David Mamet's Jewish Sensibility

One of America’s greatest living playwrights is also one of the more Jewishly compelling writers of our time, even if he gets left out of the bar-mitzvah anthologies.

David Mamet walks a red carpet at the Rome Film Festival on October 18, 2016. Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images.

David Mamet walks a red carpet at the Rome Film Festival on October 18, 2016. Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images.

Michael Weingrad
Observation
May 18 2022
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 

David Mamet turns seventy-five later this year. “Greatest living American playwright” is a phrase one frequently hears attached to his name. Yet despite his more than half a century of award-winning work for stage and screen, there is still no firm consensus about precisely how to define his manifold contributions to American art and letters. Some think of Mamet as the playwright of male swagger and f-bombs, others as a satirist of cutthroat American capitalism. Despite his acclaim as a dramatist, his work in film is more widely familiar, and of course more for his popular Hollywood fare than as arthouse auteur—e.g., as the author of the screenplay for The Untouchables rather than the writer-director of House of Games.

Mamet is also one of the few prominent American writers, certainly in theater, who is a self-identified conservative. He announced his turn to the right in a 2008 essay published in the Village Voice. That now defunct leftie warhorse gave his confession the nose-tweaking title “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’”

I would add that Mamet is one of the more Jewishly compelling American writers of our time, even if he gets left out of the bar-mitzvah anthologies. I would also claim that his work, for all its variety, coheres around a single philosophical quest—but I’ll get to these points in just a bit.

Last month Mamet came out with a new book. Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch is a collection of his political-cultural musings, most of which appeared over the last couple of years in the pages of National Review. They arise out of despair; “watching my beloved American democracy and culture dissolve,” Mamet says he does not know what to do except write toward some kind of clarity.

The essays reflect on the current American scene, meandering associatively through bits of Chicago wisdom, theater lore, obscure Americana, and nuggets drawn from Mamet’s ongoing study of Judaism. They are marked by a lip-smacking over language and its political and social significance, sometimes alarming, sometimes amusing:

Biblical Hebrew is a punchy language. It largely dispenses with pronouns, attaching them to the verb or noun; it also features the direct-object indicator—for example, “He sent ET the messenger up to the river” (ET being the indication that the direct object is coming up)—and so one might do well to pay attention.

In demotic Chicagoan that speech particle exists as “He sent the #$% messenger.”

Above all, Mamet holds forth sardonically on the illusions, dogma, and malice on view in America during the last few years, most of which, he believes, result from the depredations of the left. Again, connections, some unexpected, are made: “Chicago was a machine town and a Mob town, the two entities early practitioners of that thuggery known today as intersectionality.”

Recessional is the third of Mamet’s books of political prose, after The Wicked Son: Antisemitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews (2006) and The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture (2011), and the second since his public turn to the right. But this is not to say that Mamet’s writing had previously been politics-free.

For decades, his plays and films have meditated on human nature, on his country (America) and his people (the Jews). And this body of work is informed by a vision that has political import, in the philosophical if not narrow policy sense. Indeed, in his Village Voice farewell to elite respectability, Mamet described his conservatism as a growing realization that his personal political views (of the 1960s-formed, NPR-listening, American Jewish liberal sort) had long lagged far behind the truths about human beings he had explored to such acclaim in his plays.

I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

Mamet’s is a tragic vision. His writing shows his admiration for a classically American audacity and genius; he believes deeply in the need for traditional moral wisdom, above all that found in Judaism. But his dramas have long grappled with the reality that, given human nature, these things do not naturally prevail. To have a chance they require hard choices and brutal action, often undertaken with little certainty as to their ultimate effectiveness. Note the inversion, above, of the line of Anne Frank’s diary, made famous by Broadway’s Goodrich and Hackett: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

So does Recessional show that his politics have now caught up to his art? To answer this question we first need to consider the art, and the ideas it contains about the human condition.

 

To do this, I want to begin with a quotation, not from Mamet but another Chicago Jewish writer.

Saul Bellow concluded his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet with the famously plangent insistence that, even in the face of our moral cowardice and what seems in the novel to be the cultural unraveling of the West, we all still know, deep down, our obligations. Sammler, the novel’s protagonist, calls this “the terms of [our] contract.” In the desperate prayer of the novel’s haunting last lines, he says that these are the “terms which, in his inmost heart, every man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, we know, we know.”

