edge—argues that, “since Mamet is an extremely witty writer with some talent for self-directed humour, the reader of his non-dramatic writings is increasingly haunted by the possibility that they are an elaborate joke.” This is the other face of the serious moralist of lonely rectitude: the playful trickster who can give the eager secretary Susan Ricci in The Spanish Prisoner (played by his wife Rebecca Pidgeon) the deadpan excuse for being late for work, “My troika was pursued by wolves.”

Perhaps Mamet the costume drama tourist is another such elaborate joke. My own suspicion is that despite the undoubted power and fluency of his writing and the admirable adult complexity and nuance of feeling of his films House of Games (1984), Homicide (1991) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997), Mamet is not an auteur director. I think this largely because no single image from any of his films is memorable for its own sake. Objects in scenes come readily to mind—the leaking water pistol that exposes the teaser con in House of Games, the broken holster that foretells the detective will lose his gun in Homicide, the gift book on tennis that places us comfortably in the realm of the ripping yarn in The Spanish Prisoner—yet the scenes themselves seem to revel in their visual ordinariness while the dialogue revels in portentousness. Mamet for me remains a playwright who happens to make films, many of which are about mistrusting what you see.

And Mamet himself is aware of this. On Directing Film is frank about his approach: “There are some directors who are visual masters—who bring to moviemaking a great visual acuity, a brilliant visual sense. I am not one of [them] … I happen to know a certain amount about the construction of a script … The question is, ‘where do I put the camera?’ That's the simple question, and the answer is, ‘over there in that place in which it will capture the uninflected shot necessary to move the story along.’”

What Mamet is reaching for is the filmic eloquence of a Frank Capra. On Directing Film harks back constantly to the golden age of Hollywood and echoes the opinion of Graham Greene that the movies have been going steadily downhill since the introduction of sound. This suits Mamet's need for isolation from the modern Hollywood culture in which he has been so successful. When I ask him about his theories, he gives this example: “One of the great pieces of filmmaking is in They Live by Night. Sylvia Sydney and Henry Fonda have gone to trial and you think they're going to be convicted. Cut to a shot of a print shop, and the newspaper front page says, ‘Bonnie and Clyde Freed.’ Then the camera pans over, and they've also set up ‘Bonnie and Clyde Convicted.’ That's genius filmmaking.”

With the beady-eyed, insouciant Hawthorne in position in place of the stand-in, Mamet is now ready for a take. “When I wave my cap, step forward,” Mamet tells the actor. “Action!” says the AD. Delhomme swoops upwards from ankle level. Mamet waves his cap frantically. Hawthorne ignores him genially. Everyone returns to their markers.

Whatever his gifts as a director, it's for his dialogue that Mamet is still best known. So how will he cope with stilted, formal English? Will we feel the effort of moving from street to ballroom so evident in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence? “A couple of phrases I had to steer clear of—‘oh rot’ and that kind of thing—but I found the dialogue plays pretty damn well as long as you take the view that the characters are real, fleshed-out characters rather than cardboard cut-outs. For example, Desmond has all these lines about his old cricket injury and sounds at first like an old Edwardian buffer. But Colin Stinton who's playing the part thought the opposite was true. That here is a guy who's played cricket for England; he may be getting a little aged, but he's an athlete. So rather than being Colonel Blimp he threw all that stuff away. Which means that when at the end he proposes to Catherine it isn't ridiculous.”

Mamet is clearly pleased at my interest in what he's done with Rattigan's text. He orders up a copy of the complete script, anxious to show me how well he's able to write in the Edwardian register. This itself has a comic edge because Mamet can't help talking about the characters in his own argot—it's like the reverse of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. “I wrote the scenes for when Sir Robert finds out over the telephone that the case against Winslow cannot proceed. I wrote him a rousing speech to give to the House and a couple of interstitial scenes between him and his cronies in the dressing room, where we see another side of him. There's this little guy saying. ‘Oh Bobby are you sure you wanna do this? Are you sure you wanna call in our markers?’ That was a lot of fun. Sir Robert is about to give up. He's listening to this long speech from the First Lord of the Admiralty and one of his colleagues has a piece of sheet music about the Winslow case. It's called ‘How Still We See Thee Lie’ and there's a picture of Ronnie Winslow on the front and the lyrics go: ‘How dare you sully Nelson's name? Who for this land did die. Oh naughty cadet, for shame, for shame. How still we see thee lie.’ Sir Robert gets very incensed and leaps to his feet and says, ‘Point of order.’”


Sir Robert's speech is an accurate pastiche of Kipling, though Mamet has him repeat his own lawyer father's mantra: “It's only important to win.” A subsequent read through of the script confirms that Mamet has taken great pains to keep Rattigan's play as intact as possible, though the film is unlikely to be as briskly formal as Anthony Asquith's 1950 adaptation. There is a happy conclusion, of course, though with undertones that the struggle has left only the boy himself fairly undamaged. As Mamet knows too well, children can survive a great deal. The adult Mamet has survived by cleaving to a rigorous concern in his work for moral dilemmas, the best of it taking us through the protagonist's struggle and making us understand it. The price Mamet has paid is that people find it hard to love his serious work because it makes them uncomfortable. I wonder how much he yearns to make something as enduringly enjoyed as It's a Wonderful Life?

But then he wouldn't be Mamet, ever suspicious, always keeping the goal rigorously in mind. As now: “The trick is not to fall victim to location sickness—‘Oh isn't that pretty? Let's work that in!’ Like the actor saying, ‘I coincidentally know how to play the ukulele. Perhaps I could use the ukulele in this’”

John A. Price (review date winter 1999)

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SOURCE: Price, John A. Review of True and False, by David Mamet. Journal of Popular Culture 33, no. 3 (winter 1999): 147-48.

[In the following review, Price outlines Mamet's main messages about acting in True and False.]

In David Mamet's True and False, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter reveals the unique perspective of how a playwright views the rehearsal and performance aspects of a text. In this book, Mamet offers an alternative to the standard “Method” acting approach.

Without specifically addressing his own plays, Mamet's scalding criticism of Stanislavski and the American “Method” can easily be read as a prescription for how this playwright intends his plays to be analyzed and performed—and how not to.

True and False consists of one hundred and twenty-seven pages divided into twenty-nine chapters; and, like his dialogue, Mamet's chapters are brief, hard-hitting, and poignant. Mamet assaults and insults the commonplace institution(s) of American acting, while delivering an (albeit limited) alternative for discovering artistic Truth in the “depraved carnival” of show business (50). The chapters, the longest being only eight pages, read as vignettes on acting, philosophy, and life, with titles such as: “The Rehearsal Process,” “A Generation That Would Like to Stay in School,” and “Eleven O'Clock Always Comes.” Although seemingly diverse topics, Mamet links philosophy and acting through the pursuit of Truth—on stage and in life. According to Mamet, one should live “To deny nothing, invent nothing—accept everything, and get on with it” (71).

In American popular culture and theatre, Mamet stands at the forefront of the contemporary canon of American dramatic literature. It is through this status that one must view his unabashed and overt “slaughter of the sacred cow” of American acting: The Method. Mamet criticizes conventional acting methodology in every chapter save four, referring to Stanislavski's theories as “hogwash” (12). The mainstays of The Method, “emotional memory” and “sense memory,” represent for Mamet the same futility as “teaching pilots to flap their arms while in the cockpit in order to increase the lift of the plane” (12). Throughout this text, I found the strongest quality to be the simple and direct style in which Mamet presents an alternative approach to acting. Mamet believes that if a play is designed well, the writing itself contains all that is needed. Say the words clearly and with intention, for layering emotion on the words dilutes the strength and clarity, and creates “funny voices” or false emotions. Mamet's advice to the actor is as direct as his dialogue. His tearing down of mainstream acting theory constitutes, for many, the subtitle's “heresy”; however, “common sense for the actor implies that a mother does not concern herself with her emotions when trying to save her child, she reacts.” He emphasizes instinct and action, not preparation and emotion. Mamet, in general, reduces a complex art form to simple directives, perhaps too general and overly simple.

Ironically, the strength and confidence that exudes from his attack on The Method may also be the weakest and most contradictory sections of this text. While denouncing Stanislavski, he encourages the use of imagination, action (pursuing an objective), and “acting ‘as if’”—all of which are pure Stanislavskian elements of acting. Moreover, Mamet's theories also resemble Sanford Meisner's acting techniques, yet Meisner's name is notably absent from Mamet's text.

Mamet's approach holds immense promise for the playwrights of popular culture, like himself, Pinter, and Shepard. True and False stands as a guide, allowing us “to lift up the hood, as it were, and look at the wiring” (90) of the dramatic mechanisms of David Mamet. But what of Shakespeare? The Greeks? Molière? How can an actor who isn't familiar with verse concern herself with objectives when she doesn't understand the language?

Mamet's approach is specific to his plays and those of similar style and language, the way in which he wrote his plays to be performed. To this end, True and False represents a significant contribution to acting theory and popular culture.

Howard Pearce (essay date June 1999)

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SOURCE: Pearce, Howard. “Plato in Hollywood: David Mamet and the Power of Illusions.” Mosaic 32, no. 2 (June 1999): 141-56.

[In the following essay, Pearce examines two female characters—one in House of Games and another in Speed-the-Plow—analyzing their identities as artists and how other characters and audience members relate to them.]

As Aristotle long ago observed, mimesis is a two-way street: as much as humans take pleasure in seeing representations of themselves, so much are they disposed to imitate what they see. As Plato's dialogues suggest, however, dramatic characters can take different forms, just as there are different ways of responding to art or to the dramatic experience: at one extreme there is the Socrates type who evaluates the performance by the standards of “thought, intelligence, memory … right opinion and true reasoning,” while at the other there is the Philebus type who abandons himself to the “mixed pleasures” involved in encountering the characters and events of a play (Philebus 11b, 50e). Contemporary philosophers, of course, continue to believe in the learning experience involved in theater, and indeed Hans-Georg Gadamer devotes a section of Truth and Method to this topic. As he sees it, drama as Erlebnis (“experience”) provides “something of an adventure” and operates by interrupting “the customary course of events. … It ventures out into the uncertain” (69). As he further explains in The Relevance of the Beautiful, for this very reason theater provides “the alien shock that shakes our comfortable bourgeois self-confidence and puts at risk the reality in which we feel secure” (64).

For David Mamet as for Gadamer, the theater challenges our ideas of what is real, engaging us in a “marvelous adventure filled with … risk and danger” (Some Freaks ix-x). Although Mamet is now most widely known as film writer and director (e.g. recent popular films like The Edge and The Spanish Prisoner), his stage career has also earned him recognition as a major playwright. American Buffalo in 1975 was the first of his critically acclaimed plays, followed by other successes such as A Life in the Theatre,Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna. In addition, Mamet is known for his critical theorizing which has been dispersed in several volumes of essays, including Writing in Restaurants,The Cabin, and Make-Believe Town; and he has published fiction as well, notably The Village and The Old Religion. The diversity of his accomplishments, finally, also includes film directing, a role he performed in his House of Games. Both this film and the play Speed-the-Plow raise those questions about reality that are central to Mamet's drama, looking from one side and then the other at a woman's entry into a man's world. In House of Games the protagonist, the psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Ford, descends into the underworld to encounter Mike and his con men, whose base of operation is the bar and gambling house, the House of Games. From another perspective, in Speed-the-Plow the audience is engaged in the world of Hollywood entrepreneurs, Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox, who ritualize their treatment of a female interloper, the temporary secretary Karen.

Approaching these two characters, Karen and Maggie, as they encounter alien worlds and reveal themselves, needs to be illuminated by theoretical concerns—not only Plato's but also Mamet's and Gadamer's—about the existence and value of the aesthetic in a world of commerce and “serious” thought. As much as Plato sets up the antithesis of Socrates and Philebus, the philosopher and the aesthete, so much does Mamet undercut the distinction in a defense of the artist. Karen and Maggie must finally be seen in terms of this apologia. As I see it, since the occurrence of art in the world entails appearances—the illusions that Plato objects to in the artist as sleight-of-hand man—Mamet's habitual playing upon illusions must be recognized as a means of probing the reality of both his characters and their worlds. To present my case, after first looking at the two women in terms of theoretical issues I will follow first Maggie and then Karen in their encounters and their development. My moving in this way from the theoretical concerns toward a clearer and fuller view of these two characters is designed to show how they function as variations on the artist figure in themselves and in terms of their relationship to the audience. In observing that relationship with the audience, I will attempt to illustrate how the two women reveal the problematical nature of identity and involvement with others, with a view to suggesting how they represent the ironic role of the artist in the relationship with her world and audience.

Mamet's collection of essays Some Freaks begins with speculations on the artist as “freak,” including his view of himself as “one of those freaks privileged to live in the world of the Arts” (5), and concludes with his speculations on the significance of the Superman character. As he sees it, it is Superman's embarrassment at his own duplicity—his “two false fronts: one of impotence [Clark Kent], and the other of benevolence [Superman]”—that keeps him in “constant hiding” and implies his having “relinquished any hope of sexual manhood, of intimacy, of peace” (179-80). According to Mamet, Superman's apologia might read: “I do good but take no pleasure. … I pray that my false-self attracts no notice: forget about me.” Placed in a Platonic context, one might say that Superman's persona of benevolence and the power to see and safeguard the good, allies him with Socrates, just as Clark Kent's persona of impotence identifies him with Philebus, who in Plato's dialogue both intrudes and is summoned into the discussion several times, but is silenced by Protarchus, who tells Philebus that he is “no longer in a position to agree with Socrates or to disagree” (12a). A freak disqualified from entering the philosophical pursuit, Philebus is also like the artist, Socrates's Ion or David Mamet. His doubleness in the drama of this dialogue is an ambivalent withdrawal and assertion of his identity, grounded in his insistence that to be human is to be allowed to range from pleasure to serious thought.

This being human in a world in which identity and place are interdependent can also be thought of in terms of Heidegger's dasein wherein the activity of discovery involves moods and feelings as well as thought, and wherein being human demands a readiness to see afresh, to discover the alien in the commonplace and the familiar in the unheimlich, the “uncanny” (Heidegger, Being and Time 233). In House of Games and Speed-the-Plow Mamet presents situations in which attentive and empathetic response to character might uncover a sense of the sincere in an apparently cynical, game-driven world. In the deceiving worlds of these plays, the two women, Maggie and Karen, appear, whose identities emerge and change, and who are regarded by others as freaks and aliens. They themselves, however, journey toward an integration of the self as a realization of wholeness, and to a receptive audience they can be seen as offering the fullness of experience that ranges from Idea to sensual gratification, from philosophy to titillation, a journey toward the “mystic Conjunction of Opposites” (Freaks ix).

Socrates's world of flux is a condition wherein the serious and rigorous pursuit of knowledge is imperative but made difficult by the diversity and instability of what can be experienced. It is expected, however, that pursuit of the good and what is entailed in the good—the beauty of oneness, truth, changelessness—can attain that enduring and knowable idea. In Mamet's world, the possibilities of being are grounded in a perhaps inescapable uncertainty and illusion, which are more pervasive and intimidating than in Socrates's. Time and change disturb and disappoint the convictions that plot a sure journey toward discovery and understanding.

The versatility requisite in the worlds of Mamet's plays is not a matter of gaining power to build a rigid identity in an assured, fixed structure. Whereas the assurances of a protected structure speak the consolation of the familiar, keeping the identity secure and immobile, the call of adventure, even of the frivolous or the perverse, is an invitation into the strange otherness of a world not yet known, whose shadowy depths might reveal that what is to be discovered might not conform to what is expected according to ordinary understanding in a known world. This adventure toward discovery of identity and of other worlds is a “mixed pleasure,” mimetic in Aristotle's sense of the way that “the habit of imitating is congenital” and that man “learns his first lessons through imitation” (Poetics 20). The negotiations with others, interpreting them as they interpret us, are matters of both self-creation and discovery of others. Moving into the openness beyond familiar structures might allow pleasure as well as knowledge.

To the extent that openness to another dimension of reality throws the familiar world and self into suspension, it invokes the metaphor of the theatrum mundi. In this light, it is possible to find something invigorating in Socrates's conclusion that “in laments and tragedies and comedies—and not only in those of the stage but in the whole tragicomedy of life—as well as on countless other occasions, pains are mixed with pleasures” (Philebus 50b). There is also something encouraging about Edmund Husserl's observation that the inseparability of the experience and intentional objects of experience “leaves open the possibility that what is given, despite the persistent consciousness of its bodily self-presence, does not exist. … It was, we afterwards say, mere illusion, hallucination, merely a coherent dream. … Everything which is there for me in the world of things is on grounds of principle only a presumptive reality” (Ideas 131).

As instances of the movement toward the possibilities of discovery and change, Karen and Maggie, of course, reveal something of the tentativeness and uncertainty that oversee any such event. Each bears in herself the ideas of the incompleteness of knowledge and the radical letting go that are vital to encounters in a world that might fragment and scatter the convictions brought into it. This destabilizing of assumptions helps in turn to account for the qualifications to which critics frequently resort in their interpretations of Mamet's plays. Ann C. Hall, for example, in interpreting Maggie's interest in Maria's cigarette lighter, extends a Freudian reading to suggest that “this action may hint at lesbian desires or Ford's fear of such feelings” (142). Yet, although her feminist psychoanalytical concern with the essentiality of conflict between the sexes avoids questions of another essence in relationships—i.e. love-union-reunion—she recognizes that in the end Maggie has eluded her: “she remains the sphinx. Her gesture is mysterious, and we are the inquisitors” (148). Citing Luce Irigaray, Hall concludes, of both Games and Plow, not only that “the females are enigmatic” but also that “such subtle disruptions” have in the real world “profound consequences” (158).

