The Conversion of David Mamet
American theater is a one-party town, a community of like-minded folk who are all but unanimous in their strict adherence to the left-liberal line. Though dissenters do exist, they are almost never heard from in public, and it is highly unusual for new plays that deviate from the social gospel of progressivism to reach the stage, whether in New York or anywhere else.
All this explains why David Mamet, America’s most famous and successful playwright, caused widespread consternation two years ago when he published an essay in the Village Voice called “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’” in which he announced that he had “changed my mind” about the ideology to which he had previously subscribed. Having studied the works of “a host of conservative writers,” among them Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, Thomas Sowell (whom he called “our greatest contemporary philosopher”), and Shelby Steele, Mamet came to the conclusion that “a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.”
For the most part, members of the American theater community responded to the publication of “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’” in one of two ways. Some declared that Mamet’s shift in allegiance was irrelevant to the meaning of the plays on which his reputation is based. Others claimed to have suspected him of being a crypto-conservative all along, arguing that the essay merely proved their point.
Now Mamet has published a book of essays called Theatre (Faber and Faber, 157 pages) in which, among other things, he seeks to integrate his new way of thinking into his view of the art of drama. Although Theatre is not so much a political treatise as a professional apologia, it seems likely that those of his colleagues who write about it (to date, most have ignored it completely) will focus on its political aspect, in which they will doubtless find much to outrage them. Indeed, he offers a working definition of theater that is bound to fill the vast majority of his colleagues with horror:
The theatre is a magnificent example of the workings of that particular bulwark of democracy, the free-market economy. It is the most democratic of arts, for if the play does not appeal in its immediate presentation to the imagination or understanding of a sufficient constituency, it is replaced. … It is the province not of ideologues (whether in the pay of the state and called commissars, or tax subsidized through the university system and called intellectuals) but of show folk trying to make a living.
Conversely, Mamet dismisses state subsidy for the theatrical arts as no more than a means of propping up incompetent “champions of right thinking” whose work would otherwise be incapable of attracting an audience. Such playwrights, he says, are purveyors of politically correct “pseudodramas” that “begin with a conclusion (capitalism, America, men, and so on, are bad) and award the audience for applauding its agreement.” For Mamet, such plays are the opposite of true theater, whose power lies not in its willingness to coddle our preconceptions but its unparalleled ability to shock us into seeing the world as it really is. “In the great drama,” he writes, “we follow a supposedly understood first principle to its astounding and unexpected conclusion. We are pleased to find ourselves able to revise our understanding.”
Readers of Theatre and “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’” who are already familiar with conservative thought will see at once that Mamet does not fit easily into any political pigeonhole. He appears at first glance to be less a conservative than a libertarian. As he explained in his Village Voice essay, he is “hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government [has] led to much beyond sorrow,” and nowhere in that essay or the pages of Theatre does he betray any interest in the social issues that are central to the belief systems of most conservatives.
At the same time, though, Mamet’s repudiation of liberalism is rooted in a view of human nature that is more complex than that of most libertarians, and one that can easily be related to the skeptical worldview that animates his plays. “As a child of the 60’s,” he wrote in the Village Voice, “I accepted as an article of faith. . .that people are generally good at heart.” It was this credo that he specifically repudiated in that same essay:
I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.
The only unexpected thing about this conclusion is that it took the author of American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), and Speed-the-Plow (1988) so long to reach it. In these hard-headed plays, which established him as a major voice in American theater, Mamet respectively portrays small-time crooks, unethical real-estate agents, and ambitious Hollywood executives as engaged in identically savage battles for power over one another. His foul-mouthed characters behave like scorpions in a bottle, determined to sting or be stung. They have no past or future, only the unremittingly bleak present, though they somehow manage to entertain us—if that is the word—because of the manic energy with which they do their frenzied dances of death.
The battles in which Mamet’s characters are engaged, as one of them remarks in American Buffalo, the most archetypical (and artful) of his portraits of American life, are zero-sum games in which only one player can win: “It’s kickass or kissass, Don, and I’d be lying if I told you any different.” When these plays were new, this caused them to be read by liberal critics as indictments of the American dream in all its hideous falseness. But the plays themselves are not nearly so explicit. Even as a liberal, Mamet spoke of them not as prescriptive but descriptive:
Economic life in America is a lottery. Everyone’s got an equal chance, but only one guy is going to get to the top. “The more I have the less you have.” So one can only succeed at the cost of the failure of another, which is what a lot of my plays—American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross—are about.