Mr. Sammler’s Planet was published in 1970. That year the twenty-two-year-old Mamet, having just graduated from Goddard College, wrote Lakeboat, his first post-collegiate play. The play consists of fragmentary conversations among the crew of a Lake Michigan cargo carrier of the sort on which Mamet worked during summers off from college, which somehow form a poignant whole.

Bellow’s “we know, we know, we know” reverberates throughout Lakeboat. Yet Bellow’s anguished proclamation of moral knowledge is replaced by ambiguity and loss.

“How do you know that?” asks one of Lakeboat’s characters. A second responds: “I heard it. I don’t actually know it.” A third says of a fellow sailor: “He knew things. . . . He’d let on like he didn’t know, but he knew. I know when they know.” And here is one of the play’s scenes in its entirety:

Stan and Joe walk across the fantail.

Stan There are many things in this world, Joe, the true meaning of which we will never know. (Pause.) I knew a man was a Mason . . .

Joe Uh huh . . .

Stan You know what he told me?

Joe No.

Pause.

Stan Would you like to know?

Joe Yes.

As Stan starts to speak, they continue around the fantail and out of sight.

And that’s it.

Lakeboat, like much of Mamet’s work, is about not knowing. It is about how people, often men, get by in the world without any one of us being sure of the “terms of our contract.” Yet Mamet’s is not a nihilistic vision. Like Bellow, he is no relativist. The need to know those terms is urgent, their absence painful, the search for them ennobling.

In the moral and cultural space of not knowing, talk becomes vitally important: what we say, how we say it, who we say it to. Words, though, mean less in and of themselves than they function as a kind of sonar beamed out into a dark world.

For example, Mamet’s next play after Lakeboat, The Duck Variations, consists in its entirety of two men talking about ducks.

Neither one knows a thing about ducks.

Their colloquy is an instance of what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his Mametian little book On Bullshit emphasizes is the nature, not of bullshit but of its etymological cousin, the bull session: in which a group of men hazard their notions, their uncertainties, their complaints, their partial theories, all in a warily hopeful approach toward some kind of shared verity.

The Duck Variations is both side-splittingly funny and acutely melancholy. It inhabits a world in which tradition has been lost and the characters talk to each other to try to collect and interpret the remaining fragments. “I remember reading somewhere,” the men repeat. Their knowledge, their law, their scripture is mostly absent, dimly remembered. But through their talk, the men find fellowship.

Talk as a way of filling in the hollow of missing knowledge is further developed in American Buffalo, which won an Obie for its original 1975 staging and whose subsequent productions have been nominated for Tony awards. The plot, when reduced to its mere outlines, is hardly worthy of the name: three lowlifes in a pawn shop plan a heist that doesn’t happen and discuss a double-cross that doesn’t happen. That’s not to say that it’s Waiting for Godot with thugs, just as Lakeboat isn’t an attempt at blue-collar absurdism. Tensions build toward a climax, relationships are tested, characters’ souls are revealed—only what the characters do isn’t what makes the play compelling.

But their talk! Frenetic and desperate, their talk does not convey information, at least not in the conventional sense. It is performance, combat, and escape artistry. Especially in the case of the character Teach, who delivers some of the most syntactically demanding lines in American literature since Henry James, albeit in a more demotic register. (“Only, and I tell you this, Don. Only, and I’m not, I don’t think, casting anything on anyone: from the mouth of a Southern bulldyke asshole ingrate of a vicious nowhere c— can this trash come.”) A leathery Dustin Hoffman excels in the role in an underrated film version directed by Michael Corrente. The point of Teach’s orations is not to communicate but to hold attention, assert dominance, test loyalty.

Talk reaches its jazz-like apogee in Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet’s Pulitzer-winning play about a seedy group of real-estate salesmen scrambling to keep their jobs by unloading properties on the gullible. Top dog of the bunch is Roma, the magician so good that he shows you the secrets of his tricks—the wires, the fakes—as he is doing them. Roma’s sales pitch to the sucker James Lingk is an admission (delivered hypnotically by Al Pacino in a film version directed by James Foley) that he has nothing to sell and is doing nothing but selling. Roma has no values apart from his own will in the moment, but the audience can’t help but be drawn in by his verbal virtuosity. “You think you’re queer?” he says.