Maggie appears at the center of House of Games as protagonist. If her identity was in the beginning a secret perhaps kept from herself as well as from others, her apparent recognition and reversal have to do with her journeying from her world into the alien underworld of the con men; she is driven toward it perhaps by a curiosity that must be sublimated into care, perhaps by the crass desire to practice her own con in writing another book, perhaps by the need for love or the need to make connections with and participate in the game or the drama that includes others “as storytellers or as listeners” (Writing in Restaurants 107). These “perhaps” argue that if we cannot make the (liberated) Maggie of the final scene conform to a single logic known to convince in our world, then it may be because she has from the beginning contained mystery. Her freedom in the end is not only an apparent freedom from the rigid persona of the beginning, the erected and therefore in some way counterfeit structure of self, but also a freedom from those who would find themselves resolved in her and bring her into another counterfeit structure of understanding.

As Maggie moves deeper into that underworld (the metaphor of descent is operative in both plays), any reading of her bildung should take into account her movement through dimensions, from one reality into another: from one game whose lessons learned do not necessarily serve in the next; from one dimension of reality, the play's illusion, into another dramatized dimension; from one dimension that casts brackets around another dimension's certainties suspending but not necessarily refuting those certainties. As Gadamer explains, bildung should be understood as an acculturation, as a process of formation and development that nevertheless does not transcend and dispense with the Bild, the root of the idea that retains the concrete image or picture. Nor is the process merely away from the self: “What constitutes the essence of Bildung is clearly not alienation as such, but the return to oneself—which presupposes alienation, to be sure” (Truth and Method 14). The loss or withdrawal of self is a forgetting. The recovery is not of that secure identical self but of a self made possible by “keeping oneself open to what is other … as the viewpoints of possible others. Thus the cultivated consciousness has in fact more the character of a sense. … It embraces its sphere, remains open to a particular field … is active in all directions” (17).

Maggie's mobility is the expression of a need to experience or to become something more than the successful role she has created, a need that is provoked by three questions. The first is from the Woman Patient (a murderess), who cites a mentor as having said that “we all try to run from experience … but that it will seek us out” (6). She challenges Maggie with the question, “Do you think that you're exempt … ?” (Mamet's ellipses). The second is from Billy Hahn, another patient Maggie is trying to help: “What do you think this is? Some ‘dream’? Maan, you're living in the dream, your ‘questions,’ 'cause there. is. a. real. world” (10; punctuation as in original). And the third comes from Maggie's mentor Maria Littauer, who has earlier advised her to “Give yourself all those rewards you would like to have” (8): “What gives you satisfaction? … you have something to do that brings you joy?” (30, 31). The questions are about who and what she is, and they challenge her to discover herself, to change, to find pleasure. They urge her to recognize that the world she thinks is real could be a dream and that she is not autonomous, that “experience” will “seek” her “out.” What she sees and what she becomes is a matter of seeking experience by moving from her secure professional world into that world of the con men who, after an opening gambit, invite her to join them and begin teaching her tricks.

It is only after she has insisted on deeper involvement in their game, which is set up to include major crime (grand theft and murder), that she moves into a third dimension within the underworld, discovering that the game has been an elaborate sham. That third dimension is the world in which she has been engaged but now seen from backstage, the vantage point of the audience when it sees through the illusion of the stage, and from that new position, sees the trappings of the performance. Wishing herself, as she says to Maria, out of the dream—“What would I not give if this was a dream, and …” (55; Mamet's ellipses)—Maggie comes to see that her participation in the events has been as in a theatrum mundi, that the world of the con men, who have been forthcoming in revealing their reality to her, has indeed been an elaborate orchestration for her. Discovering that Billy Hahn is driving the “vintage red Cadillac” (60) that they had “stolen” for their getaway, she goes to Charlie's Tavern at night, evidently to learn the full truth about their deception and/or to confront Mike.

“Sneaking into Charlie's through the back,” she witnesses the actors who had roles in the drama they staged, for her as participant and audience, being paid for their performances and discussing the details of how well they performed. The “businessman/policeman” asks, “How come I always got to play the straight guy … ?” (Mamet's ellipses). Like a disoriented audience, from backstage she sees actors appraising the roles they played, in a drama directed by Mike for her as an audience, and now interpreting her, the naïve participant. The relationship is a structure whose possibilities Mamet had found attractive for A Life in the Theatre, a play wherein the actors might perform for an audience that is, for the real audience, backstage: “Thus we see the actors' backs during their onstage scenes, and a full view of them during the backstage scenes—in effect, a true view from backstage” (A Life 9). As Maggie becomes the backstage audience, “Shielded by a stack of beer cases” (61), she watches and listens to the men; and she stands looking at them through the open woodwork of a booth, in effect a stage curtain or a visual frame that sets the other world apart.

This appearance of a reality behind the performance prepares her for the next-to-last scene, in which she casts, directs, and plays a role in a drama or con game that she devises for Mike. Her self-justification to Mike—“You raped me. … You took me under false pretenses. … You used me” (68)—elicits his counter-interpretation: “And you learned some things about yourself that you'd rather not know.” His self-justification—“I never hurt anybody. I never shot anybody” (69)—and his naming her a “whore” (70) raise the same questions about identity that the Woman Patient had earlier proposed (29): whether someone can be made a whore and is not responsible for what he/she becomes, or whether, in becoming a whore, the becoming is what she already was. Mike's and Maggie's self-justifications are uses of language that, rather than resolving questions of motive, action, and reality, direct attention toward the unknown. The questions hover irresolutely over the final scene, where Maggie's stealing the cigarette lighter is an action that presents, before the audience's eyes, her withdrawal from their understanding and freedom from their judgments. In adopting Maria's words—“forgive yourself”—in autographing a copy of her book, has she gained new insight and a new lesson for life or is she merely providing a new rationalization allowed by her old Freudian psychology?

An audience trying to understand Maggie, to appreciate her, to identify with her, or to make use of her in a mimetic act of justifying the self or an understanding of the world, cannot bring her and her world of illusions to full interpretation and Aristotelean resolution of form. Attending her in her journey into and out of the underworld remains a “marvelous adventure filled with … risk and danger” as well as pleasure. The world of the film is a “mixed pleasure” that is not like the figures that can be made “straight, or round … which a lathe, or a carpenter's rule and square, produces” (Philebus 51c). That “mixed” experience involves “the pleasures of scratching” in which we might, like Philebus or Mamet's freaks, indulge ourselves. In the assumed innocence of simply enjoying the play or film, we share Maggie's desire to experience what can bring her and us an immediate if fleeting “joy.”

These pleasures might lead us, however (we being like Maggie instinctive and irrepressible interpreters), to enter the world of ideas and, like Philebus, intrude ourselves into thoughtful debate about plays, about ideas, about reality; we might be encouraged to engage in both the aesthetic and in “philosophical” thought about “truth.” Even though the ephemerality of the events seen on screen would mark them as Platonic eidolons, the aesthetic justifies itself in the retention of bild in bildung. Maria's cigarette lighter is early in the play such an image for Maggie, and it embodies ideas not only of experiencing momentary beauty but also of the enduring value that “will seek us out,” that is bestowed and taken to oneself: “It's so beautiful. It's old and it's heavy, and it looks like someone gave it to you” (8). Like the beauty of the two cigarette lighters, so is Maggie's made a focus, a center of attention. Initially, when she picks up Maria's lighter, the image we are to see is: “Angle—Insert. Ford, holding the gold lighter, lights her cigarette.” The play's final image is “Angle”—Maggie lighting a cigarette with the stolen lighter and smiling (72). She has found the “good things in life,” including tobacco, that give pleasure. She is like Philebus, silent about what has been her self-realization, while she remains for the world to which she returns, as professional psychiatrist, the wise and caring Socrates, whose benevolence and knowledge are presented in a new book (that remains for the audience undefined).

While “Dr. Margaret Ford” is protagonist in her play, Karen in Speed-the-Plow is on the periphery: neither she nor Charlie Fox but rather Bobby Gould is the protagonist and who in the opening scene performs histrionically so that, like Willy Loman, attention will be paid to him. In a world of male conquest and caste, Karen is the woman; in the unassailable structure of Hollywood business she is a temporary secretary who needs instruction about the chain of command, about providing coffee, using the telephone, making reservations at a restaurant. Karen comes from an indeterminate outside, appears in this world uninitiated and unsponsored, and is drawn into a game of sexual conquest grounded in the calculated deceptions of life fabricated and played as a game. Ostensibly she is more “naïve” than Maggie; indeed she uses that word to apologize for her actions: “it was naïve of me” (39) and later she reflects upon the attribute: “I don't think it's attractive, and I don't think it's right. To be naïve” (56). Karen, however, might also be interpreted as using language to create a false image of herself, especially since she later confesses to Gould that she knew “what the deal was,” that she knew he “wanted to sleep with” her (57) when he assigned her the task of giving the book he has been asked to consider a “‘courtesy read’” (42).

Karen, moreover, sees through the superficial deceptions of Gould's game to read his character. She seems to have perceived something in him worthy of risking the venture in filming the book; accordingly, she is willing to give herself, perhaps to serve only by making coffee (52), to an improbable filming of the book's world in decay, in extremis, which she believes might not be appreciated but is needed by its audience. Gould seems to validate that perception of him not only in his own naïveté, his belief that she might, possibly, love “me for myself” (36), but also in his vulnerability to the book that she gives more than a “courtesy read.” Reading it as the play opens and Fox enters excited about the “Buddy picture” (11), Gould blocks him five times by reacting to and reading from the book and asking Fox to read. Confronted by this thing that is “not quite ‘Art’ and … not quite ‘Entertainment’” (3), Gould characterizes himself as already fascinated by the book that does not meet Hollywood expectations; and he invokes tragic or heroic images from the past, from Euripides and Dante: “When the gods would make us mad, they answer our prayers. … I'm in the midst of the wilderness. … I have inherited a monster” (3).

Karen and Gould can be regarded as agreeing with Mamet in their naïve belief that this work about a world in decay by an “Eastern Sissy Writer” (23) would be good for a world that thinks it wants the buddy film with “Action, blood, a social theme” (13). Like them, Mamet thinks his world does not know itself or its needs, and he represents himself as sharing the world's ambivalent nature, as having both Philebus's genuine aesthetic instincts and Hollywood's crass love of entertainment and money. In Writing in Restaurants, on the one hand, he declares that “to work in the true theater … is a great job in this time of final decay” (116); that, since “all plays are about decay … the theater exposes us to the notion of decay, to the necessity of change” (111). On the other hand, in The Cabin he explains his attendance at the Cannes film festival in terms of “whore that I am” (144).

Karen and Gould, then, reflect that ambivalence of the playwright, inclining, on the one hand, toward Philebus and Clark Kent while reflecting, on the other, the attractiveness of Socrates and Superman. And they know, if not the truth, at least some questions about Art and Love, questions that turn and accuse Gould when he chooses a bad angel Fox, and abandons his good angel Karen. When in the play's last moment Gould has regained his status of power with Fox by the rules of their game, the Euripidean question re-emerges: if Gould “wanted to do good … but … became foolish” (81), was not his naïve “foolishness” with Karen a kind of madness by Hollywood standards, and was that madness perhaps a prelude to the moral or spiritual destruction that is evidenced by his abandonment of Karen and the “arty” novel for the commodity of entertainment? Perhaps what is considered “madness” in the real world's (Hollywood's) estimation is a true sanity and is the “purity” that Gould prayed for (43). Gould repudiates Karen and the question of art because he has found himself again, and he re-establishes himself in a cynical world by the restrictive definitions of reality and value that keep him safe with a sense of power in that world, which is a time of “final decay” that masks itself in illusions of personal power and control.

The convictions by which Gould interprets life are those of the Hollywood establishment, and he confirms its values. A naïve Karen enters it as a disturbing voice questioning Gould's certainties and his values and embodying in her character the ideas of uncertainty and possibility. Trying to fix her in the structure of their world's thinking, Fox defines her as either a “floozy” who would sleep with Gould for no “good” reason or an ambitious type who “would schtup you just to get ahead” (35). In anger and frustration he finally asks, “What is she, a witch?” (69), tacitly admitting that his crafty understanding has been unavailing. When in Act One she answered his question of whether this is “a good place to work” with a polite “I'm sure that it is,” he mockingly replied, “How wonderful to be so sure … to have such certainty in this wonderful world” (28). Her essential uncertainty is evident in her actions, however, as well as in the words she speaks. Asked by Gould to do merely a “courtesy read,” she reacts instinctively, “But what if there is something in the book?” (42); when Gould declares that “this job corrupts you … and everything becomes a task,” she asks, “Does it have to be that?” (43).

The “purity” that she offers him is the acceptance of the world and the self as they are. People in this world are not gods or angels; as she teaches Gould at the end of Act Two, they might best be described in terms of the words she has found in the book, “weak … depraved … frightened … lost” (58), and their need for “companionship” affirms both animal pleasure and the need that can be called “love,” that possible uniting with another. She understands Gould's fear and dishonesty, she knows their affinity, and she knows that if they, having come so near to death in a dying world, are open to change, there is reason for hope in that “sometimes it reaches for us.” The idea of letting experience come to us, which must be learned by Maggie and is affirmed here by Karen, also echoes that interdependence that characterizes Heidegger's dasein, being-in-a-world. The “it” that “reaches for us” might look like the “monster” that Gould says he “inherited”; the world might be, as Gould defines Hollywood/reality, a “sinkhole of slime and depravity … garbage” (28-29). But Karen's question—“why is it garbage … ?” (Mamet's ellipses)—confirms not a contradictory understanding of reality as immaculate benevolence but a readiness to see and become what is possible, to entertain the possibility that can arise only if things and people can change. Karen's development of a fervent belief in the message of the freakish book—that everything “has been sent” to us “to change us” (48)—attests to the book's having reached out to her in calling for a “return to the self” (58).

The “return to the self” is a truth revealed in a book that, coming from an alien voice far off in the East, postulates a world far different from the world of sham and illusion that Fox and Gould make cozy for themselves. But that book's language, so poetic—that is, metaphorical and “arty”—can cause both Hollywood and the world of the play's audience to read the book with contempt. Ruby Cohn, for instance, twice labels the book's language “maudlin, mawkish, and quasi-mystic” (117), but she also seems to be tacitly responsive to a “pure” element in the language when she takes from the book the simple question that is the title of her essay, “How Are Things Made Round?” Christopher Hudgins feels that there is significance and truth in the ideas of the book but that these can be discovered only in spite of its language: “though the language is overblown, the idea of the line is a fine testimony to” the book's genuine value (221). A prejudice against the language of the book might be based in a manifold of subjective, social, and aesthetic presuppositions. We might in our time still be rather embarrassed about the exuberance of Romantic expression, or suspicious of what seems too free in traces of the Longinian sublime; but we might also be disdainful of the language of Freudian psychology, in which Maggie places her trust as she sets out on an adventure in the underworld, the bar and gambling house “House of Games.”

In the heightened language of the book, the metaphor of roundness is spoken as a question: “How are things made round? Was there one thing which, originally, was round … ?” (3; Mamet's ellipses). Echoing the metaphor, Fox and Gould play upon the idea of the circle, as when Fox observes about their careers: “Yes, but the Wheel Came Around. And here we are. Two Whores” (26). Fox's and Gould's appeal to the notion of roundness is derived from a past world, the conceptions of the Wheel of Fortune and the Fall of Princes. If the “Two Whores” have risen because “the Wheel Came Around,” then their world-business is to speed the plow, to make profit and prestige for themselves while they move upward on the wheel. Fox and Gould, in their industriousness and their commitment to art as commodity, echo, as Tony Stafford shows, the worthy farmer of Thomas Morton's Speed the Plough, a play Mamet ironically echoes in his title, since Morton's play treats seriously the substance and value of his characters' accomplishments. In keeping with Matthew Roudané's suggestion that there are traces of Emersonian thought in Mamet's work, we might also suggest that Fox and Gould inherit the illusion of Emerson's farmers, who thought that they “Possessed the land”: “Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs; / Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet / Clear of the grave” (“Hamatreya” 9.35). For Fox and Gould, the answer to the question of how things are made round involves believing in the certainty of knowledge about the game and the predictability of actions in it: “It's a business, with its own unchanging rules” (29). In a world of circumstance and accident, however, the rise is not assured, and Gould's being afraid encompasses this awareness.

What he discovers through Karen and the book is that if we are in “the same state of decay as the world,” then the world as he has trusted it is “a dream, and delusion” (68). In the book's world of purpose and design beyond our grasp, being brought down to “that lonely place, the low place … under the bridge” (47), is a movement into deprivation and extremity that makes possible the reunification of self and the reunion of self with God and with another. Gould's glib allusion to Dante's wilderness in the play's opening and his impassioned echoing of the idea in Act Three—“I'm lost, do you hear me, I'm lost” (79)—imply that he is, in the book's interpretation of his life, at that low point, even if or indeed insofar as he has just been “promoted” in his real world, Hollywood. The structure of reality conceived in the book is Platonic; it directs an escape from the “gross infection rampant in the world” toward transcendent beauty: “silver is more powerful than gold; and the circle than the square or the triangle. He [evidently the protagonist in the book] thought of architecture” (73). This appeal to cosmic design in terms of architecture and geometry recalls the classical shape of the Ptolemaic system. In the Platonic view, Socrates's metaphors of ascent, like his images of pure form, involve a cleansing, a transcendence of the senses, in the rise toward knowledge on the journey up and out of the cave. Plato's answer to the question of how things are made round is to train the intellect for apprehension of beauty, truth, goodness, and the changeless roundness of the One.

The ascent toward perfect love and beauty in the Symposium is, however, a rise from the hiccuping, sneezing, and “silly jokes” of Aristophanes, and from his compelling image of “the real nature of man” (189a-b, d). The Aristophanic myth of human origins is another answer to the question about roundness. This “thing” for the Aristophanes of this dialogue is the being that was “globular” (189e), “whirling round and round like a clown turning cartwheels” (190a); having been split in half by Zeus, each partial being instinctively seeks its other half. As a definition of the human condition, this “clown” or “freak” suggests that in essence human beings require reunion, one with another, that the “innate love” that can “bridge the gulf between one human being and another” (191d) is of a sexual kind. Aristophanes's story voices Karen's belief, perhaps drawn from the book, that two human beings finding each other, whether their intercourse is named sex or love, is just such a minimal and essential action.