Therein lies part of the strength of Mamet’s major plays: they present human behavior rather than trying to explain it. None of the characters is obviously sympathetic, nor do any of them step forward at evening’s end to reassure uneasy audiences that they are seeing man at his worst and that a well-regulated society has the power to lead him in the paths of righteousness. Instead, Mamet portrays human life as a Hobbesian war of all against all, leaving it to the viewer to draw his own conclusions about the ultimate meaning of the struggles for dominance that he witnesses on stage. The only difference between Mamet then and Mamet now is that he has decided that government intervention can do little or nothing to ameliorate the effects of these struggles, and that men do better to work out their differences through the operation of free markets.
What triggered this change of political heart? Those who know only Theatre and Mamet’s Village Voice essay may be at a loss to explain it, but anyone familiar with his earlier writings about Israel, Judaism, and the Middle East is likely to detect a chain of causality.
Not only are most “theater people” liberal, but most of them, Jews included, are inclined to side with the Palestinians over Israel, an inclination that in certain parts of the British theater community has become all but indistinguishable from outright anti-Semitism. Mamet, by contrast, is an unabashedly Zionist Jew. In Theatre he makes no mention of this fact, though he alludes to it in “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal,’” mentioning in passing that he refers to National Public Radio as “National Palestinian Radio.” One must look to his earlier writings, however, to get a clearer sense of the intensity of his support for Israel.
As early as 2002, Mamet published in the Forward an essay occasioned by a visit to Jerusalem that left no doubt of his attitude. Arguing that “the Western press [had] embraced antisemitism as the new black,” Mamet drew a sharp contrast between that trendy distaste for Jews and the harsh realities of daily life in Israel:
Here, in Israel, are actual Jews, fighting for their country, against both terror and misthought public opinion, as well as disgracefully biased and, indeed, fraudulent reporting. Here are people courageously going about their lives, in that which, sad to say, were it not a Jewish state, would, in its steadfastness, in its reserve, in its courage, rightly be the pride of the Western world.
In 2006, Mamet published a collection of essays called The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Jewish Self-Hatred and the Jews that made the point even more bluntly. “The Jewish State,” he wrote, “has offered the Arab world peace since 1948; it has received war, and slaughter, and the rhetoric of annihilation.” He went on to argue that secularized Jews who “reject their birthright of ‘connection to the Divine’” succumb in time to a self-hatred that renders them incapable of effectively opposing the murderous anti-Semitism of their enemies—and, by extension, the enemies of Israel.
It is hard to imagine a less fashionable way of framing the debate over Israel, and even the most sympathetic reviewers of The Wicked Son frequently responded with sniffish dismay to Mamet’s line of argument. David Margolick, writing in the New York Times Book Review, summed up elite opinion when he decried the book’s alleged “oversimplification”: “Not all Jewish criticism of Israel is self-hatred, and not all gentile criticism is anti-Semitic. Jews who sympathize with the Palestinians are not necessarily neurotic.. . .And, by the way, not all Israeli crimes are ‘imaginary.’”
Could it be that David Mamet’s repudiation of modern-day liberalism is at least partly rooted in the naïvete with which modern-day liberals like Margolick regard the existential threats that beset Israel? Might this lack of realism on the part of his fellow liberals have caused him to feel that his own liberal politics were equally unreal by comparison with the cold-eyed disillusion of his plays, and that the plays were thus truer to life than his political opinions?
Whatever the reason for his change of heart, Mamet is now the only major playwright in America who is openly anti-liberal. Alas, his first post-conversion play does not suggest that this new point of view has as yet borne interesting artistic fruit. Race, which opened on Broadway in December, is a schematically didactic study of two celebrity lawyers, one white and one black, who must decide whether to defend a white millionaire who is accused of raping a young black woman. Instead of dramatizing the political points that he wants to make, Mamet embeds them in heavy-handed lectures delivered by his characters—a technique that he would have dismissed with withering contempt had he encountered it in a play by a liberal writer. (The play has, interestingly, proved to be a major success at the box office.)
It may be that at 62, David Mamet has said what he has to say as a playwright and thus will be unlikely to profit artistically from his belated conversion to libertarian–flavored conservatism. On the other hand, it may also be, as his harshest left-wing critics suggest, that he has already written some of the most conservative plays of the modern era—plays that are “conservative” in part because they do not portray the world through the obscuring lens of ideology. And as a result of his conversion, it will henceforth be hard for honest critics, no matter how high-mindedly liberal they may be, to interpret those plays as anything other than dark tragedies of human nature whose desperate characters, like most of us, are no better than they have to be.