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Book Review: Weasels and Wisemen

Review of Leslie Kane's study of Mamet and the influence of Judaism on his works.



Leslie Kane. Weasels and Wisemen.

New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1999. xii + 404 pp.

Cloth $55.00


It is rare to read a book as bold in its assertions and as meticulous in its textual interpretations as Leslie Kane’s Wea sels and Wisemen. Readers and audiences have long been familiar with the Mamet trademarks — his flair for dialogue, his edgy humor, his salesmen and huckster figures — and certainly. Mamet’s Judaism has never been too far out of the picture; one thinks immediately of such essays as ‘The Decoration of Jewish Houses.” But it has taken Kane’s book to draw together Mamet’s stylistic techniques, his choices of character portrayals, and his favorite themes under the umbrella of a cultural exploration of his oeuvre. The brilliance of her argument is that even when one takes issue with her analysis — at moments, one says. “Could Mamet really have had this in mind?’ — her explorations of the play texts maintain their precision, their pleasure, and their purposefulness.

As Kane remarks in her introduction, she approaches Mamet’s work from the perspective of a “cultural poetics” (2), which allows her to create a reading of such tropes as ‘the struggle for dominance, extended and estranged families, the evocative presence of history, recurring intimidation, persecution, and betrayal, and the pivotal place of memory” (2). While Kane often returns to the issue of Mamet’s own growing interest in Jewish practices, her larger focus is on his portrayals of the “weasels and wisemen” of her title — the “cons, teachers, salesmen, hucksters, tricksters” whose staging participates in a “Jewish tradition of argument” that is thousands of years old (3). Rather than intending her argument to be reductive (a risk she admits that the book is taking by virtue of its focus), she aims to provide a provocative retrospective of the Mamet canon by placing it within a larger cultural and historical context.

The first chapter juxtaposes a little-known early Mamet work, Marranos, with a well-known one, American Buffalo. The former, which is unpublished, was commissioned by the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center in 1975 for $1,000, and is an historical piece about a Jewish family during the Inquisition. Kane not only gives a fascinating account of this “lost” play, but she also shows how it raises themes that Mamet will return to repeatedly in his career. The discussion of American Buffalo focuses on the Don/Bobby relationship and on the character of Teach, (re)reading Mamet’s treatment of these characters through the prism of Jewish ethics and the nature of friendship. “Ostensibly the least Jewish of Mamet’s plays,” Kane argues, it may well be the most Jewish by interior design” (26).

Although much has been written about Glengarry Glen Ross — Kane herself has edited a book of essays on the play and film —her second chapter takes quite a different approach to the play than other critics have attempted. Looking primarily at Shelly Levene, Mamet’s Willy Loman figure, Kane brings our attention to the figures of Moss and Aaronow as well, and the ethical and performative choices that these characters are forced to make. She suggests that the plays “intrinsically Jewish concerns are evident in its linguistic rhythms, comic irony, and consideration of conduct in a society rarely hospitable to human aspirations and dignity” (59).

The book’s third chapter on Speed-the-Plow shows how Mamet plays off of the long-established Jewish presence in Hollywood (as well as his own early experiences there) to create his satiric plot involving the producers Fox and Gould. By showing the resonances of Fox and Gould’s discourse and the nature of their friendship. Kane locates the play as part of a body of Mamet works that “similarly address ethical dilemmas posed by the temptations to affluence, the desire for acceptance, and the betrayal of self and Other’ (106).

Just as Oleanna itself has been Mamet’s most controversial play, Kane’s discussion of Oleanna in her fourth chapter will probably provoke the most debate. Whereas most critics have concentrated on the play’s (disturbing) gender politics or on its treatment of academia, Kane is primarily interested in the character of John as a figure who has bought into a certain American myth of success: “he is in thrall to the power of his profession, a classicist on a power trip much like Bobby Gould” (160). She sees the power struggle between John and Carol as Mamet’s “war of words,” his attempt to interrogate what happens when human exchanges are reduced to violence.

One of the most useful chapters, Kane’s fifth, treats The Cryptogram and is quite helpful at establishing some critical paradigms for discussing this difficult play. The chapter is an example of Kane’s graceful manner of getting “inside” the text of Mamet’s drama without resting too easily on plot summary. She points out that in this work, the family setting is “the site of border crossings and confidence games as fierce as we have ever seen in a Mamet play” (187). The three marginalized figures at the center of the play — the mother, the gay man, the child — derive their power from Mamet’s responses to both Jewish and anti-Semitic portrayals of these figures. Calling the play “a microcosm of [Mamet’s] canon,” Kane argues that The Cryptogram merge[s] memory and fantasy, personal nightmare and cultural experience” (225).

The sixth chapter focuses on the triptych of plays in The Old Neighborhood, a work that Kane sees as a link between Mamet’s plays of the 1980s (e.g. Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow) and those of the 1990s (Oleanna, The Cryptogram) in its explorations of ‘identity, family, memory, and ethnicity” (228). The three pieces in The Old Neighborhood, according to Kane, take on “the difficulty of being Jewish in America” (231). Chekhovian in their interest in the unspoken, yet using “the dazzling language that we identify as Mametic,” the trilogy “encompass[es] the double-bind of legacy as blessing and burden” (259).

In the final chapter, Kane takes on three of Mamet’s screenplays: Things Change, Homicide, and The Edge, arguing that all three of these films are quest narratives that foreground tropes of identity, game-playing, pedagogy, and questions of loyalty or ethical behavior. Kane’s incisive analysis — and useful recaps — of these films affirm the thematic continuity between Mamet’s work for the stage and the screen. Of particular note is Kane’s argument that the issues of identity — mistaken, ethnic or assumed ( more or less respectively for the three works) call our attention to ‘implicit or explicit ethnic tensions and loom large in these films’ (262).

                                            W easels and Wisemen will be of use to Mamet scholars, of course, but also to those interested in Jewish cultural studies and American ethnic literature. Kane’s consistently engaging prose style and her ability to bring the plays and films to life in the process of her discussion will encourage a broad spectrum of readers to respond to her invigorating arguments: the work itself participates fully in the type of intellectual and persuasive tradition that she teaches us to value in Mamet.