When Karen embraces the ideas in the book, it is not because of a belief that she has miraculously transcended her mortality but an acceptance of debility and need. She and Gould are “in the world. Dying” (59); her reading of the book merely for “courtesy” engendered hope that they might become better, “in spite of our transgressions,” that Gould might “make stories people need to see” (59-60); their uniting is a beginning of possibility: “you prayed to be pure,” she reminds Gould, “What if your prayers were answered?” Karen's answer to the question, her proposal that they “do something” that would “bring us alive,” is silenced by Gould's decision to bring things round within the confines of his little world; and when he repudiates her she goes out—into the indefiniteness, the irresolution of a future. If the book has in fact been for her a discovery or confirmation of values, her return to her world is a return, like Maggie's, to a self transformed. Although she is not necessarily deprived of the assurances she found in the book, she is deprived of reliance on the text; unable to find in it the words to which she could give voice, she becomes again the dependent naif, fearing that she is being “punished for my wickedness” (80). Repeating the words spoken earlier by both Fox and Gould—“I don't understand” (59, 64, 79)—she knows that she does not “belong here,” and her last words are “I hope” (80, 81).

Karen, like Maggie, seeks reality and truth in a world that must be read as text, as a constructed and already interpreted structure. Maggie, at the center of a world she has interpreted in her own text, discovers an alien world whose words are both true and false and whose actions direct her through illusion toward perception; her final performance is a wordless demonstration that leaves interpretation—of her new dress, of her stealing the cigarette lighter, indeed of who she now is—open. Karen, despite succumbing to the machinations of powerful men like Fox in the world of Hollywood, is left no less than Maggie with a privacy, a withdrawal from the audience's desire to know and interpret, and her failed attempt to retrieve the words of the book is an ambiguous performance no less than Maggie's final actions. What she tries to retain could be meretricious to the degree that the book's language is exalted and antithetical to the business language of Hollywood—where for Fox reading “coverage” reveals the truth and is preferable to reading a “talky piece of puke” (62). Yet howsoever improbably, the book might be able to reveal things brought round in a “vision of infinity” (58) that echoes the childlike vision of Thomas Traherne's poetry. Karen's retreat with an ostensible belief in a transcendent vision is like Maggie's return to her world of the professional psychiatrist: Maggie's assured and reassuring advice to “forgive yourself” and Karen's tremulous “I hope,” pointing in opposite directions, reveal the characters' retreats from an audience's full understanding of how they might be interpreted.

Maggie and Karen might appear to be fragments of the whole human being, “two false fronts”: Maggie representing the benevolence of Superman, and Karen the impotence of Clark Kent. They might, however, also be perceived as artists who, like Philebus and Ion and other freaks, never come fully and complacently into the circle of the theatrum mundi defined by the real world. Each seems to have found a satisfying or at least serviceable version of truth for herself. Like Philebus, they could tell more. Maggie with silent eloquence shows that she has moved toward an appreciation of Philebus's argument for pleasure. Rebuffed and silenced, like Philebus, Karen has shown what Philebus has been unable to argue, that the idea of sensual pleasure might be transmuted into the artist's pleasure and the satisfaction of making “stories people need to see,” just as the pleasure of sex might be transmuted into love.

Mamet's artist, like Philebus, is a freak on the periphery of a world of commerce, a world built on an illusion of power that is generated out of a simple and self-assured reality. Such voices speak, equivocally, to a world that would disdain or condescend to the artist's aesthetic. The artist as freak or expatriate asks the indulgence by which the pleasure of art is not repudiated as being what Socrates contemns, the pleasure of scratching. This voice can express a hope in art for the idea of a “Place Where Three Roads Meet, the mystic Conjunction of Opposites into the Whole, the possibility of True Love” (Freaks ix). This voice can offer speculation about possibilities in free mobility and the hope for growth in change, about the need for readiness on the part of artist and audience to be, like a character in a play, astonished.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Gerald F. Else. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1970.

Cohn, Ruby. “How Are Things Made Round?” Kane 109-21.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works. Centenary Edition. 12 vols. Boston: Houghton, 1903-04. New York: AMS P, 1968.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Trans. Nicholas Walker. Ed. Robert Bernasconi. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

———. Truth and Method. 2nd ed. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum-Crossroad, 1989.

Hall, Ann C. “Playing to Win: Sexual Politics in David Mamet's House of Games and Speed-the-Plow.” Kane 137-59.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper, 1977.

———. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 1962.

Hudgins, Christopher C. “Comedy and Humor in the Plays of David Mamet.” Kane 191-226.

Husserl, Edmund. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Trans. W. R. Boyce Gibson. New York: Collier, 1962.

Kane, Leslie. David Mamet: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1992.

Mamet, David. The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions. New York: Turtle Bay-Random, 1992.

———. House of Games. New York: Evergreen-Grove, 1987.

———. A Life in the Theatre. New York: Evergreen-Grove, 1978.

———. Some Freaks. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.

———. Speed-the-Plow. New York: Grove, 1988.

———. Writing in Restaurants. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986.

Plato. The Collected Dialogues. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Bollingen Series 71. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961.

Roudané, Matthew C. “Mamet's Mimetics.” Kane 3-32.

Stafford, Tony J. “Speed-the-Plow and Speed the Plough: The Work of the Earth.” Modern Drama 36 (1993): 38-47.

M. S. Mason (review date 18 June 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678

SOURCE: Mason, M. S. “‘Boston Marriage’: Barbs beneath Victorian Propriety.” Christian Science Monitor (18 June 1999): 20.

[In the following review, Mason comments favorably on the characters and dialogue in Boston Marriage.]

Every new David Mamet play is a significant event. Boston Marriage is no different. Its world première last week at the American Repertory Theatre here was often amusing and certainly sharp. The play does for hard-edged female characters what many of his others have done for hard-edged males—expose the cruelty, venality, and predatory impulses in them.

But unlike the men of Mr. Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross or American Buffalo, who are thoroughly reprobate, there is a little more to these women—though that “more” glides under the surface of their banter, rising briefly at the end.

Set early in this century, the play concerns two longtime companions, Claire (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's real-life wife) and Anna (Felicity Huffman). Their “Boston marriage” (a euphemism for a committed female relationship) is in trouble. And Anna tries with all her might to salvage it.

Meanwhile, she is a user. “Men live but to be deceived.” she tells Claire. She has taken a male lover, a “protector,” as she calls him, to support herself and Claire. She hurls insults at her maid, Catherine (Mary McCann), with such zest, you'd think the woman would sink in a pool of tears with every dart.

But when Catherine does burst into tears (quite often, as it turns out). It's because she's homesick for Scotland. So Anna insists on mocking Catherine's “Irish” heritage. Is it part of Anna's deliberate derogation or is she so utterly self-absorbed she never hears Catherine's protestations?

“You are brutal,” says Claire. “I'm not,” says Anna. “You referred to the Crimean War as ‘Just one of those things,’” replies Claire.

But Claire is just as nasty in her own refined way. Claire's and Anna's barbarity to the maid and to each other, their greedy appetites, and their shallow self-concern would be as alarming as Mamet's macho madmen's were it not for the gleaming surface of upper-class propriety, the elegant language (and even more elegant carriage) of the actors the humor, and the fact that no one seems to feel the barbs too keenly.

To underscore the contradictions and confrontations, Mamet, who directed the play himself, has chosen a strangely cartoon-like set (by Sharon Kaitz and J. Michael Griggs). The walls are done in stripes of red, orange, pink, and black, a kind of post-modern mockery of the late Victorian period. A goofy lavender settee with zebra stripes dominates the stage. All the furniture is mismatched, ugly, and absurd.

Absurd, too, are the crude, contemporary idiomatic expressions that break out every once in a while, disturbing the graceful surface of Mamet's language—albeit, always to reveal something about the mental state of one of the women: the vulgarity of the maid, the predatory selfishness of the lovers.

Playwright Mamet is the master of revelatory chatter—profound insights are tossed off, yet they strike home. There are always moments of exquisite self-knowledge, or of perception about reality that drive toward meaning. “We suffer for our sins,” Anna says. “But not before we've made others suffer,” says Claire. Later, Claire asks. “What in life is not a compromise?” and the answer that sweeps away all the absurdity is “love.”

Many of Mamet's essays, and his inspiring new film, The Winslow Boy, reveal something of his sense of justice, ethics, and his wise insights into human nature.

Even his famous predilection for repetition means something—just as it does in music when a motifis repeated. “Do you see?” is a phrase that carries a world of meaning because Mamet uses it from play to play and in The Winslow Boy, which he directed. Very often his characters don't see, don't understand their motivations.

The performances by Huffman and Pidgeon are perfectly balanced, all marble and bronze—hard, smooth, and cool. Verbal daggers glance off them like feathers. Each has such exquisite control of her character, such perfect timing, they seem as premeditated and immediate as sunrise.

Martin Schaub (essay date fall 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4901

SOURCE: Schaub, Martin. “Magic Meanings in Mamet's Cryptogram.Modern Drama 42, no. 3 (fall 1999): 326-37.

[In the following essay, Schaub examines the setting, the autobiographical elements, and the structure of The Cryptogram.]

My premise is that things do mean things; that there is a way things are irrespective of the way we say things are, and if there isn't, we might as well act as if there were. “And that's how it is on this bitch of an earth.”1

In one of his earlier essays, Mamet recalls what he thinks was a “magic moment” in theatre: “I thought: isn't it the truth: people are born, love, hate, are frightened and happy, grow old and die. We as audience and we as artists must work to bring about a theater, an American Theater, which will be a celebration of these things.”2 Mamet's dramatic oeuvre, I maintain, is an attempt to live up to these principles. Through the ludic interaction of fictional characters, Mamet celebrates a “truth” lingering in theatrical spaces distorted by violence, suspicion, dishonesty, and deceit.

Should I rather heed D. H. Lawrence's slightly shopworn warning and “never trust the artist” here?3 Has postmodern theory not obliterated “truth” as an intellectual curiosity long ago? And have we not agreed on the “absence of the transcendental signified,” called for an indefinite “play of signification,” and affirmed “a world of signs … without truth”4? These canonical tenets of postmodern theory, I again maintain, fall short of describing the scope and import of Mamet's plays. In Mamet's dramatic universe, “things do mean things”—even though, and maybe also because, his characters are constantly denying it.

This is especially true for Mamet's recent full-length play The Cryptogram. Here he probes into the meaning of seemingly small things: a broken teapot, a pilot's knife, a stadium blanket. These things communicate with John, the ten-year-old protagonist of the play, and their meaning will not go away, even while John is constantly being sent to bed. Now, what do things mean in Mamet's The Cryptogram? My attempt at answering this question will start with a consideration of the setting of the play. I will then ponder the presence and possible purpose of autobiographical bits and pieces in it, and, thirdly, show how a carefully calculated rhetorical and dramatic structure supports John's disquieting initiation into the meaning of things. Finally, I will close this reading of Mamet's The Cryptogram by suggesting theoretical implications.


When we entered the auditorium of the Ambassadors Theatre to see the original London production of The Cryptogram in the summer of 1994, the stage looked very unlike Mamet. Bob Crowley's set was wonderfully 1950s: a brown sofa, white empty walls and “a staircase leading up to the second floor,5 white banisters supporting a dark wooden railing—all cast in the soft, lulling colours of evening and childhood memory.6 Mamet, the bard of urban restlessness, who has captured in his plays the magic of junk shops, back alleys, peep shows, prisons, ships, and offices, sets out to explore the memories and pains hidden in what was once his American living room!

Mamet falls back on a prolific dramatic convention: time and again American playwrights have probed into the painful intimacy of the family den to ponder, and purge themselves from, “old sorrow” both their own and humankind's.7 “[A]ny narrative history of modern American drama,” remarks Matthew C. Roudané, “reveals the (over)reliance or the primal family unit usually embittered and embattled within the living room.”8 Mamet's oeuvre used to be an exception. Until he wrote The Cryptogram, he eschewed the locale. Now, like his famed predecessors, he has finally come forth with a domestic play of his own, and it almost won him another Pulitzer Prize.

Mamet knows what his audience will expect, once they see the familiar domestic setting: the characters will be both sheltered and sequestered by the walls of the living room; in the reassuring but agonizing presence of parents and siblings, they will come to a better understanding of themselves, their families, and their dreams and will acknowledge, in some way, an existential need for each other. The Cryptogram is a suggestive and subversive play within these genre conventions. Mamet's family den has completely lost its function as a protective haven; his protagonists are drifting and, quite literally, on the move. In Act One, John anticipates a trip to his family's cabin on a lake, but his disturbed questions reveal that something much more disruptive is at hand than the innocent fun (and literary commonplace) of a fishing trip. His mother, Donny, is on edge—the first thing we hear from her is the sound of a teapot breaking off stage (7). The third character, Del, an old friend of the family and a pal of Donny's husband, Robert (Bob), has neither home nor family. Miserable and taken advantage of, he lives in a hotel room, which he lent to Bob and his mistress the weekend preceding Act One, pretending to Donny that he and Bob went fishing to the cabin. In Act Three, finally, Donny and John are moving out. Mamet shows us three characters whose lives and relationships are fast disintegrating. He transforms the American living room, a traditionally troubled location, into a place of utter dislocation.

In Mamet's play, spatial dislocation corresponds to a profound sense of social uprootedness. Domestic plays have typically relied on a fairly traditional family constellation as a matrix for the classical conflicts: marital unfaithfulness, spousal abuse, children vying for parental love or trying to emancipate themselves from their parents. Separation and divorce are rare. Even the alternative “family” constellations explored by modern playwrights such as Lanford Wilson are still closely modelled on the older notion of a “complete family.”9 In The Cryptogram, the audience sees but the shards of the American home. John, Donny, and Del are barely distinguishable from other “cosmic waifs” who populate Mamet's plays.10

Few playwrights have made the American family look as bleak as Mamet does. In his play Reunion, for example, Carol and her father, Bernie, find themselves stranded in an emotional wasteland: “I came from a Broken Home,” she confesses. “The most important institution in America.”11 But in spite of this, both characters manage to express their need for communion in the end: Carol receives from her father a bracelet that takes on a quasi-sacramental meaning, symbolizing love and forgiveness. The gesture has an O'Neillian quality to it—as if it were Mamet's version of Josie Hogan's last words in A Moon for the Misbegotten: “May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.”12 O'Neill's line is disarmingly overwritten, of course, but there is an unexpected and similarly beautiful touch of sentimentality in many of Mamet's plays—a phenomenon Mel Gussow has described (somewhat insufficiently) as “a sense of moral dismay.”13 The “dismay” is more than just “moral.”

In The Cryptogram, expectations of an epiphany of communion are effectively disappointed as the play grinds to its agonizing halt. Donny and Del remain unable to accept that the ubiquitous signs that surround them have a meaning. Muffled and encrypted cries for honesty and communion echo unheeded. Mamet's setting reifies an almost total disassociation from home and family. He stages a harrowing theatrical celebration of the “truth” that we postmoderns long for communion, confession, and forgiveness in an amoral and aleatoric universe, and that, not finding it, we become sad witnesses to the haunting “reality” of these “truths”—mostly against our will.


The American “family play” has been notoriously autobiographical, and The Cryptogram is no exception: Mamet's parents separated and divorced in 1958, when he was ten; the action of the play takes place in 1959, and the character named John is the same age. Two years before it premiered, Mamet published an essay called “The Rake,” which contains reminiscences of incidents that occurred during Mamet's early teens. As in the play, breakage is a recurring theme: his stepfather, Mamet recalls, would sometimes grow so angry that he would shatter the glass top of the family's wrought iron table. Picking up the pieces, he and Mamet's mother “would cut their hands … we children were to understand, and did understand, that these wounds were our fault.”14

Mamet describes his mother, Lenore, as a vindictive and bitter woman. In the scene that lends the essay its title, he remembers, he threw a rake at his sister Lynn, “cut[ting] her badly” at the lip. Their mother initially refused to take her to the hospital unless the two told her what happened. But they did not dare tell her the truth, Mamet recalls, “myself out of guilt, of course, and my sister out of a desire to avert the terrible punishment she knew I would receive.” Such feelings of guilt and repressed anger pervaded the household: when Lynn was chosen to play the lead in a school play, her mother did not let her perform on opening night because she had been unable to eat the food on her plate.15 Donny, the mother in The Cryptogram, practises similar kinds of emotional cruelty. When John “want[s] to wait till [his] father comes home,” she tells him: “Well, yes. I'm sure you do. But you need your sleep. And if you don't get it, you're not going on the trip” (11). A mother unable to come to terms with her life refuses to love and be loved and passes on her pain to her child, offering innocent tears to propitiate ghosts from the past.

Fathers who were in the Air Force during World War II haunt both Mamet's life and his work. The “real” Bernard Mamet, as well as Robert, the absent father in The Cryptogram, and Bernie Cary in Reunion, fought in the Army Air Corps. What they have in common with their “real” and fictional wives is, again, a striking inability to love. Mamet's sister recalls: “I don't think he [Mamet] felt loved for just being David.”16 Trying to cope with an ambiguous present, the men cling to simple heroic codes of war and combat. Floundering, philandering, and roving, they attempt to recapture the foregone thrill of flying, which offered friendship and foes, camaraderie and a sense of purpose—everything so stunningly absent from Mamet's dysfunctional settings.

