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Unlike his recent work, his early plays were about the mechanisms of power, to the near exclusion of everything else. Whatever their ostensible subject may have been, the drama on the stage revolved around the cunning and conniving and conning and winning and losing that capitalism demands of us. But he didn’t tell us this bluntly. Instead, he showed us power in action through the situations and language he flung across the stage. He exposed how our American language can be abused for the purposes of power, the way our language lies and the way it cuts. The characters in “American Buffalo,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Speed-the-Plow” and even “Oleanna” (which in retrospect seems to have pointed the way forward for Mamet’s late dialectic aesthetic) had so much life surging under their obscene and fragmentary words that it didn’t matter whether Mamet agreed with or condoned their actions.
So why is Mamet’s new work so diminished? Is it his obsession with right-wing politics? He he has the right to believe whatever he wants, of course. As far as I know, he’s always leaned to the right. And even if he hasn’t, rightward political slides late in life didn’t stop Knut Hamsun, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ezra Pound, or Norman Mailer from continuing to create art of the finest order.
So it must be how he handles his politics. When political art is successful, its politics are nestled in something more — a nuanced reality, an unforgettable metaphor, a poetics, a character or group of characters who have struggles and failings beyond the political point the author is trying to make — and this more-ness distresses, abstracts, transforms the author’s ideas, lifting the work out of the stink pit of propaganda and into the realm of art.
Mamet’s new work has none of the linguistic syncopation of his early work. It’s also lacking the sense that he understands that there are multiple sides to a story. When an artist believes he is the sole bearer of truth, it’s easy for him to forget that the nuance and surprise art can sometimes attain has more to do with the grace with which the artist handles the contradictions inherent in the human animal than with the righteousness of his cause. Mamet has rid himself and his work of contradiction. He now — simply, bluntly — believes he is right and you are wrong.
Joshua Furst is the author of “The Sabotage Café.” He is a frequent contributor to the Forward.