Theater Commentary: ON DAVID MAMET’S LATEST NATIONAL REVIEW ESSAY

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by Jason Rohrer on September 9, 2021

in Extras,Theater-New York

OLEYAWNA

There are useful points to be brought against the fact of every Broadway show having been written by a member of a single race this season. Comically, David Mamet’s latest McEssay in the National Review raises none of them and muddies all.

First, he’s full of shit. He opens his bona fides by claiming to have paid his rent for 50 years by writing theater. In fact, since 1987, when he made a million dollars writing a movie based on a TV show, like Odets and Krasna and Hecht before him he’s been largely a product of Los Angeles. True, he still writes comedies popular with regional theater programmers, such as 2009’s portentously named Race, about black and white racial politics, and 2008’s November, concerning politics of the suit and flag variety.

Both of these are issue plays, which would be fine if he weren’t, in 2021, railing against issue plays. Complaining obliviously about yourself is the traditional territory of senility. Maybe his next play will be called Dementia.

The issue plays Mamet would buffalo are about diversity. He asks, “…and what is a less interesting issue than Diversity?” This is the sort of brick-wall rhetoric a mid-life reactionary convert (a Chicago man with a house in Vermont) mortars up to ensure it is supportively graffitied by other reactionaries. It falls at the first egg thrown by literally anyone but a conservative.

Clearly, there exist in America many citizens who find Diversity, as Mamet conspicuously capitalizes, a fascinating enough issue to get their heads bashed in support of, by Mamet’s friends, the police, as well as other racists. Mamet dismisses Hamilton (which I’d like to dismiss for other reasons) as a hot ticket, but, “Hamilton aside, who would spend a vacation and (ten? Twenty?) thousand dollars on a New York theatrical trip where the only fare on offer was but an endorsement of right-thinking?”

This’d be clever if it passed the Idiot Test, but Hamilton is the test. Hamilton‘s right-thinking seems to have drawn even, as Mamet cluelessly admits, the “75% of pre-Broadway hysteria audience [who] were tourists.” Apparently everyone involved in the success of a show about Diversity refutes Mamet with every dollar spent. The “joyless hypocritical self-congratulation” he ascribes to the Hamilton audience is suspicious, since it was 1988 the last time Mamet’s audience “couldn’t get a ticket” because he cast Madonna in Speed-the-Plow.

He taunts us, as a Test of a play’s value, to ask “one just returned from, and praising, a celebration of Diversity: ‘Quote me a line.'” I don’t know what they talk about in Vermont, but I have been unable to escape the quoting of Hamilton in polite conversation for a number of years. “History has its eyes on you” and “I’m not throwing away my shot” may be stolen and may be trite; like casting Madonna in a straight play, they may be pandering. Quotable, and quoted, they remain.

This is hapless essaying. Mamet rambles on (in a remarkably short thesis covering as much ground as your grandmother when you ask her where the cookbook is) that Broadway will become “just like TV,” “undifferentiated.” “…all the cop shows [are] interchangeable”! This is an interesting point, because from 2006-2009 Mamet produced his creation, The Unit, a terrifically bland CBS offering about soldiers acting like the police in every half-good cop show from The Rookies to Mare of Easttown.

A great point that Mamet and other rich conservatives never make about Broadway’s woes might be dramatically capitalized as The Economy. This could afford a telling observation about why Broadway is packed with Disney musicals, and why Mamet’s last great play, Oleanna, never made it to Broadway. It would be more honest of him, instead of predicting that “blacks, being human, will not likely go to a bad play merely because it is about being black, or written by an African American.” Leaving aside the presumption about the black play being bad, let’s instead predict that a black audience, like every other audience, mostly CAN’T AFFORD THE TICKET.

When I was a student in New York, an ordinary person already couldn’t afford a hundred dollars to see Showboat, which was on Broadway at the time. (No, not in 1927; the 1994 revival.)

Tourists could afford to see Showboat. Mamet concurs that tourists will always afford the hot ticket. What he doesn’t like is that, instead of seeing his shows, tourists want to see Hamilton.

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