I’m going to tell you something: we’re all queer. You think that you’re a thief? So what? You get befuddled by a middle-class morality . . . ? Get shut of it. Shut it out. You cheated on your wife . . . ? You did it, live with it. (Pause.) You f— little girls, so be it. There’s an absolute morality? May be. And then what? If you think there is, then be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don’t think so. If you think that, act that way.

As Roma moves toward the sale he exposes the illusion of his own rhetoric. What he’s selling is not the properties in the brochures he finally produces, but his own talk. The properties are, like everything, he says, “An opportunity. To what? To make money? Perhaps. To lose money? Perhaps. To ‘indulge’ and to ‘learn’ about ourselves? Perhaps. So fing what? What isn’t? They’re an opportunity. That’s all. They’re an event.”

Truth in the world of Glengarry Glen Ross is only what serves a purpose in a particular context, rather than something independent, absolute. As one of the salesmen says: “If you’re going to make something up, be sure that it helps.” Some characters, such as Roma, can handle the absence of truth, of knowledge, of stable values, and use their talk to function in that world. Others, like the (yes) weak Lingk, have difficulty even getting the words out of their mouths. Yet even Lingk understands that, in a world of mere “events,” talk is the only means of binding men together. Fully aware that he has been scammed, Lingk nevertheless apologizes to Roma: “I know I’ve let you down,” he says. “Forgive me.”

And this brings us to the confidence game, a recurring feature in Mamet’s work, a dynamic in which talk and not-knowing powerfully, instructively intersect. Mamet’s confidence men—such as Joe Mantegna’s character in the film House of Games and Steve Martin’s in The Spanish Prisoner, both written and directed by Mamet—create illusions that bind con man and mark in a relationship of false trust. Danger in these films comes from mistaking the illusion for reality, falling into the void temporarily disguised by talk. As we will see, Mamet applies the lessons of the con game to multiple other subjects, from academia, to anti-Semitism, to politics.

 

My examples so far are replete with men, often behaving badly or at least using bad words. Yet we already see that Mamet is primarily concerned not with masculinity, but with moral knowledge. His goal isn’t to turn charlatans and conmen into heroes, but to expose the moral vacuum in which the Tony Romas of the world operate.

Especially in his early work, Mamet tends to explore his subject through groups of men and male pyrotechnics of speech. As another Chicago Jewish writer, Leon Kass, explores in his book on Genesis, men are in particular need of a tradition, the code of the fathers, the knowledge so many of Mamet’s characters yearn for and struggle without. The most withering moment in Glengarry Glen Ross is when Roma spits at a coworker: “Whoever told you you could work with men?”

Yet female characters are also central to Mamet’s oeuvre, which includes all-female plays as well as all-male ones. Even Mamet’s male-only plays are never about male-only worlds. The three men in American Buffalo form an ambiguous family in the absence of women, yet orbit throughout the play around the offstage figures of Ruthie and Grace. (Hersh Zeifman has nicely called the play “ruthless and graceless.”) Readers have pointed out that Glengarry Glen Ross contains a whole series of references to family, to the wives and children that the male characters are connected with. The office manager Williamson hopes to grab an hour with his children, while the veteran salesman Levene is frantic over the health of his daughter.

It is only the sharklike (and wholly unsympathetic) executive Blake—added by Mamet to the film version, in which, played by Alec Baldwin, he delivers the unforgettable “coffee is for closers” speech—who explicitly denigrates such relationships. “Good father?” Blake taunts the men who might be tempted to measure themselves in terms other than the bottom line of business. “F— you. Go home and play with your kids.”

More importantly, in Mamet’s work the relationship between the sexes does not shine much of a light on the themes that drive his work. Our culture may be obsessed with sex and gender, but Mamet takes them as givens, and not especially mysterious. Sex may confer what one of his characters calls a “momentary tactical advantage,” but it is not a deep source of moral knowledge.

This is why Mamet’s early play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which first brought him to critical attention, and is about the relationships between men and women in the singles scene of 1970s Chicago, seems in retrospect like a cul-de-sac. The play spawned two mediocre Hollywood movies, About Last Night in 1986 and its remake in 2014, neither of which was written by Mamet. It is a black comedy of the sexes that, had Mamet continued in the same vein, might have made him more broadly popular but less interesting. He seems to have considered the vein tapped out and has almost never returned to it.

