David Mamet, whose new play, Speed-the-Plow, is having a successful run in New York, grew up in Chicago, where he sought a career in the theater by, among other things, working as a busboy at the Second City and (because his uncle was director of broadcasting for the Chicago Board of Rabbis) performing as an actor on religious programs on television. His success as a playwright began with his plays Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo, both of which were praised for their fine construction and the skillful way in which Mamet was able to re-create the talk of his characters, most of them con artists and deadbeats. He went on to write other kinds of plays, like A Life in the Theater, and Glengarry Glen Ross, which won both the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. He has also written the screenplays of the films The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Untouchables, among others.
The New York Times has apparently discovered in him the abundant creativity and promise its critics have found in such other cultural figures as Stephen Sondheim and Elie Wiesel, and have amply celebrated him. An article published in 1985 entitled “The Gritty Eloquence of David Mamet” commented that in “both his stark writing style and his fascination with the male tribe…Mamet resembles Ernest Hemingway more, perhaps, than any other writer of his generation” (Samuel G. Friedman, The New York Times Magazine, April 21, 1985, p. 32). The theatrical critic of the Times, Frank Rich, wrote that Glengarry Glen Ross showed that Mamet’s talent for “burying layers of meaning into simple, precisely distilled idiomatic language” is a talent that “can only be compared to Harold Pinter’s.” In his review of Speed-the-Plow, which opened early in May, the same critic wrote that the play “may be the most cynical and exciting yet” of the “genre” of writing about Hollywood by embittered novelists and playwrights and other writers; it is a play, he goes on, that “pitilessly implicates the society whose own fantasies about power and money keep the dream factory in business.” In still another piece he called Mamet a “master of language” and the play a “crackling good tale.”
Mamet’s are actors’ plays, opportunities for spectacular performances, while not always conveying much of interest in themselves. Reading a play like Speed-the-Plow gives one little idea of how exciting some of it can be when skillfully directed on the stage and performed by actors of the caliber that Mamet has been able to assemble, in this case Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver. He is also fortunate to have a gifted director, Gregory Mosher, once the director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago and now the director of the Lincoln Center Theater, who has directed many of Mamet’s other plays. Mosher moves the action of the play along expertly, if at times somewhat too quickly, as if the play were another Front Page. But even with these advantages, the play is a disappointment, at moments startling to watch yet morally unchallenging, even insipid.
Speed-the-Plow, which Mamet has said is “about my experiences in Hollywood,” concerns Bobby Gould, the new head of production at a Hollywood studio—his office furniture is still covered with sheets—and an independent producer, Charlie Fox, who depends on Gould to “greenlight” his movie projects and to gain approval for them from the head of the studio. An influential Hollywood figure named Doug Brown—we cannot be sure whether he is an actor or a director—has brought Fox a script about prisons that is commercially valuable just because Brown is willing to be involved in it. Fox has brought it in turn to Gould, who claims to be overcome by gratitude for this act of loyalty. The two men discuss the money they will make:
Gould: The question, your crass question: how much money could we stand to make…?
Gould: I think the operative concept here is “lots and lots…”
Fox: Oh, maan…
Gould: Great big jolly shitloads of it.
Fox: Oh, maan…
Gould: But money…
Gould: Money, Charl…
Gould: Money is not the important thing.
Gould: Money is not Gold.
Gould: What can you do with Money?
Gould: Nary a goddamn thing.
Fox: …I’m gonna be rich.
Gould: “Buy” things with it.
Fox: Where would I keep them?
Gould: What would you do with them?
Gould: Take them out and dust them, time to time.
Fox: Oh, yeah.
Gould: I piss on money.
Fox: I know that you do. I’ll help you.
Gould: Fuck money.
Fox: Fuck it. Fuck “things” too…
Gould: Uh huh. But don’t fuck “people.”
Gould: ‘Cause people, Charlie…
Gould: Are what it’s All About.
Fox: I know.
Gould: And it’s a People Business.
Fox: That it is.
Gould: It’s full of fucken’ people…
Fox: And we’re gonna kick some ass, Bob.
