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Crime into Art

The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1999 • Volume 6 • ISSN 1095-9629




MLA ’98.


The San Francisco Chronicle gave the Mamet session a rave review, using "Crime Into Art: The Plays and Films of David Mamet" as the lead to discuss the interesting sessions of the Modern Language Association convention–a departure from the usual search for controversy and exotica. The Chronicle was right–due praise to Leslie Kane, session organizer and presenter. Mamet sessions have been unique at the MLA for including the actor’s perspective, yet her announcement that Vincent Gusaferro had to cancel did not diminish the standing-room-only audience.

And they were right to stay, for the papers featured here were atypical of MLA sessions, since each took a much larger view of their subject than short papers usually attempt. Kimball King began the session with a very perceptive analysis of Mamet’s plays’ ethics, distinguishing them from situation ethics on the basis of the community in which they occur. Opening with the assertion that "audiences are made uncomfortable by their unwitting participation in socially unacceptable violence," King went on to probe what makes audiences so uncomfortable. Comparing Mamet with Bond, Stoppard, Shaw and Ayckbourn, King argued that all of these dramatists inculpate their audiences in violence. Most thought provoking was the position that Mamet the craftsman depicts "crimes of modern life while Mamet the artist transcends each milieu by taunting us with visions of an altruistic universe."

Barry Goldensohn followed King, with an extended analysis of Melville’s complex Confidence Man in relation to Mamet’s work. Central, here, was Goldensohn’s argument that "the goal . . . is to attack the facile appropriation of the language of the spirit for the language of commerce, by which confidence becomes at once the test of wholesome spirituality and the requirement of the swindle, however minor, and consummately autoelic, that swindle turns out to be."

Finally, Leslie Kane perceptively aligned audience response and con artistry in her analysis of The Spanish Prisoner. Kane argued that confidence tricksters trade upon the trust of scientist Joe Ross; as they "capitalize on his vulnerability, and make a killing on his unconscious complicity, the game as it is played by the filmmaker hooks both the mark and the audience — the latter trapped by the labyrinthine plot and its own tendency to autosuggest in ways that seem logical but are inherently false." Kane’s paper was strengthened by her exploration of Roland Barthes’ and Mamet’s theories on the correlation between film and magic. Her inclusion of Mamet’s observations on the way in which the con functions in life/art, drawn from his essays and from interviews with the writer (the subject of Kane’s next book) enriched her theoretical approach to Mamet’s film and his fascination with magic.

The three papers, revealing in their focus on the confidence trick as both a thematic and structural center for much of Mamet’s work, set a very high standard for future MLA sessions.

Spring Hill College