Nonetheless, The Cryptogram is not a play as overtly based on autobiographical memory as, say, O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. Some parts of the story are unlikely to have occurred during Mamet's childhood, and there are few indications that he intended to write a faithful autobiographical account. Mamet's own memory inspired, but did not bind, his creativity. Gregory Mosher, to whom the play was dedicated and who directed the original London production, dismisses the question of autobiography altogether:

I suppose it is because the play is about an extraordinarily bright young boy, and because it is set in Chicago, in 1959, that an unusually large number of people have asked me if I think the play is autobiographical. The fact is that I haven't the faintest idea. … 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.17

A long-time associate of Mamet's, Mosher surely knows that the play contains a lot of autobiographical material, as most of Mamet's plays do. What he wants to make clear is that The Cryptogram is more than just a number of blurred details from a celebrity's biography. With well-placed brush-strokes, Mamet paints images of his own experiences and memories on a dramatic canvas. In a ludic process of intimate “play,” he elaborates and focuses them, adding detail and plot. The result is an iridescent but highly personal picture of “the life of the human soul.”18


Mamet's dramatic picture of “the life of the human soul” is minutely construed. The Cryptogram is a “well-made play”—not because it is “a kind of Newtonian clock of a play,” showing us the causes and effects of human action,19 but because it initiates us into the structure of human experience, of pain, anxiety, and loneliness. This is what Mamet has in mind when he states,

I'm sure trying to do the well-made play. … Everybody wants to hear a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The only people who don't tell stories that way are playwrights! Finally, that's all that theatre is: story-telling. The theatre's no different from gossip, from dirty jokes, from what Uncle Max did on his fishing trip. …20

In The Cryptogram, Mamet composes a quiet but troubling rhapsody of texts and subtexts, a sombre fantasia celebrating magic meanings—sparse, reductionist, and rigidly structured. All the motifs—John's sleeplessness, the absent father, the teapot, the blanket, the knife—expound the play's central theme: the search for the meaning and reality of things. The time frame is typical for a “well-made play”: Mamet's story begins “One evening” (Act One) and ends at “Evening. one month later” (Act Three).21 It is night, a time of even keener emotional susceptibility and vulnerability, when the play reaches its climax in Act Two. Small details help sustain the dramatic architecture of rising and dissolving tension: in Acts One and Three, for instance, Mamet juxtaposes his character's nervousness with the tranquilizing nature of the beverage Donny is constantly brewing: tea. In Act Two, stronger stuff is needed to numb jittery nerves and lull lingering pain: Donny and Del turn to the liquor cabinet (60).

Sharp, disruptive beats of misunderstandings, lies, and, quite obviously, interruptions drive the play. Mamet studies a phenomenon that is typically “nineties”: the fundamental disruption and fragmentation of all attempts at (verbal) communion. In Oleanna, an ever-ringing phone has precluded the character Carol's presumably cathartic confession: “I always … all my life … I have never told anyone this. …”22 Now, in The Cryptogram, it is sleepless little John who disturbs Donny and Del's conversation time and again. With deftly crafted rhythms of disruption, Mamet captures the throbbing noise of anxiety and isolation.

The situation at the beginning of Act One seems trivial: John is looking for the slippers he wants to wear at the “Cabin.” Mamet, however, lets his audience feel that, for some reason they do not know yet, Del is anxious and does not want John to notice. He is uncomfortable talking about the cabin and unfamiliar with the way things are done there. John, sensing that there is something wrong, remarks impatiently: “I know I couldn't wear them [the slippers] in the woods” (3). Del tries to make him ignore his apprehensions:

[…] What does it mean “I could not sleep”?
… what does it mean?
Yes. It means nothing other than the meaning you choose to assign to it.
… that I'm excited. […]
That's right.
… to go in the Woods … ?
Well. You see? You've answered your own question.

(4, intervening dialogue omitted)

The text is simple. Del wants to help John find a rationale for his sleeplessness: that it's normal for boys at John's age to be excited the night before they go on an outdoor trip, and that this is why he cannot sleep. Mamet contradicts this text with quite a different subtext. He shows the audience that not a single line in the passage quoted above means what it says. John's questions remain conspicuously unanswered. Del feels responsible for the upheavals in Donny's and John's lives. But even though he makes John grope for other causalities and meanings, he can convince neither John nor himself. As soon as he mentions John's father again, the boy harks back to the crucial question: “Why isn't he home?” (5). Encrypted codes bespeak a terrifying “truth,” and John hears it well. “[A] human being,” Del himself admits later on, “cannot conceal himself” (8).

In Act Two, Mamet extends the family crisis into a universal crisis of language and semiotics. John begins to understand that in his world the meanings of things that are customarily held to carry meanings—books, buildings, the globe, history, thought—are collapsing. He faces the question of how he might live in a world (one that looks stunningly like our own!) where the meaning of things cannot be taken for granted any more:

[…] I thought that nothing was there. Then I was looking at my book. I thought “Maybe there's nothing in my book.” It talked about the buildings. Maybe there's nothing in the buildings. And … or on my globe. You know my globe? You know my globe?
Maybe there's nothing on the thing that it is of. We don't know what's there. We don't know that those things are there.


In the middle of a crisis, John discovers the magic musicality of language. What language has lost in meaning, it now gains in sound and rhythm. Voiced and unvoiced th- sounds in words like “things,” “thought,” and “there” hold John spellbound; he finds internal rhyme in “look” and “book,” and alternating patterns of velar and labial sounds in “book” and “globe” inspire his fancy. Rhythms and sounds of speech unleash magical powers, conjure up new meaning. A similar connection between the sound and the meaning of words was crucial for young Mamet's “schoolyard negotiations circa 1959.” Here, words were “recognized … as magical and powerful unto themselves.”23 John gropes for the same magic reality: “We are a dream,” he speculates, “[a]nd all we do is say things” (54). He begins to understand that possibly “the lovely rhythm of human conversation”24 alone may be able instill comfort and meaning into a puzzling and ambiguous world—that language creates a world and that maybe there is no other.

In Act Three, John's quest for meaning becomes, literally, a question of life and death: “Do you ever wish that you could die?” he asks Donny (78). The semiocide Mamet's adult characters are committing takes on a suicidal quality. In denying and subverting the significance of words and symbols, Del and Donny embrace emotional and spiritual death. Through John we are reminded of the meaning of such seemingly innocuous things as a stadium blanket. Throughout the play, he has displayed an uncanny predilection for the magic thing that kept his parents warm while making love in the early days of their marriage. When John voices his desire for the charmed object one last time near the end of Act Three, Mamet fully unleashes the ghastly powers of language against him. Donny's desperate avowal evokes, creates, loneliness and isolation: “No one can help you. Do you understand? Finally, each of us […] Is alone” (90, intervening dialogue omitted). John physically feels the cold exuding from his mother's lips: “I'm cold. Could I have it, please” (90).

While John goes upstairs one last time to look for the blanket, Del's and Donny's attempts at finding consolation and communion are irrevocably frustrated. Melodramatically, Del begs for forgiveness: “Who am I? Some poor Queen. Lives in a hotel. Some silly old Soul Who loves you” (94). For Donny and the audience, such words, like the signs and symbols around her, have become meaningless and absurd attempts at (self-)dramatization. She retorts bitterly:

No, look here: don't tell me I'm going to make a sacrifice for you, and it's for my own good. Do you see? Because every man I ever met in this shithole …


Her world is devoid of meaning. A kind of O'Neillian apotheosis of forgiveness and peace has become impossible, unthinkable.

Then John's last entry triggers the final crisis. He breaks his promise about staying upstairs and going to sleep, and Donny dumps all her loneliness and impotent anger on him. John willingly takes the blame for everything the ripped blanket has come to mean: Donny's loss of physical and emotional intimacy and the disintegration of her home and family. He insists that he was the one who tore it, and he clings to it as a well-worn token of an elusive promise of communion. The ripped blanket can still warm him—just as the knife that wasn't a “War Memento” still has the power to “release” him (87, 66). All this is possible in John's magic world, Mamet seems to tell us—if one listens to the troubled voices that are calling and trusts the evocative power of words, if one believes the magic mumblings of the “Wizard” who spoke, and still speaks, through the book that Donny has lost.


Above, I have cited the passage where Del first encourages John to assign meaning to things. John's sleeplessness, let me remind you, was supposed to mean “nothing other than the meaning you choose to assign to it” (4) Del told John two lies. One: that symbols are dumb, that they do not carry meaning. Two: that John himself can and must assign meaning, any meaning, to the symbols around him, that there is no way of knowing which is right, which wrong. Mamet shows us that Del errs. For John there still is a magic world out there, and he is in touch with it. He knows that the symbols with which he communicates—or better: through which something out there communicates with him—speak for themselves. Del's agnostic argument is rational, to be sure, and John has to admit that “it's natural” for a boy to be excited (5); but he is tellingly unenthusiastic about such insights. What he really wants to know is why his father “isn't [ … ] home” (5).

John and Del's conversation reflects the postmodern discovery that language has lost essential meanings. As early as the 1960s, Paul Ricoeur approached this crisis, urging his readers to rediscover the meaning of symbols and myths:

[Our] epoch holds in reserve both the possibility of emptying language by radically formalizing it and the possibility of filling it anew by reminding itself of the fullest meanings, the most pregnant ones, the ones which are most bound by the presence of the sacred to man.

It is not regret for the sunken Atlantides that animates us, but hope for a re-creation of language. Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.25

Ricoeur diagnoses a semiotic crisis still discussed in contemporary theory. We are constantly realizing that we are unable to communicate with the existential meanings behind words and symbols hovering in our indeterminate intellectual universe. Theorists like Jean-François Lyotard went on to postulate that things no longer signified anything other than themselves. Theatre, then, needed to be relieved from the burden of signification in favour of new dramatic immediacy26—a carnivalesque affirmation of Derrida's “world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin.”27

In spite of these postulates, symbols and myths continue to speak and to confront us with perplexing meanings in a context of semiologic indeterminacies. Ricoeur's approach encourages us to respond to these meanings by going beyond merely postulating “caten[æ] of … “indetermanences”28 and embracing a hermeneutical circle where “The Symbol Gives Rise to Thought.”29 As denizens of a postmodern world, we have “irremediably lost” the “immediacy of belief” but can still “aim at a second naivete in and through criticism” and receive “the symbol's gift of meaning” again.30

Ricoeur's view turns our postmodern world upside down. A tradition of thought running from Cartesian philosophy all the way to systems like the theory of relativity and quantum theories has tried to convince us postmoderns that cognition always depended upon the conditions of the observer, and we somehow assumed this held true even for the humanities. A bit out of breath, we behold postmodern (literary) theorists juggling their cherished buzzwords in a carnivalesque celebration of indeterminacy, fragmentation, self-less-ness, depth-less-ness, and hybridization, still unable to escape the tyranny of the Cartesian paradigm. A theory of the symbol giving “rise to thought,” however, might show us we cannot be so sure that things signify nothing other than themselves. We begin to guess that there might still be a world “out there”’—chaotic and amorphous for all we know—that has the power to inspire our existence, that we may not only perceive, create, and give shape to the world around us, but receive and be created by a “truth” communicated through language, symbols, and myths. Ricoeur encourages us to seek a “second naivete”: “the being which posits itself in the Cogito has still to discover that the very act by which it abstracts itself from the whole does not cease to share in the being that challenges it in every symbol.”31

The key to The Cryptogram is found, I suggest, along these (post)postmodern lines of thought. As we watch the play through John's eyes, Mamet explains to us the words and symbols whose meaning John can only grasp intuitively. Like John, we come to understand that encrypted codes vouch for a “truth.” Mamet lets us see the Cryptogram through the eyes of a boy. He validates the linguistic signs and visual symbols of communion in a grimly semiocidal universe, constructing a ludic space of dislocation, recalling and remodelling memories of a childhood spent in an archetypal broken home, and reinventing the rhapsodic structure of a young mind's search for meaning. John's search for, and response to, the signs of a disturbed dramatic universe come to determine how we, the audience, respond to Mamet's theatrical signs. Thus Mamet's theatre reconstitutes our faith in words32 and brings us “the possibility of communion with what is essential in us all: that we are born to die, that we strive and fail, that we live in ignorance of why we were placed here, and, that, in the midst of this we need to love and be loved, but we are afraid.”33

Donny refuses to accept the “truth” that there are shards of too-fragile dreams of communion around her, that she needs to pick them up gently—not store them away and out of sight in the attic. She sends John, “truth's” sleepless messenger, away—with the last one of “truth's” unlikely symbols: the knife that wasn't a “War Memento” but tells a story of “release.” Still, troubled spirits keep mumbling: “They're calling my name. (Pause.) Mother. They're calling my name” (101). Now, at the end of the play, we know they are not calling only for John. They are calling for Donny and Del—and for us—to enter a world where joy and suffering, hope and fear, have names, words, meaning. When we as an audience join the communal theatrical celebration of these magic meanings, we have found our way inside The Cryptogram. That, I suggest, is where both the text and Mamet want us to be.

Perhaps you never loved.
That cryptogram.
Stulted by silence, you;
We read in it
Furious meaning. No.
The sick mind races so.
Perhaps you never loved.(34)


  1. David Mamet, “Semantic Chickens,” in Writing in Restaurants (New York: Viking, 1986), 68.

  2. Mamet, “Stanislavsky and the American Bicentennial,” in Writing in Restaurants, 30. See note 1.

  3. D. H. Lawrence, in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 311.

  4. Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (London: Longman, 1988), 110, 121.

  5. David Mamet, The Cryptogram (New York: Vintage, 1995), 1. All subsequent page references are to this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.

  6. Gregory Mosher, dir., The Cryptogram, by David Mamet, as staged at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, from 29 June 1994, designed by Bob Crowley, lighting by Rick Fisher.

  7. Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey into Night (New York: Yale University Press, 1984), 7.

  8. Matthew C. Roudané, “Mamet's Mimetics,” in David Mamet: A Casebook, ed. Leslie Kane (New York: Garland, 1992), 6.

  9. See Robert Cooperman, “The Talley Plays and the Evolution of the American Family,” in Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, ed. Jackson R. Bryer (New York: Garland, 1994), 65-84.

  10. Roudané, “Mamet's Mimetics,” 8. See note 8.

  11. David Mamet, Reunion, in Reunion; Dark Pony: Two Plays by David Mamet (New York: Grove, 1979), 29.

  12. Eugene O'Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten: A Play in Four Acts, in The Later Plays of Eugene O'Neill, ed. Travis Bogard (New York: Modern Library, 1967), 409. Mamet himself has compared Reunion to O'Neill's Anna Christie; see Dennis Carroll, David Mamet (London: Macmillan, 1987), 147.

  13. Mel Gussow, “The Daring Visions of Four New, Young Playwrights,” New York Times (13 February 1977), “Arts and Leisure,” 9.

  14. David Mamet, “The Rake,” in The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions (New York: Vintage, 1992), 4.

  15. Ibid., 10-11, 5-6.

  16. Lynn Mamet Weisberg, quoted in Samuel G. Freedman, “The Gritty Eloquence of David Mamet,” New York Times Magazine (21 April 1985), 46, quoted in Carroll, 4.

  17. Gregory Mosher, in program note for The Cryptogram, Ambassadors Theatre, London, 1994.

  18. In his theoretic writings, Mamet states emphatically that the purpose of theatre lies in attempting “to bring to the stage, as Stanislavsky put it, the life of the human soul.” See Mamet, “Decay: Some Thoughts for Actors,” in Writing in Restaurants, 115.

  19. David Rabe, afterword to Hurlyburly (New York: Grove, 1985), 162.

  20. “An Interview with David Mamet,” interview by Matthew C. Roudané, in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, 1 (1986), 77.

  21. Mamet, Cryptogram. See under list of characters, facing p. 1.

  22. David Mamet, Oleanna (New York: Vintage, 1993), 38.

  23. David Mamet “Capture-the-Flag, Monotheism, and the Techniques of Arbitration,” in Writing in Restaurants, 3-7.

  24. David Mamet, “Music,” in Cabin, 92. See note 14.

  25. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 349.

  26. See Jean-François Lyotard, “Der Zahn, die Hand,” in Essays zu einer affirmativen Ästhetik (Berlin: Merve, 1982), 21-22.

  27. Derrida, 121. See note 4.

  28. See Ihab Hassan, “Pluralism in Postmodern Perspective,” Critical Inquiry, 12:3 (1985-86), 503-520, esp. 504.

  29. This is the heading Ricoeur gives to his concluding chapter in The Symbolism of Evil, 347-57. See note 25.

  30. Ricoeur, 347-57, especially 351-52.

  31. Ibid., 351

  32. Ibid., 356.

  33. David Mamet, “Decay: Some Thoughts for Actors,” in Writing in Restaurants, 116-17.

  34. David Mamet, “March 1989,” in The Hero Pony (New York: Grove, 1990), 38.

Juliet Fleming (review date 18 February 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1885

SOURCE: Fleming, Juliet. “Footnotes on Mars.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5055 (18 February 2000): 22.

[In the following review, Fleming summarizes the stylistic elements of Wilson.]

The most arresting thing about David Mamet's new novel [Wilson] is its dust jacket. The front cover (reproduced here) displays the trompe l'oeil effect, complete with coffee stains, of a pile of comics—all without year-dates, but each in the unlocatably “dated” style of comic art. The magazine on top, Bongazine, shows its price (“Still only 4c. Slightly higher on Mars”) and features, against a background of spinning planets and imploding stars, an egg-headed intellectual and a dog wearing the Faber and Faber logo as an identity disc. Another comic contains “Free … at no extra cost … 2 Pairs of Magic Specs.” Signalling the novel's concern with intellectual property and intellectual detritus, with naive and cynical misperception, and with a commodity fetishism so advanced as to render impossible the true apprehension of a single thing or service, the front cover represents Mamet's novel as Mamet himself would have it.

The back cover continues and complicates the gag. Here, along with the book's ISBN and bar code (and the appearance, once again, of Faber's “ff”), is the novel's self-description, in three paragraphs. The first (“After the Cola Riots, the fire at the Stop ‘n’ Shop, and the death of my kitten, what remains? Can any sense be made of the texts found in the capsule or stuffed in the airlock? … What were Chet and Donna doing in the boathouse? And just who does Ginger think she is?”) gives a foretaste of what is to follow. The second explains the purpose of the “intellectually breathtaking tour” that the novel conducts through a world where “nothing is certain except the certainty of academics.” Of course, this description is itself a joke: “in playing with the ideas of perception, understanding, accuracy [Mamet] dares to doubt them all. When truth is a quicksand, the gag becomes a lifeline of stoic nobility. Derrida meets Beachcomber and comes away smiling.” For readers still in the dark, the blurb then concludes with a paragraph of self-assessment as comically misguided as anything in the novel itself: “a literary jeu d'esprit, a modern day Tristram Shandy, a hilarious satire on false scholarship, Wilson is David Mamet at his best and most mischievous.”

