The American Theatre world was rocked last year by playwright David Mamet’s confession in the “Village Voice” headlined: “Why I am no longer a ‘brain-dead liberal“.
Some of us saw it coming.
You need only recall Mamet’s 1992 masterpiece “Oleanna” to see that he was already feeling deeply affected by the left’s intolerant and stifling political correctness and the witch-hunt mentality of sexual harassment manifested by the insidious “hostile environment” charge. You remember 1992… the “Year of the Woman”? The fall-out of the Clarence Thomas hearings? At the time, NY Times critic Frank Rich (yes, before he was telling us how to run our country, he was merely telling us what plays to see) said at the time:
Oleanna … is an impassioned response to the Thomas hearings. As if ripped right from the typewriter, it could not be more direct in its technique or more incendiary in its ambitions. In Act I, Mr. Mamet locks one man and one woman in an office where, depending on one’s point of view, an act of sexual harassment does or does not occur. In Act II, the antagonists, a middle-aged university professor and an undergraduate student, return to the scene of the alleged crime to try to settle their case without benefit of counsel, surrogates or, at times, common sense.
The result? During the pause for breath that separates the two scenes of Mr. Mamet’s no-holds-barred second act, the audience seemed to be squirming and hyperventilating en masse, so nervous was the laughter and the low rumble of chatter that wafted through the house. The ensuing denouement, which raised the drama’s stakes still higher, does nothing to alter the impression that “Oleanna” is likely to provoke more arguments than any play this year.
Remember that this is Frank Rich describing the reaction of a liberal, New York audience. In the same way that main-stream conservative voices are described in the media as “controversial”, Mr. Rich takes the opportunity to assure the reader that Oleanna would “provoke more arguments than any play this year” as a way of communicating that this play does not take the standard, liberal POV on this issue. If it did, than where is the argument? Conventional wisdom at the time suggested that Oleanna was written in a deliberately even-handed way so as to elicit reactions from the audience member that reflected the original perspective they brought into the theatre that night. In so doing, Mamet was revealing the essence of the sexual harassment debate at that time: You can never understand what it’s like to be in the other gender’s place in these situations, therefore, it’s best to just play it straight at work and avoid any potential problems.
Of course, the “hidden” theme the playwright conveys is as obvious as the title. What is “Oleanna” anyway? It refers to a Norwegian folk song mocking the idea of a Utopian America. Who, in our society, invokes the desire for a Utopian world where any sexual tension between men and women is removed from the workplace lest it create a “hostile work environment”? Why liberals, of course… with Frank Rich leading the charge! In the play’s title, Mamet is ridiculing the desire for a sexual-free work zone and projects the results of the sexual harassment witch-hunt mentality of 1992 in his masterpiece of social commentary.
For me, I started to sense Mr. Mamet had at least sympathy for a more traditional world view when I saw his much-unappreciated 1989 film, “We’re No Angels”. The story about two escaped convicts (Robert De Niro and Sean Penn) posing as priests in a Canadian-border church and their ongoing attempts to cross the border into freedom showed a sympathy and reverence for traditional religious and, yes even FAMILY values that one did not expect from the hard-edged Chicago playwright.
But, when Mr. Mamet’s now infamous op-ed was published in The Voice this past March, the band-width on many mid-town Manhattan offices were taxed with all of the forwarded and linked e-mails tagged with the standard “Traitor”, “Idiot”, “Facist” and “Neo-Con” epithets. At the time of his “coming out” two grand revivals of Mamet’s most celebrated plays were already cast, financed and preparing for their Broadway runs: The already shuttered “American Buffalo” and the as-of-now still running “Speed-the-Plow”. Both plays had already been heralded as landmark literary works and both had already received star-studded revivals in the past, so it would have been shocking for either to receive less than enthusiastic reviews, at least for Mamet’s contributions. And although “Buffalo” did get killed by the critics over the casting choices and the slow-paced direction, Mamet was left unscathed.
So, does this mean the elite of the theatre critic fraternity have turned a blind eye to Mamet’s apostasy? Not likely.
The real test will be when Mamet offers a new work for public consumption.
Will it be viewed through a new spectrum? Will critics recognize Mamet’s un-deniable brilliance? Or, will a hidden meaning be searched for in every scene and in every rapid-fire dialogue sequence?
I have an even more relevant question: Will the leftist producers and financiers of Broadway plays even option or attempt to raise money for Mamet’s plays now that he has famously referred to these same producers and money-men as “brain-dead”? Understand this: Investing in and producing a straight play on Broadway is the same as donating money to a charity. You don’t plan on seeing the money again and you get a nice tax write-off while you get to feel good about yourself and brag to your friends about how you spent your money. The odds are so great that you will never see your “investment” again, that the State of New York REQUIRES investors to sign a legal document certifying that they understand they will probably never see their money again. It’s more paperwork than buying a time-share in Orlando… and it’s not as good a deal.
It will be interesting to see. At least I know this for sure: If Mamet’s future plays are not met with backing or received well critically and he perceives that the reason is his article in The Voice, his public response to that situation will be the most entertaining action on Broadway in a long, long time. I only hope he doesn’t censor himself and he uses all seven of George Carlin’s forbidden words. (There’s a reason why theatre folk refer to Mamet’s most famous play as “GlenF’INGgarry, Glen F’ING Ross”)
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