Sunday, May 29, 2011

David Mamet's Coming Out Party

The Wall Street Journal
May 28, 2011

In March 2008, David Mamet was outed in the Village Voice. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had a comedy about an American president running on Broadway, and—perhaps to help with ticket sales—decided to write an article about the election season. The headline was subtle: "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal.'"

"They mistitled it," he insists. Mr. Mamet had given the piece the far more staid title, "Political Civility." But the Voice's headline was truth in advertising. "I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind," Mr. Mamet wrote, referring to his prior self as, yes, a "brain-dead liberal."

The article was the most popular ever published on the Voice's website. But was the acclaimed Mr. Mamet really a conservative?

For a few years, he played it coy. In a 2008 interview with New York Magazine, he sloughed off a question about who he was voting for: "I'm not the guy to ask about politics. I'm a gag writer." In 2010, he told PBS's Charlie Rose he'd only offer his opinion about President Obama off-camera.

But spend five minutes with Mr. Mamet and you realize that coy can only last so long. "Being a rather pugnacious sort of fellow I thought, as Albert Finney says in 'Two for the Road': 'As I said to the duchess, 'If you want to be a duchess, be a duchess. If you want to make love, it's hats off.'"

Hats off, indeed. Now Mr. Mamet has written a book-length, raucous coming-out party: "The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture." (If only the Voice editors had been around to supply a snappier title.)

Hear him take on the left's sacred cows. Diversity is a "commodity." College is nothing more than "Socialist Camp." Liberalism is like roulette addiction. Toyota's Prius, he tells me, is an "anti-chick magnet" and "ugly as a dogcatcher's butt." Hollywood liberals—his former crowd—once embraced Communism "because they hadn't invented Pilates yet." Oh, and good radio isn't NPR ("National Palestinian Radio") but Dennis Prager, Michael Medved and Hugh Hewitt.

The book is blunt, at times funny, and often over the top. When I meet the apostate in a loft in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, he's wrapping up a production meeting. "Bye, bye, Bette!" he calls to the actress walking toward the elevator. That'd be Bette Midler. Al Pacino gets a bear hug. The two are starring in an upcoming HBO film about Phil Spector's murder trial. Mr. Mamet is directing and he looks the part in a scarf, black beret and round yellow-framed glasses. Looking out the window at NYU film school, where he used to teach, I ask him to tell me his conversion story.

He starts, naturally, with the most famous political convert in modern American history: Whittaker Chambers, whose 1952 book, "Witness," documented his turn from Communism. "I read it. It was miraculous. Extraordinary hero-journey of this fellow that had to examine everything he believed in at the great, great cost—which is a cost I'm not subject to—of abandoning his life, his sustenance, his friends, his associations, and his past. And I said, 'Oh my God. . . . Perhaps it might be incumbent upon me to see if I could get my thought and my actions into line too."

There were other books. Most were given to him by his rabbi in L.A., Mordecai Finley. Mr. Mamet rattles off the works that affected him most: "White Guilt" by Shelby Steele, "Ethnic America" by Thomas Sowell, "The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War" by Wilfred Trotter, "The Road to Serfdom" by Friedrich Hayek, "Capitalism and Freedom" by Milton Friedman, and "On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill.

Before he moved to California, Mr. Mamet had never met a self-described conservative or read one's writings. He'd never heard of Messrs. Sowell or Steele. "No one on the left has," he tells me. "I realized I lived in this bubble."

When it popped, it was rough. "I did what I thought was, if not a legitimate, then at least a usual, thing—I took it out on those around me," Mr. Mamet says wryly. It took "a long, long, long time and a lot of difficult thinking first to analyze, then change, some of my ideas."

Then comes one of Mr. Mamet's many Hollywood fables. "It's like Orson Welles," he begins.

"It's his first day on the set of "Citizen Kane", and he's never directed a movie, he's the greatest stage director of his time. Gregg Toland is his cinematographer, and Toland's the greatest cinematographer of his day. And Orson says, 'Ok, this next shot we're gonna put the camera over here. And Gregg says, 'You can't put the camera there, Orson.' So Orson says, 'Well why not? The director can put it wherever.' Gregg says, 'No. Because you're crossing the line.' So Orson says, 'What does it mean crossing the line? So Gregg explains to him that there's a line of action." (Mr. Mamet attempts to demonstrate the principle to me by indicating the line of sight between our noses.)

"Orson says, 'I don't understand.'" (Neither did I.) "So Gregg explains it again. And Orson says, 'I still don't understand'—'cause sometimes it can get very, very complicated. So Orson says, 'Stop! Stop filming! I have to go home.' He went home and he stayed up all night with sheets of paper and a ruler and he came back next day and said: 'Now I understand, now we can go on.'"

And so it was with Mr. Mamet and politics. He couldn't move on, so to speak, before he understood "what the nature of government is, just sufficient so that I as a citizen can actually vote without being a member of a herd." Same for taxes: "I pay them, so I think I should be responsible for what actually happens to them." As for the history of the country itself, he wanted to understand "the vision of the Founding Fathers. . . . How does holding to it keep people safe and prosperous?"

