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21 April 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:13pm

Red flag to a raging bull: David Mamet’s move to the right

Ryan Gilbey examines Mamet’s plays for clues to his changing politics.

By Ryan Gilbey

American Buffalo, the 1975 play that gave David Mamet his commercial and artistic breakthrough, is named after a rare antique coin (the buffalo nickel) but it was inspired by a slab of cheese. In the early 1970s Mamet was living in Chicago, his birthplace, “screamingly poor”. Together with William H Macy and Steven Schachter, he had founded the St Nicholas Theatre Company in 1972. One afternoon, Mamet was over at Macy’s “wretched hovel” when he opened the refrigerator and found a large piece of cheese staring back at him. “I hadn’t had anything to eat in a long time, so I picked it up, cut off a big chunk and started eating,” he recalled. (As the junk-store owner Don, or Donny, tells the young greenhorn Bobby in American Buffalo: “That’s what business is . . . People taking care of themselves.”)

“Hey,” said Macy. “Help yourself.”

Mamet was aghast. He went off to fume to himself over this slight. “Then I just started writing, and out of that came this scene, which was the start of the play.”

Teach: . . . I take a piece of toast off Grace’s plate . . .

Don: . . . uh huh . . .

Teach: . . . and [Ruthie] goes “Help yourself”. Help myself. I should help myself to half a piece of toast it’s four slices for a quarter. I should have a nickel every time we’re over at the game, I pop for coffee . . . cigarettes . . . a sweet roll, never say a word.

The play opened at the Goodman Theatre on 23 November 1975, starring Macy as Bobby, Bernard Erhard as the scraggly hustler Teach (a nickname given to Mamet by his poker buddies) and J J Johnston as Don – three generations of American male who squander their friendship, values and future in pursuit of a prosperity that is doomed to elude them. Mamet had offered the play to the Goodman management with the promise that it would win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. (His confidence was only slightly misplaced: the Pulitzer came his way nine years later for Glengarry Glen Ross, his intricate play about real-estate salesmen.)

American Buffalo, his sixth play, represented both a departure and a turning point. For the first time he was writing dense, continuous action, rather than short, jabbing, sketch-like scenes. The effect was a dramatic concentration of intensity and focus. Mamet has called the play “a tragedy about life in the family” and it would be wrong in that context to discount the traumatic influence of his parents’ divorce when he was 11. Bobby, though an adult, behaves essentially like a vulnerable child, torn between, and damaged by, two proxy care-givers, Donny and Teach. The climate of fear in Mamet’s childhood home described in his story “The Rake” has simply been decanted into the play’s junk-shop setting.

Another “Donny” turns up in The Cryptogram, written in the late 1970s but not staged until 1994. Like American Buffalo, it is a three-hander featuring two negligent adults and a helpless child (a real child this time). Set in Chicago in 1959, the year after Mamet’s own parents broke up, this short, compacted play revolves around a child’s discovery of his parents’ separation while in the care of his mother, Donny, and her gay male friend. Both Donnys are guilty of betraying the boy they should be protecting.

Neither play will fall out of fashion as long as human beings are still making families and using them as crucibles of sophisticated torture. American Buffalo in particular has had no difficulty attracting high-voltage performers. I last saw it in a coiled, sweaty production at the Donmar Warehouse in
London in 2000: a rodent-like Macy had ascended the cast list to play Teach; Philip Baker Hall, as Donny, lugged the weight of the world in the bags beneath his eyes. Macy’s illustrious predecessors include Robert Duvall (1977), Al Pacino (1981 and 1983) and Dustin Hoffman (in the 1996 film version adapted by Mamet). The latest incarnation of Teach, in the new London revival, will be by Damian Lewis; Tom Sturridge is Bobby, with John Goodman the lone American in this British Buffalo.

The world into which the new production emerges has changed in ways that lend specific nuances to the text: we are post-Madoff, post-economic crisis. But it is also the first time the play has been mounted here since that other great rupture of 2008, when Mamet came out as a Republican in the pages of the Village Voice. His essay, a “Dear John” letter to the left, was titled “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’”. His epiphany had led him to realise that America wasn’t so bad after all (“we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be”). Business wasn’t, as he had always supposed, uniformly exploitative; governments were not corrupt across the board. He set about demolishing his old beliefs like a buffalo in a china shop. A born-again buffalo.

The article turned out to be a taster for a book, The Secret Knowledge: on the Dismantling of American Culture, in which Mamet declared that affirmative action was “as injust as chattel slavery” and that “the Israelis would like to live in peace within their borders; the Arabs would like to kill them all”. Callous this may have been, but it would be wrong to argue that Mamet’s turnaround came out of the blue. Perhaps the strangest thing is that more people didn’t see it coming. In Oleanna (1992), he was widely accused of a bias against the student Carol, with her erroneous rape accusation and her book-banning fervour. But there had been signs even earlier that Mamet’s political affiliations were not as pure as the left might hope. Though it is comforting for liberals to read American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross as straightforward warnings about the feeding frenzy of capitalism, they are ambivalent at best, as any work must be when drawing its energy from characters and philosophies it affects to criticise.

