Contemporary playwrights seldom become household names in the United States. Yet in the very week in December that the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the country’s playgoing audiences had declined from 13.5 percent of the adult population to 9.4 percent since 1992, pundits across the political spectrum were hammering home a point by invoking a dramatist. They were comparing the Senate seat-peddling Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, to a character penned by David Mamet.
Even people who’d never seen one of Mamet’s plays could be expected to get the joke. The crew-cut, tough-talking author is America’s most recognizable living playwright. Ever since Teach, the bullying braggadocio in American Buffalo (1975), stormed in from the wings, cursing like a trochaic trucker–“fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie”–Mamet has been known as the dramatic poet of the potty mouth.
But it wasn’t just Blagojevich’s “fuck”-splattered bluster that brought the dramatist to so many commentators’ minds. Like the governor, Mamet’s best-known characters scheme and scrap and try to game the system, all the while spewing out gusts of hard-won entitlement. Whether the lowlifes of American Buffalo, the sleazy real estate hawkers of Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) or the slick Hollywood hustlers of Speed-the-Plow (1988), Mamet’s men are conning for their lives. Not only does it never occur to them that there might be something wrong with stealing, lying or manipulating but they also display their pursuit of lucre as the patriotic flag of manhood and nation. “You know what is free enterprise,” Teach explains to his friend in American Buffalo. “The freedom…Of the Individual…To Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit…. In order to secure his honest chance to make a profit….The country’s founded on this, Don.” That Teach and Don are talking about burgling a rich guy’s collection of rare coins doesn’t strike them as overstepping the bounds of an “honest” course. In Mamet’s money plays, American capitalism is a polluted but life-sustaining sea where even bottom feeders can act like sharks. And everybody wants to be a hammerhead.
The timing couldn’t have seemed more perfect for this season’s Broadway revivals of American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow. Beyond Blagojevich, the current gallery of scoundrels, scam artists and malfeasants who have crashed the economy after their long speculative joy ride might also have walked right out of Mamet’s scripts. I expected to enjoy watching the gladiatorial verbal contests between men whose no-holds-barred ethos had finally been discredited. I didn’t. Unlike Glengarry Glen Ross, which was revived in 2005 with an excellent production featuring Alan Alda and Liev Schreiber, the revivals of American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow generated about as much fizz as the Wall Street happy hour on the day Lehman Brothers went belly up.