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Mamet Bashing at the MLA

Papers by Wertheim, Burkman, and Blumberg are reviewed for their view of the playwright in relation to the sentiments of the characters.


"Hollywood on Stage: Modern Drama and the Culture Industry," a session of the Modern Language Association Convention, Saturday, 30 December 1995, featured two papers dealing with Speed-the-Plow. The session began, however, with a well-crafted presentation by Albert Wertheim that the other presenters should have used as a paradigm for constructing an argument about a dramatist.

Through an analysis of Odets's The Big Knife , Wertheim showed how easy it is to misread a play as making biographical statements about its author. The conventional view is that this play is about the destructive effects the wealth of Hollywood has on the real Odets and on the character Charlie Castle, but Wertheim demonstrated that the setting was like that of Italy for the Elizabethans: a background for a morality play. Evidence for this interpretation was found in the text, in letters written by Odets, and in responses to early drafts from letters of Harold Clurman and Jean Renoir. Ironically, when the session turned to Mamet, the next two papers made the debunked assumption that the play's characters' attitudes must reflect the attitudes of the playwright. Marcia Blumberg of York University dismissed the two male characters of Speed-the-Plow  as, in a reviewer's words, "Stupid and Cupid." She then took "Stupid's" [Fox's] words to be Mamet's, finding in Fox's attack on Bobby Gould proof of Mamet's homophobia and anti-feminism.

Making this assertion that a character's words, especially one already defined as "Stupid," reflect the playwright's ideas seemed surprisingly naive. To support her assertion, Blumberg cited neither letters nor responses of intimates, but an essay written by Mamet, "Decay," on world problems, which included AIDS. She found the essay to be insufflciently sympathetic, and therefore indicative of homophobia. Her questions to Mamet were, in the words of the play, "What the fuck's wrong with you?" and "Why valorize macho values?" This supposed valorization of macho values comes from a character she accepted as "Stupid": that seems at odds with Blumberg's understanding him to represent Mamet's own ideas.

Katherine Burkman's paper (read by Judith Roof) was more subtle. She compared Speed-the-Plow with True West , arguing that both feature a pair of male characters whose apparent differences masked their deeper identity with each other. Having established the role reversal which indicates such an identity, Burkman then extended the argument to propose that both playwrights were similarly appearing to debunk Hollywood while actually "celebrating it." As a result, Shepard and Mamet are actually "buddies at heart."

Like Blumberg, however, Burkman then argued that since the men in the play are sexists, Mamet is too. She was particularly harsh in her view of Mamet's construction of Karen: "She has more vacuous cliches to speak than the men do." She then argued that the female character adopts the strategy of the men, making herself into a "whore."

What anti-feminism there is in this resides in Burkman more than in Mamet. She confused Madonna the person with her public persona as well, supporting the claim of "whore" by citing the casting, and then continually referring to "Karen/Madonna": "How can we not be relieved when the men throw her out?"

Like Blumberg in her stereotyping the playwright as antifeminist, Burkman also resembles her in going amazingly far afield for "proof." This time the source was not an unrelated Mamet essay, but an interview with Joe Mantegna by Leslie Kane in which the actor asserts that he must "identify" with a character to play him. This is a standard description of a realistic acting technique (see Olivier on learning to do this from Tyrone Guthrie in On Acting , 121). Burkman, not recognizing a theatrical platitude, first indicted Mantegna's technique for its failure to understand Brechtian construction of character, and then suggested that Mantegna thereby identifies with the anti-feminist Richard Roma of Glengarry Glen Ross . And since Mantegna and Mamet are "buddies," one can only conclude ....

Burkman herself concluded with a very nice play on the idea of Narcissus seeing what is only illusion. Her point was that Shepard and Mamet do this with Hollywood, but it is more interesting to note that she, in accusing Mamet of anti-feminism, displays it more virulently in herself—in her harsh view of Madonna, a confusion of artist with role, and writer with character.


Spring Hill College