But the dust jacket repays still further study. For its inside contains the price of the book, a studiously casual and now famous photograph of the author (copyrighted to his wife, Rebecca Pigeon) and a sparse section of “acclaim for David Mamet's novels” (which are, in fact, two, and unremarkable). And here some readers may begin to wonder if the people from Pentagram, who did the cover design, have not extended Mamet's meditation on self-deceit and the excesses of market-driven publishing a little too far—whether, that is, in revealing the cultural contradictions against which the book rails to be the conditions of its own existence, they have not summed up the book in such a way as to render further reading of it unnecessary.

Those who do proceed will not go unrewarded. Mamet (essayist, poet and author, since 1970, of approximately fifty stage, screen and television plays, as well as two books about acting and one on directing film) is a writer who loves to assemble nonsense into metrically compulsive forms. His reputation as one of the best dramatists writing in English arises in part from his ability to produce word music from semantically impoverished speech. His dramatic characters typically seek this effect as a mode of local pleasure and empowerment, but it finally belongs less to themselves than to a designed action within which each speech is a formal dramatic gesture. Mamet's way with words is in some evidence in Wilson: as in this fragment from Ginger's diary (its grace enhanced by its capacity to invoke the doggerel verse of Theodor Giesel): “I shall not wear the blue. I shall not wear the beige I shall not wear the kerseymere—I shall not wear the taupe nor the mauve. I shall not wear the lawn. I shall not wear the lavender.”

Since Mamet is a prolific writer of Hollywood screenplays, there are today more people who know his work than know that they know it. Mamet's ability to wring pathos out of the quotidian will be familiar to such readers (“How much more preferable to've gone without the milk” says one character, remembering “that time we moved and the milkman moved with us”); as will a thematic logic whereby meaning appears only and exactly in the place where it is not sought. So Donna, dying of gunshot wounds, realizes both that death was “precisely as pictured in those works she'd always judged empty … of talent and imagination,” and that the important events of her life had been those “which, at the time, had seemed crucial, essential, formative, life-changing, and which she'd discarded or repressed.” In Mamet's plays and screenplays, this inability to achieve a consequential focus on events may be locally comic, but it tends towards tragedy, and is modulated by a formal beauty that makes Mamet's characters worth listening to, regardless of what they are saying. In Wilson, Mamet is exerting less control over the action, and the failure of his characters to make sense of their existence (“for how much of our lives, if we think about it, comes down to just gossip? Most? All? Surely more than ‘some’”) easily becomes wearing.

Wilson is enlivened by some very good jokes, which range from the tiny (“O Tempura. O Morays”) to sustained disquisitions on “The Parking Meter Problem,” on when to replace a piece of soap, and on Abraham Lincoln's five-mile walk to school each day (“a prescience on his part, for why would he have troubled, absent his (quite correct) valuation of its worth in advertising, in light of the fact that the school was across the street?”) But where Mamet's gifts as a writer are largely dependent on his capacity to chart patterns of human engagement within registers other than that of the simply said, in Wilson, he has set himself the task where the fact that none of his characters know what they are talking about serves no larger purpose than the demonstration of his own intellectual proposition that we live in a dangerously impoverished—or, to use one of his own favourite terms, emasculated—culture: “Are we, like sea anemones, born to live … glued to a rock in this undulating sea of shit, this precious, casuistic useless crap, this vomit, this scholastic and obscene perversion of all that is good?” And here we seem to be dealing less with the representation of pretentious or egotistical ignorance, than with the thing itself.

The book's full title is Wilson: A consideration of the sources … containing the original Notes, Errata, Commentary, and the Preface to the Second Edition. This preface (which may or not be by “the editors of Bongazine”) is heavily annotated, with footnotes on footnotes: like the rest of the book, it is designed first to incite, and then block, the search for meaning. Wilson is ostensibly set in the second half of the twenty-first century: Mars has been settled, the Internet has crashed, libraries have been destroyed, and a fire in the “Stop ‘n’ Shop” (one of the few surviving archives of twentieth-century life) has erased what survived of the culture of the past. All that remains is a random assemblage of written fragments, and the will to make sense of them:

The growth of Krautz's canon, beginning with the Cola Riots, can be seen to parallel the settlement on Mars; he has in fact, been identified (under the nomme de guerre of Bennigsen)∗ with Mars, the God of War of the Ancient Geeks. … It was the Great Decampment which began the “Change,” as the last links were severed between our age and the “Written Word.”


∗Or was Krautz the pseudonym?

Though an impartial survey of the scholastic blether published on “The Loss of the Written Word” might send one to the dictionary to double-check the definition of “oxymoron.”

But who is it who has undertaken to “order these thoughts”? Not Mamet, for whom academic wrong-thinking is both the symptom and the cause of a profound cultural destitution, and whose point here, in any case, is that the will to order produces only chaos. Here, and in the films he directs, Mamet's preferred way of making sense is first to render his medium unreliable—to expose it as a register of desire, delusion and false consciousness—and then to pattern images and events into a sort of agentless dream-work, a Borromean knot of cause and effect: “how is one to parse that which may have been delusion but which was borne out by subsequent events?”

Still, Mamet knows that “the mind fights shy of the unexplained.” Here, readers are invited to imagine that academic A wrote the main text (and is therefore responsible, pedant though he is, for the erroneous identification of Mars as a “Geek” god, and the feminization of nom); while academic B introduced the query about Krautz. But who authored footnote (3)—a footnote that has nothing to do with A's argument, and whose signature effect is hostility to an academic protocol that it refuses to understand, even as it asserts itself as an instance of the same? In its refusal to consider what might be either consequential or fun in systems of abstract thought (or in the attempt to get them right)—as in its insistence that scholarship is simply a bad joke—footnote (3) is characteristic of Wilson's editorial apparatus and the novel as a whole. If Heisenberg's “uncertainty principle” holds it impossible to know both the speed and the location of a sub-atomic particle, “who would want to?” If space is infinite, “all he could think was of the unfortunate, the pathetic impossibility of a man on the largest and a woman on the smallest world having a sexual encounter.” If deconstruction is “based upon a criminal, nay, a psychotic aversion to meaning” … then “deconstruct (reconstruct) the sentence … ‘Eskimo pussy is mighty cold.’”

Beyond the fact that such manifestations of anti-intellectualism function as the register of Mamet's own sexism, ethnocentrism and homophobia, they raise the question of what, other than its own self-importance, this novel is a parody of. If particle physics or deconstruction are made to look ridiculous as they are adumbrated here, what does that demonstrate except that each requires a specialized intellectual effort beyond the brief of an easily affronted common sense? The abrogation of knowledge and efficacious thought staged in this novel is generated by its own attempt to assert a difference “between those who wear cap and gown and human beings”; it is therefore the responsibility not of Heisenberg, or Derrida, but of Mamet himself. Is Wilson then a particularly postmodern satire, one cunningly designed to miss its own point—or is it, taken all in all, a piece of bad writing? Mamet's novel finally functions as a request to readers to have compassion for the anger of an anti-intellectualism that fears it is not being taken seriously. To the extent that it knows that to voice this demand is to ensure that it will not be met, Wilson is not without a heroic pathos of its own.

Jack Gibson (review date 17 March 2000)

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SOURCE: Gibson, Jack. “Deerhunter in Search of a New Model.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5059 (17 March 2000): 19.

[In the following review, Gibson writes favorably of Jafsie and John Henry praising the collection for its wit, trademark terseness, and dramatic style.]

Essayists come in three varieties: the self-revealer (Montaigne, Lamb, Woolf, etc), the whistleblower (Bacon, Orwell, Vidal, etc) and, more recently, the audacious villain who dresses up a hotch-potch of slight, repetitive and inelegant magazine-fillers to look like a book (no names). David Mamet as essayist, however, is characteristically awkward to classify. In fact, this new collection possesses more of the qualities which Walter Benjamin, in his essay on Nikolai Leskov, attributed to the traditional storyteller than it does those familiar in the essayist.

The traditional storyteller, according to Benjamin, was often a master craftsman and giver of practical advice. The pieces in Jafsie and John Henry reveal, above all, Mamet's respect (reverence, almost) for connoisseurship. Two brilliant essays, one on a poker game, one on a Scotch-whisky tasting, convey a fascination with the smallest details of physiology, on the one hand as they reveal—or attempt to conceal—psychological undercurrents, and on the other as they give rise to an exact lexicon of taste. In both essays, Mamet plays the hapless amateur, but through his confessions of failure to match up, he teaches us a good deal. On a smaller, but no less fascinating scale, he enjoys imparting expertise acquired from his experiences with cars and knives, caps and sweaters.

At the heart of the storyteller's art, Benjamin says, is a recognition of the need to face up to prospective oblivion. And so we find with Mamet that the core of his essays consists in an acknowledgement of, and resistance to, just this threat. There are venomous attacks on television and computers, or rather on our submission to them, and one feels and sympathizes with the desperation in his voice as he cries out, prophet-like, against our uncomplaining embrace of retardation: “it is not that ‘the machine can do anything,’ it is that in accepting the machine we accept the limits of its operations as ‘everything that we might want to do.’” Mamet's resistance is no mere technophobia, for he is almost equally scathing of people spouting conventional, unexamined opinions, blindness to one's own and others' motives, and acceptance of compromise (especially compromise with film producers), all of which he regards as forms of mindlessness. Conformity, for Mamet, is a kind of annihilation.

The final essay, “Late Season Hunt,” comes very close to being a short story; and a good one at that. In it, the elements of storytelling mentioned above combine to form a moving account of Mamet's attempt, having just turned fifty, to bag a buck in the Northeastern territories, accompanied by friends Nathan and Jim, and his beloved.58 Hawken. He is wet, cold, prone to mishap, and easily outmanoeuvred by his prey, but he draws from the experience an unmatchable feeling of achievement. His joy appears to come from having almost vanished into the exhilaration of the moment. Here, at last, is an escape from the oblivion of the self, as well as the crowd.

Escape from the self, however, is not long given to the essay writer. If, as Mamet claims in his introduction, these prose pieces are a “search for a new model,” it might not be too paradoxical to suggest that the model towards which these pieces are ultimately groping is not essayistic but dramatic. Perhaps Mamet's essays are primarily attempts to clear up the mind prior to embarking on new directions in his main field. Such secondariness might explain their not-quite-essay status, without detracting from their quality (I should mention, too, that those looking forward to Mamet's trademark terseness and highly quotable wit will find much to enjoy).

Richard W. Mitchell (review date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Mitchell, Richard W. Review of Three Uses of the Knife, by David Mamet. Comparative Drama 34, no. 1 (spring 2000): 115-18.

[In the following review, Mitchell criticizes many of the views presented in Three Uses of the Knife, but allows that the book may have some validity in its advice concerning commercial playwriting.]

As one might expect from a book written by popular playwright and occasional agent provocateur of theater, David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama is, at various times, thought-provoking, irreverent, contentious, and conventional. Like many of Mamet's plays, this book offers some innovative approaches to its subject matter, although much of the volume embraces convention, especially when Mamet champions “true” dramatic structure, which includes a single hero pursuing a single goal through three clearly delineated acts. Although Mamet's promotion of traditional form may not hold up under the gaze of many contemporary scholars and artists or, for that matter, the modernist artist from a century earlier, the book maintains a significant amount of credibility by virtue of its author having managed to do what has eluded most late twentieth century American dramatists: make a substantial living as a critically acclaimed playwright. Thus, in spite of—or perhaps because of—the book's conservative approach to aesthetics, its three loosely organized chapters offer potentially useful advice for crafting a crowd pleasing drama. These same chapters, however, display an intolerant attitude towards drama and art that is formally innovative and/or socially engaged while, ironically, implying that such biases may have something to do with being a commercially successful playwright in the United States.

Mamet begins the small volume by explaining that people naturally dramatize everyday occurrences, and that such dramatizations adhere to a particular form. “Our survival mechanism orders the world into cause-effect-conclusion” (8) and “a three-act structure” (9). Echoing a well-worn theme, Mamet writes that life itself is inherently theatrical—“It is difficult, finally, not to see our lives as a play with ourselves the hero” (12)—and that the ways in which we dramatize our everyday experiences are not far removed from what he calls “true” drama, particularly tragedy, which—along with myth and religion—creates awe within the audience while avowing the individual's helplessness. Tragedy, myth, and religion “do not deny our powerlessness,” Mamet declares, “but through its avowal they free us of the burden of its repression” (15). That is, by making the spectator realize that she is powerless to affect the “natural order,” “true” drama enables the spectator to achieve “peace.”

Such statements bring to mind the very different dramaturgy of Brecht, whose work—emphasizing that the “natural order” is merely an illusion—encourages the spectator to intervene in the world in order to make it more equitable. Only with society's gross inequities altered, Brecht suggests, can the subject ever attain “peace.” In spite of Mamet's impatience with political drama, however, he approves of Brecht's plays because they “are extraordinarily charming and beautiful and lyrical and upsetting. Coincidentally, they happen to be on social issues” (47). But Mamet opposes Brecht's often radical essays, which “bear little relationship to his plays” (47), as well as the work of numerous other dramatists which critiques the dominant ideologies. The “problem play,” according to Mamet, is “false drama” in which “we [the audience and playwright] indulge a desire to feel superior to events, to history, in short, to the natural order” (15). Unwilling to acknowledge that human agency, and not nature, creates social hierarchies, Mamet—utilizing the specious reasoning of Social Darwinism—suggests that “true” drama must always uphold the “natural order.” To support this assertion, Mamet paraphrases Aristotle and several neoclassical theorists—“the purpose of art is not to change but to delight” (26)—and goes on to say that art which purports to teach (unlike art that supports contemporary social hierarchies, the “natural order”) is actually totalitarian and results in “oppression” of the audience.

Mamet believes that drama should not have didactic tendencies because “true” art cannot appeal, primarily, to rational thought: “the good play will not concern itself with cares … that can be dealt with rationally” (25). Artistic forms which appeal “to the conscious mind do not satisfy … the conscious mind cannot create art” (46, 49). As Mamet suggests, art that reaches beyond conscious perception can be quite powerful, which is why artists have been consciously trying to represent the unconscious since, at least, Freud and the Symbolists. Yet the fairly rigid Aristotelian form that Mamet calls for must be consciously constructed, unless this form has become so commonplace through over-use, or instinct, that it has become second nature to those who write drama. Indeed, Mamet suggests the latter, writing that the structure of drama “is not an arbitrary—or even a conscious—invention. It is an organic codification of the human mechanism for ordering information” (73). In spite of his Social Darwinist beliefs, however, Mamet implies that our “organic codification” of dramatic form has not evolved since the time of the ancient Greek dramatists, or at least not since Aristotle.

There are, of course, widely divergent and differently structured artistic genres and movements (as well as individual narratives of the everyday) that veer from the “human mechanism's” tendency to organize the world in Aristotelian form, but Mamet believes that such genres and movements, including avant-garde, performance, and video art; Happenings; and experimental theater, “are rather meaningless as art” (54). Traditional theater, especially tragedy, on the other hand, provides meaningful art since, “like magic, like religion,” its purpose “is to inspire cleansing awe” (68) as the hero's tragic fate suggests to the spectator that she is powerless in the face of forces that cannot be rationalized. Thus, “the cleansing lesson of drama is, at its highest, the worthlessness of reason” (70). Suggesting the “worthlessness of reason,” however, is exactly what much of the art that Mamet disparages does as it breaks down conventional form and meaning. Yet according to Mamet, art that is plotless, that lacks a single hero pursuing a single goal, cannot possibly work because humans “do not perceive randomness” (74), although these same humans are “inspired” and “cleansed” by plays of classical dramatic form that demonstrate the uselessness of reason.

Although Mamet embraces traditional dramatic form, he also critiques the simplistic formulas of television and the movies, which are not art but, at best, “entertainment,” or “information,” whose purpose “is not to share the truth but to immobilize and enervate the mind” (57). The “information age,” according to Mamet, “is the creation, by the body politic, through the collective unconscious, of a mechanism of repression, a mechanism that offers us a diversion from our knowledge of our own worthlessness” (53). Information, which has a numbing affect on those who constantly consume it, is “an intellectual hibernation, the mass equivalent of an antipsychotic drug, the exercise wheel in the hamster cage—a self-administered anesthesia” (56). Here, as in several other parts of the volume, Mamet's observations are perceptive, but they are never quite new. And that seems to be the main problem of this book, which continually rehashes Aristotle, the neoclassicists, the world-as-stage metaphors, while summarily dismissing much artistic innovation.

The allure of this book, and the reason it was published, can be found in the celebrity name on the colorful jacket, David Mamet, which takes up substantially more space than the book's twelve word title. As the most successful American dramatist of the last two decades, Mamet has earned a soapbox from which to pound home his notions of “good” and “bad” dramatic form, although he's so much against speaking from soapboxes. He's earned a right to critique drama that lacks catharsis, a single hero, or the three act structure, although much of his own drama lacks the very form that he considers so central to “true” drama. Indeed, Mamet has earned the right to publish any sort of book or essay he pleases, and many will read his words closely because the author has shown time and again that he knows what it takes to succeed as a dramatist.

While some of Mamet's reasoning, especially regarding form, is suspect, it may also have some validity, at least for commercial playwriting, which is, after all, what Mamet knows best. Despite his numerous statements that invite criticism, or that don't quite add up, Mamet's concept of “good” drama may, perhaps, suggest direction for the dramatist seeking to build a larger audience. Although the artist should not limit herself to a particular, proscribed aesthetic form, studying this book—or at least parts of it—may help the playwright to gain insight into what types of plays many producers, directors, and audiences of mainstream American theater might be most likely to embrace. Perhaps even adding a sprinkling of Mamet's ideas to a radically non-Aristotelian play could help the play to gain a wider audience. Or perhaps many of Mamet's ideas should be ignored, and creators of innovative American drama should, rather than looking to the distant past through Mamet's most recent book for an aesthetic model, strive to create theater that speaks to and springs from the conflicts and contradictions of late twentieth-century America. Just as Mamet has done in many of his plays.

