Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mamet - Is The Conversion Complete?

I am sure there will be a lot of discussion about Andrew Ferguson's article "Converting Mamet" - a recap of the various steps in the movement of playwright David Mamet from the liberal mindset to the conservative one.

Ferguson writes that in Mamet's new book, The Secret Knowledge:On the Dismantling of American Culture, the Pulitzer winning writer reveals that a close examination of Brecht's personal conduct provided a catalyst for his own political transformation:

For most of his career Mamet revered Brecht too: It was the thing to do. The reverence came to an end when he finally noticed an incongruity between Brecht’s politics and his life. Although a cold-blooded—indeed bloody-minded—advocate for public ownership of the means of production and state confiscation of private wealth, he always took care to copyright his plays. More, he made sure the royalties were deposited in a Swiss bank account far from the clutches of East Germany, where he was nominally a citizen.

“His protestations [against capitalism] were not borne out by his actions, nor could they be,” Mamet writes. “Why, then, did he profess Communism? Because it sold. .  .  . The public’s endorsement of his plays kept him alive; as Marx was kept alive by the fortune Engels’s family had made selling furniture; as universities, established and funded by the Free Enterprise system .  .  . support and coddle generations of the young in their dissertations on the evils of America.”


And then Mamet thought some more, and looked in the mirror.

“I never questioned my tribal assumption that Capitalism was bad,” he writes now, “although I, simultaneously, never acted upon these feelings.” He was always happy to cash a royalty check and made sure to insist on a licensing fee. “I supported myself, as do all those not on the government dole, through the operation of the Free Market.”

He saw he was Talking Left and Living Right, a condition common among American liberals, particularly the wealthy among them, who can, for instance, want to impose diversity requirements on private companies while living in monochromatic neighborhoods, or vote against school vouchers while sending their kids to prep school, or shelter their income while advocating higher tax rates.

For more of a context, you can start with Mamet's now famous 2008 essay in the Village Voice, "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal"

In that essay, he informs us that he started thinking about these political things at the time he was writing his play November.

Some critics and writers examined the play in the context of Mamet's self proclaimed conversion. Here is Robert Volicky writing on Hotreview:

This is not to say that the man can't say exactly what's on his mind and own it as his personal "truth," but his most recent work for the stage does not wholly reflect his alleged retreat to the ancient binarism of "reason/faith," "tragedy/perfectionism." Even his pairings (reason and the tragic versus faith and the perfectionist) are deceptively rigid and at odds with one another. Mamet's conscious effort to reason his position in the world--also common in his other essays and prose works--reminded me, here, of Arthur Miller. Miller's theorizing about his works never quite matched what his plays were doing. The theorizing often fell short of the works' depth and breadth.

But unlike Miller, who would refer specifically to his plays, Mamet does not explicitly apply his new political thinking to November. The essay works as an implied context within which to think about this play, and also to reconsider his complete canon. If the reader decides to map Mamet's thinking in March 2008 onto November, then so be it. The trouble is, such thinking would align the author's allegiance with his character President Smith, the corrupt executive running for a second term.


Ian Thal said...

Of course, the Weekly Standard article makes the point of stating, "Mamet himself has never been a political playwright or a dramatist of ideas."

Mamet might be a formerly "brain-dead liberal" but his conversion to conservatism was not met with a newly found intellectual depth. So he finds the mimed wretching of his liberal friends at the mention of Sarah Palin to be immature; does he really want to argue that Palin is qualified for the presidency or that she has something to offer in the marketplace of ideas? Should we be impressed that he's a Glenn Beck fan?

Should I really be interested in David Mamet's politics? I saw November at the Lyric Stage and while the dialogue was often hilarious, and the characters were quite mad, the brilliant cast only underlined the extent to which Mamet doesn't understand how the genre of political satire works, let alone politics.

Even his non-fiction outings like The Wicked Son have little to offer in terms of political thought or argument: its real strength is the astute sketches of certain personality types.

And that gets back to the point of Brecht: however you feel about Brecht, he is a dramatist of ideas and you take a position of reverence or refutation towards those ideas.

Thomas Garvey said...

Is anyone besides me just plain shocked at how silly - if not flat-out stupid - Mr. Mamet has turned out to be? I mean honestly - he thinks the earth is cooling, not warming? (Tell it to the glaciers, Davey!) I guess the question that lingers for me is - how exactly does his wicked sense of craft co-exist in his brain with these looney-bin rants about Bush, Palin and the Palestinians? In a more perfect world, of course, Bush and Palin wouldn't count as "conservatives," and Mamet in his dotage would be dismissed as the crank he so obviously has become. But I forget - the conservative tradition is SO dead . . .

Thomas Garvey said...

I will say this though: that article gave some new insight into Mamet's inability to draw convincing female characters. I never knew that he was a child of divorce, and raised by his father, not his mother. From that broken bond may stem much of the one-sidedness in his dramatic writing.

Ian Thal said...

The only thing that even moderately surprising about this article is that the Weekly Standard doesn't seem to realize "how silly if not flat-out stupid Mr. Mamet has turned out to be" -- they seem to think they're praising him! Even I thought the Kristols were smarter than that!