A playwright’s progress
May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Ryan Miller, Getty
Three decades ago David Mamet became known among the culture-consuming public for writing plays with lots of dirty words. “You’re f—ing f—ed” was a typically Mamet-like line, appearing without the prim dashes back in a day when playwrights were still struggling to get anything stronger than a damn on stage. Mamet’s profanity even became a popular joke: So there’s this panhandler who approaches a distinguished looking gentleman and asks for money. The man replies pompously: “ ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ —William Shakespeare.” The beggar looks at him. “ ‘F— you’ —David Mamet.”
Some critics said his plays were pointlessly brutal. As a consequence he became famous and wealthy. It didn’t hurt when it dawned on people that many of his plays, for all the profanity and brutality, were works of great power and beauty, and often very funny to boot. When people began to say, as they increasingly did by the middle 1980s, that the author of Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo and Lakeboat had earned a place in the top rank of the century’s dramatists, no one thought that was a joke. He took to writing for the movies (The Verdict, The Untouchables, Wag the Dog), won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his masterpieces (Glengarry Glen Ross), and moved to Holly-wood, where he became a respected and active player in the showbiz hustle.
His fame was enough to fill the stalls of Memorial Hall at Stanford University when he came to give a talk one evening a couple of years ago. About half the audience were students. The rest were aging faculty out on a cheap date with their wives or husbands. You could identify the male profs by the wispy beards and sandals-’n’-socks footwear. The wives were in wraparound skirts and had hair shorter than their husbands’.
Mamet had been brought to campus by Hillel, and the subject of his talk was “Art, Politics, Judaism, and the Mind of David Mamet.” There wasn’t much talk of Judaism, however, at least not explicitly. He arrived late and took the stage looking vaguely lost. He withdrew from his jacket a sheaf of papers that quickly became disarranged. He lost his place often. He stumbled over his sentences. But the unease that began to ripple through the audience had less to do with the speaker’s delivery than with his speech’s content. Mamet was delivering a frontal assault on American higher education, the provider of the livelihood of nearly everyone in his audience.
Higher ed, he said, was an elaborate scheme to deprive young people of their freedom of thought. He compared four years of college to a lab experiment in which a rat is trained to pull a lever for a pellet of food. A student recites some bit of received and unexamined wisdom—“Thomas Jefferson: slave owner, adulterer, pull the lever”—and is rewarded with his pellet: a grade, a degree, and ultimately a lifelong membership in a tribe of people educated to see the world in the same way.
“If we identify every interaction as having a victim and an oppressor, and we get a pellet when we find the victims, we’re training ourselves not to see cause and effect,” he said. Wasn’t there, he went on, a “much more interesting . . . view of the world in which not everything can be reduced to victim and oppressor?”
This led to a full-throated defense of capitalism, a blast at high taxes and the redistribution of wealth, a denunciation of affirmative action, prolonged hymns to the greatness and wonder of the United States, and accusations of hypocrisy toward students and faculty who reviled business and capital even as they fed off the capital that the hard work and ingenuity of businessmen had made possible. The implicit conclusion was that the students in the audience should stop being lab rats and drop out at once, and the faculty should be ashamed of themselves for participating in a swindle—a “shuck,” as Mamet called it.
It was as nervy a speech as I’ve ever seen, and not quite rude—Mamet was too genial to be rude—but almost. The students in Memorial Hall seemed mostly unperturbed. The ripples of dissatisfaction issued from the older members of the crowd. Two couples in front of me shot looks to one another as Mamet went on—first the tight little smiles, then quick shakes of the head, after a few more minutes the eye-rolls, and finally a hitchhiking gesture that was the signal to walk out. Several others followed, with grim faces.
It was too much, really. It’s one thing to titillate progressive theatergoers with scenes of physical abuse and psychological torture and lines like “You’re f—ing f—ed.” But David Mamet had at last gone too far. He’d turned into a f—ing Republican.
Next month a much larger number of liberals and leftists will have the opportunity to be appalled by Mamet’s Stanford speech. Passages from it form the bulk of a chapter in his new book of brief, punchy essays, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture. The book marks the terminal point of a years-long conversion from left to right that Mamet-watchers (there are quite a few of these) have long suspected but hadn’t quite confirmed. It’s part conversion memoir, part anthropology, part rant, part steel-trap argument—the testimony of a highly intelligent man who has wrenched himself from one sphere and is now declaring his citizenship in another, very loudly.
