Progressive wokesters in the New York theater scene — which, who are we kidding, is pretty much the whole New York theater scene — are in a tizzy after yesterday’s announcement that David Mamet’s play “American Buffalo” will be revived on Broadway.
Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne have been announced as cast members. The 1975 play that follows three hapless criminals was until recently almost universally viewed as a masterpiece. But Mamet is a conservative, and in today’s theater world, conservatives aren’t allowed to have masterpieces.
Within hours of the announcement, prominent theater people were pouncing. David Gordon, the president of the Outer Critics Circle and a features writer at TheaterMania, a leading theater website, had this to say:
I just want to know how an all-female Glengarry Glen Ross became a traditional American Buffalo. How did that sausage (fest) get made?
— David Gordon (@MrDavidGordon) September 18, 2019
Gordon is referring to a planned all-women production of another Mamet play that was supposed to open this May but is now in limbo. At least Gordon seems ok with that play being done, as long as no men are in it.
Diep Tran, who writes for American Theater Magazine, goes even further. Labeling Mamet a misogynist, she bemoans the fact that celebrities want to be in his plays.
I wrote this tweet before Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell announced they were starring in AMERICAN BUFFALO on Broadway. Re-upping because celebrities keep picking crappy, misogynists plays for Broadway https://t.co/REiZzBCz1p
— Diep Tran (@diepthought) September 17, 2019
Playwright Dan Kois also seems displeased.
come on, broadway https://t.co/s9hVkPFPmW
— Dan Kois (@dankois) September 17, 2019
There are more, and there is no doubt this attitude toward Mamet and his work is pervasive in the theater world. While all of this is an example of an attempt to activate cancel culture, theater has its own word for that phenomenon that predates it. “Retired” is the word that is preferred. After all, it reeks a little less of censorship. When works, such as traditional performances of “The Mikado,” become problematic, we simply “retire “ them to make room for more intersectional work.
The problem with retiring Mamet is that for nearly the last five decades he has been the most important playwright and screenwriter in America, and it’s not close. Along with “Glengarry” and “Buffalo,” Mamet wrote the influential “Oleanna” and “Speed-the-Plough.” On the silver screen, he penned or co-penned such classics as “The Verdict,” “The Untouchables,” and “Wag the Dog,” among many others.
He invented a staccato-style pulsing with profanity that had never been heard before. It is somehow both highly stylized and perfectly naturalistic. Its influence can be seen on almost every cop or medical show on television, and it is no stretch to say that without David Mamet there is no Aaron Sorkin. And this is much of why, much to Tran’s chagrin, so many celebrity actors want to appear in his works.
But there is also a historical aspect to this. For decades, some of the country’s finest actors have spit out his lightning language on America’s stages. Take “American Buffalo” alone; in 1975, a very young William H. Macy appeared in its premiere. Two years later, Robert Duvall was in the Broadway opening. In 1981, it was Al Pacino performing the play Off-Broadway.
Just as British actors long to play “Hamlet” and test themselves against the giants who have played the role, so too, American actors long to strut the stage and portray the classic characters that have defined American theater for decades and produced some of its finest performances.
In 2008, Jonah Goldberg wrote, regarding the disdain the theater world has for Mamet’s politics, “Mamet has committed the sin of free-thinking in a world that defines it as ‘ideological rigidity’ while dubbing conformity ‘diversity.’ Already, critics are saying his work is slipping. Soon, they will say his work was never that great to begin with.” Well, chalk one up for Jonah; he was spot on.
The good news is that despite the sturm and drang and gnashing of teeth, his many critics, a lot of whom are playwrights themselves who could never hope to hold a candle to him, can’t slow him down. His play “Bitter Wheat” about Harvey Weinstein, and starring John Malkovich, is a hot ticket in London, and there is little doubt audiences will flock to see Rockwell and Fishburne in this historic play.
As to his broader legacy going forward? That also seems secure, in part because, as I noted above, new generations of actors will want to do this work. It is challenging, but, if ever a playwright wrote for the love of actors, for the love of these con men who trick their audiences, it is Mamet.
When and if David Mamet retires, it will be because he chooses to, not because a chorus of woke scolds howl into the Twittershpere and spill angry ink in theater rags.
A line in my favorite Mamet play, “Squirrels,” sums up this situation nicely. “Smoke your own salmon, then talk. Cultivate your own garden, then talk. You make your own fun.” Mamet makes his own fun, and we get to enjoy it. For that we should remain grateful.