David Mamet Mamet, David (Vol. 91) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Mamet The Cryptogram

Award: OBIE Award for Best Play

(Full name David Alan Mamet) Born in 1947, Mamet is an American playwright, screenwriter, novelist, essayist, memoirist, and author of children's books.

For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 15, 34, and 46.

The Cryptogram (1994) focuses on the theme of betrayal and continues Mamet's innovative use of dialogue as a means of creating and representing conflict. Set in the late 1950s, the play depicts a month in the lives of a precocious ten-year-old named John, his mother Donny, his father Robert, and a family friend named Del. The play opens with John unable to fall asleep, too excited about an impending camping trip with his father. It is soon revealed that Robert, who never appears onstage, has abandoned his wife and child, and that Del has assisted in his deceptions. Struggling with the emotional consequences of Robert's departure and the nature of their own friendship, Del and Donny are unable or unwilling to meet John's most basic needs. Fearing that the truth would be too overwhelming, they avoid John's questions, which only increases his anxiety and sense of isolation.

Emphasizing issues of betrayal, abandonment, emotional abuse, and childhood angst, The Cryptogram has received mixed reviews. Mamet's use of language—which is marked by repetitiveness, interruptions, and long pauses—has been variously assessed by critics. While some commentators have faulted the minimalism of the dialogue as evasive, stilted, and fragmentary, others, such as Jack Kroll, have noted that the cryptic nature of the play reveals the characters' muddled perceptions of their world and their subsequent search for meaning and emotional stability. Kroll observed that "as we listen to [John] try to bring his broken world to order we realize that Mamet's language is at bottom a child's lingo, the trial-and-error, stop-and-start, nonresponsive speech tactic of kids. It's the sound of tainted innocence." Reviewers have also acknowledged the importance of The Cryptogram in Mamet's body of work, noting its autobiographical influences and disturbing portrait of the effects of divorce on families; they have particularly cited the emotional shock generated in the play's final scenes. As John Lahr has asserted: "With remarkable concision and insight, Mamet has mapped out the dynamics of a soul murder."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lakeboat (drama) 1970
Duck Variations (drama) 1972
Sexual Perversity in Chicago (drama) 1974
Squirrels (drama) 1974
American Buffalo (drama) 1975
Reunion (drama) 1976
Dark Pony (drama) 1977
A Life in the Theatre (drama) 1977
The Revenge of the Space Pandas, or Binky Rudich and the Two-Speed Clock (drama for children) 1977
The Water Engine: An American Fable (drama) 1977
The Woods (drama) 1977
Mr. Happiness (drama) 1978
Lone Canoe, or the Explorer (musical) 1979
The Sanctity of Marriage (drama) 1979
Shoeshine (drama) 1979
The Postman Always Rings Twice [adaptor; from the novel by James M. Cain] (screenplay) 1981
Edmond (drama) 1982
The Verdict [adaptor; from the novel by Barry Reed] (screenplay) 1982
Glengarry Glen Ross (drama) 1983
The Cherry Orchard [adaptor; from the play by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1985
Prairie du chien (drama) 1985
The Shawl (drama) 1985
The Untouchables (screenplay) 1986
Writing in Restaurants (essays) 1986
House of Games (film) 1987
Speed-the-Plow (drama) 1988
Things Change [with Shel Silverstein] (film) 1988
Uncle Vanya [adpator; from the play by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1988
Some Freaks (essays) 1989
We're No Angels (screenplay) 1989
Three Sisters [adaptor; from the play by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1990
Homicide (film) 1991
The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions (memoirs) 1992
Glengarry Glen Ross (screenplay) 1992
Hoffa (screenplay) 1992
Oleanna (drama) 1992
The Cryptogram (drama) 1994
Oleanna (film) 1994
Vanya on 42nd Street (screenplay) 1994
The Village (novel) 1994
A Whore's Profession (notes and essays) 1994
Passover (novella) 1995

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

†Mamet both wrote and directed these films. Bracketed information refers to screenwriting credit.

John Lahr (review date 1 August 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Betrayals," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 23, August 1, 1994, pp. 70-3.

[Lahr is a prizewinning American critic, nonfiction writer, playwright, novelist, biographer, and editor. In the review below, he offers a highly favorable assessment of The Cryptogram, lauding the work's dramatic intensity and focus on betrayal, death, and emotional abuse.]