Gould: That we are.
Fox: We’re gonna kick the ass of a lot of them fucken’ people.
Gould: That’s right.
Gould is an ambiguous figure from the beginning of the play. He calls himself a “whore” and boasts of his power, yet we have also seen him express skepticism about the worth of his way of life by claiming to “piss on money.” At the beginning of the play he is found reading a novel about “radiation and the half-life of society,” whose author, according to the studio’s summary of the book, “seems to think that radio and television, aircraft travel and microwaves were invented solely to irradiate the world and so bring about genetic change in humankind” and ultimately destroy the world. His boss has asked him to give the novel a “courtesy read” before rejecting it. Gould jokes that as the new head of production he could actually make the movie if he chose to do so.
Just after Gould has agreed to back the prison script Fox has brought to him, the third character in the play, a temporary secretary, expresses an interest in the radiation book. She is, or pretends to be, “naive”—so much so that she tries to reserve a table for Gould at a popular restaurant without mentioning his name—and Gould finds her attractive. He asks her to read the book for him, and to report to him about it that night at his house; and he makes a bet with Fox that he will succeed in seducing her. When she visits him that night, he is taken aback when she speaks with passion about the book and then seduces him. She speaks of
the perfection of the story, when I read it…I almost, I wanted to sit, I saw, I almost couldn’t come to you, the weight of it… (Pause) You know what I mean. He says that the radiation…all of it, the planes, the televisions, clocks, all of it is to the one end. To change us—to, to bring about a change—all radiation has been sent by God. To change us. Constantly.
And later she reads from the book:
“The man saw that it all had been devoted to one end. That the diseases of the body were the same diseases in the world. That things were ending. Yes. That things must end.”
To this and similar arguments Gould responds that he cannot make the book into a film, that he is in business to “make the thing everyone made last year.”
The next morning, Gould reports to Fox that he has decided not to make the prison film but instead to convince the head of the studio to make one based on the novel about radiation. Karen, the secretary, has convinced him, he says, that the ideas in the book are sound, and even that his own life is a “sham.” There follows a scene that, in its construction, direction, and acting, is among the most powerful in the play. Gould says that “I think your prison movie has a place…and I respect your…” and Fox yells back at him:
I don’t want your respect. Your respect stinks. You know why? You’ve proved yourself insane. You’re gonna buy a piece of shit…you’re gonna spend ten million dollars for a piece of pussy, you were “up all night…” You were up all night boffing the broad. Are you getting old? What is this? Menopause? Your “life is a sham”? Two days in the new job, you can’t stand the strain…?
And later, “Did you miss your wake up call?”
The outraged Fox then knocks Gould to the ground:
Fuck you…Fuck you…. (He hits Gould.) Fuck you. Get up. (He hits him again.) I’ll fucken’ kill you right here in this office. All this bullshit; you wimp, you coward…now you got the job, and now you’re going to run all over everything, like something broke in the shopping bag, you fool—your fucken’ sissy film—you squat to pee. You old woman…all of my life I’ve been eating your shit and taking your leavings…. Fuck you, the Head of Production. Job I could of done ten times better’n you, the press, the money, all this time, and now you’re going to be some fucken’ wimp, cost me my, my, my…fortune? Not In This Life, Pal.
He later tells him,
You’re a whore…Bob. You’re a chippy…you’re a fucken’ bought-and-paid-for whore, and you think you’re a ballerina cause you work with your legs?
He tells him that he is ruining both of their prospects by submitting to the wishes of a secretary who wants “power. How do I know? Look: She’s out with Albert Schweitzer working in the jungle? No: she’s here in movieland, Bob, and she trades the one thing that she’s got, her looks, get into a position of authority—through you.”
Fox asks Karen in front of Gould whether she slept with him the night before and whether she would have done so if he had turned down the radiation movie project. She admits that she would not have and asks Fox to leave, telling Gould that they have a meeting with the head of the studio to sell the radiation movie. But as both Fox and Karen claim his attention and help, he sits at his desk, saying “Al right. Al right. Al right. Al right” and he asks to be let alone. In the end the scales fall from his eyes: he dismisses the secretary, admits that he “wanted to do Good” but “became foolish,” and the two men revive their personal—and commercial—friendship.
