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The Old Religion

David Mamet Society: Review - THE OLD RELIGION

The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1998 • Volume 5 • ISSN 1095-9629




By David Mamet. The Old Religion.
New York: The Free Press, 1997. 194 pp. Cloth $24.00


With The Old Religion, David Mamet offers his interpretation of the famous Leo Frank case. Briefly, a thirteen-year-old girl was molested and killed in Atlanta, Georgia in April 1913. Suspects were numerous, but in the end, Leo Frank, a Jewish manager for the National Pencil Factory, a Jewish owned and operated company, was charged with the murder. The case received national attention, and still stands as one of the best examples of American bigotry in our history. After an extremely problematic trial during which the jury's hatred of Jews overrode their usual distaste for African-Americans, Frank was found guilty of murder. Many, including the governor, believed that the verdict was inaccurate, so Frank was not executed following the trial. Instead, while serving a life sentence, he was lynched and castrated by an irate mob. Frank was officially cleared of any wrongdoing in 1986.

Mamet's representation of the case is not straightforward, so those who are unfamiliar with it will find the novel confusing. Part of the difficulty stems from Mamet's decision to tell the tale through the often-fragmented thoughts of Frank. For those familiar with the case, this strategy offers compelling insights into the mind of the unjustly accused. Frank, for example, attempts to reconcile his own fragile faith and Judaic teachings with the injustice of his situation. And through Mamet's retelling, it is not difficult to see how the crime against Frank foreshadows the brutalities of the Holocaust in order to illustrate the depths of American anti-Semitism. However, Mamet does not illustrate the issue too simplistically; even Frank's prison rabbi thinks that he is guilty of the crime.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the novel is Mamet's treatment of the female victim, Mary Phagan. Her age is never mentioned, and in a passage presumably constructed to create sympathy for Frank, Mamet indicates that Frank could not have done anything to Phagan because she was too physically repulsive to Frank. At moments like this, the novel reads like a sequel to Mamet's controversial play Oleanna, in which a young male professor loses his chance at tenure as a result of a female student's accusations of sexual harassment. In this case, however, the female never has the opportunity to interrupt.

Mamet makes the case more provocative, too, by his focus on the American economy and its burgeoning consumerism. Frank, for instance, ponders the means by which advertising works on its audiences: "Advertising must appeal, as is its essential nature, to the fear that one is to be excluded. It must both awaken and suggest how to allay this fear" (48). In addition to depicting Frank as a contemplative and philosophical character, such musings reflect Frank's own position as a Jew, an outsider, in a Christian culture. More interesting still is Mamet's implication that what Frank could have used most was not a better lawyer but a more astute public relations representative. In a subtle, macabre, and ironic conclusion, Mamet reminds us that Frank became an object on the consumer marketplace--a photograph of his lynching and castration were reproduced on a postcard, and it was "sold for many years in stores throughout the South" (194).

Ohio Dominican College