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.