Defending David Mamet

By Madeleine Mason

On February 22, 2018, The Chicago Tribune announced that David Mamet’s new play, Bitter Wheat, would premiere in the West End during the summer of 2019. The play is based on the Harvey Weinstein allegations and stars John Malkovich.

Understandably, people are not happy. Mamet is not known for his sympathetic portrayals of women (Karen in Speed the Plow, Carol in Oleanna…), so it feels disgraceful that he is handling this topic of sexual assault. Examining his plays, they fall into two camps: they either have no women at all (Glengarry Glen Ross, China Doll, American Buffalo) or women who are cunning and manipulative (Oleanna, Speed-the-Plow, Race). Outside the theme of gender in his plays, the dialogue is downright violent. Whether characters are discussing the horrible things they do to each other or just throwing around expletives like conjunctions, every word feels like a bullet firing out of an AK-47.

Now, dear reader, I have to assume that you have a strong opinion of David Mamet because you saw the title of this article, “Defending David Mamet”, and:

  1. Want to read this article to find out what the fuck I, the author, is thinking.
  2. Want to just scroll to the bottom and comment every feeling you have inside. Which is totally valid, by the way.
  3. Believe David Mamet is a good playwright and you enjoy his work. If you are in this category, you are probably somebody’s father.
  4. You have a secret love for the work that David Mamet creates. You love the violence, the perversity, how he weaves the fucks and the cunts into his dialogue, and you are ashamed. You hide this love deep within the closet, along with your other skeletons, until you see that another person– a woman (nay, a YOUNG, LIBERAL WOMAN) enjoys the work of David Mamet as much as you do.

In this imperfect world, there is a constant need for activism. I want to create change; to make the world better for the future generations that come after us. The result? The need to surround ourselves with art that is inclusive and wholesome and paints the picture of an ideal world. Which is fine. But it makes us submissive, to an extent.

If I saw Hello, Dolly!, I would leave delighted. I would be humming that lush, beautiful score all the way home on the L. I would go to bed and sleep well, only thinking of the wonderful evening I had.

If I saw a David Mamet play, however, I would leave with a sour feeling in my stomach and swirling thoughts. I would feel uncomfortable, unsatisfied. I would think about the play for weeks on end, as I try to make sense of how people can be so horrible to each other. The only comfort I would have would be the singular thought: Oh my god, I hope I never become like them.

To any hardcore theatre student, this is reminiscent of our Lord and Savior, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht believed in alienating the audience, a technique called epic theatre, forcing them to examine and analyze the story in front of them instead of relating to it. In doing so, the audience becomes less passive, and are compelled to enact change upon leaving the theatre. For example, if a theatre company is daring enough to produce Oleanna in this #MeToo era, the audience may be compelled to discuss sexual assault in a more nuanced manner, leaning into how power plays into it, and whether the characters in the play are aware of the power they have and abuse it.

With the themes of sexual assault and power of authority within Oleanna, there is great opportunity for the production team to create talkbacks and materials that tackle the subject and lean into its existence in the real world. The play could give us tools to fight back against the various monsters lurking in society. Mamet may not be a Brechtian writer, but the tools of epic theatre are evident in his work. He exposes the rotting underbelly of our world.

Regardless of what you think about how Mamet handles the content of his plays, there is something really fucking exciting about the way he writes. As I stated earlier, each word is like a bullet. There’s a naturalistic grit to the way people speak, mimicking twenty-first century speech. To Mamet, words do not form poetry, they form weapons. Every character in a Mamet play is fighting, whether over Chicago properties or crime scene evidence. Their words become sharpened weapons to destroy any roadblocks that sit in their way. It’s so iconic that it’s accepted as a lexicon of its own (Mamet-Speak). There are so many writers today who are influenced by this type of speech (Aaron Sorkin comes to mind, as well as Ike Holter). The vulgarity of the text seeps into the psyche of the characters, making them extremely vile and exciting to watch.

There’s something cathartic about watching people be horrible to each other, regardless of their race/gender/sexuality/class. It strips the need to coddle people in today’s society. Just because a man is gay (Kevin Spacey, Milo Yiannopoulos, Bryan Singer) does not excuse their actions and bad character. Just because someone is female identifying (Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, Kim Kardashian) does not excuse their actions and bad character. Just because someone is a person of color (R. Kelly, Joy Villa, Selena Gomez) does not excuse their actions and bad character. People are flawed and horrible. We have to actively work to be good. Mamet reminds us of that.

Mamet is not the frontrunner whenever young theatre artists think of playwrights who need to be produced right now. He does not take care when he discusses the harder topics of society. I still don’t understand why he is writing about the crimes of Harvey Weinstein, or what he hopes to gain from it. I wish I had an opportunity to see it, so I could create a structural argument to whether the play is necessary for our time. Either way, Mamet holds a special place in the dark corners of my heart. His vulgar writing, his violence and his dedication to showing humanity at their absolute lowest is something that I love watching in theatre.

It’s hard to separate the art from the artist. Cultural and authorial context permeates all content we consume. I mean, how many endless pieces of information does J.K. Rowling throw on Twitter as she holds onto the dying life of the Harry Potter franchise? Mamet is the kind of person who needs to be divorced from his creations. If you don’t know how to separate Mamet from his work, this is what I suggest:

Metaphorically, brutally murder Mamet. Take a relaxing bath in his blood. Run away screaming with his plays. If I can do it, I bet you can as well.

 

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