May 23, 2011

Mamet v. Brecht: The Wrong Fight

Though he's a bit shrill about it, Eric Alterman has done due diligence in taking apart the politics part of Andrew Ferguson's fawning piece about David Mamet's "conversion" to the right (which is news to precisely no one who's been paying attention since at least Oleanna). Which leaves it to me to elaborate on a few theater-related lacunae, which pretty much cluster in this paragraph about Mamet's new book of essays on American politics:
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.
Durang is the giveaway here. Though I don't agree that "agitprop" fairly describes Kushner's or Deavere Smith's intentions or results, at least I know what Ferguson is talking about. The inclusion of Durang stinks of some lazy Google research, which I imagine thus: "Damn, I need a third name to round out the list...What about that guy with the play about how Catholicism sucks--what has he done lately? Here we go, Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them. Bingo!"

We go on:
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.
Yeah, all right—Brecht is a fat target on the hypocrisy front, but is this news to anyone? And does this render his plays bupkus? But there's worse to come:
“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."
Lost me there, Dave-O. Not only would I never measure Brecht's life by his plays, or vice versa, can you, of all dramatists, honestly not see that it's possible for someone to be both a sincere true believer and to be compromised in one way or another? Indeed, all true believers are hypocrites to one degree or another. Except, of course, for that sellout Brecht, lighting his cigars with his millions while he kicked back in his East Berlin palazzo.

The more I think about it, the more this feels like a bit of sleight of hand. Is Brecht really a relevant "father" for Mamet? Why not tackle two influences closer to home, like, say, Arthur Miller or Harold Pinter? Mamet owes each a huge debt as a dramatist, and both were men of the left. Not card-carrying Communists who eagerly submitted to living in a Soviet client state, mind you, just garden-variety lefties (with Pinter, by the end, representing a particularly thistly variety) who, while critical of Western democracies and capitalism, lived reasonably happy and productive lives within them.

Why, I wonder, wouldn't Mamet apply his newfangled rightwingery on two forebears so much closer to him aesthetically than the German epic poet? I can't say for sure, but I can venture a guess. One of the more honest and clarifying moments in Ferguson's piece comes late in the piece (if you can get through it). After sketching a flippant series of straw-men arguments against the liberals he allegedly knows, whom Mamet finally damningly convicts of the crime of thinking like a "herd," and by contrast portraying his own political journey—no joke—as a Whitaker Chambers-esque story of individualist, free-thinking courage, Mamet's breezy new book leaves even his admiring reporter momentarily in the dust:
The prose moves very fast, and some of the arguments seem to be missing a few essential steps; premises rocket to conclusions on the strength of sheer outrage. The conversion is complete: This is not a book by the same man who told Charlie Rose he didn’t want to impose his political views on anybody. At some moments—as when he blithely announces that the earth is cooling not warming, QED—you wonder whether maybe he isn’t in danger of exchanging one herd for another. He told me he doesn’t read political blogs or magazines. “I drive around and listen to the talk show guys,” he said. “Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved.”
Aw, fuck, I give up. A cranky conservative, a so-called "tragic" conservative—I could imagine and even distantly admire Mamet in those terms, as a sort of Beckett-y Archie Bunker. The real scandal here is that David Mamet has become a movement conservative. And for true-blue movement conservatism, the "left" means Communist/collectivist/totalitarian—hence the straw-burning of a Brecht not even John Fuegi would recognize rather than a reckoning with Miller or Pinter, two Western liberals who lived and worked squarely within the Western democratic tradition (and in Miller's case, in as irreducibly and proudly an American milieu as any preening patriot). But these are writers with whom a conservative would have to constructively engage, and perhaps concede that a spectrum of respectable right and left ideas coexist under Anglo-American late capitalism, rather than simply dismiss out of hand or tar as pandering cynics. And this, I suspect, is a parricide even this wayward son can't enact on his progenitors Pinter and Miller; better to pass over their legacies in silence.

The Secret Knowledge just arrived at my office today, from the Penguin imprint Sentinel, which also brought the world Mike Huckabee's Do the Right Thing, A Patriot's History of the United States by Larry Schweikart (my high school history teacher, I swear to God) and Michael Allen, and The Persecution of Sarah Palin by Matthew Continetti. I will withhold further judgment till I read it (and American Theatre may review it), but I confess I checked the index first: Brecht, check. Miller and Pinter, no dice.

P.S. I guess it's relevant, and only fair, to point you to Mamet's terse but heartfelt eulogy for Miller.

Update: Hunka adds some salient thoughts.


Jeremy M. Barker said...

I don't disagree with anything you say, but I'm curious why anyone would expect anything more from Mamet. I can't think of any point in his career as a writer when he demonstrated a great deal of subtlety as a thinker. That's just not his bailiwick.

Icannot said...

Jeremy has it right. Mamet's whole career is based on one trick. He is not known for deep characters, strong narrative, psychological or social insight. He uses "fuck", "cunt", and "nigger" and he has made that into a career. Notice that while he criticizes others for hypocrisy, he never uses the slur "kike".

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

@Icannot: I think you're painting with too broad a brush. Mamet has shown himself capable of doing all those things you mention in re: characterization, plotting, insight, etc. He has written, after all, some of American theater's major works. He just hasn't done anything particularly great for a while, and it may or may not be related to political drift.

And the swearing/racial slur canard is way over-used against him. Yeah, some of his characters swear a lot (though not as much as people think). His dialogue is stylized, but not always in the same way. On a language level, he's still an interesting playwright (to an extent). And to correct you, you need to look at his work more closely; the "k" word has most definitely appeared.

The point of my criticism here is to take apart something he's written lately, not everything he's ever written.