Converting Mamet: My Views Included, Too

David Mamet is one of my favorite writers, in any form, and one of the three or four greatest American playwrights. I own several collections of essays by Mamet and already have The Secret Knowledge on my wish list. Glengarry Glen Ross stands alongside Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams' early works (Plays 1937-1955) as reflections of our aspirations and our failings. If I could sit down and chat with any living writer about the craft, it would be Mamet. And he'd probably say something along the lines of: Tell a good story.

That's why I like Mamet. He tells a good story, without pretense of "art" or blatant appeals to the "MFA elites" of the two coasts. Mamet's characters speak to the audience — and the audience is everyone. The characters speak in harsh, incomplete sentences peppered with profanity. His plays are a mix of passion, anger, and, sometimes, despair. Yet, they are also far enough from "reality" to offer a break from the daily routine. Mamet doesn't aim for realism, he aims to be interesting.

And therein lies the problem for the academics, the "Coast" liberal elites, and the chattering class. Mamet doesn't write for them, even when they read into his works their beliefs. The elite don't like the United States, at least not what they perceive as the ignorant, bigoted, superstitious (religious), sweaty, disgusting masses that keep us from achieving Utopia. Damn those rednecks, grease monkeys, ditch diggers, cowboys, and other morons too dumb to know what's good for them.

Now, David Mamet is coming down on the side of those middle-America workers. He's speaking out, too, about his transformation from politically correct artist to… whatever David Mamet is now. Whatever that is, it isn't a liberal elite anymore. He discussed this transformation, which is explored in The Secret Knowledge, with The Weekly Standard.
Converting Mamet
A playwright’s progress

MAY 23, 2011, VOL. 16, NO. 34
BY ANDREW FERGUSON, The Weekly Standard
It's safe to say most Broadway celebrities, from the stars on stage to the playwrights behind the words (the "book" writers and the librettists), few names would want to be profiled by The Weekly Standard. I'm guessing there are far fewer "non-liberals" behind the boards than in Hollywood. One playwright I know has said, "The more obvious the progressive themes, the more likely you are to win an award. Subtlety won't win awards."

The "conservative" approach to writing is to be as progressive, as far to the "left" as possible. Democratic socialism sells. Be "European" and Utopian. That is the "sure bet" when you want someone to read a script. Only the truly daring writer would attempt to push any story deemed to reflect even the slightest libertarian or (gasp!) conservative values.

Yes, daring is now anything suggesting those silly traditional American notions of individualism, capitalism, and personal responsibility. Any real artist knows life isn't fair and competition is evil. (Obviously no one competes for those little award statues. Right? And no one competes to fill the seats in a theatre, either.)

America the evil. Capitalism the inhume. Religion, outside the New Age and Indigenous Faiths, is ignorant superstition. Corporations are managed by Satan's minions.

What happened when David Mamet decided to challenge the orthodoxy of the arts? He apparently decided there's no better place to challenge the "America Sucks!" attitude than at a major private (and therefore privileged) university. It must have been those American evils that produced a place like Stanford, after all. Mamet entered these hallowed halls of learning to share The Secret Knowledge of life:
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.


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?”
I'm sure there were numerous victims in the audience. After all, the lecture halls of Stanford are filled with victims of American capitalism and traditional values. The university was built by a railroad baron, a captain of industrial exploitation. I'm sure the students and faculty present would never accept the benefits offered to them by the estate of Leland Stanford.

The "unexamined wisdom" is what some professors call "critical thinking" —meaning the students now agree with progressive ideas, so they must be brilliant thinkers. Don't confuse the faculty member in his sandals and white socks with the idea that the university wouldn't exist without capitalism. Or that other great universities were founded to promote religion and traditional values. Don't be absurd! Real ideas are the domain of leftist radicals.

Though he rejects the beatification of victim, this isn't to suggest that Mamet glosses over the failings of power. He doesn't celebrate greed and pettiness, but he also understands the worst of human traits have nothing at all to do with political views or ideals. Humans are, in general, dominated by the worst scoundrels amongst us. That's history and that's our present. Humanity sucks, not America.
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.
Of course, critics and scholars have always tried to assign political views to Mamet — as they do most creative artists. But, as I admitted earlier, most playwrights and other artists are leftists. The problem is, they are public leftists, private capitalists. Playwrights, in particular, talk of their art as being a political act. Is it really? Or is the political a marketing tool?
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.”
I know it's hard to believe: artists engage in marketing. (Shhhh. Don't let the secret out.) Yes, we often write and create those works that will… sell. If I don't sell my works, I don't have income. If I don't have income, I can't treat myself to all those high-end products that good progressives love as status symbols. The irony of shopping for organic food, eating at over-priced "natural" restaurants, and driving hybrids that require batteries more toxic than Love Canal: spending more money than other people to prove you don't care about earning money? That's logical.

But, one does have to be part of the artistic, intellectual tribe to be successful. The contradictions are ignored, because they'd be painful to admit. Then again, Mamet seems to thrive on painful emotional situations.
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.
Glad I don't have this problem of Talking Left and Living Right. I admit I'm an entrepreneurial capitalist. I want to create things and ideas. I then want to sell my creations — for as much money as I can within the marketplace. And when I have money, I am going to do with it what I want. I'll probably give a fair amount to causes I support (how liberal of me!), but I want to determine which charities and why. I'm going to pick "winners and losers" — just like Stanford, Carnegie, and Getty did.

Why do I want control? Because government is run by people. Those same lousy Homo sapiens that run businesses or hide amongst the clergy. Mamet knows people are flawed, so why trust them any more in government than in some other organization? Mamet is from Chicago. I never understood Big Government Liberals™ from Chicago or New York City. Hello? Do you know your cities' histories? Well, Mamet does… and he knows government is all about power.
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.”
David Mamet is now a heretic. He's challenging the assumptions underlying most theatre since the mid-nineteenth century: theatre should promote Utopian socialism in its various forms. From "Workers' Theatre" in 1920 Germany to the "Teatreo de La Raza"in 1970 Los Angeles, theatre troupes have been home to idealistic leftists. At least until the street theatre stars become real stars with million dollar homes in Malibu.
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.


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