Can the playwright ever recapture his former glory?by Rachel Shteir / May 22, 2013 / Leave a comment
Al Pacino as the murderer Phil Spector: “Mamet has long been interested in defending the indefensible” (© Startraks Photo/Rex Features)
When David Mamet’s Race opened on Broadway in 2009 it promised a return of the vital playwright, he of the tough guy, the short con, the invective-studded dialogue. The one audiences had been missing for at least a decade. Race, which receives its UK premiere in June at the Hampstead Theatre, tells the story of three lawyers (a black man, a white man and a black woman) arguing about a case in which a white man may have raped a black woman.
The play contains a couple of surprising elements for Mamet. The first is the woman lawyer, who seems clumsily conceived to counter years of accusations that Mamet is unable to write female characters. Another is its subject: it is the first time Mamet has tackled race head on. At the same time the play is vintage Mamet—hairpin plot twists, pugnacious poetry, and shrewd observations about what Henrik Ibsen once called “the life lie,” the deceptions people tell themselves to make it through the day.
And yet, despite these virtues, Race still leaves Mamet, author of some of the best dramatic writing of the 20th century, lagging behind the complicated concerns of the 21st. What has gone wrong—and is Mamet capable of a return to form?
Born in Chicago in 1947, Mamet first burst onto the scene in 1975 with American Buffalo, the best play about failure since Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Next came the big successes, Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), Speed the Plow (1988), and Oleanna (1992), each dazzlingly attacking a piece of common wisdom about America. Wielding his distinctive tough guy idiom—“Action talks, bullshit walks!” says Don, the junkstore owner in American Buffalo—Mamet shredded capitalism, feminism, Hollywood, anything that got in his way.
By the 1980s, Mamet had also begun to write and direct films. Several of these—House of Games (1987), Homicide (1991), and The Spanish Prisoner (1997) —brilliantly transfer his theatrical obsessions, especially his love of the 11th-hour con game, to the screen. But then in the 1990s, Mamet started writing prose, including a series of polemics against university, anti-semitism, and, it seemed, theatre itself. During this period, the quality of his plays began to decline—they often seemed inert, fanciful or strangely tin-earred.