Mamet himself has never been a political playwright or a dramatist of ideas, being concerned with earthier themes—how it is, for example, that everyday conflicts compound into catastrophe. His plays were heavy with a tragic view of human interaction. They depicted, as he put it, people doing despicable things to each other, moved by greed or power lust or some nameless craving. Still, politically minded critics were pleased to divine a political intent: American Buffalo, set in a junk shop, or Glengarry Glen Ross, set in a real estate office, were allegories of the heartlessness of a country (ours) ruled by markets and capital. Their invariably unhappy or unresolved endings drove the point home. And the critics had a point. The world Mamet created was one-half of the leftist view of life, anyway: the Hobbesian jungle that Utopians would rescue us from, liberal idealism with the sunny side down.
The Secret Knowledge begins with a parricide—a verbal throat-slitting of the leftwing playwright Bertolt Brecht, father to three generations of dramatists, especially those who, like Tony Kushner or Anna Deavere Smith or Christopher Durang, make agitprop the primary purpose of their art. 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.”
As the accelerating sequence of that last sentence suggests—from Brecht to Marx to the entire system of American higher education—one wispy aha! leads the convert to a larger revelation and then to one even broader and more comprehensive. That’s the way it is with conversion experiences: The scales fall in a cascade. One light bulb tends to set off another, until it’s pop-pop-pop like paparazzi on Oscar night.
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. The widening gap between liberal politics and liberal life became real to him when, paradoxically enough, he decided at last to write a political play, or rather a play about politics. It was the first time he thought about partisan politics for any sustained period.
“This was after the 2004 election,” he told me in an interview last month. “I’d never met a conservative. I didn’t know what a conservative was. I didn’t know much of anything.
“But I saw the liberals hated George Bush. It was vicious. And I thought about it, and I didn’t get it. He was no worse than the others, was he? And I’d ask my liberal friends, ‘Well, why do you hate him?’ They’d all say: ‘He lied about WMD.’ Okay. You love Kennedy. Kennedy didn’t write Profiles in Courage—he lied about that. ‘Bush is in bed with the Saudis!’ Okay, Kennedy was in bed with the mafia.”
His play about politics, a comedy called November, opened on Broadway in January 2008 to middling reviews and ran till mid-July. He called it a “love letter to America.” The last line, uttered by a preposterously corrupt but strangely endearing president, is “Jesus, I love this country”—and the irony was only meant to go so far. One of the themes of the play was that the country itself is much too good for politics, especially when politicians seek to govern it by serving their own selfish ends.
“I wondered, How did the system function so well? Because it does—the system functions beautifully.” How did the happiest, freest, and most prosperous country in history sprout from the Hobbesian jungle?
“I realized it was because of this thing, this miracle, this U.S. Constitution.” The separation of powers, the guarantee of property, the freedoms of speech and religion meant that self-interested citizens had a system in which they could hammer out their differences without killing each other. Everyone who wanted to could get ahead. The Founders had accepted the tragic view of life and, as it were, made it pay. It’s a happy paradox: The gloomier one’s view of human nature—and Mamet’s was gloomy—the deeper one’s appreciation of the American miracle.
“As an American, I don’t think that my politics are any better than anybody else’s politics,” Mamet told the TV interviewer Charlie Rose when November opened. “I’m a gag writer.” Even so, he agreed to write an essay on the play’s politics for the Village Voice. In the essay Mamet confessed that many of his previous political beliefs now struck him as reflexive and unthinking: The country that existed in his once-fevered liberal imagination—a dystopia crippled by crises that required the immediate deployment of the federal government—bore little resemblance to the country in which he actually lived, where people interacted smoothly in the marketplace to their mutual benefit. He had come to realize that corporations were good for providing the necessities of life. The “Big Bad Military” of his youthful fancy was, he discovered, an organization built on courage and honor.
For the moment, he told Voice readers, he was searching for “a human understanding of the political process . . . in which I believe I may be succeeding.”
Voice editors hyped Mamet’s piece with an attention getting headline, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’ ” The essay was much milder than its title. It was the work of a man in mid-conversion. Mamet’s politics at the time were best expressed in a speech at the end of November’s second act, perhaps the most—maybe the only—innocent paragraph Mamet ever wrote. The speaker is the crooked president’s idealistic speechwriter (a lesbian who has unknowingly brought the avian flu virus from France and infected the Thanksgiving turkeys that the president is supposed to pardon, though he’ll only issue the pardon if he’s bribed by an Indian chief. . . . It’s a comedy).
“The fellow or the woman at the water cooler?” the speechwriter says. “We don’t know their politics. We judge their character by the simple things: Are they respectful, are they punctual, can they listen. . . . If you look at the polls it seems we are ‘a nation divided.’ But we aren’t a nation divided, sir. We’re a democracy. We hold different opinions. But we laugh at the same jokes, we clap each other on the back when we made that month’s quota, and, sir, I’m not at all sure that we don’t love each other.”