Much of this is implausible. Are film projects today really “greenlighted,” or even brought for discussion before the head of the studio so casually, merely on the basis of big names and a schematic outline of a story? So many expensive films whose content and budget have depended on “bankable” stars like Elizabeth Taylor or Marlon Brando or Barbra Streisand or Robert Redford have turned out to be colossal failures that one suspects that this is not how films are made any longer, if they once were. How likely is it that a “buddy picture” set in prison in which black inmates threaten to rape the heroes would be approved so easily by the head of production? Is it true that film producers try to “make the thing everyone made last year”? This sounds right for Beverly Hills Cop II or the Rambo series, but not for many other “sequels.”
Granted that a successful film executive and his alluring secretary might indeed try to seduce one another, would he fall equally for the silly idea of the novel that all radiation has “been sent by God” to “change us”? And if he did so, would his colleague Fox be able to argue him out of it so quickly? People can become converted to an idea and then reject it; but in this play the process takes far too little time. How, one wonders, could Gould ever have gotten his job if he behaves so erratically?
Would Karen behave so foolishly as to reveal to Fox that she slept with Gould the night before, or admit to him that she would not have done so if he had not expressed interest in the radiation book? For a character reminiscent of Eve Harrington, she can behave ineptly. Part of the trouble here has to do with the way Mosher’s occasionally hasty direction of the play compounds these imperfections by rushing through important dialogue before the audience can properly make sense of it. Another difficulty is the uneven quality of the acting in the production. As Gould, Joe Mantegna strikingly conveys the icy loathesomeness of someone who is apprehensive about a powerful new job and therefore insincerely mocks himself, and yet is also more than a little pleased to find himself in control of the destinies of other people. Ron Silver is an actor who can convincingly bring off the explosions of anger and resentment that Fox allows himself in the final act of the play. But the singer and actress Madonna—sexually attractive but whiny and uncertain in the delivery of her lines—is simply not up to the acting of her colleagues. It is difficult to see how she could have the effect she is supposed to have on the head of production at a studio. She therefore not only fails to make her own character work in opposition to those of the two men but exposes an underlying speciousness in the play.
Here, as in some of Mamet’s other plays, we are diverted often enough from such implausibility by his hypnotizing command of the argot of his characters and his skill at preparing a refined and compressed, even purified, version of the way his characters talk. In earlier plays, such as American Buffalo, many of these dubious characters are card players, hustlers, and crooks who, as they are presented by Mamet, tend to express inarticulate grievances and a limited repertoire of thought by repeating words and phrases, often simple obscenities, in different variations and combinations in different situations. American Buffalo, for example, is the story of three pathetic men—Don, who owns a junk resale shop, his friend Teach, and his young gopher, Bob—who plan to rob a man of his coin collection. The robbery never takes place, but the three men continually argue among themselves about how it will take place. To advance a plan of his own designed to impress Don, his father figure, Bob tells the other men that he has seen the “mark” leave his house with a suitcase and that the coast is clear for the robbery. As the play reaches its close, Bob confesses that “I missed him.”
Don: (stopping) What?
Bob: I got to tell you what a fuck I am.
Bob: I missed him.
Bob: The guy.
Don: What guy?
Bob: The guy this morning.
Don: What guy?
Bob: With the suitcase.
Don: (Pause) You missed him?
Bob: I eat shit.
Don: What are you saying that you lied to me?
Bob: I eat shit.
And so on, with Bob compulsively repeating the expression “I eat shit” in contrition. Mamet has shown in plays such as The Shawl and A Life in the Theater, and in some of his sketches of Vermont and other short plays in his Goldberg Street—many of which are charming and worth reading—that he has something of the same gift for dialogue when writing about other kinds of people.