By contrast, Mamet’s first film as both writer and director, the 1987 House of Games, and his award-winning play Speed-the-Plow, which premiered the year after, both pit male characters against female ones—yet neither is about the sexes, or sex, as such. House of Games gives us a male con artist and a female psychologist, and is driven by the latter’s desire for knowledge: to understand how people, especially herself, are manipulated. Speed-the-Plow is about advantage and exploitation—i.e., Hollywood. There is sex and betrayal, but it is a play about men and women only to the extent that in a world without absolute metrics of worth, truth, or virtue, sex becomes a handy means of wielding power.

The best-known instance of Mamet writing about knowledge in a form that seems to be about gender is Oleanna. The play, in which an unctuous male professor is accused of sexual harassment by a fanatical female student, caused a sensation when it was first staged in 1992, and has recently been revived in London. It is taken by most audiences to be a play about sexual politics on university campuses, Mamet’s almost prophetic anticipation of the MeToo moment. And it is.

But what is most incisive about the play is its portrayal of academia: the intellectual bankruptcy represented by the play’s professor, a self-regarding relativist and mediocrity like so many of his profession. John wants to draw a salary and enjoy status and perks, in exchange for performing his relativism for students—telling them that truth does not exist, even that education is just a charade, and therefore, if they are paying attention, they should learn that he has nothing to teach them.

Higher education, as Mamet sees perfectly, is a confidence game, just a very expensive and increasingly unsuccessful one. In Oleanna, the student, Carol, is a monster. Nevertheless, she has learned John’s lesson and quite reasonably calls his bluff. Like a rookie con man, John has become enamored with his own con yet can’t stay committed to it when pushed. It turns out, when his livelihood is at stake, he appeals to truth after all. Therefore he has been lying, to his students and to himself. Carol may embody the excesses of a certain kind of radical feminism in ways that are strikingly familiar three decades later. But it’s John who embodies the moral rot of our universities, and in the end reaps what he has sown. For all the importance of sexual politics to the play, its heart is the portrayal of a knowledge industry that does not believe in knowledge.

Sex and gender do not provide especially meaningful access to the knowledge sought by Mamet’s characters, but race can. Race, the title of a 2009 play that seems to be all third rail, is about two male trial lawyers, one black and one white, and their intern, a young black woman (played by Kerry Washington in the original Broadway run), who take on a case in which the client is a wealthy white man accused of raping his black girlfriend.

The play makes the point that being black provides a certain kind of knowledge, access to a truth that can’t be reduced to something else, or even conveyed in words to another. This epistemology is neither metaphysical nor biological, but a product of social and political circumstances in the United States at a given time. Presumably, it may fade into insignificance one day. But even if it does, the truth will remain that people are not interchangeable; they are rather formed by the circumstances of tribe and community, not only by their own individual experiences.

This particularistic knowledge becomes crucial when the two lawyers suddenly find that their professional reputation depends on their intern. She tells them: “This isn’t about sex, it’s about Race,” referring to the legal case within the play and also to the play itself. The white lawyer responds, “What’s the difference?” He thinks race and sex are fungible, that, for purposes of the trial (and of dealing with his coworkers), he can substitute one for the other, like misdirection in a con game. He is shown to be dead wrong. He thinks he is running the con but turns out to be the mark.

 

Mamet likes to use the unfashionable term “race” when speaking of the Jews. American Jews who join in the demonization of Israel are engaged in “race treason,” he writes in The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews. Mamet isn’t talking about biology here either. By “race” he means a group that claims its members’ loyalty out of a basic sense of dignity and an awareness of the nature of the world. Your race is the group that, by proclaiming your supposedly sophisticated distance from it, you show that you’re a sucker. Liberal discomfort with the term is, in poker lingo, a tell. Or, as Ira Nadel puts it in his 2008 survey of Mamet’s career, Mamet “opposes the idea of assimilation because it’s a con that never works.”

Mamet is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father was a scrappy labor lawyer and his mother a schoolteacher. The family was unhappy in its own way, as the saying goes, but whatever particular vantages Mamet’s upbringing offered on Chicago life and domestic rancor, it was in Jewish terms fairly typical of his generation and background. Yet Mamet has become a great dramatist of American Jewish ignorance, so cruelly incisive on this topic because he grew up in, yet wrested himself out of, the mindset of the American Jewish mainstream, with its liberal universalist fantasies, easy nostalgia, and meager historical awareness.

