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.
The plays have similar structures: two men with different perspectives hatch a plan that a third person interrupts, threatening the success of the scheme and testing the bonds of the men’s friendship. A climactic violent outburst brings both plays to their close–resolving Speed-the-Plow (a comedy) and leaving American Buffalo in an uncertain calm (a would-be tragedy). In American Buffalo, Don, believing he’s been swindled by a customer who bought a rare nickel from him, plots a retributive burglary–first with Bob, a young ex-junkie whom Don has taken under his wing, and then with Teach, who convinces Don that he’d be a more reliable partner than Bob. They botch the heist before it gets off the ground. Speed-the-Plow pits a movie producer, Charlie Fox, against a female office temp for the commercial soul of Charlie’s best buddy, the newly promoted studio exec Bobby Gould. The men are about to take a sure blockbuster of a prison movie with a hot star to their higher-up for “greenlighting” when a wager over whether Bobby can get the secretary into bed gives her a night to champion a manuscript Bobby has asked her to read–a pompous tract about the perils of radiation.
In both plays the action is the talking, the patter of the pitch–desperate, insistent speech that seeks to persuade, justify and dominate. Critics who have lauded Mamet for verbal vérité are mistaken; the frequent self-interruptions, syntactical burps and constant interjections that insist “I’m telling you” or “That is what I’m saying” point to the lyrical artifice–and the thematic importance–of Mametspeak.
American Buffalo puts the lingo of entrepreneurship in the mouths of petty crooks, suggesting business is theft by other means. “I don’t fuck with my business associates,” says Teach as he and Don prepare for the burglary. “I am a businessman, I am here to do business, I am here to face facts.” Speed-the-Plow makes Hollywood vulgarities the text of a profane oratorio: “You can shove good taste up your ass and fart ‘The Carnival of Venice.’ Good taste will not hack it,” says Gould. Performances famously require actors to skate gracefully on the musical surface of the text and to take daring twists and jumps. The three actors in American Buffalo–Cedric the Entertainer, John Leguizamo and Haley Joel Osment–lacked dexterity and sank the play with their sluggishness. The production closed six days after it opened.
Speed-the-Plow, though a lesser play, fares better, thanks especially to Raúl Esparza in a zippy production directed by Neil Pepe. As Charlie, Esparza takes a giddy literal leap in a happy moment, bounding onto a chair, spinning around and hopping down, all in a delicate second. This choreographic bit demonstrates the fine-tuned artifice Esparza brings to the role–a presentational sensibility honed in his previous starring roles in Stephen Sondheim’s Company and Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. He handles the text as deftly. Without ever transgressing the fourth wall, he sputters, shrieks, drops to a gruff register, practically tap-dances the badinage. His partners don’t quite keep up. The office temp (played woodenly by Madonna in the original production) is an underwritten part–a plot device, really–and Elisabeth Moss (she’s Peggy on Mad Men) trots through it gamely but dimly. In the role of Bobby Gould, I saw Jeremy Piven (he’s Ari on Entourage). He preened and drew on his undeniable presence to assert himself, attacking the language with more robustness than flair for its rude intricacies. He abruptly left the show after eight weeks (claiming fatigue from mercury poisoning) and has been replaced by longtime Mamet hand William H. Macy. After Piven walked out, ticket sales dropped from more than 70 percent capacity to merely 50 percent–celebrity dynamics that underline Mamet’s point.
Incompletely equipped as most of these actors were, however, the productions fell flat for bigger reasons: the plays and their relationship to the times. At the moment that Mamet furnishes a handy, popular reference for the Blagojevich scandal, the plays feel obsolete. Like a corporate logo one can easily identify without ever using the product it adorns, Mamet’s iconic status seems to have overtaken the work.
Perhaps because theater is the most communal of arts–in its production and consumption–serious dramatists tend to reflect on the national character. Their canonical plays take the country’s spiritual temperature, often directly addressing what it means to be American at a given moment. Sometimes, they even announce their panoramic concerns in their titles: Edward Albee, The American Dream (1960); Tony Kushner, Angels in America (1990); Suzan-Lori Parks, The America Play (1994).
Mamet was widely thought to be contributing to this tradition when he burst onto the scene with a play that name-checked the nation. American Buffalo premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1975 and then moved to Manhattan in early 1976; a new production opened a year later on Broadway (featuring Robert Duvall, Kenneth McMillan and John Savage.) The play’s title refers to the nickel Don has sold, its engraved promises of unity and trust shown to be empty slogans. The title also suggests the decimation of a hounded breed–restless creatures that can’t survive among the ruthless forces paving the ground beneath them. Don, Teach and Bob came into being in the era of President Gerald Ford: their bewildered stasis was everyone’s. (Speed-the-Plow is minor Mamet in comparison–a mean-spirited minuet that does not share the tragic ambitions of American Buffalo.)
At the time, the boldest theater experimenters were cresting the last waves of the counterculture, breaking down much more than the fourth wall. In New York City, companies like the Open Theater, the Performance Group and Mabou Mines were dissolving–or at least blurring–the boundary between actor and role and exploring new means of dramatic expression through multimedia, ritual or environmental stagings. Director-devisors like Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson were killing off the psychologically motivated character in their (very different) new formalisms. Institutions like La MaMa, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and the Negro Ensemble Company–in their distinct ways–were challenging longstanding assumptions about the proper shapes and concerns of American drama and establishing new institutional models for presenting it. Performance art was inventing itself as a bold antiart in galleries, garages and public spaces. Plain old commercial plays were still being put on, but nobody much noticed or cared.
Mamet’s genius was to fold the findings of the experimental ferment back into conventional form–but with a cantankerous twist. Sexual frankness, general outrage, raw energy, qualms about capitalism and the patchiness of America’s promise: all these issues, kept at a rolling boil downtown, simmered pungently in Mamet’s work. But they were carefully contained within the walls of narrative realism. And embodied by men. Manly men. Heterosexual men. The mainstream theater establishment was ecstatic. The well-made play had a scrappy new shape and, better still, a new idiom: a heightened language raked up from the gutter and spat out at the world by a dude.
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.