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. 


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mamet's Conversion [Part I]


David Mamet [1947-] is a renowned playwright and screen writer living in Santa Monica. He grew up in a middle class Jewish family in Chicago. He made his name early in his career as the author of a number of plays--Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, Edmond, etc., and then he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Glengarry Glen Ross (which he later adapted to the cinema). Coincident with his career in the theatre, he began doing screenplays in the early '80's, beginning with a re-adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and including a new version of The Untouchables,The VerdictHouse of Games, The Winslow Boy, The Edge, as well as doing television script work.   



In 2008, Mamet openly declared in an article titled Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal his conversion of conservative political partisanship. 

"I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind . . . As a child of the '60's, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart . . . These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life." 

Further --

" . . . I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? 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." 

These sweeping, and in many ways astounding assertions, by one of America's greatest playwrights and dramatists, needs to be understood in the context of Mamet's Jewishness, and in the context of Hollywood (as opposed to Broadway), since both conditions influence how he has come to regard his place in the scheme of American culture and its entertainment industry. 

Many American Jews support the existence and future prospects for the State of Israel. Though there continues to be widespread support across the political spectrum here for military support and diplomatic unity with Israel, there are those who feel the Arab-Israeli stand-off can only improve if both sides are willing to compromise. The hard-line position is that Israel should show a belligerent face to its enemies, that it is isolated geographically, and by history, and can only survive through strength and determination. This "realist" position isn't only "existential"--it's an attitude towards life, a fatalistic attitude about the consequences of a naive faith in human nature. The "liberal" position in America does not embrace this pessimistic point of view. Many American Jews find inspiration in the existential defensiveness of Israeli conservatism. 

As an American Jewish writer/artist, Mamet feels pulled in both directions. As a child of the American middle class, his sentiments would ordinarily be towards justice, freedom, and a positive view of life. But his loyalty to his ethnic background, and his identification with Israel as the symbolic bastion of the resistance to tyranny and intolerance towards Jews, has influenced him towards reactionary politics in America.

Mamet has said he now agrees with free market theorists such as Friedrich Hayek, the historian Paul Johnson, and economist Thomas Sowell. The idea of a totally free market accepts that human nature is not inherently good, that only through competition can human potential and progress be released. In Mamet's mind, the commitment towards a strong, resistant Israel has been joined to a cynicism about life in general. As his own artistic and personal success has progressed, Mamet's become increasingly rigid in his beliefs--a pattern familiar in American business and entertainment careers. 

Mamet's world view sees the plight of the Jew against the backdrop of the larger struggle for the hearts and minds of people between the Democratic and Totalitarian forms of power. Persecution of Jews throughout Europe, and especially in Russia, is associated with Communism, and the enemies of Israel. Authoritarian powers, and especially politically liberal tendencies, are seen as emanating from the same place. 

This cynical view of human existence is plain in Glengarry Glen Ross, in which greed and competition and the exercise of power dominate the characters' lives. It is Mamet's triumphant message about life in general, that life is a Darwinian bargain, that the outcome of our struggles is a chess-game, where selfishness and guile overcome good intentions and weak capitulation. 

For Mamet, successful art means good art, because putting butts in paying seats is the final measure of entitlement in the cruel world of economic transactions. For Mamet, art itself is an economic bargain in which value derives only from economic success. The idea that artistic endeavor should be driven by direct appeal to greed is an old one.  



The history of theatre in the 20th Century is to a large extent the history of the theatrical ideas of Revolutionary Russia. Its great figure, Konstantin Stanislavsky, is the progenitor of styles of production and acting that tended to dominate theatrical practice and theories throughout the world. While Stanislavsky thrived during the first great Soviet period in the arts in Russia, he eventually came under pressure during the Stalinist period. Though the history of Stanislavsky's ideas and participation in Russian theatre is long and complex, Mamet sees his theories associated with the artistic oppression and censorship of the early Soviet period. The politicization of art under the Soviet dictatorship resulted in a suppressed form of theatrical art, in which political and social realities could not be freely explored or expressed. 

Mamet sees the Russian theatre in the early Soviet period as victim of political correctness. Stanislavsky's notion of a mystical approach to acting, and the central importance of the director in play production, are seen as perversions of the purpose and function of theatrical entertainment. As a writer, Mamet places himself in the forefront of the theatrical system, and he denigrates attempts to emphasize the personality of the actor, or the genius of the director, to "interpret" a play's content. Stagecraft, for Mamet, is merely the means to an end, which is the narrative the playwright supplies. Actors should say their lines, directors should see that the playwright's intentions are followed to the letter.

This reminds me a little of what Stravinsky said, late in life. "All I want is that the orchestra play the notes I've written. No 'interpretation' is necessary, no emotional exaggerations, no pregnant pauses, no selective emphases" [I'm paraphrasing here]. This was during Stravinsky's "neoclassical" period when his works were dry and clean and intellectually clipped. The complaint by authors or composers that their work may be "over-interpreted" by ambitious or misguided directors, producers, actors--in effect maimed or corrupted by interference and tinkering adaptation--is also a common cry. Is it jealousy that drives this carping? That powerful actors or shrewd directors may actually claim the high ground of artistic expression, and become the focus of appreciation? 

It's been remarked more than once that in English theatre tradition, the actor "becomes the character" whilst in American tradition, the character becomes the man. Clark Gable is always Clark Gable, no matter what part he's playing, while Laurence Olivier is many men, each different according to the demands of the specific character. In Woody Allen's films, Woody himself is invariably the "subject" while the plot and the supporting actors are like planets that revolve around the central character (himself).  

Mamet's work--particularly his screenwriting--hearkens back to the hard-boiled "noir" period in American cinema. In the 1930's, social realism (Clifford Odets and the Actors' Theatre etc.) predominated. But after the war, Hollywood turned shadowy and grim, turning out black and white crime dramas. Dialogue was blunt, tough, edgy. It was raw, and sullen. Every man for himself. Violence, betrayal, double-cross, corruption, heavy-handed justice. These are the qualities that draw out Mamet's talent. 

***** 

End Part I