For instance, a neglected jewel of American Jewish literature is Mamet’s little-known play titled “The Disappearance of the Jews.” First performed in the early 1980s, the play is somewhat hidden by its inclusion in a less engaging triptych performed and published as The Old Neighborhood. “Disappearance” is the colloquy of old friends Bobby and Joey, two Jewish men in their 30s or 40s. Both men feel aimless, unfulfilled, unmanly, unloved. Joey, who is married to a non-Jewish woman, especially turns to a sentimentalized and nostalgic set of imagined Jewish settings—the Fiddler on the Roof of the American Jewish mind. “I’ll tell you where I would’ve loved it,” he says, “in the shtetl.”

That’s what I mean, Bobby, that’s where we should be, farming somewhere. . . . Building things, carrying things, . . . this shit is dilute, this is shveck this shit, I swear to God, the doctors, the teachers, everybody, in the law, the writers all the time geschraiying, all those assholes, how they’re lost . . . of course, they’re lost. They should be studying Talmud. . . . We should be able to come to them and to say, “What is the truth . . . ?” And they should tell us. What the Talmud says, what this one said, what Hillel said, and I, I should be working on a forge all day. They’d say, “There goes Reb Lewis, he’s the strongest man in Lodz.” I’d nod. “He once picked up an ox.” (Pause.) Or some f—ing thing. I don’t know if you can pick up an ox, Bob, but I tell you, I feel in my heart I was meant to work out in the winter all day. To be strong.

This slapdash pseudo-history, the projection of the two characters’ own hollowness and hunger for an absent moral knowledge or authenticity, generates the bleak comedy of the play. The generic not-knowing of Lakeboat here gives way to a specific—and wholly believable—kind of American Jewish ignorance, while pointing to what real knowledge might involve: community, tradition, and limits. A moment later their conversation turns:

Bobby You think they fooled around?

Joey Who? In the shtetl?

Bobby Yeah.

Joey The guys in the shtetl?

Bobby Yeah.

Joey I think it was too small.

From this American Jewish not-knowing Mamet also created the 1991 Kafkaesque thriller Homicide, one of the best that Mamet both wrote and directed. More than ever a film of our moment, Homicide engages the necessarily schizoid experience of Jews in America. Is this the promised land, or another Diaspora catastrophe waiting to happen? Is America different, a safe and welcoming haven for the Jews who can here discard outmoded and parochial loyalties, or is such a notion yet another con?

The protagonist, Joe Gold (played by the Mamet regular Joe Mantegna) is a big-city police detective who is about to break a big case—the apprehension of a violent drug-dealer wanted by the FBI—when he is pulled off to investigate the murder of an elderly Jewish storeowner in a high-crime ghetto.

Gold is at first furious at being taken off the case that matters to him in order to tend to “the Jews.” But he begins to question his own indifferent Jewish identity, especially after he gives voice to anti-Semitic comments overheard by the storeowner’s granddaughter. “Do you hate yourself that much?” she asks, her eyes burning holes through him. “Do you belong nowhere?”

And Gold starts to think that there may be much more behind the seemingly random murder of a corner store owner. He sees the anti-Semitic flyers in the black neighborhood, portraying Jews as plague rats. He hears the anti-Semitic slurs of the mayor’s advisor. In the back room of an innocent-looking model-train store he finds Nazi paraphernalia and white-supremacist propaganda. Is there some network connecting neo-Nazis with inner-city black anti-Semites? A conspiracy? Is America a home to the Jews or are we fooling ourselves?

The film gives due to the complexity of the American Jewish situation in that, on the one hand, anti-Semitism is a real threat, yet on the other integration and acceptance are also real. Different forms of anti-Jewish animus require different responses and levels of caution.

Yet Gold’s ignorance about things Jewish causes him to misinterpret his situation until he stumbles into tragedy. For instance, when he learns that the storeowner had participated in gunrunning to Jewish fighters in Palestine in the 1940s, he assumes something sinister is afoot, rather than an uncommon but by no means impossible facet of modern Jewish history. Typically, Gold does not speak or read Hebrew, which therefore assumes absurdly portentous significance whenever he runs into others who do. He comes across a Jewish militant group modeled on the Jewish Defense League, and onto which he projects the idealized opposite of his Jewish insecurities. In this American Jewish noir, Gold’s historical ignorance and shaky identity manufacture the greater part of the mystery.

