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."