Given the inherent corruptions of partisanship, Mamet refused to believe that one side of our public disputes was truly superior to the other.
“The right is mooing about faith,” he wrote at the end of the Voice essay, “the left is mooing about change, and many are incensed about the fools on the other side—but, at the end of the day, they are the same folks we meet at the water cooler.”
It was a lovely sentiment, especially comforting to people who desperately don’t want to take politics seriously.
The belief that government is essentially a con job run by con artists comes naturally to Chicagoans. In Chicago, where Mamet was born not long after the Second World War, the natives simply assumed that politicians were in the game to enlarge their own power—which was fine, so long as everyone else got his piece too: a ham at Christmas, a fixed parking ticket, a job in the Department of Sanitation for a dipso brother-in-law. For Mamet this bit of innate Chicago wisdom has only been reinforced in Santa Monica, the leftwing, paradisiacal community where he has lived since 2003. It’s the same game in Santa Monica as in Chicago, except with an unappetizing lacquer of self-regarding piety from the pols. Not long after moving to the city, Mamet undertook his first foray into civic activism, when the City Council revived a 60-year-old ordinance and tried to force Mamet and his neighbors to cut the hedges around their homes, in accordance with a newly articulated “public right to the viewership of private property.”
“They just made it up,” he told me. We were having lunch at his usual noontime haunt a few blocks from his office and a mile from the beach. The Hedge Wars, as the local press called the controversy, were the first thing he mentioned when I asked about his move rightward. He joined protests, testified at hearings, and wrote an op-ed in the L.A. Times. His side eventually won. The ordinance was amended, but not before the city got to impose a raft of new foliage regulations and create a new hedge commission to enforce them.
“It made no sense,” he said. “But this is how government works—all government. I saw there’s no difference between the hedge commission and the U.S. government. It’s all the same principle.”
Mamet’s parents were divorced when he was young, and he spent most of his childhood after the breakup with his father, a highly successful labor lawyer. The faith in unions that his father instilled in him didn’t survive the screenwriters’ strike of 2007-08—one of the most heavily publicized events in Hollywood history and the most quickly forgotten, so abject was the ineptitude and ultimate failure of the writers’ union. For Mamet it was another turn of the ratchet away from the left.
“They were risking not only their own jobs but the jobs of everyone who had nothing to gain from the strike—the drivers and scene painters and people who are on set 14 hours a day working their asses off. These working people were driven out of work by the writers—10,000 people losing their jobs at Christmastime. It was the goddamnedest thing I ever saw in my life. And for what? They didn’t know what they were striking for—just another inchoate liberal dream.
“The question occurs to me quite a lot: What do liberals do when their plans have failed? What did the writers do when their plans led to unemployment, their own and other people’s? One thing they can’t do is admit they failed. Why? To admit failure would endanger their position in the herd.”
One of Mamet’s favorite books has been Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, published during the First World War by the British social psychologist Wilfred Trotter, inventor of the term “herd instinct.”
“Trotter says the herd instinct in an animal is stronger even than the preservation of life,” Mamet said. “So I was watching the  debates. My liberal friends would spit at the mention of Sarah Palin’s name. Or they would literally mime the act of vomiting. We’re watching the debates and one of my friends pretends to vomit and says, ‘I have to leave the room.’ I thought, oh my god, this is Trotter! This is the reaction of the herd instinct. When a sheep discovers a wolf in the fold, it vomits to ward off the attacker. It’s a sign that their position in the herd is threatened.”
Mamet runs into the herd instinct every day.
“I’ve given galleys of The Secret Knowledge to some friends. They say, ‘I’m scared to read it.’ I say, ‘Why should you be afraid to read something?’
“What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of losing their ability to stay in the herd. That’s what I found in myself. It can be wrenching when you start to think away from the herd.”
Mamet’s disdain for consensus, for received wisdom of any kind, has been evident in nearly every aspect of his career. Celebrated by academics and critics as a major American artist, he despises talk of Art, especially when it comes from critics and academics. As a sought-after acting teacher, he wrings from his students the last drop of introspection and Stanislavskian pomposity. “You don’t need to dig into your character,” he tells them. “Just read the words.” As a respected movie director and screenwriter he is self-consciously conventional—his movies fit neatly into familiar genres: war movies, detective movies, adventure movies, and a heist movie called Heist—just when his admirers might have expected fireworks and experimentation. “All movies are genre movies,” he says. “If they talk about the ‘artiste,’ you know you’re hearing bulls—.” When he had become a highly paid fixture in Hollywood he produced for the stage the most merciless Hollywood satire ever written, Speed-the-Plow.
