Three decades ago David Mamet became known among the culture-consuming public for writing plays with lots of dirty words. “You’re f—ing f—ed” was a typically Mamet-like line, appearing without the prim dashes back in a day when playwrights were still struggling to get anything stronger than a damn on stage. Mamet’s profanity even became a popular joke: So there’s this panhandler who approaches a distinguished looking gentleman and asks for money. The man replies pompously: “ ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ —William Shakespeare.” The beggar looks at him. “ ‘F— you’ —David Mamet.”
Some critics said his plays were pointlessly brutal. As a consequence he became famous and wealthy. It didn’t hurt when it dawned on people that many of his plays, for all the profanity and brutality, were works of great power and beauty, and often very funny to boot. When people began to say, as they increasingly did by the middle 1980s, that the author of Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo and Lakeboat had earned a place in the top rank of the century’s dramatists, no one thought that was a joke. He took to writing for the movies (The Verdict, The Untouchables, Wag the Dog), won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his masterpieces (Glengarry Glen Ross), and moved to Holly-wood, where he became a respected and active player in the showbiz hustle.
Ferguson goes on to describe a speech at Stanford in which Mamet expressed his disenchantment with higher education:
Higher ed, he said, was an elaborate scheme to deprive young people of their freedom of thought. He compared four years of college to a lab experiment in which a rat is trained to pull a lever for a pellet of food. A student recites some bit of received and unexamined wisdom—“Thomas Jefferson: slave owner, adulterer, pull the lever”—and is rewarded with his pellet: a grade, a degree, and ultimately a lifelong membership in a tribe of people educated to see the world in the same way.
“If we identify every interaction as having a victim and an oppressor, and we get a pellet when we find the victims, we’re training ourselves not to see cause and effect,” he said. Wasn’t there, he went on, a “much more interesting . . . view of the world in which not everything can be reduced to victim and oppressor?”
This led to a full-throated defense of capitalism, a blast at high taxes and the redistribution of wealth, a denunciation of affirmative action, prolonged hymns to the greatness and wonder of the United States, and accusations of hypocrisy toward students and faculty who reviled business and capital even as they fed off the capital that the hard work and ingenuity of businessmen had made possible. The implicit conclusion was that the students in the audience should stop being lab rats and drop out at once, and the faculty should be ashamed of themselves for participating in a swindle—a “shuck,” as Mamet called it.
Mamet says the following about capitalism:
“I never questioned my tribal assumption that Capitalism was bad,” he writes now, “although I, simultaneously, never acted upon these feelings.” He was always happy to cash a royalty check and made sure to insist on a licensing fee. “I supported myself, as do all those not on the government dole, through the operation of the Free Market.”
When I was an undergraduate studying at Birkbeck College of the University of London, through a program run by my alma mater, Furman University, I attended the production of one of Mamet's plays, Edmond, which starred Kenneth Branagh as Edmond. I was of course familiar with Branaugh because of his various Shakespearean roles, but I was not familiar with his nude body, which is what I saw displayed quite awkwardly and prominently, or so it seemed from the third row. Apparently Branagh's, ehem, unmentionable draws quite a crowd.
I recommend Ferguson's delightful and provocative profile piece. For interesting Austrian-economics-and-literature takes on Mamet, see Troy Camplin's post here and Stephen W. Carson's post here.
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