Homicide succeeds not so much because Mamet employs specific knowledge of Judaism or Jewish history (even if there is more of this here than elsewhere in his oeuvre), but because he explores the terrible consequences of Jewish ignorance and deracination. At the same time, there is a hint of something ennobling. The estranged Gold feels the stirrings of Jewish loyalty, and ultimately is unable to turn away from his brethren. Toleration might not be a con, but the idea that Jews can set aside their identity and become like everyone else—in the eyes of others and, ultimately, in their own self-understanding—is the greatest con of all, one that American Jews have pulled on themselves.

In last year’s odd little Twilight Zone episode of a play, “The Christopher Boy’s Communion,” Mamet gave an even darker cast to the question of Jewish belonging America, imagining Gentile toleration not as a con but a literal devil’s pact. Yet his last (or perhaps latest) cinematic word on the Jewish place in America is a happy one—though still with plenty of bite. A wickedly funny comedy, State and Main (2000) is about a Hollywood movie production that descends like a locust swarm on its shooting location, a picture-postcard New England town. The film has its flaws—it is jarringly miscast, with superb but decidedly non-Jewish actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy) presented, confusingly, as Jewish characters—but gets better each time you see it.

State and Main’s Jews are obnoxious, assertive, and sometimes sleazy. Mamet has never been embarrassed by—is often delighted with—Jewish shysters, wheelers and dealers. (One of the great touches in Mamet’s screenplay for the 1981 Bob Rafelson-directed remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice is that the part of the lawyer Keats, played in the 1946 film by the Canadian WASP Hume Cronyn, is turned into Katz, played by the very Brooklyn Michael Lerner.) In State and Main, the characters of the Hollywood director Walt and the producer Marty especially revel in a kind of hard-hitting, in-your-face flaunting of ethnicity presented as cutthroat Hollywood business dealing, as when Marty bribes a local politician with a bag of money and a pointed “gut yontev.”

But State and Main matches Jewish grotesquerie with equally sordid behavior on the part of the Yankee yeomanry. The local councilman is a bigot, who calls Jews “vermin,” yet is happy to accept their bribes in order to advance his career. The townsfolk are as concerned with status and personal gain as anyone. In fact, the movie throughout is fascinated with the ways in which things that seem pristine and innocent—a small-town courthouse, the virtue of an underage waitress—are often fabrications. But that we also need these fabrications to get by in life.

This is the lesson learned by Joe, the film’s protagonist, an idealistic screenwriter. Joe’s mistake, whether dealing with the movie production, or the town, or himself, is that, as he says, he’s looking for “purity.” An answer to this is given at the end of the film when Joe beseeches the kindly town doctor, a character who seems to have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, for the secret to purity, for access to truth. “What is true?” he asks. “I mean, isn’t that the thing?” Doc turns out to be a secret tippler, and not much interested in truth and purity. Disappointed once again, Joe pleads: “Aren’t you supposed to set an example for people?” “Nope,” says Doc. “You’re supposed to hold their hands when they die.”

Mamet is telling us that human goodness isn’t about purity, it’s about extending kindness to those who need it, telling the truth when you can, and accepting the consequences when you don’t. The terms of our contract. That’s as much as we can ask, and it’s more than most people are capable of. This isn’t to say that American values of honesty and courage aren’t real, but that their reality doesn’t always look like Norman Rockwell paintings or Hollywood films.

Throughout, the film scrambles the hoary Hollywood tropes of Jew-versus-WASP, since everyone is willing to compromise their principles in some way, and that’s okay because it’s what human beings do. The fetching Ann (played by Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife) plays Joe’s moral tutor, a bookstore owner and the New England voice of conscience and principle. Which means that she uses her own stagecraft, her own deceptions, when necessary.

Tellingly, when Ann firms up Joe’s moral resolve in a showdown with the movie execs, she shows him a copy of the old town newspaper with its motto: “You shall not bear false witness.” This is of course from the Old Testament. In other words, the moral wisdom Joe finds in small-town Christian America is a Jewish moral wisdom. State and Main cocks an eye at easy oppositions, proposes we take our positive examples along with their inevitable flaws. The venality and superficiality of Hollywood is not Jewish but a general American and human penchant for greed and self-interest. In the final scene we see two locals from the town diner munching Passover matzah.

