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The Half-Moral World of America's Most Successful Dramatist

12:00 AM, Oct 5, 1998 • By MARGARET BOERNER
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However ambivalent they may be about American culture in general, the British often pay more attention -- and homage -- to American art than Americans do. BBC Radio 3 has just finished airing a year of American music, while the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company hosted a festival in which jazz, gospel, Arthur Miller, and Neil Simon were presented as the cultural touchstones of the twentieth century. Even the Royal Air Force component of the yearly "Royal Tournament" now marches to the American John Williams's music from Star Wars.

Of course, as the British often complain, a second form of American culture has conquered the United Kingdom as well. Sainsbury's supermarkets offer Classic Cola with "original American taste"; local fast food offers New Jersey chicken cafes, Seattle coffee houses, and Texas barbecue restaurants (advertised as "mighty fine eats").

Such invasions engender what is anyway natural to the English: a rich xenophobia, surely bespeaking a mad envy. The newspapers seized gleefully on recent reports that Americans are fat. The Duke of York is mocked for having "big white American teeth." The inveterate scribbler A. N. Wilson, a sometime young fogey, has lately gone on record in the Evening Standard that "mustachioed American professors of both sexes" don't deserve admission to the country, let alone to the new British Library.

Nonetheless, the English have always appreciated dramatic culture and good writing in a way that Americans do not. In particular, the fascination and repulsion they have for American culture enable them to identify David Mamet as the great American playwright of his age. Americans themselves are still making up their minds about Mamet. But, for the British, he seems the successor of Arthur Miller, and in London a new (rather slight) play by Mamet, The Old Neighborhood, has been sold out all summer. The English see in Mamet a quintessentially American voice, defining what it is to be human in a fascinating and uniquely American idiom.

In a talk he gave in London this summer before a performance of The Old Neighborhood, it became clear that Mamet is comfortable with British adulation. Though he spoke with some humility about his mentors, he confirmed his "bad boy" reputation by genially showing his disdain for many of the questions his listeners put to him. Asked "Is The Old Neighborhood autobiographical?" he replied, "Autobiographical of whom?" Questioned whether he has followers, he quipped, "I certainly hope not." His plays and movie scripts are markedly foul-mouthed, and when I asked about his use of "broad language," he replied merely that it "depended on the play" -- and cited the film Slap Shot, which "has locker-room language in it because it takes place in the locker room."

And yet, in the midst of his quips and dismissals, Mamet said some things enormously revealing and helpful about his work. On the one hand, meeting resistance to his remark that there are no characters in drama, "only lines on a page," he quoted Aristotle to the effect that character is merely "habitual action." On the other hand, he declared, "I don't set out to make the audience feel anything; I am just solving a problem in stagecraft."

In the famous Aristotelian definition, a tragic play succeeds when it "achieves, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such pitiable and fearful incidents." Tragedy presents incidents that are pitiable because they seem undeserved and fearful because we fear similar incidents may befall us. And we experience catharsis -- literally, a term for purging that Aristotle borrowed from Greek medicine -- because we learn through the play "how such things came about": Pity for others and fear for ourselves are purged in our learning the coherent and grimly inevitable relation between the hero's "habitual action" and his end.

Sounding very Aristotelian, Mamet said during his talk that he wants his audience to "fear for their souls." But this does not precisely contradict his claim that he doesn't "set out to make the audience feel anything," for Mamet is only half an Aristotelian. His dramas are classical insofar as the fate of a Mamet hero is a consequence of that hero's character. But Mamet's dramas are profoundly unclassical insofar as the hero's fate lacks relation to a coherent universe. In Mamet's plays, there is not -- because there cannot be -- any cathartic relief for the audience.