But thinking differently about politics was . . . different.
"Dave is a very thorough thinker,” Mordecai Finley told me, “but it never occurred to him that there might be another way to think about politics.”
Finley is rabbi at Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles, where Mamet attends services with his wife, the actress Rebecca Pidgeon, who converted to Judaism after their marriage in 1991. Mamet’s religious practice, along with his sensitivity to Israel, has deepened since he moved to Southern California and joined Ohr HaTorah. In 2006, he published a scorching book of essays, The Wicked Son, rebuking secular Jews for their (alleged) self-loathing and reluctance to defend Israel.
The Wicked Son is dedicated to Finley. He is a creature who is not supposed to exist in nature: the Republican rabbi of a liberal congregation packed with show people.
“For most of my congregants,” he said, “I’m the only Republican they know.”
Finley recalls a conversation with Mamet and Pidgeon during the California Democratic presidential primary in 2004. They asked the rabbi and his wife which Democrat they were going to vote for.
“We said, ‘None of them.’
“Dave said, ‘Oh no—you’re not going to vote for Nader!’
“I said, ‘No.’
“And then you could see it hit him. ‘Not Bush!’
“ ‘Well, yes. Bush.’
“Dave was apologetic. He thought he’d embarrassed us! He said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to pry! I shouldn’t have asked!’
“I said, ‘No, no, it’s really not a problem. It’s not like we try to keep it secret.’ ”
Still safely with the herd, Mamet undertook to pry his rabbi away from his heretical politics. He began sending Finley books, potboilers of contemporary liberalism like What’s the Matter with Kansas?
“They were highly polemical, angry books,” Finley said. “They were very big on sympathy and compassion but really they weren’t”—he looked for the word—“they simply weren’t logically coherent. And Dave is very logical in his thinking. Dave thought What’s the Matter with Kansas? had the answer for why people could even think to vote for a Republican—it’s because they’re duped by capitalist fat cats. I tried to tell him that people really weren’t that stupid. They just have other interests, other values. They’re values voters.
“That’s one thing he began to see: The left flattens people, reduces people to financial interests. Dave’s an artist. He knew people are deeper than that.”
Before long, when Finley didn’t budge, the books from Mamet stopped arriving, and Finley asked if he could send Mamet some books too. One of the first was A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution. In it Sowell expands on the difference between the “constrained vision” of human nature—close to the tragic view that infuses Mamet’s greatest plays—and the “unconstrained vision” of man’s endless improvement that suffused Mamet’s politics and the politics of his profession and social class.
“He came back to me stunned. He said, ‘This is incredible!’ He said, ‘Who thinks like this? Who are these people?’ I said, ‘Republicans think like this.’ He said, ‘Amazing.’ ”
Finley piled it on, from the histories of Paul Johnson to the economics of Milton Friedman to the meditations on race by Shelby Steele.
“He was haunted by what he discovered in those books, this new way of thinking,” Finley says. “It followed him around and wouldn’t let him go.”
For years Mamet and Finley talked by phone at least once, sometimes twice a day. He became friends with Sowell and Steele, another Hoover Institution fellow. Mamet dedicated his most popular recent play, Race, to Steele.
A former literature professor, Steele told me he’d been an admirer of Mamet’s work since the 1970s and thought he’d detected signs of incipient conservatism in the plays.
“I think he has the same values today that he did before,” Steele said. “He’s said to me he thinks he might have always been conservative without knowing it. All that happened was, he finally found a politics that suited his values.”
Listening to Mamet talk, swept along with his tidal fluency, you find it hard to imagine him groping toward a moment of intellectual catharsis. As a rule Mamet avoids soliloquies in his plays, and the blunt back-and-forth rhythms of his characters’ speech, bitten off with awkward hesitations, then rebooted in a headlong rush, became a trademark that unimaginative critics took to calling “Mametspeak.” It’s a heightened artistic effect that can, after two hours in a darkened theater, retune the ear, rearrange the way a person hears speech—just as a great painter can force you to take in color and light with a new attention and intensity.
Mamet doesn’t speak in Mametspeak himself. Ask him a question and he just barrels on through, often at length. He’s got the bluff self-confidence of the macho writer—there are a few of these hairy-chested scribblers in the American tradition, from Jack London and Ambrose Bierce through Hemingway to James Jones and Irwin Shaw. Of course he swears as freely as any Chicagoan, with special affection for the F-bomb and its many variants. When the battery of his hearing aid failed during our lunch, he yanked the earpiece from his ear, looked at it sternly, and said: “F— you.”