Myles Weber (essay date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Weber, Myles. “David Mamet in Theory and Practice.” New England Review 21, no. 2 (spring 2000): 136-41.

[In the following essay, Weber discusses Mamet's ideas about the role of theater in contemporary society, focusing on writings in which Mamet addresses the structure of tragedies versus melodramas.]

David Mamet's publication record challenges the widely accepted falsehood that the value of a playwright's professional stock plummets if he is perceived as prolific. Over the past three decades, Mamet has written more than twenty original full-length plays. In addition, he has published numerous adaptations, two volumes of prose fiction, two poetry collections, several children's books, eight volumes of nonfiction, and fourteen screenplays. In 1999 alone, he premiered a new play and published a collection of poetry, two screenplays, and his fifth collection of short essays, Jafsie and John Henry.1 He also directs feature films.

Mamet's short essays focus on a fixed constellation of topics: drama, masculine pursuits (card playing, hunting, drinking, friendship), the American Jewish identity, and childhood memories. He has further developed his observations on theater and movies in On Directing Film (1991), the provocative acting manual True and False (1997), and Three Uses of the Knife,2 an examination of “the nature and purpose of drama.”

In a 1984 interview, Mamet asserted that the well-made play imitated the structure of human cognition. The author expands on this point in Three Uses of the Knife. “Dramatic structure,” he writes, “is not an arbitrary—or even a conscious—invention. It is an organic codification of the human mechanism for ordering information. Event, elaboration, denouement; thesis, antithesis, synthesis; boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl; act one, two, three.” His anti-Foucauldian view of cultural norms (he claims they have biological rather than sinister or arbitrary origins) is rooted in a naked desire to please the audience. Drama, Mamet concluded long ago, is good for one thing only: telling a story. And people are naturally receptive to a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The only people who do not conceive of stories in this manner, he notes, are experimental, anti-mimetic playwrights.

Mamet's considerable experience in theater, filtered through the theses of Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, has led him to conclude that the theater artist's task is to ease the disparity between the conscious and unconscious minds—“to cure a raging imbalance”—and so achieve peace. Dramatic form facilitates this task. It permits the playwright to address questions the conscious mind is incompetent to deal with. Ideally, when dramatic structure is employed expertly in a play, it brings the subconscious and conscious into alignment, at which point the audience feels it has to hear what happens next.

By contrast, a didactic play—a drama that poses a question we can answer rationally, like “Are black people deserving of respect?”—makes us feel diverted but not fulfilled. “It might make a good tract, it might make a good political platform, it might make a good speech. But it can't be art,” Mamet writes. By appealing only to the rational mind, the “problem play” fails to grip audience members at a deeper level of consciousness. At most, it instills in them a sense of superiority to those characters whose actions they recognize as morally repugnant.

These are ideas Mamet has been developing for some time. In On Directing Film, he wrote: “People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people's lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn't work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn't.” In True and False, he offered this bit of heresy: “Our theater is clogged with plays about Important Issues; playwrights and directors harangue us with right-thinking views on many topics of the day. But these are, finally, harangues, they aren't drama, and they aren't fun to do. The audience and the actor nod in acquiescence, … but it is a corruption of the theatrical exchange.” It is tempting to suggest Mamet became a prolific writer through sheer repetition, but I welcome his doggedness on this issue, which is heresy, and which explains the paradoxical situation contemporary theater finds itself in. By addressing “relevant issues,” theater risks making itself irrelevant to the human psyche.

“Always do things in the least interesting way,” Mamet wrote in On Directing Film, “and you make a better movie.” By that, he meant attempts to tart up a character—assigning adverbs in the script or mugging on stage—merely distract attention from the story, which is of paramount interest. Mamet's appreciation for simplicity is evident in his plays, which read briskly, in part because he does not invite cheap histrionics from performers. Everything is on the page: in the story and in the language. Canvassing Mamet's dramatic oeuvre, however, I found passages where the author places perhaps too much faith in pure narrative, which a literate audience might fully anticipate, particularly in the strictly Aristotelian form Mamet favors, tragedy. It may be impossible for Mamet to bring the audience's conscious and unconscious minds into alignment if audience members have grown impatient with the characters.

“Endings in tragedies are resolved,” Mamet explained to Matthew C. Roudané in 1984. “The protagonist undergoes a reversal of the situation, a recognition of the state, and we have a certain amount of cleansing. This is what Don experiences in American Buffalo. But this doesn't happen in Glengarry Glen Ross. So the structure is different. It's not as classical a play as Buffalo, and it's probably not as good a play.” Anyone familiar with both works knows, in fact, that Glengarry Glen Ross is far superior to American Buffalo, a tragedy whose resolution demands a stubborn obtuseness from its characters. For instance, Don, the pawnshop owner who is planning a minor heist, has failed to notice that one of his poker buddies—the one who keeps winning—is a habitual cheater. Don also lacks even ballpark knowledge of the value of rare coins passing through his store and can't be bothered to investigate their worth. In Mamet's work, the more urgent the dramatic point, the more implausible the set-up. In Edmond, the title character's abrupt descent into poverty, hopelessness, and murder rests on his gullibility and a convenient lapse into insanity.

When I say the audience grows impatient with the characters, I do not mean the audience can predict the precise details of the reversal the protagonist will undergo. But they know he will undergo a reversal of some sort—they've read Aristotle, too. And they know it will not be triggered by an arbitrary cataclysm beyond the protagonist's control, as in a melodrama, but rather by the protagonist's own actions, à la Oedipus. Too often, Mamet resorts to a simple slip of the tongue. In The Cryptogram, Del tells Donny her husband gave him a knife as a memento on a camping trip, which Donny knows is a lie. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Levene chews out his boss on behalf of a colleague, and in so doing implicates himself in an office burglary. Mamet strains the audience's credulity by placing too much weight on this Freudian crutch. (Levene: “I'm halfway hoping to get caught.”) In the most extreme cases, we get an I-Just-Can't-Help-Myself-I-Have-to-Blurt-This-Out scene. Karen, the conniving temporary office assistant in Speed-the-Plow, is asked by an angry professional rival if she would have slept with her boss had he not approved her film proposal. “No,” she admits. “No.” The problem is not simply that Karen instantly converts to a life of self-defeating honesty—she loses the film deal as a result of her answer—but that the other characters fully expect her to. They seem sympathetic to the bind the author is in, and are willing to play along.

The problem Mamet faces is not merely one of formalist exhaustion. The weakness of implausibility was inherent from the very beginning of drama, even in Aristotle's model of the tragic form, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. As a character in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain comically notes, “[I]f some oracle told you you were going to kill your father and marry your mother, wouldn't you just never kill anybody and stay single? … Wouldn't you be smart enough to, like, avoid older women?” Characters in tragedy are never smart enough, and in Mamet's plays they are downright imbecilic. (Don in American Buffalo: “What are you doing here?” Bob: “I came here.”) This is, in part, because real human beings act self-destructively (that is, stupidly) and because drama takes its logic from dream narrative. The protagonist's actions are driven by a vertigo-like pull, inevitably drawing the character over the side of a cliff. This is not smart behavior, but it is dramatic.

Still, the implausibilities and irritations remain. Mamet acknowledges that third act problems are nearly inevitable in playwriting and he pleads for understanding: “It is much easier to write great dialogue … than to write great plots.” Mamet's disjointed dialogue is the most renowned feature of his writing, and I believe it stems from problems inherent in his work. The following exchange between two real estate salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross is not exactly typical of Mamet's dialogue, which is not as relentlessly elliptical and choppy as some think, but it is prototypical:

We're stuck with this …
We're stuck with this fucking shit …
… this shit …
It's too …
It is.
It's too …
You get a bad month, all of a …
You're on this …
All of, they got you on this “board” …
I, I … I …
Some contest board …
I …
It's not right.

Mamet describes his dialogue as “poetic,” “musical,” “tailor-made for the stage.” It is indeed all those things. But my concern is the extent to which educated or street-wise characters are forced to sound incoherent to lend plausibility to their ignorant, self-destructive actions. Mamet's characters stutter in the service of tragic form.

Mamet's staccato language surfaces in his nonfiction as well, in the blunt, single-sentence paragraphs his essays often comprise. Perhaps because he developed his recent theorizing on drama to book length in Three Uses of the Knife, Mamet's latest collection of short essays, Jafsie and John Henry, includes relatively few observations on theater. Mamet focuses instead on the tendency of Jewish Americans toward self-loathing, the male-female divide, and his nostalgia for youth from the vantage point of middle age.

In a previous collection, Mamet said of specifically masculine activities like boxing, gambling, and shooting: “I have sought them out and enjoy them all vastly. They are times that I cherish.” He has also asserted that men and women do not want the same things, and that female colleagues, in his professional experience, have consistently demonstrated the cruelest and most arrogant behavior, because they are less fearful of censure from peers. In his latest collection, Mamet balks at the sloppy use of the word macho to mean anything male and, therefore, “degenerate and ludicrous,” and he condemns attempts by women to infantilize men by demanding they become “emotionally responsive.” Statements of this ilk have won Mamet numerous detractors, as has the fierce language of his volatile male characters (“Southern bulldyke asshole ingrate of a vicious nowhere cunt”). But he has his defenders as well. British playwright Rebecca Prichard, considering the recent crop of arbitrarily violent male plays in London, notes that those works owe little to Mamet's dramatic writing, which does not celebrate nihilism or even masculinity, but which explores the link between society's values and its brutality.

If Mamet acquits himself on gender, he has less success with the issues of Judaism and the American Jewish identity, which seem only to make him crabby. It is instructive, considering Mamet's distaste for melodrama, to read his dismissal of Schindler's List as “an exploitation film” and “emotional pornography.” But pronouncements like “We are a beautiful people and a good people” do not belong among the mature writings of a significant literary talent. They are the Jewish rejoinder to Kwanzaa propaganda, and are better left to educators, the talentless, and the well-intentioned.

Similarly, Mamet makes occasionally airless declarations about popular culture that echo the work of our laziest academics: Disneyland is best understood as a totalitarian state, for example. The author has written of his wasted undergraduate years at a college with an unstructured curriculum where, essentially, no learning took place. He still suffers from lost time. This is especially obvious in his essays on economic matters—works informed almost exclusively by the theories of Thorstein Veblen. For years, Mamet's dramatic writing triumphed by tapping into a theatrical zeitgeist that was similarly ill-informed. Mamet's most successful works can, I believe, be fairly encapsulated thus: sex workers, pawnshop owners, pimps, and “legitimate” salesmen of all kinds use coercive techniques to bilk the customer. And they are willing to abandon even the thin patina of legality and resort to violence if necessary. The heartless economic system forces them to do so. Mamet has long been fascinated and unnerved by “the American myth,” which he defines as the expectation of getting something from nothing and which he views as the basis for our economic life. “And this also affects the spirit of the individual. It's very divisive. One feels one can only succeed at the cost of someone else.”

Mamet's sentiments closely resemble “the European myth” espoused for decades by the Social Democratic Left, who insisted that the prosperity of an individual arose inevitably at the expense of the collective. Mamet is right about one thing, at least: a significant number of Americans have long held what Europeans considered the naive notion that affluence is generally beneficial, which recent economic developments worldwide now seem to confirm—a point no longer lost even on the Social Democrats. The most important question looming over Mamet's career concerns this altered zeitgeist: Will the author conform subsequent dramatic works to a post-Thatcherite world of New Labour and “Third Way” economics?

I hope Mamet continues in his nonfiction to serve as a thoughtful amalgamator of theories first espoused by others—Aristotle, Eisenstein, Bettelheim, even Stanislavsky, whose acting method Mamet now dismisses. But the author is clearly in a transitional period in his dramatic work, both regarding his primary choice of media—he works more frequently in film now than theater—and in subject matter. Mamet's plays from the nineties, including The Cryptogram and The Old Neighborhood, suggest the author is drawing upon childhood for inspiration and plot material. That's fine, as long as it is a sign of aging and nostalgia, not of timidity or confusion. Mamet may voice questionable generalizations about society, but the fierceness of his convictions is what lent his earlier dramas their energy. His small sin was to misdirect his ire at a faceless political and economic establishment that could not reasonably be expected to rescue characters bent on classically tragic self-ruin. It is a graver sin—and an unsavory spectacle—for the playwright to redirect his venom toward his parents now that our general economic predicament appears less dire.

If Mamet needs material for a socially engaged drama in the post-Cold War economy, I suggest he consult some of the more vital passages in his own nonfiction for inspiration. “Our undeniable Puritan society can countenance chastity and pornography, but little in between,” he writes in “Scotch Malt Whisky Society” from Jafsie and John Henry. “It seems we have a problem with the issue of control.”

In Three Uses of the Knife, he states, “The avant-garde is to the left what jingoism is to the right. Both are a refuge in nonsense.”

And in the preface to Jafsie and John Henry, he affirms the artist's wish not to embarrass himself. Paradoxically for a playwright, this means resisting the social contract and saying the unacceptable. Things get complicated, however, if the rebellious author wins attention and acclaim. “Success ratifies the iconoclast, and places him or her in the strange position of having been endorsed for being a detractor,” Mamet notes.

I can think of no subject matter more vital to today's theater than this inverted social contract. A playwright ingratiates himself to the establishment these days by screaming curses at the powers that be. It is nearly impossible to voice something unacceptable anymore unless one remains doggedly square and sober. Mamet would seem to be the perfect playwright to grapple with this material, having had the bad taste in the past to dismiss performance art and “women's writing” as decadent and elitist, and having gone on record bemoaning the effects of government arts funding. The author is clearly at a professional crossroads. I cite as evidence his most recent film [The Winslow Boy], an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy, which Mamet describes as “a work of melodramatic genius.” That one of America's most prolific and original writers should resort to filming an adaptation in a genre he openly deplores suggests confusion.

Or perhaps it signals a change of heart. Perhaps David Mamet has loosened up and is willing to ease his adherence to a strictly Aristotelian approach to drama. Perhaps we can expect articulate, plain-speaking characters from him in the future—intelligent people to whom bad things occasionally happen, rather than ignorant louts who keep mucking up their own lives. If so, David Mamet is my choice to lead American playwrights through the wilderness of political and bureaucratic confusion, face up to the surprisingly benign nature of our economic system, and point us toward a new century of American drama.


  1. Mamet, David. Jafsie and John Henry: Essays. New York: Free Press, 1999. $22.00; 171 pp.

  2. Mamet, David. Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. $21.00; 87 pp.

Bella Merlin (essay date August 2000)

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SOURCE: Merlin, Bella. “Mamet's Heresy and Common Sense: What's True and False in True and False.New Theater Quarterly 14, no. 3 (August 2000): 249-54.

[In the following essay, Merlin dissects Mamet's advice to actors in True and False, contending that Mamet misunderstands or misinterprets the Stanislavsky Method of Physical Actions.]

Although it's over two years now since the appearance of David Mamet's book, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, recent experience spurs me to offer a riposte to the provocative way in which Mamet assaults contemporary acting practice, taking a few hefty swipes at Stanislavsky as he does so. The impetus behind this riposte arises from an ongoing negotiation with professional actors and acting students, whose conversion to the Mamet gospel is a little unsettling—partly because the basis from which he criticizes Stanislavsky's system is often inaccurate, but also because much of Mamet's ‘common sense’ assumes that all texts are of the quality of his own plays, whereas that is demonstrably seldom the case.

Any actor or student converted to the Mamet creed should be alerted to the fact that some of the arguments have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Mamet may be letting us off the hook by saying that the Stanislavsky ‘Method’ is not a technique which develops a skill: ‘it is a cult’1—the subtext being, ‘so don't bother with it.’ However, most contemporary practitioners know that without the underpinning of a technique or system, they can end up as victims of generalized performance or editorial control. A technique is liberation, not inhibition: ask any dancer, musician, painter, choreographer, or sculptor. Or even, as Mamet suggests, a conjuror—which seems to be an excellent example of how a craftsman's perfected technique goes beyond mere exercise to literal magic. This is the challenge that the actor faces and must live up to, and it is not always possible to do so without some kind of fall-back strategy. And that is what Stanislavsky's techniques provide.

Undoubtedly the first area which should be addressed is Mamet's confusion between Method and ‘system.’ We have to be clear about this: Lee Strasberg's American Method and Stanislavsky's acting principles are quite different. The differences become clearer as increasing numbers of contemporary theatre practitioners become acquainted with Stanislavsky's Method of Physical Actions, also known as Active Analysis.

The crux of the whole debate is essentially the role of action and emotion in acting. Certainly Affective or Emotion Memory (the apparent lynchpin of the American Method) was part of Stanislavsky's early experimentation, but it was less significant in the later stages of his life, when the emphasis shifted away from the personal summoning-up of past experiences which could invest the stage fiction with a sense of reality and ‘truthful’ emotion. Now the crucial ingredient of the actor's on-stage experience was action. If you do the scene, you understand what is required of you physically, emotionally, and imaginatively. It is as simple as that.

Doing is active, it is present tense, and it is immediate. Memory is reflective, past tense, and dislocates the actor from the scene in hand. Here Mamet seems to confuse Strasberg and Stanislavsky. Strasberg's implementation of Affective Memory was certainly questionable: he advocated that even during a performance actors should silently conjure up particularly relevant affective memories while their fellow actors are speaking, so that they are emotionally prepared by the time they come to say their own lines. Even with regular practice, this process can take a whole minute, as Strasberg describes:

In the Group Theatre … we would allow the actor a minute before the emotion was needed to carry out the affective memory. When an emotional response was needed at a point in the middle of a scene, the actor knew that he had to start the affective memory sixty seconds before and that the emotional reaction would be ready exactly on cue.2


To a contemporary actor, this method seems to be not only impracticable, but also creatively unhelpful. How can I respond to my partner if I'm not even listening to him? It is also entirely contrary to the role that emotion played in Stanislavsky's ultimate legacy, the Method of Physical Actions—and this is where we must again differentiate between Strasberg and Stanislavsky.

