David Mamet on 'Race', his provocative new play
David Mamet's new play challenges liberal attitudes towards race, but with a new generation of theatrical taboo-busters on the rise, has he lost his power to shock?
Wednesday 29 May 2013
To the Broadway and Hollywood establishments, it was as though Edward Albee had let it be known that he had joined the National Rifle Association or that Tony (Angels in America) Kushner had allowed the news crews to film him as he voluntarily checked into a Christian-run gay-to-straight conversion camp. These analogies give you some idea of the ruffled feathers in the liberal dovecot when David Mamet – author of such abrasively anti-capitalist stage classics as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross – published an article entitled "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'".
In that 2008 article for Village Voice, the dramatist and film maker – whose play Race receives its UK premiere at Hampstead Theatre tonight – charted his evolution from the "child of the 60s [who had] accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart" to the Fox News-friendly enthusiastic embracer of the free-market theology of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. One of the great virtues of the American Constitution, he now argued, is that it recognises that people can be self-interested, treacherous swine and so has built a safeguard in the shape of the separation of powers. Otherwise, government's role is "to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention".
Mamet, who has since written about his born-again beliefs in his 2011 book The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, wrote the Village Voice article to plug November. This is his scatter-gun satire (as yet not seen here) which involves a jovially corrupt, idiotic, but (to the author) sympathetically realistic President – who is broke, disowned by his party and on the eve of failing to be re-elected (his numbers are "lower than Gandhi's cholesterol") – and his lesbian, utopian-socialist speech-writer. The two characters, he maintained, embody "a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist)". Like the Republican Party, Mamet has hijacked the word "liberal" and coerced it into describing dangerously unrealistic Left-wing extremism. But then everywhere in his writing now, there's a bias towards thinking in caricature.
Mamet can still, it's true, be outrageously funny. I was one of a minority of critics who confessed to enjoying the zany rollicking carnival of political incorrectness in Romance (seen here in 2005), a courtroom farce, set against the backdrop of Middle East peace talks and before a pill-popping judge. To my mind, though, all is not well when a dramatist has become so thoroughly cynical that his world-view only makes artistic sense when served up under the licence of wild larkiness.
In response to the notion that audiences might find his new views a turn-off, the born-again Mamet has contended that, "I've been alienating my public since I was 20 years old. When American Buffalo came out on Broadway, people would storm out and saying, 'How dare he use that kind of language!' Of course I'm alienating the public! That's what they pay me to do." Except that short-lived premieres of his latest works have an unhealthy tendency to appear alongside more successful revivals of his greatest hits. I'd argue that we very much need plays that intelligently question the liberal consensus in the world of theatre and that audiences are alienated by Mamet's crude approach. The unsettling effect he aims for is better achieved by the plays of a younger generation.
In Race, a wealthy white man, accused of raping a black woman, cannily (as he thinks) turns to a law firm comprised of two male partners (one white, one black) and a young female, African-American junior associate. It's a set-up reminiscent of Mamet's Speed-the-Plow with the pair of legal eagles replacing the cynical fast-talking Hollywood producers and a characteristic female cipher who is not nearly as green as she initially looks.
"You think black people are stupid?" asks the associate of her white boss. To which he replies, "I think all people are stupid. I don't think blacks are exempt." That's the kind of equal opportunities that Mamet (son of a Jewish labour lawyer) can respect. What he dislikes, as The Secret Knowledge makes clear, is affirmative action which he asserts is "destroying Black Youth".
In a New York Times piece, Mamet argued that "just as personal advantage was derived by whites from the defence of slavery and its continuation as Jim Crow and segregation, so too personal advantage, political advantage and indeed deeply held belief may lead non-whites to defence of positions that... will eventually be revealed as untenable." The "just as" manoeuvre is breathtaking, put forward as though the primary source of the grievances no longer mattered. There are arguments against affirmative action, some of them principled, but in the tightly (if not always plausibly) plotted Race, Mamet's animus against it emerges in a succession of revelations that suggest that one of the reasons for its badness is that it can lead to cynical, perniciously race-conscious decisions on the part of both hirer and prospective employee.
The small-time tricksters, con artists and salesmen who people Mamet's best plays are desperate individuals, paranoid, lonely dupes of a capitalist system that was pulling a faster one on them than they were on each other. You could hear that in the driven rhythms of the dramatist's dialogue which raise tribal jargon to the level of staccato and stylised concrete poetry – language as both blustering weapon and trap in the overlappings, ellipses, backtrackings and dislocated repetitions. Terry Johnson's Hampstead premiere of Race has the dream casting of Clarke Peters and Jasper Britton as the lawyers. They will be able to inject snap into dialogue which, though expletive-ridden, looks under-energised on the page.
Liberal complacencies need challenging but it's younger American dramatists such as Bruce Norris, Neil LaBute, Christopher Shinn and Rebecca Gilman who are doing it better. The white anxiety that blacks might turn the tables on them (crassly advertised by Mamet) is dealt with in a savagely funny, but nuanced and historical way in Norris's Clybourne Park (2010) which concerns a dispute over a Chicago house – first in 1959 when the locals try to pressure a departing couple to pull out of selling to a black family; then in 2009 when the neighbourhood is gentrified and predominantly black and an incoming white couple find their plans to raze and rebuild questioned by a heritage-minded residents' association.
The awkwardness in the latter encounter are excruciatingly funny, revealing and even-handed. Neil LaBute's This is How It Is (2005) is, on the surface, a tale of how the marriage of two Midwesterners (a white woman and a black, erstwhile high-school athletic star) starts to unravel when a white former classmate returns to town. Ugly bigotries and betrayals are flushed forth – but to what extent are they? LaBute gives the proceedings an unsettling prejudice-exposing layer of dubiety because the revenant is a tricksy Iago-like wannabe dramatist.
Mamet's plays are unmatched for generating heat. The pieces I've just mentioned generate both heat and light. The born-again playwright should look to his laurels, for his work is in danger of becoming starkly provoking rather than truly provocative.
'Race', Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020 7722 9301; hampsteadtheatre.com) to 29 June
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