Monday, March 6, 2017

Mamet's Conversion [Part II]






Theatre (and by extension, cinema) is perhaps the best example of a cooperative, collaborative artistic medium. Writers may collaborate, artists may collaborate with writers (or vice versa), musicians may (as with jazz) improvise (becoming, in effect, the composers of new extemporaneous works), architects may share billing with builder/craftspersons, landscape designers and interior designers. But in the theatre, the playwright is separated by at least two removes from the actual realization of his vision. There's the text, the director, the producers, and the actors, each of whom has a say in how it turns out; and each can alter, to a greater or lesser extent, the outcome of the playwright's original work. In this sense, any playwright might be said to be dependent upon the skills and abilities of those who actually realize a dramatic work. 

Mamet's many successes in the legitimate theatre and in cinema entitle him to speak with some authority as a critic of dramatic art. Great writers of fiction or poetry or drama may or may not qualify as useful or valid critics of their own metier. We usually need to qualify any artist's opinions about their art, by remembering that powerful imagination and creativity may not necessarily be accompanied by a clear rational objective sense. Most artists tend to value what they themselves do best. Occasionally, an artist or writer will admit to admiration for another's work, even to envy. Mamet praises Anton Chekhov, though with the caveat that Chekhov's work is politically tame, blandly "universal" in its meaning(s).

So if Mamet denigrates the "interference" of producers, directors and actors in the artistic process of theatre or cinema, it's understandable that this could be seen as the overblown vanity of pride, of a belief in the sufficient perfection of his own work or vision. Any artist may "earn" the right to make their own case, but we are under no obligation to accept such partisan verdicts, especially when applied to widely different kinds of products. As a screenwriter whose credits include The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Untouchables, House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hoffa, The Edge, and Hannibal--we'd grant him the authority to make sweeping statements about such tropes as violence and venality in dramatic works. 

But would we be willing to accept Mamet as an authority on comedy, or affairs of the heart, or historical dramas, or science fiction, or epics? What is the connection between Mamet's personal proclivities as a writer, and his political points of view? 

Some playwrights to have a certain view of humanity, and to be a laborer on two fronts, the way George Bernard Shaw was, as an active socialist part of the time, and a very good playwright the rest of the time. Portraying human beings interacting on a stage, or on a screen, is a perfect vehicle to demonstrate certain principles in action. 

And indeed, Mamet has come more and more to believe in a certain view of human life and value, one which he calls "the Tragic View." The tragic view holds that humanity is--in Mamet's words--"greedy, lustful, envious, slothful, duplicitous, corrupt and inspired" and that "this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama." 

Mamet sees liberal politicians, and those on the Left as suffering from the delusion that human imperfectability can be corrected, and the imbalance between right and wrong made even, through government intervention. He sees the highest good American democracy has achieved as the balance of powers, set against one another, thus self-restraining.  

An argument could be made--and it is a classic (some might say tired) one--that having achieved personal artistic success, accompanied by personal wealth, Mamet now can "afford" to assume the usual privilege of economic success, and glory in his own good fortune by believing that his prosperity is a kind of credential in an imperfect world; that his success is not only proof of his own moral superiority, but that his dramatic actions have been successful precisely because they present life in the terms he sets up. 

Mamet himself might suggest that his own "greed, lust, envy, corrupt and inspired" are no more admirable, or exceptional, than any other artist or citizen. And he'd be right, with the possible caveat that he's just a bit more corrupt and inspired than most people. 

If the point of drama, as Mamet defines it, is to portray human error in conflict with itself, then we might respond that the early work of Clifford Odets, such as Waiting For Lefty [1935], or Awake and Sing! [1935] is as apt a vehicle, in this sense, as any of Mamet's works. Odets came of age in the Depression years, when the reaction to the excesses of unbridled capitalist speculation and exploitation was at its height. The "tragic view" of human life would be no less pertinent then, than it would be for Mamet, growing up in the post-war years of relative prosperity. The tragic view of life does not imply that people should not have flaws, but that their struggle may not result in a preferred outcome. Since Odets was, in his day, as successful and admired as Mamet is in our time, would it be disingenuous to argue that Odets' politics was somehow as irrelevant or extraneous to the fact of aesthetic achievement, as Mamet's politics is?

For Mamet, the best outcome is measured by the success of the performance. The struggle in the hard knocks arena of public entertainment is no less frustrating, or tragic, than the struggles that occur in politics, or life in general. 

As an American Jew, Mamet sees the struggle for Israel's continued existence as a dialectic between those who support the Jewish State, and those who oppose it--or who may hold a contrarian view that includes the Palestinian opposition's interest. Because for Mamet, the predominant contemporary liberal view of the Mideast Crisis--that Israel must in the end learn to compromise with its neighboring Arab States--is consistent with a false promise of the perfectibility of humankind, that people with legendary differences can learn to get along with one another. 

But the tragic view of Israel is built on generations, nay millennia of experience, that Jews cannot trust those whose interests oppose theirs, and that if history teaches anything, it's that they will be betrayed and persecuted just because they exist. If Israel's identity is indeed existential, then any Jew may come to believe its best chance for survival is through domination. Further, that any attempt to temper that dominance with compromise or concession is bound to lead to the ultimate capitulation. And that any betrayal of that domination may be identified with weakness, self-destruction, and threat. 

As an American Jew, Mamet's politics is heavily influenced by the "tragic view" of Israel's continued existence. Though Jewish American political sentiment has traditionally been liberal, the issue of Israel's existence, and of America's continued support of it, is the key dividing point between liberal and conservative Jewry. Mamet's "Hollywood" politics follows a recognizable pattern for those of his biographical profile. But Mamet's conjoining his aesthetic focus with the politics of personal, financial success may signal a wrong turn. 

In America, any man may declare his political beliefs without fear of reprisal or repression. But we're under no obligation to accept those beliefs. Why should we think that portraying the human condition in the make-believe world of theatre or cinema entitles any artist to speak about real problems in the difficult real world? Ultimately, a playwright's work must speak for him. 

As I enter old age, I come more and more to understand the impatience of intelligent people who deal with the frustration of seeing history repeat itself, over and over again. If you believe that human life is essentially tragic, then it would seem a futile gesture to take sides in a Shakespearean dialectic in which right seldom, if ever, triumphs. 


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