David Mamet describes Stanislavsky's contribution to actor training as ‘that of a dilettante’ which has been ‘a lodestone for the theoretical, I will say the anti-practical, soul … for his theories cannot be put into practice.’3 My own practical experience of Russian actor training in Moscow leads me to believe that while this criticism might well be levelled at Strasberg's strange contortion of emotion and imagination, it could not be less applicable to Stanislavsky's Method of Physical Actions. This Method is so simple in its premise—as I outlined in my discussion in NTQ 594—that it is far from the work of a dilettante, and far from anti-practical. Clearly David Mamet's antagonism towards Stanislavsky's theories is based on knowledge of a limited area of the latter's work, and he is evidently unfamiliar with Physical Action. He reveals this ignorance in his unequivocal dismissal of

‘emotion memory,’ ‘sense memory,’ and the tenets of the Method back to and including Stanislavsky's trilogy [which] are a lot of hogwash.5

Much of the ‘trilogy’ to which Mamet refers, comprising An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role, does concern itself with the early elements of the ‘system,’ from which Stanislavsky himself gradually grew away. None the less, there are some fascinating insights into the Method of Physical Actions in the third book, Creating a Role, which many people, Mamet included, seem to overlook or fail to understand. Instead, critics seem to dwell on the more analytical aspects of the system, which in context can provide useful and enlightening inroads into a text, but which must be considered only as part of a whole.

In fact, I would agree with many of Mamet's criticisms of over-analysis: taken to an extreme, it can lead an actor to focus so deeply on his or her own through-line in a play that any real connection with a partner is lost. Furthermore, it can seem to provide the performer with a personal buffer zone or ‘security blanket,’ as if to say, ‘Well, I've done my homework, so whatever the rest of you do, at least I know my performance is fully considered and complete.’ As Mamet points out, it shields the actor from anxiety about his or her performance, and ‘from the necessity of paying attention to his [or her] colleagues while on stage.’6

This was brought to my notice recently when watching an actor friend of mine in a new play at a London theatre. Although she is very accomplished and experienced, I felt as I watched her performance that she was in a different play from her fellow actors. Her tempo-rhythm seemed somehow inappropriate—a little pushed and untruthful—although I knew she had great integrity and so I assumed that she was trying to do something that I just didn't understand. Speaking to her afterwards, she expressed her dissatisfaction, saying that she had worked out the ‘graph’ of her character, but other actors didn't seem to be playing their graphs.

My response to this was that she couldn't ‘play her graph’ in isolation from the rest of the ensemble, because the net result was that she (who had ‘done her homework’) looked forced and untruthful, while ironically the less diligent actors seemed more relaxed and attentive. Because her colleagues were not giving her what she felt she needed in order to breathe life into her character, she found herself in the impossible situation of ‘acting in a bubble.’


Mamet describes this approach as ‘playing the arc’ of the character, and he is absolutely right when he says that it focuses the actor on the quality of performance rather than the on-stage communion. That is not to say that the homework is not valid, but it is one of the props around the rocket which have to fall away once the rocket is launched. My actor friend had worked a great deal in television, where shooting scenes out of sequence often requires an actor to take a private short-cut into the emotional pitch of a particular scene in reference to other parts of the story-line. In such cases, an arc or graph can assist an actor to tap into the level of the character's emotional life at specific points in the script.

However, in theatre performance where the experience is immediate and involves the presence of an audience, actors cannot play their homework, they can only play the life of the moment. Arcs, graphs, and other such analytical props are in danger of becoming, in the words of David Mamet, ‘nothing but talismans of the actor to enable him or her to ward off evil, and the evil we attempt to ward off is the terrifying unforeseen.’7

The terrifying unforeseen is a wonderfully pithy expression coined by Mamet to well describe the essence of live performance, wherein there has to be a real engagement with an on-stage partner. Like technique, the ‘terrifying unforeseen’ can be as much of a liberation as an inhibition. Despite Mamet's protestations to the contrary, the ‘terrifying unforeseen’ is also at the heart of Stanislavsky's Method of Physical Actions. In fact, much of what David Mamet proposes as a ‘common sense’ alternative to Stanislavsky is—albeit unwittingly—a direct lifting from the premise behind the Method of Physical Actions.

No less than Mamet, Stanislavsky maintained that the key to the life of the human spirit on the stage was ‘limitless attention to the partner.’8 Once the actor takes his or her attention away from the self and directs it out towards the on-stage action, not only does nervousness diminish, but fear of giving an imperfect performance disappears, and lifeless acting-in-a-bubble vanishes. It is by turning attention to the on-stage partner that an actor can return to the essence of play, that essence being adaptation.

The ability to adapt during play is an inherent skill in children. However, with socialization—and sometimes training—it becomes harder to adapt spontaneously to changing circumstances. An arena which seems to arouse Mamet's ire on this subject is that of the drama school or conventional training establishment. As he points out, much contemporary actor training is geared towards students giving the perfect performance and reducing, rather than celebrating, the ‘terrifying unforeseen.’ To be in a constant state of inner adaptation (the end towards which Stanislavsky strove) demands that the actor must surrender cerebral control of his or her performance. He or she must relinquish the desire for the perfect performance and replace it with an honest encounter.

Mamet's subtext seems to be that the one place where the novice student could begin to explore the sensations of the ‘terrifying unforeseen’—i.e., the training ground—is the one place in which it is either actively discouraged or silently avoided. Having experienced a traditional British training before my time in Moscow, I would agree with Mamet to some extent; but, by stark contrast, my Stanislavsky-trained Russian acting ‘master,’ Albert Filozov, stated quite categorically at the end of my first term in Moscow: ‘I can't do anything with you, until you let go.’ So great was my desire to be master of my craft and to turn out the perfect performance that I had lost all sense of play and inner adaptation. Working with the Method of Physical Actions, or Active Analysis, Filozov was encouraging students both in training and in performance to eliminate obstacles rather than to acquire skills.


Mamet refers to this as ‘getting out of one's own way … and being comfortable being uncomfortable.’9 It is a question of having the courage to meet the other actors on stage in a truthful and dynamic engagement—to experience what is actually happening in that moment of connection, and to enjoy and delight in the unplanned, unexpected, and fascinating encounter between human beings. Whilst Mamet's words in this area are wise and inspiring, they are certainly not new. What he does pinpoint, however, is the way in which a great deal of conventional actor training tends to reduce real human contact and encourage a rather strange and essentially dead situation in which there is a ‘cabal of hypocrisy’:

I will agree not to notice what you are truly doing, because to do so would interfere with my ability to trot out my well-prepared emotion at the appropriate instant. In return, you must agree not to notice what I am doing.10

But again, the practice that he is criticizing here is far closer to Strasberg's bizarre technique of one actor summoning-up a private emotion while the on-stage partner is delivering his or her lines than the practice as advocated by Stanislavsky in the Method of Physical Actions. In fact, the unconscious alliance between Mamet's approach and Stanislavsky's Physical Actions is very clear to see. In celebrating the ‘terrifying unforeseen,’ Mamet proposes that the root of adaptation, or ‘acceptance,’ is the will—a term used by Stanislavsky and which he also referred to commonly as the ‘action-centre.’ Therefore, both practitioners suggest that the root of on-stage adaptation is action. In other words, Mamet's propositions for vital acting are little more than a confirmation of the immediacy and practicability of the Method of Physical Actions. He declares that:

acting, which takes place for an audience, is not as the academic model would have us believe. It is not a test. It is an art, and it requires not tidiness, not paint-by-numbers intellectuality, but immediacy and courage.11

What Mamet is doing in this statement is reiterating the ethos which underlies Physical Actions. If he believes that what he calls the ‘academic model’ equates with Stanislavsky's principles, his criticism is misguided.

Stanislavsky maintained that with immediacy and courage, actors could come to a rehearsal of a play ‘without any reading, without any conferences on the play,’ and through a process of improvising actions, they could find and manifest the drama's inner life.12 Likewise, throughout True and False Mamet claims that all the actor has to do, with the help of the director, is to find the actions and very quickly the play will be ready.13 What he doesn't explain is how those actions are to be found and who finds them. Furthermore, how are the other skills which he demands of his actors (such as speaking ‘well, easily, and distinctly,’ moving ‘well and decisively,’ and standing ‘relaxedly’14) to be acquired when he is so dismissive of drama schools and acting techniques? He provokes questions, he challenges practices, but he offers few concrete alternatives.

While True and False is full of fiery and inspiring broad brush-strokes, the detail within the text—the real advice to the actor—is missing. The art of finding actions and the means of executing them well, decisively, and relaxedly are skills which are not always present in a would-be or even an experienced actor: such skills have to be honed as in any other art or craft, and in that respect the book verges on the irresponsible in its dismissal of technique without offering a substantiated alternative.

The Method of Physical Actions provides the backbone of actor training as I experienced it in Moscow. From my own practical implementation of this Method, I would concur with Mamet when he says that physical actions do not need ‘belief’ or ‘emotional preparation.’15 Their effective and affective execution is not dependent on any summoning up of personal history. It's simple: do them, and you feel it.


However, what they do require is active imagination. It is meaningless simply to execute a series of physical actions without a level of psycho-physical connection with those actions. Actors aren't robots. A truthful emotional response will arise as a by-product of the physical actions only if those actions are appropriate and only if they are executed with conviction, adaptation, and a sense of play.

Mamet hints at his awareness of this in his discussion of objectives. Objectives (or ‘tasks’ as Stanislavsky called them) are at the heart both of Stanislavsky's ‘system’ and of the Method of Physical Actions, and, although Mamet attributes little to Stanislavsky, he does acknowledge that an objective is what keeps the actor alive on stage. As far as the Method of Physical Actions is concerned, the combination of objectives and physical actions turns the attention away from the actor and diverts it towards the partner. As Mamet sagely notes:

You don't have to become more interesting, more sensitive, more talented, more observant—to act better. You do have to become more active. Choose a good objective which is fun, and it will be easy. Choose something that you want to do.16

Here again, though, there is an omission. Mamet provides little explanation as to how an actor determines these objectives. He has been so dismissive of textual analysis, and so adamant that an actor should not impose anything on a script beyond what the playwright provides, that any actor unfamiliar with the terminology might be left feeling uncertain as to how these objectives should be clarified. Furthermore, the identification of objectives seems to contradict his earlier advice: ‘If you learn the words by rote, as if they were a phone book, and let them come out of your mouth without your interpretation, the audience will be well served.’17

There is evidently much ‘common sense’ in True and False, particularly with reference to the interplay between action and emotions, and Mamet clearly despises actors who wallow in emotion. Albeit unwittingly, he is in accord with Stanislavsky's Method of Physical Actions when he stresses that it is the audience who should feel emotion and not the actor. If the actor does experience emotion, it is a natural by-product of the actions executed in pursuit of an objective, and within the context of the given scene.

With regard to character, his opinions are arguable. He regards character as an illusion (i.e., it doesn't exist, there are only words on a page), but this is material for a different debate. Suffice it to say that there are certain conditions for determining character, such as style, tempo-rhythm, and motivation, each of which may differ from the natural behaviour of the actor playing the role. For Mamet to dismiss certain considerations of character as ‘the concerns of a second-class mind’18 may well be a heresy that appeals to particular actors, but in general is not very helpful for those who wish to go deeper into their craft than the mere presentation of their own personalities.

What Mamet is ultimately offering is a kind of idealism which, although admirable and attractive, is questionable—as to some extent any idealism will be. Mamet's unconditional advice—that if an actor wants to go into theatre, then he or she should forget training and just go straight into theatre, learning through the audience's responses—is certainly exciting and challenging. Yet it is not the invariable answer. Having fearlessly (and often foolhardily) set up projects myself as an artistically hungry actor, I have found that the skills of a creative person are not always those of a ‘successful’ businessman. Therefore I would be wary of novice actors throwing caution to the wind on Mamet's provocative advice.

I am also ardent in my belief that although audiences can teach you the joyful sensation of the ‘terrifying unforeseen,’ they cannot teach you articulation, physical discipline, and how to break the personal clichés into which you didn't even know you had fallen. Furthermore, my Russian training taught me that not all drama teachers are the charlatans and frauds that Mamet suggests they are. There are oases in the desert of much conventional training, and the hungry and discerning novice will seek out those experiences.

Even those who form their own companies, write their own scripts, or make their own movies sometimes break away from the environments of their own making. In such cases, actors will always face auditions. Despite Mamet's repulsion that an actor should consider an audition itself as a performance, there is a certain salvation to be had in treating the audition as a small piece of art rather than simply the ‘possibility of appealing to some functionary.’19 In this way the success or failure of the audition loses its all-consuming significance and the direct interaction with another human being (albeit a casting director or future employer) becomes as much a part of learning to enjoy the ‘terrifying unforeseen’ as any other performance arena.

My response to David Mamet's book is that he seems to be very angry, and it is his anger that underlies his provocations. There is the feeling that he has encountered too many actors who have assassinated his own scripts by bringing too much emotion or personal narrative, and as a result have prevented his words from speaking clearly for themselves. Yet through True and False Mamet speaks to actors as if scripts are always of the artistry and skill that his are, and to some extent this colours his argument. Having worked with writers and directors on a variety of new scripts at different stages of preparation, from bare scenario to final draft, I can only respond that not many playwrights are even minor David Mamets.

He states, for example, that ‘the work of characterization has or has not been done by the author. It's not your job, and it's not your look-out.’20 This instruction seems to imply a lack of understanding of what the actor experiences during performance. If the work on characterization has not been done for the actors, it is essential that they make it their look-out, otherwise they cannot serve the play, the director, the audience, or their own craft. In cases like this, the actor will fall victim to incomplete characterization and seemingly phoney performances if he or she relies on simply learning the lines like a telephone directory.

Where True and False seems to be at its most inspiring is in Mamet's discussion of (a) the simplicity of action, (b) the removal of emotion from the focal point of the actor's work to the by-product of physical action, and (c) the pursuit of an objective with passion and excitement. These are all key elements of Stanislavsky's own final acting principles, which pre-date Mamet's book by some sixty years.

Perhaps the most important element is the shift of attention from self to partner, with a relishing of the resultant ‘terrifying unforeseen’: and this is truly at the heart of Stanislavsky's Method of Physical Actions. It's not hogwash. And it's not academic. It's common sense and inspiration at one and the same time.


  1. D. Mamet, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 6.

  2. Strasberg, L., Strasberg at the Actors Studio: Tape-Recorded Sessions, ed. Robert H. Hethmon (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1991), p. 111-12.

  3. D. Mamet, True and False, p. 15.

  4. B. Merlin, ‘Albert Filozov and the Method of Physical Actions,’ New Theatre Quarterly, XV, No. 3 (August 1999), p. 228-35.

  5. D. Mamet, True and False, p. 12.

  6. Ibid., p. 56.

  7. Ibid., p. 30.

  8. K. Stanislavsky, cited in N. M. Gorchakov, Stanislavsky Directs, trans. Miriam Goldina (New York: Limelight, 1991), p. 213.

  9. D. Mamet, True and False, p. 19-20.

  10. Ibid., p. 65.

  11. Ibid., p. 32.

  12. Stanislavsky, K., Creating a Role, trans. Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood (London: Methuen, reprinted 1988), p. 213.

  13. D. Mamet, True and False, p. 52.

  14. Ibid., p. 54.

  15. Ibid., p. 64.

  16. Ibid., p. 84.

  17. Ibid., p. 63.

  18. Ibid., p. 80.

  19. Ibid., p. 45.

  20. Ibid., p. 114.

Geoffrey Macnab (review date February 2001)

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SOURCE: Macnab, Geoffrey. Review of State and Main, by David Mamet. Sight and Sound 11, no. 2 (February 2001): 52-3.

[In the following review, Macnab pans State and Main for a loosely formed plot, laborious visual gags, and a lack of deftness usually displayed in Mamet's work.]

A movie crew arrives in Waterford, Vermont to shoot a feature [in Mamet's film, State and Main]. Director Walt Price needs an old mill for the film, which is set in the 19th century, but discovers the town doesn't have one—although its tourist brochure claims otherwise. Writer Joe White is assigned to revise his screenplay to make the most of Waterford as it stands. When his manual typewriter goes missing, bookshop owner Ann Black provides him with a replacement. Ann becomes friends with Joe and breaks off her engagement to Doug Mackenzie, an ambitious local politician.

Meanwhile, lead actress Claire objects to scenes requiring nudity. When Joe stands up for her, she is so grateful she comes to his room and tries to seduce him. Ann sees her there, but accepts Joe's explanation for her presence. Lead actor Bob Barrenger, who has a weakness for seducing underage girls, crashes a car while out with local teenager Carla Taylor. Joe witnesses the accident.

Walt and his producer Marty Rossen offend the town mayor by failing to attend a dinner party in their honour. When he learns that Carla was involved in the car crash with Barrenger, Doug threatens to close the production down. Its future hinges on Joe's testimony. Joe initially lies about what happened, then tells the truth. With Joe's testimony, Doug could ruin the filmmakers and disgrace Barrenger; but instead he accepts a massive bribe from Marty. The movie is allowed to go ahead as planned.

It's hard to work out exactly what David Mamet feels about the film industry. In his 1988 play Speed-the-Plow he viciously satirised Hollywood's obsession with money, sex and status, but that hasn't stopped him from working there, both as a writer-for-hire and on projects he originated himself. In his essay ‘A Playwright in Hollywood’ (collected in his 1994 book A Whore's Profession), he claims that “writing for the movies taught me … to stick to the plot and not to cheat.” It also helped him rediscover “an abiding concern for the audience.”