David Mamet, like the characters he puts onstage, tells us only so much about himself, and no more. We know, for instance, that he likes tricksters and magic. We know that he enjoys guys' things, like hunting and poker and cigars. We also know that he's divorced, and that, like any divorced parent, he has had to live with the grief of imposing on his children the bewildering pain of separation which he felt when his own parents divorced. In "The Rake," the first chapter of a 1992 memoir entitled The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions, Mamet has provided a rare and chilling snapshot of himself and his sister, Lynn, growing up with their new stepfather in a Chicago suburb. Mamet dredges up from the mystery of childhood a few images and scraps of half-understood conversation which have etched themselves on his imagination. He tells of his sister's hearing raised voices and following them down the corridor to the master bedroom, where she pushed open the door to see their mother coiled in a fetal position on the floor of the closet "moaning and crying and hugging herself," and their tyrannical stepfather gesturing toward the bed, on which the children's grandfather, their mother's father, was slumped. "Say the words," the stepfather was saying to the grandfather. "Say the words, Jack. Please. Just say you love her." Mamet writes, "And my grandfather said, 'I can't.'" Mamet's sister was hit in the face with a hairbrush for bearing witness to this humiliation. Such bleak and brutal terrain—full of cloaked threat and blighted feeling—is a large part of Mamet's emotional inheritance. He survived to dramatize its wary and perverse psychological climate—a ferocious, repressed atmosphere in which, out of fear and impotence and shame, people become willed strangers to themselves, and in which the cunning thrust and parry of language becomes a carapace that cuts them off from both the world and their own murky feelings.

The Cryptogram, Mamet's newest play, which recently had its world premiére at the Ambassadors Theatre, in London, is a difficult but important drama, in which Mamet works his way back to childhood—specifically, to that irrevocable, buried moment in a child's life when the safety net of the parental embrace collapses, and the world, once full of blessing, is suddenly full of danger. The play, which consists of three terse scenes, takes place in 1959 (Mamet was born in 1947), and Mamet's surrogate, John, is "about ten." Bob Crowley's beautifully painted set is dominated by a huge stairway, which winds its way up toward the flies, and a backcloth of behemoth zones of blue-green and charcoal gray separated by a band of pink. Like a Rothko painting (which the backcloth resembles), the play is about the resonance of contradictory and puzzling emotional intensities; and the staircase becomes an image of the almost unbridgeable space between the muffled grownup world downstairs and the child's insecure purdah upstairs.

Mamet foreshadows the play's moral debate in the opening beats. Here, in Gregory Mosher's vivid production, John's first words are "I couldn't find 'em." John (superbly played by the precocious Richard Claxton, who alternates in the role with the equally adroit Danny Worters) is apparently talking about a pair of slippers he has packed for a camping trip with his father, which is scheduled for the next day; but what John really can't find in the environment of subterfuge and coded speech which engulfs him is the reality of his parents and of his own emotional life. John can't sleep. This is a familiar enough childhood complaint, and the family friend Del (well played by the pudgy, weak-faced comedian Eddie Izzard) tries to jolly him out of it in a cozy late-night man-to-man. "Where were we?" Del asks. John answers with a formal phrase obviously borrowed from earlier arguments with the adults. "Issues of sleep," he says. The phrase turns panic into a debating point, but we soon learn that John's sleep-lessness is chronic. "Every night. Every night. There's some excuse. Some reason," says Donny, John's mother, played by the subtle Lindsay Duncan, whose pale elegance here disguises a steely detachment. Despite Del's special pleading and the excitement of the upcoming trip, Donny wants John upstairs and in bed. "Why aren't you asleep?" is her entrance line. John has picked up some anxiety that the household refuses to acknowledge. "Why isn't Dad home?" he asks Del, who takes the conversation in another direction. Later in the scene, John tells his mother, "I want to wait til he comes home." His request is stone-walled by apparent reasonableness. "Well, yes, I'm sure you do," Donny says. "But you need your sleep. And if you don't get it, you're not …"

Sleeplessness, not John's fear, is what Del and Donny want to contain. No one deals with John's feelings or tries to alleviate them. The audience starts to feel a certain highly charged and unspoken frustration—a kind of emotional static. Mamet puts the audience where the child sits, taking the characters at face value, only to have its will to believe confounded by those characters' mixed messages. Psychological truth is never acknowledged. In fact, it is scrambled—like a cryptogram—so that everything means something else. The play's uncluttered living room, composed merely of two sofas covered with red blankets, becomes an impenetrable landscape of denial. Mamet announces the pattern brilliantly, with the offstage crash of Donny's teapot, which precedes her first entrance. "I'm alright!" Donny shouts...

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Robert L. King (review date November-December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Cryptogram, in The North American Review, Vol. CCLXXIX, No. 6, November-December, 1994, p. 51.

[In the following review, King provides a negative assessment of The Cryptogram.]

In London's West End, David Mamet's Cryptogram had its world premiere. Set in Chicago in 1959, the piece centers around the anxieties of John, a ten-year-old boy. The clues in character, time and place all point to a personal allusion in the coded title—Mamet must be revealing something about himself. His director of twenty years standing, Gregory Mosher, claims not to have raised the question; after all, he says, "The pleasure of the play lies not, of...

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Vincent Canby (review date 10 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mamet in a Bleak Living Room of Childhood," in The New York Times, February 10, 1995, p. C3.

[Canby is a novelist, playwright, and film critic. Here, he offers a highly favorable assessment of The Cryptogram.]

The Cryptogram, David Mamet's spooky, very good new play, is elliptical but far less minimal than it initially looks. It's stuffed with the emotional bric-a-brac that leaves permanent scars on children, splits husbands from wives and rests lifelong friendships.

