Photo by Ernesto Ruscio

I am not what I am

Will the real David Mamet please stand up?

Artillery Row

The American playwright, screenwriter and provocateur David Mamet has never been one to shy away from the combative or the shocking. His five-decade long career encompasses everything from plays about sexual harassment on campus (Oleanna) to drama about racially loaded crimes (Race), and, recently and notoriously, Bitter Wheat, a critically reviled account of a disgraced Harvey Weinstein-esque film mogul. Many noted that the play’s promotional taglines — “A new play starring John Malkovich in his return to the stage after 33 years, written and directed by David Mamet in a good mood… funnier than The Iceman Cometh — more chaos than Richard III, and without all the stupid, so called ‘poetry’” — were more enjoyable than anything on stage.

Undaunted, Mamet, whether in good or sullen mood, has returned with a revival of a 1977 play, The Woods, which returns to the theme of sexual politics that has preoccupied him throughout his career. His stock, in Britain anyway, has risen lately with the recent pandemic-era revival of Oleanna, directed by Lucy Bailey and starring the excellent Jonathan Slinger and Rosie Sheehy. The play, which was premiered in 1992, dealt with allegations of harassment made by a student towards her professor and attracted both praise and controversy for its even-handed approach to the complex power dynamics that affect the relationship between an older, influential man and a younger, ambitious woman. The Woods, which deals with a young couple’s eventful weekend sojourn in a lakeside cabin, was expressly written to explore the never-ending conflict between the sexes. As one critic noted, its subtext might have been, “why don’t men and women get along?”

Its easy to pigeonhole Mamet as a left-wing firebrand become grouchier with age

Mamet was recently interviewed by The Guardian’s theatre critic Arifa Akbar, and the piece was as full of hard-assed bon mots as one would hope for. He has, of course, shared his views on contemporary gender issues (“So people are walking around impossibly confused about what is a man, what is a woman, who can have babies, blah blah blah. This is a very unhealthy situation. Like most unhealthy situations, it presents itself as a solution but it’s not”) and reaffirmed his notorious support for Donald Trump, saying “he did a great job as a president…. if you put everything you see on these little screens aside and look at what happened during the Trump presidency. We told China to knock it off. We told NATO to start paying their fair share….”

It would be easy to pigeonhole Mamet as the latest in a long line of youthful left-wing firebrands who have become grouchier and more reactionary with age (John Osborne and Kingsley Amis come to mind). After the dire reaction to Bitter Wheat, it is possible that the now 74-year old Mamet’s career is going to plateau into a series of well-received revivals of his major plays and the odd, curiously regarded new work. He seemed to tacitly acknowledge this in his interview, saying, “Playwriting is a job for the young. It’s a huge expense of energy and exuberance. It’s a magnificent release to write these plays — and I got to not only write them but do them. If there’s no place to put on your play, you can’t learn to write a play, because you learn from the audience.”

Yet this is also a misreading of Mamet’s work. While he seems happy to wear the red baseball cap of neo-conservative provocateur-in-chief, it should also be remembered that he is one of the great games-players and disrupters of American theatre (and, even more so, cinema). If his theatrical work has mainly explored gender wars, then many of his films as writer and director have taken a poker player’s delight in exploring the psychology and drama of “the long con”. House of Games delves into the twisted relationship between an obsessive-compulsive psychiatrist and a charismatic conman (is there any other kind? Can there be any other kind?) and his film The Spanish Prisoner attracted attention for casting Mr “wild and crazy” himself, Steve Martin, against type in a complex role as a Machiavellian speculator who uses a mixture of charm and force to obtain his nefarious desires. The title (and premise) is drawn from a 19th century confidence trick in which a mark is prevailed upon to part with small sums of money in the expectation of a far greater reward later; it persists to this day, most notoriously in the endless Nigerian email scams that have both amused and tormented the unwary.

Sexist, bigot, fascist, racist, misogynist — all accusations levelled against Mamet

Mamet may not be an African conman, but he has a similar interest in upending expectation and in both challenging and provoking, entirely on his own terms. It may have seemed a surprising volte-face for this chronicler of American masculinity and gender to have directed a faithful film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy in 1999, with Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam and Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon in the lead roles, but it is easy to see what attracted him to the material. The famous extended scene at the end of the play’s first act, in which a young naval cadet’s supposed innocence in the theft of a postal order is ruthlessly torn to shreds by a dynamic barrister before being resolved in an unexpected way, is quintessentially Mametian in its observation of a shifting power dynamic with a jaw-dropper ending. For good measure, the film’s last lines, taken near verbatim from the play (“How little you know about women. Good-bye. I doubt that we shall meet again.” “Oh, do you really think so, Miss Winslow? How little you know about men”) perfectly summarise Mamet’s central fascination with the apparent incompatibility of the sexes.

Sexist, bigot, fascist, racist, misogynist — all are accusations that have been levelled against Mamet over the course of his career, with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy. It is doubtful that he cares. But this new persona that he has adopted, of paid-up Trump supporter and grouchy liberal-baiting hard man, may or may not be the “real” David Mamet, however convincingly he appears to present himself.

It is telling that, in his Guardian interview, Mamet is quoted as making a joke about Shakespeare, calling him “another Jew — his real name was Velvel Shaperstein, did you know that?” In context, it just seems like a rather odd piece of flippancy. But given Mamet’s deep knowledge and love of dramatic tradition (one of his plays is even called A Life In The Theatre), it seems inconceivable that he is not making a wider point about the endless misspellings of Shakespeare’s name, both during and after his lifetime. Mamet’s implication is surely that “the man from Stratford”, who we think we know so intimately from his work, is a quicksilver, mysterious figure who has defied biography. And so perhaps the Chicago-born Mamet is not simply indulging a journalist from a liberal newspaper, but is making his own, Shakespearean point: “I am not what I am”. The identity of the “real” David Mamet remains as tantalisingly ambiguous as it ever has. Long may it remain so.

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