Then again, he’s still showfolk. He’s the only gruff, straight-talking Southsider I’ve ever met who wears eyeglasses with yellow translucent frames. At lunch we were interrupted often by supplicants wanting a word with him—a tribute to his kindliness and his professional pull: He reportedly fetches $2 million for a finished script, and is the only American playwright who can open a show on Broadway merely on the strength of his name. He listened to each visitor with patient solicitude. Not only have I never heard a cross word about him, after talking to colleagues and acquaintances; I’ve never talked to anyone who’s heard a cross word about him.
The two personal attributes that come through most notably in conversation, and in The Secret Knowledge, are gratitude and modesty, both regarded as conservative virtues. His modesty is of the epistemological kind, reinforced in politics and economics by his reading of Friedman and Hayek, the great critics of central planning. His gratitude is comprehensive. In our long afternoon talking about politics, he kept returning to how grateful he was for his general good fortune in life, but especially for being an American.
“My grandmother came to this country and she and her two boys were abandoned by her husband,” he said. “She couldn’t speak English. No education. And during the Great Depression she was able to work hard and save and she put them both through law school.” His voice had a tone of wonder to it, as though still awed by a fresh discovery. “I mean, what a country. That’s a hell of a country.”
After lunch we walked back to his office, and on the way he told me of new projects. I wondered how Mamet’s about-to-be-exposed rightwingery will affect his work—and, among critics and colleagues, the reaction to his work. Show business, like all of popular culture these days, is ostentatiously politicized. Actors, directors, producers, and the writers who write about them—all behave as though they received a packet of approved political views with their guild card. They’ll be alert for signs of ideological deviationism in Mamet’s stuff from now on. They may not have to look too far.
Mamet mentioned a screenplay that he hopes will soon be produced involving a young rich girl who applies to Harvard. When she’s rejected she suddenly declares herself an Aztec to qualify for affirmative action. Presumably high jinks ensue. A new two-character play opening in London this fall, The Anarchist, is a “verbal sword-fight” between two women of a certain age, one a veteran of 1960s radicalism, jailed for life on a bombing charge, and the other a reactionary prison governor from whom the aging radical hopes to receive parole. Regardless of the play’s true merits, we can expect the word didactic to get a workout from critics.
After reading The Secret Knowledge in galleys, the Fox News host and writer Greg Gutfeld invented the David Mamet Attack Countdown Clock, which “monitors the days until a once-glorified liberal artist is dismissed as an untalented buffoon.” Tick tock.
"All I do is write every day,” he said, as he unlocked the door to the townhouse that serves as his office. “I sit in here and write. I don’t see anybody. I don’t socialize. I read, and I write, and then I go home to my wife.”
And the essays in The Secret Knowledge do occasionally have the tone of a man locked alone in an office, talking to himself. “I was a monomaniac,” he said of the period he was writing the book. “Crazed.”
The prose moves very fast, and some of the arguments seem to be missing a few essential steps; premises rocket to conclusions on the strength of sheer outrage. The conversion is complete: This is not a book by the same man who told Charlie Rose he didn’t want to impose his political views on anybody. At some moments—as when he blithely announces that the earth is cooling not warming, QED—you wonder whether maybe he isn’t in danger of exchanging one herd for another. He told me he doesn’t read political blogs or magazines. “I drive around and listen to the talk show guys,” he said. “Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved.”
Even so, for anyone who admires Mamet and his work—and who agrees with most of his newly discovered political views—there’s something thrilling about seeing a man so accomplished in an unforgiving art subject his ideas to pitiless examination and, as he put it, “take it all the way down to the paint.” When Mamet recognized himself as a conservative, Shelby Steele told me, “it made him happy.”
He doesn’t freely talk about what it cost him psychologically, however, and he says he hasn’t thought about what it might cost him professionally.
When I pushed him on the subject, he started talking about Jon Voight, another show business Republican.
One day Voight handed him Witness, the Cold War memoir by the Communist-turned-anti-Communist Whittaker Chambers.
“This book will change your life,” Voight told Mamet.
“And he was right,” Mamet said. “It had a huge effect on me. Forcing yourself into a new way of thinking about things is a wrenching experience. But first you have to look back and atone. You think, ‘Oh my god, what have I done? What was I thinking?’ You realize you’ve been a co-dependent with the herd. And then, when you decide to say what you’ve discovered, out loud, you take the risk that everyone you know will look on you as a fool.”
Sitting on an overstuffed sofa in his office, he threw up his hands.
“But what the hell,” he said. “I’m the troublemaker. That’s my role in life. I’m the class clown.”
Starting next month we’ll find out who’s laughing.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.
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