Dammit Mamet

Warning: This post contains language which may be considered profane, sexist, ironic, feminist and/or totally quotidian.

Oh Mamet. Mamet Mamet Mamet Mamet Mamet. Fuuuuucking Mamet.”Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting. In his tail? In his tongue.”

Ask almost any theater practitioner what they like about David Mamet and they’ll tell you: It’s the words. The text. The language. The fact that the words are the actions. Mamet, they will tell you, is always playable. There’s no bullshit exposition or sob-story character development, it’s just people acting on people in a kill-or-be-killed world. It’s like Shakespeare, they’ll say, down to the punctuation. The words suit the action and the actions suit the words.

Ask almost any feminist what they think of Mamet and they’ll tell you: sexist. Racist. Abusive. Antagonistic to telling women’s stories. I was a college theater student when Oleanna, a play inspired by the Anita Hill hearings about a professor accused of sexual harassment by a student, came out, and I was horrified. By some interpretations, the story’s logic makes it seem as if a woman calling out harassment is a woman asking to have the shit kicked out of her. After the student successfully gets the professor fired, he savagely beats her. Blorch. Not cool. And yet, for 19 years, everywhere I’ve done theater, from New York City to Cambridge, Mass., to Los Angeles, I’ve had people tell me, “Mamet depicts real life, real people.” “You should read True or False, it’s the best book on acting ever.” “His writing captures the rhythms of real life.”

What better occasion for a theater feminist to take a second look at Mamet the Man and his damn Mamet Speak than last week’s cross-sex cast reading of his iconic film script Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Jason Reitman (Juno) and produced by Film Independent at LACMA as part of their Live Read Series. (Sidebar: Doesn’t the fact that Mamet Speak has a name indicate that it’s probably not how people actually talk? My opinion: Mamet’s language, if comparable at all, is almost as heightened as Shakespeare’s.)

To be clear, the script read was not the play Glengarry Glen Ross but the screenplay for the movie Glengarry Glen Ross (see plot summary here), including the scene featuring Alec Baldwin (“ABC: Always – Be – Closing”), which was not in the original play. During the reading, Reitman, accompanied by projections of stills from the movie with the actors edited out, read enough of the action for the audience to understand the context. Large-type signs on each of the actor’s music stands named their primary character.

John Williamson, played in the film by Kevin Spacey, was performed by Mae Whitman. Carla Gugino set the house on fire as Blake (Alec Baldwin in the film). Catherine O’Hara outdid herself as Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon). Robin Wright punked Al Pacino’s skinny Italian ass as Rick Roma. Melanie Lynskey redefined the term pussy with her rendering of George Aranow (Alan Arkin). And Maria Bello stole the show with her direct-to-the-audience vaudeville delivery of the scheming Dave Moss (Ed Harris).

As Reitman clarified before the reading began, no rehearsals for this performance took place. The music stands, scripts, signs with the character’s names on them, projections of locations from a movie made in 1992 of a play written in 1983—all served to remind the audience that they were not being asked to actually believe that these were really women characters in the here and now saying things to each other such as, “Are you man enough to take it?” and “A man’s his job and you’re fucked at yours,” and calling each other “faggot” and “stupid fucking cunt.” We were, rather, witnessing a live experiment in what if.

What if the “relentlessly macho” words of Mamet’s characters were spoken by and embodied within women? What if his classic Glengarry Glen Ross could be done in a way that reveals once and for all that the uber-masculine behaviors of Glengarry‘s sales/conmen are driven not by their biological male identities but by a capitalist system that relies on pitting people against one another like so many roosters at a cock fight? What if?

The experiment was a rousing success. In fact, these women pretty much tore the roof off. Though they were using the film script, the presentation—with its signs and music stands—was distinctly theatrical. The presence of the actors in the same space-time as the audience, reacting to our laughter and our discomfort, returned the text to its roots, and the humor of the script resonated far more than it does in the consistently bleak film. None of it was staged, but Carla Gugino, with her model-like frame and wearing the kind of heels that very few people can actually walk in, re-read Baldwin’s “brass balls” speech and made it absolutely believable. Catherine O’Hara elicited more sympathy in her struggle to care for her dying daughter than does Lemmon’s more pitiful rendition in the film. (She was funnier, too, and being funnier than Jack Lemmon is no easy task.) Best of all, the ideological notion of a group of workers toiling under a capitalist “enslavement” and “befuddled by a middle class morality” rang far more true when the workers depicted were actually members of an oppressed group.

Then again, I wonder whether today’s openly small-government, anti-regulation, pro-gun conservative Mamet would write a play so obviously critical of the way the unchecked capitalist impulse towards financial success perverts our personal moralities. Regretfully, the team stopped short of fully committing to the exercise by cutting the language which would have been most difficult to hear spoken by a woman (such as a monologue by Roma [Wright/Pacino] about memories of sexual encounters with women). After all, such experiments, which make no attempt to convince the audience that this is actually happening, must be willing to make people as undeniably uncomfortable with our unquestioned assumptions about sex and gender as possible in order for us to gather enough data to prove or disprove our hypotheses. Plus, I would have loved to hear Wright say her “balls feel like concrete.”

Reitman was unavailable for comment, so I can only speculate as to his intentions in directing the reading, but last year he directed a Live Read of Reservoir Dogs with an all-black cast, indicating a genuine creative and/or social interest in expanding possibilities for women and people of color in Hollywood films. Film Independent is a non-profit that runs such programs as Project Involve, which partners young filmmakers of color with mentors in the business. I hope the series and Film Independent continue to investigate such possibilities and dares to go even more boldly where no women have gone before.

In terms of Mamet, both his supporters and detractors tend to make the mistake of conflating sexist characters with sexist plays, and sexist plays with a sexist person. Though I can’t provide a thumbs up or down on Mamet the Man or everything he has written, I can address some of the difficulties of making those determinations:

  • A play/film containing sexist characters is not automatically a sexist play/film: True.
  • That some of his plays/films are sexist does not automatically make Mamet the person sexist: True.
  • That he has been seen to be loving with his family means Mamet and his plays/films cannot be sexist: False.
  • In that they reveal the shit women have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, Mamet’s sexist characters actually make his writing feminist: False.
  • That he is open to changing a character that was originally written for a gay man to a heterosexual woman proves that he’s invested in creating diversity in his characters: False.
  • That most of the women characters he has written are femme fatales with toothed vaginas, forever leading men, Siren-like, to their doom: True. In fact, though people regularly call upon Mamet to write more roles for women, the entirely male worlds of Glengarry and American Buffalo actually represent his least problematic work.

The actability of Mamet’s plays make them fascinating to watch and useful for teaching the craft, and the indelible imprint he’s made on American theater and film cannot be ignored. More cross-sex readings (and dare I say, full productions) of his plays could give audience members and theater folks alike the distance from the “gritty reality” of the words in order to think critically and determine the ideology behind those words.

This reading was enough to make me want to look again, but it’s hard for a theater feminist to get past Oleanna. It’s hard for an intellectual to get past Mamet’s propagandistic conservative manifesto The Secret Knowledge. It should be hard for anyone—particularly the Jews he increasingly claims to represent in his pro-Israel advocacy—to get past him comparing feminists at Harvard calling out sexists to Nazis at Dachau. (Seriously. Dachau.) And though I’m finally open to reading it, ironically, my ex-husband took our copy of True or False in the divorce. Seems appropriate, but still. Goddammit.


Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.