In Speed-the-Plow, Mamet uses the same kind of calculated repetition of words and phrases as in his earlier plays, as when Fox yells obscenities at Gould and Gould can only say “All right” again and again. But here he is writing about Hollywood hustlers whose business is to sell film properties, and he has created characters who are more articulate and amusing than some of his earlier ones. The play is full of bad and tasteless jokes in the style of comedians like Jackie Mason (with whom, Mamet has written, he shares “the same values”). Fox says he realizes that Gould has changed his mind about the prison film and wants to make the radiation one because he believes in it. He adds: “I believe in the Yellow Pages, Bob, but I don’t want to film it.” When Fox and Gould discuss the percentages that they will demand for their prison film, and Fox speaks of the “net,” Gould says, “Two things I’ve learned, twenty-five years in the entertainment industry”: the first is “there is no net” and “I forgot the second one.” Fox says that when his prison film is made and he has become powerful, people will say about him, “I blew his poodle. He gave me a smile.”
Speed-the-Plow is also a “buddy” play. Mamet often writes about the closeness of two men. But he seems most effective when writing about men settling scores, seeking to humiliate each other, getting even, as in the eruption of Fox in the second act. His dialogue in this vein often contains more than a touch of sadism. Gould says to Fox, “You put as much energy into your job as you put into kissing my ass,” and Fox says, “My job is kissing your ass.” Gould also assures him in an obscure but cruel metaphor that “you see, all that you got to do is eat my doo doo for eleven years, and eventually the wheel comes round.” In the first act, when it looks as if the prison film might be “greenlighted,” Mosher has Silver display signs of animal submission to his boss, Mantegna—at one point bowing before him and kissing his crotch and at another grabbing it in gratitude. In the final act when Fox is fighting for his prison project Gould says, “You read the plaque on my door. I am your superior. Now, I’ve made my decision. I’m sorry it hurt you,” to which Fox replies, “It hurt me? You ruined my life.” “Be that as it may,” Gould says slowly.
Mamet is rarely good at dialogue between men and women—certainly not in Speed-the-Plow; even though one of the central questions of the play, one might say, is raised by Karen, the important action takes place between the men. His plays Edmond and All Men Are Whores are full of scenes of sexual sadism and degradation. One of the characters in Lakeboat says:
Listen: THE WAY TO GET LAID IS TO TREAT THEM LIKE SHIT. Truer words have never been spoken. And this has been tested by better men than you or me. So, I thought it out a bit and decided to put it into action. I’m going out with Janice. Movies, walk home, couch, dryhumping, no…I hit her in the mouth. I don’t mean slap, Dale, this is important. I mean hit, I fucking pasted her. She didn’t know nothing. She is so surprised she didn’t even bleed. Not a word did I speak, but off with her dress, panties, and my pants. I didn’t wear any underwear. A lot of women find that attractive, did you know that?
In publicity interviews and in photographs, Mamet comes on wearing a baseball cap over his tough-guy Marine haircut and smoking a big cigar.
His characters speak violently and noisily, but what they say does not always amount to very much. As we have seen, his language is showy, slightly melodramatic, and “theatrical,” but it rarely, if ever, has the menacing banality or consecutiveness of mood found in Pinter, for example, to whom Mamet dedicated Glengarry Glen Ross and to whom we have heard him compared. A lot of what his characters say is a peculiar mixture of pornography and kitsch, as when Gould tells Karen that
If you don’t have principles, whatever they are…then each day is hell, you haven’t got a compass. All you’ve got is “good taste”; and you can shove good taste up your ass and fart the “Carnival of Venice.”
One sometimes feels, as here, that the playwright’s central concern is the punch line that gets a laugh or a gasp rather than the character or the situation. The plays are all too often reminiscent of vaudeville and comic pornography or, at its worst, the coarse world of Miami Jewish comics and female wrestling.
In an earlier play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, a woman asks a man, “Ask me if I like the taste of come.”
Danny: Do you like the taste of come?
Deborah: Do I like the taste of come?
Deborah: Dan, I love the taste of come. It tastes like everything…good…just…coming out of your cock…the Junior Prom…an autumn afternoon….
