How David Mamet Abandoned His Art

Latest Work Uses Pretzel Logic and Fear-Mongering

By Joshua Furst

Published December 21, 2012, issue of December 28, 2012.
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If I understand him correctly, he believes art is a place where moral verdicts are rendered, and its purpose is to lead its audience toward seeing the justice in the author’s beliefs. By those lights, “The Anarchist” is a fair example of how he’s translating this aesthetic stance to the stage.

The simple premise of the new play is that an elderly woman who was once a member of a politically radical group and has been in jail for decades after having killed two people in a robbery is up for parole. The play consists of an interview she gives to the prison official whose job it is to recommend whether she should or should not be released.

There’s not a lot of drama here, but Mamet seems uninterested in drama at this stage in his career. His late plays are more like Socratic dialogues — or talmudic debates, if you prefer — for the stage. In “The Anarchist,” the big subject is whether crime consists of the act or the intention. It’s a worthy subject for debate. But within the first five minutes of the play, when ad hominem attacks on the French for being so, well, French, begin flying, one gets the sense that Mamet made up his mind about the subject long before he picked up his pen.

He isn’t so much interested in exploring both sides as he is in instructing us what to believe: People who dare to question the righteousness of the state are dangerous to our civil society, and they should be punished for these beliefs. For him there is no dilemma here, and thus, no drama, no tragedy — just a propped-up trial and sudden moralizing judgment.

The problem is that great art doesn’t pass moral judgment. It doesn’t bludgeon its audience into understanding that there is only one right answer, and that this right answer belongs to the artist. That’s the purview of position papers and, maybe, in a pinch, Ayn Rand’s wretched oeuvre. What great art does is point toward multiple possibilities and remind us that they all have their costs.

Mamet knows that. Or he used to know it.


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