Under Mr. Mamet's direction The Cryptogram had its American premiere here on Wednesday night at the C. Walsh Theater. Though the American Repertory Theater's home...

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Markland Taylor (review date 13 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Cryptogram, in Variety, February 13, 1995, pp. 59-60.

[In the excerpt below, Taylor offers a mixed assessment of The Cryptogram. Taylor praises Mamet's directing and writing abilities, but argues that the play seems incomplete and borders on the banal.]

Directed and acted with exactly the right Mametic rhythms, harmony and counterpoint, this American premiere of David Mamet's The Cryptogram reveals it as a prime example of style triumphing over content that teeters on the brink of banality. Unlike the play's world premiere in London in June, which was helmed by American director Gregory Mosher, this version is directed by...

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Jonathan Kalb (review date 28 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Crypto-Mamet," in The Village Voice, Vol. XL, No. 9, February 28, 1995, p. 83.

[An American educator and critic who frequently writes on drama, Kalb has served as managing editor of Theater and is the author of the 1989 Beckett in Performance. In the following, he offers a negative review of The Cryptogram, arguing that in the play, particularly as staged by Mamet, Mamet focuses more on mood and atmosphere than on plot development and character motivation.]

David Mamet has always had his detractors, but until this misbegotten premiere I have never known him to offer them succor himself. In directing this desiccated production of The...

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The New Yorker (essay date 10 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "David Mamet's Child's Play," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 7, April 10, 1995, pp. 33-4.

[In the essay below, the critic relates Mamet's thoughts on his childhood and family life, language, and unhappiness, particularly as revealed in The Cryptogram.]

At the far end of the pine table in the basement kitchen of David Mamet's town house, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his six-month-old daughter, Clara, bobs in her baby bouncer; at the near end, the playwright himself is also bobbing, but with his mouth open to snare the mushrooms being lobbed at him from the other side of the stove by his actress wife, Rebecca Pidgeon (Becs to him), who is whipping up a pasta...

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Clive Barnes (review date 14 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Tale of the Cryptic," in New York Post, April 14, 1995.

[An English-born editor and critic, Barnes is the author and editor of several books about the performing arts. In the following excerpt, he praises Mamet's emphasis on childhood and the pain associated with the dissolution of a family in The Cryptogram.]

A Cryptogram—a message in code or cipher. Code, mystery, solution. What we are is what we were, and our present is largely a secret message from our past.

Things happen to a child. A father leaves. A family friend disappoints. A mother goes shrewish into the bad night. We need to understand, to grapple with the frozen moments of the...

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Vincent Canby (review date 14 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "David Mamet's Attempt to Decode Family Life," in The New York Times, April 14, 1995, p. C3.

[In the review below, Canby offers a laudatory assessment of The Cryptogram, extolling Mamet's use of language and disturbing dramatization of family life and "emotional games."]

The Cryptogram, David Mamet's radical, elliptical new work as both playwright and director, is not casually titled: it speaks in code.

The play is thick with spare Mamet language, which is delivered in such a relentless way that commonplace words take on an edge and a ferocity that have little to do with the meanings and emotions they usually evoke. The words...

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Jeremy Gerard (review date 17 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Cryptogram, in Variety, April 17, 1995, p. 45.

[In the following, Gerard positively reviews The Cryptogram, discussing, in particular, the horror generated by the play's final scene.]

It's impossible to imagine anyone being prepared for the closing seconds of The Cryptogram, a quietly shattering finale that caps 80 of the most densely packed, emotionally searing minutes this season—or any recent season, for that matter—has offered. As one would expect from David Mamet, the scene is played with a spareness of affect that belies an ambiguity beneath the surface: It is only a young boy climbing a staircase to the attic of...

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John Simon (review date 24 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Broadway Goes Off," in New York Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 17, April 24, 1995, pp. 76, 79.

[An American essayist and critic, Simon has served as a drama critic for New York Magazine as well as a film critic for Esquire and the New Leader. In the excerpt below, he faults The Cryptogram for its lack of content and Mamet's use of language and dialogue.]

"A playwright who imprisons his characters within crippling verbal debris" is how Jeanette Malkin of Jerusalem's Hebrew University describes David Mamet in a book. I agree with this completely—except that she intends it as praise. It's one thing to imprison Mamet's characters—in Sing...

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Michael Feingold (review date 25 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Codehearted," in The Village Voice, Vol. XL, No. 17, April 25, 1995, p. 97.

[Feingold is an American critic and educator. In the following, he offers a favorable review of The Cryptogram.]

"Auch kleine Dinge können teuer sein," runs Wolf's bestloved song, "Even little things can be precious to us." David Mamet's The Cryptogram is made up of little things—memories, household objects, verbal slips—that are precious as clues to the explanation of a childhood trauma. Magnified by it, they become objects of both veneration and horror, things that are not so much cherished as burned into the awareness.

The central figure is a child, but...

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