In Mamet’s essay “Decadence”, included in Writing in Restaurants (1986), there is a harshness of tone that goes beyond the tough-nosed and into the sneeringly judgemental. Diagnosing a tendency towards issue-led drama in 1980s theatre, he decides sweepingly that such work “cannot stand on its merits as a work of personal creation . . . I cite ‘performance art’, ‘women’s writing’ . . .” “Ungenerous” would be the most generous way to describe this rhetoric.

At least when he progresses to objections about plays concerning deafness or homosexuality (which he makes bizarrely synonymous with one another), we can see through the vagueness and presume he is railing against recent successes of that era: Children of a Lesser God, Torch Song Trilogy, The Normal Heart. “These events, illness, homosexuality . . . equally befall the Good and the Bad individual . . . Rather than uniting the audience in a universal experience, they are invidious. They split the audience into two camps: those who like the play and those who hate homosexuals (deaf people, old people, paraplegics, etc).” It isn’t much of a leap from here to the president in Mamet’s Oval Office farce November (2008). Inundated with competing appeals from lesbians, Native Americans and the National Association of Turkey and Turkey Products Manufacturers, he regards each one as an equal annoyance. The audience is encouraged to do likewise.

Looking back on Mamet’s career through the filter of his 2008 statement, the key line in his 1982 play, Edmond – “Every fear hides a wish” – starts to resemble a confessional, a clue dropped accidentally on purpose by someone who wants to be found out. The idea surfaces again in Race, Mamet’s 2009 legal thriller, which conflates the concept of a “jury” with that of an “audience”. Here a client is compelled to confess, to write a list of all his wrongs; he may not be guilty of the crime with which he is charged (rape) but he harbours a compulsion to be uncovered and punished. With any unmasking comes an understanding. There can’t be many things more desirable for a child victimised unfairly by his parents, as Mamet was, than the prospect of being understood at last.

The very essence of Mamet’s “coming out” resembles one of those sudden reveals of which he is so fond. In Race, a white lawyer, Jack, discusses tactics with his black assistant, Susan:

Jack: We’re going to give the jury a gift.

Susan: A gift?

Jack: We’re going to give them a surprise. But it works only as a surprise . . . And if a word gets out of the surprise’s nature, the surprise will fail, and we will lose.

At the end of Act I of Oleanna, a conversation between John and Carol is interrupted by the discovery that John’s family is throwing a surprise party.

Carol: (Pause) They’re proud of you.

John: Well, there are those who would say it’s a form of aggression.

Carol: What is?

John: A surprise.

Mamet’s work has always hinged on the surprise, the sleight of hand. Conmen and double-crosses litter his films. The most electrifying scene in his screenplay for Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict turns on the appearance of a surprise witness (played by Mamet’s then wife, Lindsay Crouse). Nor it a small matter that Mamet directed the actor-magician Ricky Jay in the stage show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. But if the writer’s own “surprise party” for the world was the revelation of his right-wing en­thusiasms, it can only be undermined by the fact that they were there in plain sight all along.

It is impossible to say whether the falling-off in quality in late Mamet (as in November, which he credits with stirring in him his political awakening) corresponds with the renovation of his political identity. There have certainly been dents to his commercial clout in recent years. His 2012 play, The Anarchist, starring Debra Winger, closed prematurely after 40 performances and roughly the same number of slams. It would be wrong, however, to say that he has dropped from favour, even if the name Mamet conjures up a different face to younger audiences – that of his daughter Zosia, who is sublime as the skittish Shoshanna in the HBO series Girls. His latest play, China Doll, is likely to be a sell-out when it opens on Broadway in October, not least because the main character, a billionaire who buys his fiancée a plane, will be played by Al Pacino. “I wrote it for Al,” Mamet declared recently. “It is better than oral sex.” Talk about blowing your own trumpet.

The great revelation will be if American Buffalo looks markedly different in the light of our acquaintance with the 21st-century model of Mamet. Perhaps it will not be the work that has changed beyond recognition, but our dream of a genuinely savage playwright of the modern American left. Dreams, after all, are by their nature ephemeral. A gently scathing exchange in November between Charles, the president, and Archer Brown, his attorney, makes this abundantly clear:

Archer: What do you have?

Charles: A dream.

Archer: You know when people have dreams, Chuck? When they’re sleeping.

“American Buffalo” is at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London WC2, until 27 June. More details: delfontmackintosh.co.uk