 

Mamet’s application to politics of the principles of the con game is best known from the 1997 film Wag the Dog, directed by Barry Levinson. The film focuses on a political consultant (Robert DeNiro) and Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman), brought in by a sitting American president embroiled in sexual scandal during an election year, who construct a narrative with which to distract the media. The screenplay was originally written by Hilary Henkin; Mamet was called in to rewrite it and gave it the title that has become our term for such political-media deception ever since, a month after the film was released, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke and shortly thereafter the United States bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, in a feeble gesture against al-Qaeda.

In this con, misdirection is essential, as is the contrivance of fake questions. (“There is no B-3 bomber,” says the political fixer in Wag the Dog, precisely in order to get the press to ask questions about the nonexistent bomber.) As are storylines that instruct the populace in their approved sympathies and enmities. The political fixers even manufacture a war in Albania, complete with carefully curated images of sympathetic refugees, all coordinated with the production of patriotic American country-music anthems to stir American passion for the cause.

The movie suggests that, long before Mamet’s public adoption of a conservative political label, he was pretty well red-pilled. (The term red-pilling was coined by the radical-right theorist Curtis Yarvin and is defined by its chief popularizer Michael Malice as “the belief that what is presented as fact by the corporate press is a carefully constructed narrative intentionally designed to keep some very unpleasant people in power.”) Mamet has written, in reference to one of his earliest plays, The Water Engine: “We Americans know the real news never reaches the newspapers. We know the interests it affects are too powerful to allow events which might disrupt the status quo to be truthfully reported in the press.” Of such not-knowing, he continues: “Our distrust of institutions is great and well founded. We’re always ready to believe the worst of them because we know we’ll never know the worst.”

Mamet’s 2008 turn to the right was therefore out of sync with the political knowledge of his own best work. Mamet sought to leave a liberalism that he no longer respected. Yet he decamped to a George W. Bush-era establishment Republican politics that was less skeptical and more vocally high-minded than Mamet’s plays and films.

The immediate visible product of Mamet’s shift was his 2011 book The Secret Knowledge, a baggy manifesto of his new political stance. Distrust of institutions tended to give way to trust in the GOP. His vision had little substance, and less originality, substituting Republican boilerplate for any sort of larger vision.

But this ideological hollowness isn’t the only problem. Mamet is never as engaging in his books of prose as he is in dramatic forms. His novels and stories tend to be static, often relying on intentionally mannered styles—homage to older works—and can come across as murky and undescriptive apart from moments in which a character says something we can imagine being spoken on stage. It is as if Mamet requires the compression, the urgency and gesture afforded by drama and film, to give flesh to his genius, which otherwise hovers ghostlike over the pages of his novels and much of his political prose.

Case in point, the year after The Secret Knowledge was published, a new Mamet play, The Anarchist, opened on Broadway. Marred only by a too-neat ending, this is a riveting, subtle work, a verbal duel between a former 1960s new-left terrorist and the parole-review officer who will decide if she (both characters are women) merits parole. Cathy, the prisoner (loosely based on the recently deceased convicted Weather Underground terrorist Kathy Boudin, later a professor at Columbia and NYU), claims to have undergone a religious conversion to Christianity and embraced pacifism. Ann, the parole reviewer, questions whether Cathy’s newfound religious faith isn’t just another version of the moral narcissism, the epistemological certainty, that she practiced so murderously with her revolutionary group. Cathy’s response is to pose the question of how the state can be the moral arbiter of justice, and how the law can know the inward parts of the human soul. There are more than a few hints of Christian-Jewish debates here, Pauline letters and spirits. But my point is that the play vastly more compelling as an exploration of justice, law, and revolution than the previous year’s political book.

Mamet continues to be an odd fit with the establishment conservatism emblematized by National Review. For one thing, Mamet is an admirer of Donald Trump. Recognizing a character from one of his own plays, how could he not be? “Part of the left’s outrage at Trump,” he writes in Recessional, “was his refusal to speak in hieratic language. He’s spent his life buying and selling politicians, negotiating with construction unions, bureaucrats, and The Boys. He speaks American, and those of us who also love the language are awed and delighted to hear it from an elected official.” In another of the book’s essays he connects Trump with the right-wing Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, both figures who make Jewish liberals uncomfortable and therefore resentful.