A wry yarn about what happens when a big film crew pitches up in a small town, State and Main suggests Mamet is fast becoming part of the industry mainstream. Admittedly, the filmmakers here are as venal as their counterparts in Speed-the-Plow—the director and his terrier-like producer bully, browbeat and bribe anyone who gets in the way of the picture. Nor do they have exalted ideas about their own artistic integrity—when they are offered money to advertise an IT company in their movie, which is set in the 19th century, they immediately find a way of getting around the anachronism. But Mamet is very gentle on them: if anything, he seems to admire their resourcefulness and opportunism. His refusal to strike a censorious note even extends to the characterisation of the libido-driven star, played by Alec Baldwin (an astute piece of casting), who has sex with a minor. Mamet refuses to moralise at his expense, and the possibility that his behaviour might prompt a scandal is presented as just another problem with which the filmmakers must deal.

The comedy is more whimsical than barbed, with Mamet taking soft pot shots at easy targets—the nymphomaniac actress who refuses to take her clothes off for the camera, the perfectionist cinematographer and the long-suffering assistant director are straight from stock. Likewise, there are shades of the title character from the Coen brothers' Barton Fink in the nervous, solemn playwright who takes his work very seriously and is not yet accustomed to the compromises of big-budget filmmaking. Mamet claims to have drawn on his “own adventures in Hollywood” (his first script, for Bob Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice, had to be rewritten several times) but many of the characters and situations here echo those found in other films-about-film-making such as Alan Alda's Sweet Liberty (1985) and Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion (1995).

If the film-crew types are overly familiar, so are the eccentric townsfolk. Mamet provides us with a blustering mayor (who shares the same name, George Bailey, as James Stewart's character in Frank Capra's 1947 paean to small-town life It's a Wonderful Life), various old-timers making small talk in the coffee shop and a bookshop owner who seems infinitely more talented than any of the Hollywood big shots. Mamet goes to such lengths to portray the inhabitants of this sleepy pocket of Americana as folksy, neighbourly types that it's inevitable we will see a darker side. But the revelation when it comes—that the townsfolk are just as capable of subterfuge as the film crew in their midst—hardly matches the subversive punch of, say, David Lynch's portraits of seemingly idyllic small-town existence.

Generally, Mamet's plots are tightly coiled affairs, but here there are some loose ends. In one scene the cinematographer destroys a plate-glass window above the fire station, a supposedly cherished historical monument—and yet nobody mentions his act of vandalism. The visual gags—the smudging of the white board, for instance, on which the film crew's invitation to dinner with the mayor is written—are likewise laboriously handled. There's none of the deftness of touch displayed by a director like Preston Sturges, whose ensemble comedies Mamet has cited as an inspiration for State and Main. Perhaps screwball comedy just isn't his genre: amiable in its own way, but toothless by comparison with his best work, State and Main ends up seeming like Mamet at half throttle.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 30 April 2001)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Stages of Mastery.” New Republic 25, no. 4502 (30 April 2001): 30-1.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann provides a lukewarm assessment of the film version of Lakeboat, bemoaning the choices for director and cast but praising the naturalism he sees in the plot and dialogue.]

Political thrillers come in two kinds. (To speak only of well-made ones: the others don't signify.) In the first kind, the intrigues are clear in every detail. In the second, the intrigues are in the main just as clear, but some of the details are too compacted and brisk to be understood; the viewer is aware only that heavy doings are in progress. The odd, amusing aspect of the difference between the two kinds is that it doesn't matter much. If the thriller is well made, the difference is fairly unimportant. The first kind is of course preferable, but the hurtle, the very shape and pace of the second kind, can carry it off. It is the genre itself, if competently handled, that holds us.

A new play by David Mamet has just opened in London, a piece that (I've read) is written in an elegant Wildean style. Mamet's first play has just been filmed, and it is not in a Wildean style. Lakeboat written in 1970, takes place on a Great Lakes freighter sailing out of Chicago, and its language fits its crew. The young Mamet evidently had first-hand experience of such a ship and wanted to render a naturalistic account of the crew members' lives in the vein of the seagoing O'Neill, with the difference that the language is saltier, though the water is fresh.

It was a good idea to film this play; it was a bad idea to have Joe Mantegna direct it. Mantegna is an experienced Mamet actor, highly effective within a narrow range, but here he shows not the slightest directorial gift. The disaster begins before the film starts: Mamet puts a sophisticated French song, “La Mer,” under the opening credits, tonally quite wrong and only tenuously related to the film's subject. Every scene, whether inside the ship or on deck, is blatantly a scene, played through with consciousness of its scene-shape, its beginning and end. The lighting of the interiors is contrived and arty, always out of kilter with the ship's steely body. The naturalism of the play, the insistent flow of its gritty reality, is sandbagged at every turn.

The actors don't help. David Mamet's brother Tony Mamet plays the central character, a young man on his first voyage, which is also a rite of passage; he is unimpressive. Most of the others have previously proved competent, but here they all seem to be speaking their lines as if they have been paid to do so, are fulfilling their obligations, and will then move on to the next job. Mantegna himself has a keen vernacular ear as an actor; but he hasn't used it as a director. Besides, he has cast Charles Durning and George Wendt as the captain and first mate, and—without prejudice against obese people—it is curious to behold these two, a total of about five hundred pounds of belly, running a ship.

Still, I can't help being glad that this film was made. It reminds us of the phenomenon that Mamet is, from this early O'Neill vein through the poignant fantasy of The Water Engine, in its three verbal modes, through American Buffalo, which penetrates vernacular so deeply that it converts it into a quasi-poetic language, to Glengarry Glen Ross, a play that is German expressionism seen through postmodern eyes. Georg Kaiser in Chicago. This brief account omits many of Mamet's plays, but I mention a few of his screenplays: his bitter-wry adaptation of The Verdict; his own evocative House of Games, which he also directed; his adaptation and direction of Terence Rattigan's ultra-English The Winslow Boy. So Lakeboat is an obliquely gratifying experience: it lets us see, even through this clumsy picture, how good Mamet was at the start and how, in very many ways, he has grown.

Kevin Thomas (review date 9 November 2001)

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SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Mamet Scores Big with an Expert Heist.Los Angeles Times (9 November 2001): F14.

[In the following review, Thomas lauds Heist for a tight plot, twisting suspense, and dark wit.]

David Mamet's Heist is the thinking person's caper flick, with its endlessly clever plotting revealing character under the utmost pressure. Mamet explores the limits of trust and loyalty and also the limits of strength and ability in the face of advancing age, and he does so with dark wit and humor while moving like lightning. Full of action and suspense, Heist is above all a gratifyingly adult entertainment.

“It's not getting the goods, it's getting away,” observes veteran thief—and master New England shipbuilder—Joe Moore (Gene Hackman). Rugged, swift-moving and canny, Joe is clearly eager to retire while he's still at the top of his game and sail off to parts unknown in his yacht with his attractive young wife, Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon), who's as cool and sharp as her husband, and with enough loot to support them in style for the rest of their lives.

Working with his longtime partners in crime, Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) and Pinky Pincus (sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay), Joe deftly robs a posh Manhattan jewelry store but winds up on a surveillance video rather than risk possibly having to shoot a store clerk who happens into the wrong place at the wrong time. This enables his feisty fence and backer, a furrier named Bergman (Danny DeVito), to blackmail him and his gang into yet another job, relieving a Swiss cargo plane of its shipment of gold bars. (It was this part of the plot that caused the film's release date to be postponed after Sept. 11.)

This is a very high-risk job, and Bergman has forced Joe to accept his nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell) as part of his team to serve as a watchdog. Jimmy is a cocky young guy, shrewd but perhaps not as smart as he thinks he is. Jimmy spells trouble, and his presence allows Mamet to spin a tale as intricately and amusingly deceptive as any sleight-of-hand display staged by Jay while performing one of his memorable magic shows. Mamet's dialogue is a lot more spare than in his plays and some of his films but just as pungent, with DeVito handed a packet of deliciously scabrous lines.

Heist offers the pleasure of observing a virtuoso like Joe, a man who's always got a backup plan, staging heists that are clever beyond imagining and wondering when someone will get greedy enough to risk derailing the entire caper. Mamet keeps us guessing in assured, highly entertaining fashion about every move and every person, right to the fade-out.

Hackman's easy authority and strong, no-nonsense presence command the screen, and De Vito, Lindo and Patti LuPone, in a small but critical role, are also in formidable top form. Pidgeon and Rockwell have no trouble holding their own in such accomplished company. As for the polished but never slick Heist itself, it could just wind up holding out hope for the possibility that experience can count for more than youth after all.

John Wrathall (review date December 2001)

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SOURCE: Wrathall, John. Review of Heist, by David Mamet. Sight and Sound 11, no. 12 (December 2001): 53.

[In the following excerpt, Wrathall comments on what he considers Mamet's directorial shortcomings, specifically in Heist.]

Boston, the present. Joe Moore and his gang—girlfriend Fran, Bobby Blane and Don Pincus—carry out a brilliant jewel heist [in Heist]. But Moore's face is caught on surveillance camera. He decides to retire. His fence Bergman, however, refuses to give him his cut unless he carries out “the Swiss job,” which Bergman has already invested money in setting up.

Needing money to fund his retirement, Moore reluctantly agrees to Bergman's terms, which include Bergman's nephew Jimmy Silk coming along on the job to ensure Moore doesn't run off with the proceeds. Moore tries to bluff Silk into believing the job is too risky, but Silk proves hard to get rid of because he is attracted to Fran. To keep tabs on Bergman, Moore gets Fran to play along with Silk.

Moore and gang carry out “the Swiss job,” which involves stopping a plane on the runway and stealing gold bullion from the hold while pretending to search for a bomb. Afterwards, Silk knocks Moore over the head, and leaves with Fran and a van full of gold. But the gold in the van turns out to be pig iron. The real gold is still on the plane, hidden in containers registered to Moore, which he later collects from the airport. Furious that he has been double-crossed, Bergman kidnaps Pincus, who reveals before he is killed that Moore has concealed the gold in the railings of his yacht. Arriving at a dock to pick up Fran, Moore is surprised by Bergman. Silk drags Fran away. In the ensuing shoot-out, Moore and Blane kill Bergman and his men. Moore and Fran are reunited, but Fran announces she is leaving him for Silk. Silk pulls a gun and they take the gold. Moore heads off into retirement. It turns out he still has some gold concealed as iron bars in his truck.

Ageing crooks planning a robbery find their plans jeopardised by an inexperienced young hothead who insists on coming in on the job. The basic set-up of David Mamet's new film Heist has much in common with that of American Buffalo, the play that made his reputation over a quarter of a century ago. But while Teach and Donny in American Buffalo were at the very bottom of the criminal food chain—they couldn't even get it together to steal a nickel—Joe Moore and his gang, including girlfriend Fran and the far younger Jimmy Silk (there at the behest of Moore's fence Bergman), are at the very top, and the chief pleasures of Heist lie in the two meticulous robberies they carry out.

In the second scene of the film, when a waitress turns away to squirt some drops in her eye, the eagle-eyed viewer may notice that no liquid actually leaves the dropper. This tiny detail, which might have been a mere continuity error in a less tight movie, turns out moments later to be crucial: the eye drops are in fact poison which she slips into the coffees for the staff of a nearby jeweller's. And so the heist begins … A later scene—a quintessential Mamet set piece in which Gene Hackman's Moore bluffs a traffic cop into letting him go—hangs on a tiny adjustment to a wing mirror, which alerts the cop to the fact that Moore's companions in the car are getting edgy. In an age of mindless spectacle, Mamet demonstrates, a thriller can be all the more thrilling for hinging on such minute actions.

Asked how he manages to be so smart, Moore replies: “I try to imagine a fellow smarter than myself, and think, ‘what would he do?’” It's tempting to imagine Mamet using the same modus operandi in dreaming up his ingenious scams. But as Moore and his gang are all too aware, a clever plan doesn't always prove perfect in the execution. The first heist nearly misfires when one of the jeweller's staff fails to drink her drugged coffee; in the second—a characteristically neat touch—it's also a cup of coffee that allows Moore to smuggle a gun into an airport when his first ruse falls through. Heist is packed with memorable aphorisms (“You know why the chicken crossed the road? Because the road crossed the chicken”); the performances (not least from Hackman) are note perfect; the camerawork, courtesy of Boogie Nights DoP [director of photography] Robert Elswit, more dynamic than one has come to expect from Mamet. And yet overall the execution leaves something to be desired.

The opening shot of the film is a close-up of a shotgun, and to paraphrase Chekhov (whom Mamet has adapted and directed on the stage), if you show a shotgun in Act I, you've got to use it in Act 3. Unfortunately Heist's shoot-out, when it finally arrives, is like something out of a bad TV series from the 80s, with Danny DeVito's Bergman and his goons popping out from behind barrels on a deserted dock, to be shot down at leisure by the outnumbered Moore and his fellow gang member Blane. Some aspects of film-making clearly hold no interest for Mamet. He has written (in his 1996 collection of essays Make Believe Town) of his contempt for such movie staples as backstory and the sex scene. Fair enough, they can be clichéd devices in the wrong hands. But without recourse to either, the central male-female relationships in Heist are left seeming very hollow. The multiple plot twists of the last act all depend on whether Fran has really left Moore for Silk, or is just pretending, but the trouble is we just don't care (and this despite an unrecognisably ballsy performance from Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon, spurning her grating bluestocking image from State and Main and The Winslow Boy in favour of spiky bleached hair, ripped denim and tattoos).

The air of studied, stagey unreality that clings to all of Mamet's self-directed films seems more jarring than ever in a heist movie, and leaves you wishing he'd given the script to someone else. For a taste of a Swiss-watch Mamet thriller put across without his directorial mannerisms, check out Lee Tamahori's underrated The Edge. Or better still, imagine Hackman, Delroy Lindo, Ricky Jay and Sam Rockwell on stage at the Donmar Warehouse.

Jonathan Levi (review date 6 January 2002)

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SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Following in His Footnotes.” Los Angeles Times (6 January 2002): R4.

[In the following review, Levi finds Wilson obtuse.]

It was Alfred North Whitehead who said “all philosophy is merely footnotes to Plato.” But it has taken David Mamet to write a footnote positing Aristotle as the true author of “Dink Stover at Yale.” This observation is only one of the many instances of serendipity in Mamet's latest work of fiction, a curio titled Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources.

Presumably written several hundred years from now, Wilson is a super-academic commentary on the ur-historical text of future historians—the memories of a woman named Ginger who may have been the wife of President Woodrow Wilson or a later President Wilson.

Ginger's memories, preserved on hard drive, are all that remain of the recorded history of man well into the 21st century, following a computer crash of catastrophic proportions (caused by the Cola Riots or the fire at the Stop ‘n’ Shop). Yet all is not lost. Academics have survived with the hermeneutic hardiness of cockroaches. Out of Ginger's fragments they shore themselves with commentary upon commentary.

What that means is that Wilson is 100٪ narrative-free. More than 300 pages of analysis, some as densely covered with footnotes and footnotes to footnotes to footnotes as a Ph.D. thesis on The Sound and the Fury.

Fortunately, in many ways, the analysis owes more to Mel Brooks than Cleanth Brooks. Take a chapter title, please: “Birnam Wood Do Come to Dunsinane or: Cheezit, the Copse.” Or an epigram or two: “We now proceed from the confusing to the arbitrary,” attributed to Epictetus in “Who's Minding the Stoa?” or “‘For how can we comprehend the whole without an understanding of the parks?’ Olmstead.”

Even in the footnotes, high culture and low culture rub diphthongs—“And besides, the wench is dead” (Christopher Marlowe) becomes “And besides, the witch is dead” (Yip Harburg). A passing knowledge of Cockney rhyming slang helps explain why “Memories of the Berkshire Hunt” may have more to do with foxes than with sherry. For most readers, an undergraduate familiarity with National Lampoon is sufficient to enjoy the pokes and jabs that Mamet makes on ivy-encrusted nib-scratchers of academe.

When academics spin out tomes of hundreds of thousands of footnoted and indexed words on subjects whose dryness is matched only by their obscurity, the motive is clear: tenure. When Mamet, arguably the most successful playwright-filmmaker on the planet, does the same, however, the pursuit of tenure does not seem, on first blush, sufficient explanation. Why then this textual perversity?

There is a reasonable evolutionary argument to the descent of Mamet from the prolixity of Samuel Beckett and the economy of Harold Pinter. Yet Mamet—at least the playwriting, screenwriting Mamet—has always been a writer for whom words matter, and more than just mere words, the choice of the best words.

Reading Wilson is difficult because it is rarely clear why Mamet chose the words or the paragraphs he did. It seems as if every word, every paragraph, every sermon, diatribe, midrash, bad joke, good joke, doggerel, ditty, proverb, beatitude, headline and footnote that hadn't made it into his classic Glengarry Glen Ross or American Buffalo or the film Homicide was unspooled by some latter-day Krapp (of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape fame) whittling away at a hard drive with a pair of box cutters and then re-constructed by the Firesign Theatre. At best, the effect is as entertaining as a Grossingers double-bill featuring Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and Nabokov's Pale Fire recited, say, by Shecky Green.

Yet by trying to figure out Wilson, are we falling prey to the same dangers as those who sought meaning behind the memories of Ginger? The academics who have searched for an “Inner Code,” suggests one Wilson commentator, have been suckers for a ploy “to market Whippies. And those obtuse enough to've ‘sent their boxtops in,’ found out the same.”

Another commentator provides, perhaps, the best clue to the existence of this curious project: “Unfortunately, it is not only religions which attract, inveigle and entrap by their claims to simplicity. We all are attracted to the undiscovered. In it we find that titillation of ‘something-for-nothing,’ whether in real estate, in exploration, science, engineering—the attraction of each and all may be reduced to that sympathetic excitation of the quintessential human survival mechanism: the ability to imagine a way of getting out of work.”

There you have it: the explanation for the existence of cockroaches, the novels of Anthony Trollope and the Hundred Years' War. And perhaps those of us historically obtuse enough to have sent in our Mamet box tops are merely suckers. But there are worse ways than reading Wilson to get out of work.


Mamet, David (Vol. 15)


Mamet, David (Vol. 9)