Sexual Perversity in Chicago

by David Mamet

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

Sexual Perversity in Chicago examines why it is so difficult to find and express heterosexual love. Deborah and Dan are attracted to each other and move in together, hoping to create a long-term, loving relationship. Their efforts to communicate, however, are thwarted by the very language that they use. As critic Robert Storey has pointed out, “It is not so much Bernie as it is his language that forbids all real intimacy with women.” Men and women are at a barely concealed, all-out war, treating each other with a casual hostility. Vulgarities are a part of the courting ritual and are used as substitutes for the expression of real thought or emotion.

Mamet has stated that he wrote this play to show “how what we say influences what we think.” When the characters in Sexual Perversity in Chicago refer to each other as bodily parts, bodily functions, or as unhuman beings, they are thinking of each other and relating to each other as if these words were factual descriptions. For Mamet, vulgarity is not casual—it represents a dehumanization, a destruction of the communication process in the same way as do more obvious words such as “nigger,” “kike,” or “spick.” The play’s final scene clearly demonstrates this process and its results.

Bernard and Dan are relaxing on a Lake Michigan beach, becoming angry at women’s behavior and simultaneously admiring women’s bodies. Dan has the play’s last words, which describe women as unhuman beings who cannot meet his expectations or demands. His word choice succinctly demonstrates that the very words he uses block the communication he seems to want so badly. His words, as an attractive woman ignores his advances, are simply “deaf bitch.” It is possible to consider Bernard and Dan as innocents, to believe that they do not realize what they are doing; it is more to the point, however, that they are continually contributing to the destruction of their own ability to communicate.

That language creates perception and resultant behavior is the play’s main idea: Developed in the context of relationships among young, unmarried urbanites, it leads to other concepts as well. The first is that true communication can only be established with members of one’s own sex. Bernard and Dan can talk to each other, but not to Deborah or Joan; the reverse is also the case. For better or worse, Mamet’s observation is that humans’ relationships with members of their own sex are more important to them than their relationships with members of the opposite gender, largely because they find comfort in being understood and being able to understand. Language has created a division between genders, a rift more potentially dangerous to basic human interactions than those between nations, races, or even species.

Both men and women in the play see themselves as victims, but the primarily male focus of the play clearly indicts them as the major cause for this dilemma. Bernard may blame the women’s movement for his problems and Dan may blame Deborah, but in actuality they themselves are the cause of their—and women’s—unhappiness. The primarily male focus of the play within the context of a heterosexual love story also supports the play’s third main thematic motif: Were it not for sex, men would prefer not to have anything to do with women at all.

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