Reading and reflecting got him to some basics. Real diversity is intellectual. Whatever its flaws, America is the greatest country in the history of the world. The free market always solves problems better than government. It's the job of the state to be just, not to render social justice. And, most sobering, Mr. Mamet writes in "The Secret Knowledge," there are no perfect solutions to inequality, only trade-offs.

It's a wonder he didn't explicitly adopt this tragic view of reality earlier on. The play "Glengarry Glen Ross," for example, for which Mr. Mamet won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, is about a group of desperate men competing with each other in a Chicago real estate office. At stake: a Cadillac for the top seller. Second place: a set of steak knives. Third prize: you're fired.

Needless to say, no one ends up getting the Caddie. "That's the essence of drama," Mr. Mamet says. "Anyone can write: And then we realized that Lithuanians are people too and we're all happier now. Who cares?" Tragedy is devastating, he says, precisely because it's about "people trying to do the best they can and ending up destroying each other.

"So it wasn't a great shift to adopt the tragic view, and it's much healthier," he says. "Rather than saying, as the liberals do, 'Everything's always wrong, there's nothing that's not wrong, there's something bad bad bad—there's a bad thing in the world and it's probably called the Jews,'" he says sardonically. "And if it's not called the Jews for the moment, it's their fiendish slave second-hand smoke. Or transfats. Or global warming. Or the Y2K. Or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. And something must be done!'"

It's the last part—the temptation to believe that everything can be fixed—that Mr. Mamet thinks is the fatal error. "That's such a f— bore," he says. "I mean, have you ever tried to get a pipe fixed in your bathroom on a Saturday? It's not going to happen. It's gonna happen wrong, and the guy's gonna be late because his dog got run over, and he's going to fix the wrong pipe, and when he takes it apart he's gonna say, 'Oops, the whole plumbing system's gonna have to go and dah dah dah and etc. etc. etc. And your daughter's Bat Mitzvah's gonna be ruined. It's interesting—it's the tragic view of life."

As Mr. Mamet quotes his son, Noah, in "The Secret Knowledge," "it's the difference between the Heavenly Dream and the God-Awful Reality."

On the left, Mr. Mamet is accused of having ulterior motives for his political shift. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait writes that the story is a familiar, Zionist one: "An increasingly religious Jew with strong loyalty to Israel, he became aware of a tension between the illiberal nationalism of his right-wing views on the Middle East and the liberalism of his views on everything else, and resolved the tension by abandoning the latter." Mr. Mamet calls this a "crock of s—."

The Slate website has run with the "Rich Person Discovers He Is a Republican" narrative. And then there's the jiu-jitsu theory offered by a film blogger: "Mamet's escalating interest in martial arts—traditionally the domain of right-wing nutjobs like Chuck Norris—has pointed toward this new stance for some time." Obviously.

None of these responses comes as a surprise. And, being a contrarian and a dramatist, Mr. Mamet doubtless relishes the attention for his heresy. What will be more interesting is to see how critics respond to his two new plays.

The first, playing now in Manhattan, is called "The Linguistics Class." Only 10 minutes long, it's part of a festival of 25 short plays at the Atlantic Theater Company, running alongside works by Ethan Coen and Sam Shepard. It's a coming home for Mr. Mamet: He founded the company with his friend, the actor William H. Macey, 25 years ago.

The play is about a teacher and a student who don't see eye to eye, and Mr. Mamet assures me "it has nothing to do with Noam Chomsky."

"The Anarchist," on the other hand, sounds like it will be red meat for conservatives. The two-woman show, which opens this fall in London, is about a prisoner, a former member of a Weather Underground-type group, and her parole officer. The play's themes have been developing since Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Mamet was in Toronto that day for a film festival. "I read an article, I think it was in that day's Toronto Star, that had been a reprint from the Chicago Tribune," he says. It was an interview with Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dorne, two former leaders of the Weather Underground. "They were talking about the bombings in the '60s. And the guy says to Bill Ayers: 'Are you regretful?' And he said: 'No, no, no.' . . . And I read it, and I thought, this is appalling and immoral," recalls Mr. Mamet.

"Then I got on a plane. And while I was on the plane they blew up New York City. The combination of the two things just started me thinking what have we—meaning my generation—done?" Mr. Mamet knows these characters intimately. They went to school with him at Goddard College in Vermont, or they passed through. "Some of the people I knew actually were involved in blowing up the building on 11th Street [in Manhattan by members of the Weather Underground in 1970]. . . . And I thought: how does this happen?"

Is it a coincidence that this play is arriving at the same time as Mr. Mamet's public conservatism? Does he worry that critics will see it as polemical? "I don't know," he contends, insistent that his job as a writer is not to worry about politics but to entertain and surprise his audience. "The question is can you put the asses in the seats and can you keep the asses in the seats. That's not me, that's Aristotle. I've forgotten the Greek for it."