For another thing, Mamet perhaps unwittingly gets at a current fight for the soul of the American right between an old guard and a new one. The Catholic writer Sohrab Ahmari, a leading figure of the latter camp, distilled this conflict when he dubbed the older dispensation “David Frenchism,” after a conservative evangelical lawyer, pundit, and Trump critic. To Ahmari and his allies, David Frenchism is characterized by appeals to procedure, civic and constitutional norms, and politeness that have long passed their sell-by date, if they ever applied at all—and is a recipe for defeat. Mamet echoes Ahmari’s position early on in Recessional, where he writes: “We know that the side which sets the rules will not eventually win, but, on their assertions’ acceptance, has in fact just won the contest.”

And part of Mamet’s mismatch with official conservatism has to do with the right’s typical haplessness regarding culture. It is to National Review’s credit that they give pages to Mamet. In August 2018, Mamet appeared on the Ben Shapiro Show to be interviewed by the popular conservative pundit. As Shapiro is a Jewish conservative and a key player in new efforts to generate a conservative-friendly entertainment industry, one expected a fruitful discussion. It quickly became apparent, though, that Shapiro was unfamiliar with any of Mamet’s work apart from The Untouchables. He had evidently never seen or read one of his plays, and so had no framework for a conversation other than to bemoan the marginalization of conservatives in Hollywood. Mamet quickly discerned the awkward situation and, with good humor, switched easily into pleasant raconteur mode.

It may be unfair to expect Shapiro to familiarize himself with his interviewee’s work on what was probably very short notice. But it was a missed opportunity, except as another example of how indifferent the right tends to be when it comes to the arts beyond middlebrow entertainment.

That being said, Recessional itself isn’t particularly out of step with the pre-2016 Republican mainstream. Mamet spends much time pointing out the hypocrisies of the left. We are told, for instance, that Colin Kaepernick is a hypocrite for hating America while enriching himself from it, that “social justice” is a Stalinoid scam, that Saturday Night Live will employ hateful racist tropes against black conservatives. These are all true but, in order to be worthwhile, this kind of earnest debunking requires an awful lot of bunk to be in place beforehand. And when Mamet’s tone suggests he has just drawn on his cigar and is about to exhale and utter another iconoclasm, you can feel you’ve been unfortunately buttonholed at a party.

Again, Mamet on stage and screen is something else entirely, where his works aren’t just lively and gripping, but reveal the truths about human nature, and human society, that underlie so much conservative thought. Something similar can be said about the role of Jews and Judaism in Mamet’s work. Entertaining though his musings on biblical Hebrew syntax can be, and despite his assiduous study of Judaism in his later life, his prose writings on Jewish topics achieve insight, but rarely profundity. Not so in the case of his dramatic work on such themes, as I hope I’ve already shown.

Again, much of this achievement is about the talk. Philip Roth once quipped that a book qualifies as Jewish if it doesn’t shut up. Mamet’s rich dialogue belongs to a modern Jewish literary tradition that does indeed do a lot of talking. But Mamet belongs as well to a contrary tradition, summed up in the words of Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel, “I have lived my whole life among sages and have found nothing better for a person than silence.” From this perspective, the highest forms of knowledge are those that people can talk around, but never convey in speech alone.

And that brings me to my favorite of Mamet’s movies to date, the 2008 Redbelt. The film is about a martial-arts instructor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) trying to hold to a code of honor in a world of broken traditions and rigged competitions. It builds towards the expected conclusion of the sports genre, a confrontation in the ring between two fighters to see whose values will prevail, a la Rocky. But this does not exactly happen. One of the film’s lessons is that the outcome of what is presented as a fair contest has usually been determined beforehand.

Redbelt is, to return to my first theme, a film about knowledge. It is about an honest man’s discovery of the power and ubiquity of con men and hucksters, and of what it takes to defend his honor in the world they dominate. But it is also about teachers transmitting knowledge to students, about people imparting and living by codes of behavior, about communities that are formed through those codes—and how tenuous all of these structures are. Redbelt ends movingly, jarringly with a scene in which one such student is embraced by his teacher, an acknowledgement that the former has achieved a knowledge beyond rules, beyond the instruction the teacher has to offer. The scene is wordless.

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More about: Arts & Culture, David Mamet, Plays, Theater