Hammerheads: David Mamet's Money Plays
More than that, Mamet was turning out to be a dutiful bad boy: stealing Arthur Miller's mantle by turning it inside out, he gratified the commercial as well as the academic contenders eager to crown the Next Important American Playwright. (Things looked so bleak in those days that the Pulitzer board named no drama prize in 1972 or 1974.) Taking up many of Miller's themes--loyalty and betrayal, manhood, the uphill drive toward success, the moral disintegration of the business of America--Mamet drained them of their pathos and sanctimony. He shifted the scene from the home to the workplace, stripping away the domestic concerns of family and love--thereby making women superfluous, except as trophies or plot devices. Where Miller's men desperately seek integrity, plead for absolution and chew themselves up over their inadequacies, Mamet's simply gnaw on one another. Miller's heroes desire material success in order to win approval from their fathers and security for their families. Mamet's just want the dough. Miller moralizes; Mamet sneers.
American Buffalo looks a lot like Miller's The Price (1968), with its stage crammed with junk for sale--in both cases, a blunt metaphor for the detritus of a spent American Dream. But the contest in Miller's play, between personal fulfillment and sacrifice for some greater good, goes slack in Mamet's, replaced by the cleaner competition of dog-eat-dog. Similarly, the agon in All My Sons (1947)--individual profit versus the obligation to humanity--is replayed in Speed-the-Plow, but with profit's triumph providing the happy ending. Mamet's masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross, inverts Miller's greatest work, Death of a Salesman. His mendacious two-hander about sexual harassment, Oleanna, rewrites The Crucible, turning the female character into both witch hunter (going after a smug but innocent man) and witch (or, in the language of her climactic comeuppance, "cunt").
Miller's plays came to seem stodgy and self-righteous to the generations that followed his first audiences; Mamet's, too, may be dulled by time. Work admired for catching the zeitgeist inevitably reaches a best-before date. American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow have not stayed news if only because the self-aggrandizing entrepreneurialism they skewered became the watchword of post-Reagan belief in the "ownership society." From policy to pop culture, the spirit of Teach's paean to free enterprise--critically framed in American Buffalo--began to sound like an article of faith in the theology of the unregulated market. The play shows a couple of wannabe crooks who see themselves as the same sort of enterprising mavericks flourishing on Wall Street: the sharp edge of the comparison dulled as everyone was invited--indeed, expected--to jump into the market. Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox chase enthusiastically after blockbuster schlock according to their credo: "Make the thing everyone made last year," Gould explains. "It's more than what they want. It is what they require." Shamelessly asserting this credo is no longer pointed--or even funny--in the landscape of Mad Men and Entourage.
This is hardly to say that Mamet will not remain popular. Presented on the country's nonprofit regional stages more often than most of his contemporaries, his plays still have a derivative value. (Edward Albee and the late August Wilson exceed him on that score--but Mamet can boast a few more Facebook fans!) With their big buildings and bloated administrative staffs, regional theaters move with the agility of ocean liners; they are extremely slow to change course. Their audiences are conservative, preferring known names to new ones. Mamet's plays are relatively cheap to produce--small casts, uncomplicated sets. And acted well, they are perfectly entertaining, making it unlikely that they will drop out of circulation anytime soon. (Arthur Miller remains a staple on these stages.)
But Mamet has moved away from the matter of his money plays. Drama is a dialectical art form--we're always aware of character and actor, illusion and reality--and thus lends itself to ambiguity, open questions, critical distance. Mamet seems to have grown allergic to such scrutiny, and Speed-the-Plow revealed the first symptom: the radiation book the secretary promotes is so patently ludicrous that the plot strains credibility in favor of ideological deck-stacking. Mamet's condition worsened. In a recent book, The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, he employs tough talk that sounds like self-caricature to denounce secular Jews and criticism of Israel. And last year, in articles in the Village Voice and the New York Times, Mamet railed against a straw version of liberalism that no liberal I've ever encountered would identify with--as contemptuous of the Constitution, among other things. He still, even now, upholds the market as the best guarantee of freedom against the nefarious powers of the state. (It never occurs to him that the interests of state and market have rather merged in recent years.) As Mamet's views--or at least his public expression of them--have become more conservative and Manichaean, he has squared the jaws of his tough guys and shifted them to the more hospitable precincts of Hollywood, where he has a thriving career as a skillful screenwriter and director. (Wag the Dog, Homicide, Redbelt, The Unit, to name just a few.) Machismo plays more smoothly onscreen than onstage, where theater's built-in irony can't help but make us skeptical. For serious drama, Mamet currently prefers the genres that invite the blunt antinomies of his politics.
Mamet's theater work in the 1990s focused more on domestic relationships (for instance, The Cryptogram, an elliptical, creepy family drama, and Boston Marriage, an arch effort at writing about Victorian women in love). In the twenty-first century, he has taken to writing farces--well-built laugh machines that toothlessly take on topical issues. Romance (2005) is a slapstick courtroom comedy in which a madcap trial unleashes slurs against Arabs, gays, Jews, you-name-it, while a Middle East peace conference is under way (unseen) nearby (presumably, a farce of its own). November (2008) presents a president with poll numbers "lower than Gandhi's cholesterol" campaigning for re-election during Thanksgiving; he tries to work favor-swapping deals--and, when those fail, blackmail--with the turkey industry and Native Americans, only to find himself outmaneuvered by his lesbian speechwriter, who demands marriage rights.
It would hardly be fair to say that in these recent ventures Mamet is repeating his playwriting history as farce--he has seldom sat in one stylistic spot for long. Still, no matter the genre, questions of power and greed and gullibility stick to his work like gum on a shoe. If American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow once revealed a mean current burbling beneath the American mainstream, today's ferocious undertow washes those insights away. Perhaps in another decade or two, a director will come along who will find a means to recalibrate Mamet's work. Just as Simon McBurney blasted away the walls of Miller's All My Sons to lend it a surprising mythic dimension in this season's Broadway production, maybe an imaginative new staging will return American Buffalo's bite. For the time being, however, the recently revived Mamet plays show some sleaze but raise no sense of serious threat. Kind of like Rod Blagojevich.