Back in 2008 after playwright David Mamet outed himself as a conservative Jonah Goldberg made the following prediction: “Already, critics are saying his work is slipping. Soon, they will say his work was never that great to begin with.” Six years on, it’s not entirely clear whether Goldberg was right. While Mamet does tend to dominate conversations about overrated playwrights, he is still quite popular and his new play, “China Doll” will open on Broadway next year starring Al Pacino. Meanwhile, across the pond Lindsey Lohan is starring in “Speed the Plow” in the role originally played by Madonna.
In fact, since 2008 Mamet has had eight Broadway productions, not including the upcoming one. It is a stunning number compared with the three productions of Tom Stoppard, two of August Wilson, one of Stephen Adly Guirgis and John Patrick Shanley, and zero of Tony Kushner. And, running somewhat counter to Goldberg’s premise, the nine total Broadway productions since 2008 are more than Mamet had in the previous 20 years. By the statistical standards of the Great White Way, Mamet remains the most powerful playwright force in the world.
But Goldberg wasn’t really talking about Broadway producers, whose bottom line is the bottom line and who see Mamet’s plays as safe investments. He was talking about critics and tastemakers. If we look one level below Broadway productions, to high-end non-profit theaters whose bottom line is whatever they can mooch from donors and the government, we do not see anywhere near the same dominance in productions. Theater Communications Group (TCG), a lobbying organization for about 700 of these theater companies, sometimes sees Mamet in their yearly “most produced playwrights” list. But in some years since 2008 he does not appear at all. This past year he was not even in the top 20.
Broad Popularity Versus Snob Popularity
The contrast is stark. Among Broadway producers whose first question is “what do people want to see?” Mamet is unrivaled, but among non-profit producers whose first question is “what should people see?” his shows don’t fare so well. This makes perfect sense, given that many major non-profit theater companies view their primary mission as the promotion of social values. The current environment of non-profit theater is one in which diversity has come to dominate the cultural conversation. Mamet is exactly the kind of straight, white, male playwright who must be cast aside now and then to make room for more minority, women, or trans writers.
There is one other level of theater in which a playwright’s popularity can be measured, but it isn’t easy. Every year there are countless college, community, and small theater productions that fly beneath the radar. Nobody aggregates these productions to produce a comprehensive list of the most produced playwrights, but a bit of research shows some remarkable results.
A Google search for the past month of “David Mamet” (removing Pacino and Lohan from the search) revealed 15 small, local productions around the country in the first seven pages of results. These included productions in Omaha, Fresno, Buffalo, and Peoria. When we consider that the top playwright in the TCG list tends to have 20-25 productions in a whole year, Mamet’s 15 in the month of October alone suggests a lot people are staging and attending his work. Similar searches of other contemporary playwrights found nowhere near as many small productions.
I think there two major reasons for this. The first is the same reason that Broadway produces Mamet so much: people buy tickets. It’s a polished, popular brand, and audiences enjoy it. The second reason is that many actors and directors on all levels of theater really like doing Mamet’s plays. For many actors of my generation, the performances in the 1992 movie version of “Glengarry Glen Ross” were nothing short of a revelation. Who wouldn’t want to engage that spitfire dialogue where humor and tension ride the knife’s edge? It is a challenge, but an enjoyable one. Performing Mamet is almost like linguistic choreography.
Like All Greats, David Mamet Has a Signature Style
When we think of great painters or composers, one of the measures we use is the uniqueness of their work. The ability to immediately know that it is a Mondrian, or a Picasso we see, or it is Bach we hear. Excluding Shakespeare, there may be no other playwright whose style is as easy to identify as Mamet’s. Half a page into any of his plays, you know you are reading Mamet. That style, with the staccato speech and the cursing, may be his signature, but it is a veneer. It is not what makes so many people do his work over and over.
While the social justice plays favored by the big non-profits tend to deal with specific and immediate issues, Mamet’s plays tackle big universal problems with no easy solutions. It is interesting the compare Mamet’s “Oleanna,” a play about accusations of sexual harassment from 1992, to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” focused on homosexuality and the AIDS crisis from 1991.
“Angels in America” is a masterpiece of its place and time. In many ways, it is a necessary play that gave a human face both to the horror that is AIDS and gays’ right to dignity. But watching the play now, as gripping as it is, feels like experiencing the past. It now edifies us in a way similar to a Ken Burns documentary, as a folio of misdeeds and the hope of not repeating them.
“Oleanna,” on the other hand, is just as relevant and present now as it was when Mamet wrote it in reaction to the Clarence Thomas hearings. As we discover more about the current college kangaroo courts regularly making examples of young men, we understand the fear of Mamet’s accused professor. When the smartest guy at Vox suggests that the “spike of fear” these dubious and damaging judgments induce is a positive step for social justice, we better understand his student Carol’s justification for her actions.
David Mamet Presents Immortal Themes
It’s not that Mamet was prescient, it’s that he wrote about immortal themes. While Kushner had a political goal of social justice in mind while writing “Angels in America,” Mamet had a goal of revealing how people truly are. There is little to be satisfied about after seeing “Oleanna.” Couples leave today’s productions arguing, just as my wife and I did as college kids after seeing the first production.
This timeless quality can be found in much of Mamet’s work, the greed of “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the sexual politics of “Speed the Plow, the discomforting familiarity of “Race.” One doesn’t leave a Mamet play saying to oneself, “I’m going to make the world a better place.” One leaves wondering if he or she really understands his or her own actions or the world in which those actions take place.
Six years later, what can we make of Goldberg’s prediction that Mamet’s genius would be walked back? It is undoubtedly true that Mamet’s reputation has taken a big hit among the coastal creative class which Joel Kotkin refers to as our modern “clerisy.” For a host of reasons having to do directly or indirectly with his politics, Mamet is no longer a good fit for their firmament of first-rate playwrights. But theater is a strange art form which cannot be completely controlled by this clerisy. These cultural middle managers have very little leeway over Broadway, which is dominated by super-rich investors and it holds little sway among the smallest producers of theater.
The most important aspect of Goldberg’s prediction is not whether it will happen, or whether people want it to happen—it’s whether it can happen. I argue it cannot. The Progressive cultural cabal that Goldberg fears is real, and it is very interested in changing the canon to suit its social values. But in the case of Mamet it is powerless to do so. On those rare occasions when an artist shows us deep, powerful, and lasting truths, when they pierce our own reality and infuse it with the cold, terrifying nature of being alive, there is no king, or courtier, or cleric who can erase that work. The plays of David Mamet, and the celebration of those plays, are going to be with us for a long, long time.