Illustration: Ken Fallin

Ms. Weiss is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal. A review of Mr. Mamet's book, "The Secret Knowledge," can be found on page C13 in today's Review section.

Book Review: 'The Secret Knowledge' by David Mamet

Enter Stage Right

The Wall Street Journal
May 28, 2011

In a celebrated 2008 essay for the Village Voice, David Mamet made the startling announcement that he was "no longer a brain-dead liberal." I think it only fair to mention here that I rejoiced. Mr. Mamet is a terrific playwright, maybe even a great one ("American Buffalo," "Glengarry Glen Ross") and a screenwriter of the first rank ("The Verdict," "The Untouchables"). That a writer of such talent and stature had become a conservative seemed to me to promise some relief from the soporific political conformity of the American arts.

So I rejoiced—and I also sympathized. Breaking free of leftism while working in show business is like escaping from "The Matrix" only to find oneself in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." You wake to a risky but bracing new reality of individual liberty, limited government and free markets and are instantly beset by zombified statist dreamers determined either to make you rejoin their ranks or to destroy you. Mr. Mamet reports that a certain prominent left-leaning newspaper actually panned his first openly conservative play not once but twice for good measure. (Libertarian humorist Greg Gutfeld has introduced a "Mamet Attack Clock" on his late-night cable show to measure just how fast critics will now downgrade their opinions of the playwright's work.)

Under such circumstances, it is natural that Mr. Mamet would develop the urge to cry out, like Kevin McCarthy in the famous last scene of "Body Snatchers": "Listen to me! Please listen!" From that urge, no doubt, arises Mr. Mamet's new work of nonfiction, "The Secret Knowledge." It is his attempt to explain and disseminate the thinking behind his conversion to the right.

"Liberalism is a religion," he writes. "It affords a feeling of spiritual rectitude at little or no cost. Central to this religion is the assertion that evil does not exist, all conflict being attributed to a lack of understanding between the opposed. Well and good, but this does not accord with the experience of anyone."

There are inherent difficulties with a predominantly creative writer taking on what is effectively a work of political science. Those who are familiar with Mr. Mamet's previous nonfiction books—which are primarily about the theater and Hollywood— may rightly approach with caution. In trenchant works such as "On Directing Film" (1992), "True and False" (1999), and last year's brief handbook, "Theatre" (2010), Mr. Mamet often makes blunt, startling, dogmatic assertions that do not necessarily hold water as universal truths.

This mode of argument, though, is standard operating procedure among artists of all kinds when pronouncing on their respective crafts. Their manifestoes and declarations are understood not as axioms but as personal attempts to fashion an artistic response to the controversies of the age. When, for instance, in "True and False," Mr. Mamet says that an actor can't explore the inner life of his character because "there is no character. There are only lines upon a page," the claim does not render Method acting obsolete. It is just Mr. Mamet insisting on the primacy of the text and spelling out the theoretical underpinnings of the deadpan, staccato, rough and hilarious style of dialogue known as Mamet-speak. It is Mamet creating Mamet.

But that explanation won't wash in politics. The blessings of liberty are not the stylistic and artistic preferences of an age. Either human life is ennobled by the dangers and rewards of freedom or we are better off when governments baby-proof reality and shepherd us to the good. It is one way or the other, and history and reason must be brought to bear in order to determine which. This means that Mr. Mamet the political theorist must essentially reiterate the work of those more expert than he: Thomas Sowell, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and other architects of modern conservative thought.

Since these brilliant men are frequently ignored or underrated by mainstream critics, it is no bad thing to have a writer as concise and engrossing as Mr. Mamet offer us a sort of digest of their most salient observations on the depredations of the ruling class. And in fact, "The Secret Knowledge," written in Mr. Mamet's tough and funny style, is entertainingly informative.

But the book only really becomes indispensable when it is personal and specific to Mr. Mamet's experience. Take, for instance, this delightful exchange between the playwright and an ideologue in a class he was teaching, who feels that as many plays as possible should strive to demonstrate the humanity of homosexuals.

"Are gay people people too?" I asked the student, and he said that of course they were. "Are they aware of that fact?" I asked him. And he responded similarly. "Then why," I asked, "as they are aware of the fact, would they find its repetition on stage entertaining?"

"Ah, but," he said, "the straight people should see it."

"Ah, but," I said, "the straight people don't care. They may reward themselves for the ability to be bored by a play with a Good Message, but they, just like the gay people, come to the theater to be entertained. Your enlightenment is insufficient to capture the audience's attention for two hours."

This one piece of advice alone, if heeded, could revolutionize both Broadway and Hollywood for the good, and the reader might wish that there were more such wisdom in this book. "Theatre" is packed with such stuff and will, I think, do far more to advance both conservatism and show business. That said, "The Secret Knowledge" remains a sharp-tongued and heartfelt primer on modern American conservatism. And for those who have already read Thomas Sowell and Friedrich Hayek and the rest, it might make an amusingly irritating present for a liberal friend.

Photo: Getty Images

—Mr. Klavan is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and novelist.

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