David Lister: The playwright is a complex creature, not just a guy on a soapbox

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The Independent Online

One of the great, and only possibly apocryphal, stories about theatre tells of a rich man going to a playhouse in New York and spying a beggar on the pavement outside. He says to him pompously: "'Neither a borrower nor a lender be.' William Shakespeare." The tramp responds: "Fuck you! David Mamet." Mamet has been one of the earthiest, most challenging and most provocative of American playwrights. But his plays, while on the surface "liberal", are too complex to be summed up in such a reductive way.

Mamet now says that he took the liberal view for decades, but has changed his mind. "As a child of the Sixties, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart." Thankfully, no such ludicrously simple world view was ever apparent in his best plays. That so complex and profound and gifted a playwright should now seek to reduce his own work and his own politics to simple concepts is a pity. Of course, no one is more entitled than David Mamet to describe the politics of David Mamet. But it doesn't necessarily mean his descriptions are correct. It's always a matter of regret when playwrights spout about their work and convictions. The main effect is to reduce a play to a polemical essay or political tract.

Mamet was never simply a liberal. He is not now simply a conservative. He was and is an astute observer of life, and the world view derived from those observations is best expressed in the complexity of his writing. When he tries to see the world and himself in simple contrasts, he ceases to be a great artist and becomes just another guy on a soapbox.