Danny: It doesn’t taste a little bit like Chlorox?
In Lakeboat, a character exclaims,
I mean in a flash all this horseshit about the Universe becomes clear to me, and I perceive meaning in life: I WANT TO FUCK. I want to stick it inside of her. Screw dryhumping. I want to get it wet. I want to become one with the ages of men and women before me down into eternity and goo in the muck from whence we sprung…you know what I mean?
In view of the claims of critics that Mamets’ characters speak in an authentic American jargon, one can ask: Do many people really speak this way? One suspects that if they do, they are imitating the bad novels that they have read. Many of Mamet’s plays tend to be carried along by the force of little atoms of conversations, but these, for all their momentary shock effect, do not link up with one another sufficiently to create characters or situations that claim our attention for very long. What, after all, apart from the memorable insults or jokes they tell each other, are we to make of characters like Fox and Gould and Karen, and what do we carry away from our encounter with them?
Like so many of Mamet’s other plays, Speed-the-Plow tries to illustrate his perception of the indignities and humiliations involved in making a living in America today, the corruption and phoniness of friendships (like that between Gould and Fox) based on the fleeting intersection of commercial interests, the game-show vacuity of our culture. One of the New York Times writers mentioned earlier spoke of Mamet’s reputation as “the chief critic of capitalism among American playwrights.” In a recent interview, Mamet called the “American Dream” one of “raping and pillage” and said that “this capitalistic dream of wealth” is ended, or rather “the dream has nowhere to go so it has to start turning in on itself.” In an essay on acting, he writes that
we live in very selfish times…. Any impulse of creation or whimsy or iconoclasm which achieves general notice is immediately co-opted by risk capital, and its popularity—which arose from its generosity and freedom of thought—is made to serve the turn of financial extortion.
We have, “as a nation,” he writes, “become our own thought police; but instead of calling the process by which we limit our expression of dissent and wonder ‘censorship,’ we call it ‘concern for commercial viability.’ Whatever we call it, it is censorship.” All these notions, if muddled, seem worth exploring, but in plays like Speed-the-Plow Mamet does not leave one with very much to think about except that all of the characters use each other in the name of love or loyalty or friendship—one to get a movie made, another to find a hit project, and a third to find a better job. And just what are the grandiose conceptions he refers to in passages like the one just quoted? What is the “American Dream”? Is there such a thing anymore, or just one such “dream”? Is the preoccupation with commerce really a form of “censorship”? The two processes seem quite different. Is the capitalist dream really fading in the United States, for example in the computer and information industries? If it is true that “any impulse of creation or whimsy or iconoclasm which achieves general notice is immediately co-opted by risk capital” is this always morally or aesthetically reprehensible? It seems that a concern with “commercial viability” might help to advance ends quite different from the suppression of “creation or whimsy or iconoclasm,” as Mamet’s own career confirms.
Mamet’s stated views of what he is trying to accomplish in his plays are puzzling. He does not present himself as a cynic or amoralist. As he shows in his recently published essays, Writing in Restaurants, he is a ferocious and rather self-important moralist with angry and severe, if unclear, pronouncements to make about the moral aims of the theater. One of the cardinal ideas he discovered as a student, he writes, was Stanislavsky’s dictum that “the purpose of the play is to bring to the stage the life of the soul,” which sounds authoritative until one asks oneself whose soul is under discussion, or what “the life of the soul” consists in. “We are driven to the theater,” he writes, “by our need to express—our need to answer the questions of our lives—the questions of the time in which we live.” The questions the theater should deal with, he writes, should not be about the “unassailable”—he mentions such conditions as “illness, homosexuality, accident, aging, birth defects” that “equally befall the Good and the Bad individual”—but involve “the human capacity for choice.”
One might naturally suppose that “the questions of the time in which we live” would include those of nuclear war and arms control, famine in the third world, so-far uncontrolled epidemics of disease, the justice of the cause of Palestinians rebelling on the West Bank or of the contras. But in Mamet’s strange view,
The problems of the world, AIDS, cancer, nuclear war, pollution, are, finally, no more solvable than the problems of a tree which has borne fruit: the apples are overripe and they are falling—what can be done?… What can be done about the problems which beset our life? Nothing can be done, and nothing needs to be done.
Mamet does not believe that there is “free will,” but that “all societies function according to the rules of natural selection and that those survive who serve the society’s turn.” Indeed,
When we look at our large society today we see many problems—overcrowding, the risk of nuclear annihilation, the perversion of the work ethic, the disappearance of tradition, homosexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, divorce, the tenuousness of the economy.
These may seem problems to us, but they “can be viewed also as solutions,” for “the problems which beset us are an attempt of the universe to, by natural selection, if you will, discover that one thing which will bring about a state of rest.” Elsewhere, Mamet has said that “if you read the paper, you see that the world is trying to determine which of the many alternatives for decay and dissolution will work. One is a plague. Another is a nuclear accident or war. Another is economic catastrophe.”
In his view, “We, as a culture, as a civilization, are at the point where the appropriate, the life-giving, task of the organism is to decay. Nothing will stop it, nothing can stop it, for it is the force of life, and the evidence is all around us.” This sounds like a caricature of the book on radiation in Speed-the-Plow.
Mamet’s views on the theater are high-sounding but paradoxical. If there is no free will, there are no genuine problems of human choice and everything in our lives is as “unassailable” as birth defects or illness or aging. If nothing can be done to solve the problems that beset our lives what kind of problems are left for the theater to consider? Mamet writes that “only if the question posed is one whose complexity and depth renders it unsusceptible to rational examination does the dramatic treatment seem to us appropriate, and the dramatic solution become enlightening.”
But what is a problem that is “unsusceptible” to reason? We are not told, nor are we offered any examples of actual problems of this kind that the drama can, or has been able to, illuminate—or indeed any examples of this kind of problem that he has dealt with in his own plays. Is Gould’s problem, if it might be called that, of whether to “greenlight” the radiation film, susceptible to reason? He has become briefly infatuated with a girl, and as a result of hearing some passionate-sounding and childish beliefs of hers he has been led to question certain of his own convictions. At one point he is torn between his desire to maintain his power and authority in the movie industry and his feelings for the girl, whom he has slept with the night before. This conflict seems to lend itself only too easily to rational examination; at any rate, the problem seems less portentous than Mamet’s admirers have made it out to be. It certainly is difficult to see it as one of “religious conversion” that opens up a “vertigo-inducing moral void” and forces “people, on stage and by empathic extension in the audience, to question their most cherished illusions about themselves and confront who they really are,” in Frank Rich’s words.
More paradox, more actor’s rehearsal hall kitsch: it is not incumbent, Mamet says, for the theater to be “political,” and yet
the theatrical artist serves the same function in society that dreams do in our subconscious life—the subconscious life of the individual. We are elected to supply the dreams of the body politic—we are the dream makers of the society…. The artist is the advance explorer of the societal consciousness.
Who is going to speak for the American spirit? For the human spirit?… Only that person who speaks without ulterior motives, without hope of gain, without even the desire to change, with only the desire to create: The artist. The actor. The strong, trained actor dedicated to the idea that the theater is the place to go to hear the truth, and equipped with the technical capacity to speak simply and clearly.
The theater can form “an ideal society” not by “preaching about it, but by creating it each night in front of the audience—by showing how it works. In action.”
There is a gap between this moralism and the playwright who can carry us along with a flair for reproducing vivid jargon. Speed-the-Plow shows that Mamet has not yet brought his talent for tough-sounding language into contact with his ideas of forming “an ideal society” and solving social problems in the form of theatrical “dreams of the body politic.” The plays themselves remain disturbing little snapshots of hell animated by rough humor and they do not leave one morally engaged; the essays are all confident opinion and pronouncement, thundering sermons that recall the certitudes of Lyman Beecher. Neither goes very far toward helping us either to understand or to alter the decaying condition Mamet accurately finds us in, and so popularly tries to depict, in his plays and movies.
July 21, 1988