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Book Review: The Art of Crime: The Plays and Films of Harold Pinter and David Mamet

Editor Leslie Kane provides a comprehensive introduction that positions a critical, historical, and dramaturgical context. This is a cogent collection that advances critical inquiry into the work of Pinter and Mamet in light of contemporary events and illuminates a crucial social and personal debate on social and moral crimes.

BOOK REVIEWS

The Art of Crime: The Plays and Films of Harold Pinter and David Mamet. Ed. Leslie Kane. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 242 pp.


The Enron corporate collapse and ensuing corruption scandal, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the legal tangle over rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees, even the conviction of design maven Martha Stewart — are these ethical violations or de facto criminal activities? Was Stewart’s crime of lying a criminal or an ethical violation? These and other images passed through my mind as I read this insightful and solid analysis of the centrality of crime in the work of Harold Pinter and David Mamet. Editor Leslie Kane provides a comprehensive introduction that positions a critical, historical, and dramaturgical context for the reader, and the 14 essays cover a wide range of plays, filmscripts, novels, and essays and incorporate a variety of methodologies and approaches. This is a cogent collection that advances critical inquiry into the work of Pinter and Mamet in light of contemporary events and illuminates a crucial social and personal debate on social and moral crimes.

    “A Poetics for Thugs,” by Varun Begley, examines the iconic figure of the thug in the works of Pinter. Begley connects the gangsters and sociopaths of the early plays to the “plutocrats, socialites, and functionaries” in the later plays and argues that Pinter’s thugs “express and endure a violence that is both ubiquitous and invisible.” Moreover, he charts Pinter’s thugs as they develop from the “comic menace” of characters in The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter to the more inward “erotic” modes of barbarity as portrayed in One for the Road.

    Steven Price’s impressive essay, “Harold Pinter’s ‘Before the Law ’”presents a wide-ranging historical, social, political and legal discourse of the 1980s to provide context for Pinter’s use of law. This context is particularly useful because Price’s analysis covers both a priori criminal acts and more morally ambiguous personal interpretations involving moral pressure and authoritarian power in Pinter’s work. Price argues that Pinter’s early and late plays present a politicized view of power and authority where “boundaries are uncertain” and events and acts that appear criminal “evolve as these boundaries are constantly renegotiated.”

    The troubled relationship between history, memory and conscience is examined in Charles Grimes’ poignant essay on Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes. Grimes argues that memory and conscience bear witness to history, in particular the Holocaust, but ultimately fail as redemptory or empathic processes that attempt to find historical “truth.” As Rebecca relives her Holocaust experiences, they consume her and ultimately prove futile and destructive.

    Penelope Prentice examines the role of comedy as a weapon in Pinter’s Celebration and The Press Conference. Prentice argues that Pinter’s use of comedy, in the form of satirical wit, allows the audience to vicariously enjoy the criminal mischief in the plays. Prentice reveals how we, the audience, laugh at the characters’ scatological language and their crude and demeaning behavior and, in this way, recognize our own attraction to both love and destruction.

    Ira Nadel examines the concept of lying in two filmscript treatments, The French Lieutenant’s Woman by Pinter and The Winslow Boy by Mamet. Nadel argues that lying “is consistent with the theme of betrayal common to both writers” and “it is typical of the historical periods in which both source-texts were written.” Nadel’s wide-ranging, thoughtful analysis covers specific issues of adaptation for both playwrights, the visual and verbal authenticity of the scripts, the historical value of honesty, and the theme of injustice and victimization.

    Anne Dean’s “Fantasy Crimes/Fictional Lives” explores the act of storytelling as a means of survival in Mamet’s early play, Lakeboat. She argues that the stories the seamen tell each other and Dale, the new crewman, contain fictional crimes “suffused with … brutality and spurious felonies” that serve to distract and relieve them from the tedium and moral emptiness of their daily lives. The crime of violence, as told in the story of Guigliani, the missing crewman, exists in a fantasy world; the seamens’ real world contains no outright criminal act.

    Elizabeth Klaver’s semiotic analysis of Mamet’s first film as writer/director, House of Games, unmasks the poker game as artifice in which players trade confidences and trust “so that both the characters and viewer fall into a trusting relationship with the fictionalizer.” She argues that the poker game combines the linguistic and semiotic functions found in Mametian dramaturgy and, moreover, serves as a performance of con games. This performative allegory reveals that words “cover, distract, and deflect attention from the more important semiotic system in play, the cards.”

    Editor Leslie Kane continues the examination of the participation of the spectator in the last essay in the collection, “Suckered Again: The Perfect Patsy and The Spanish Prisoner.” This is Mamet’s fifth film as writer/director and it also concerns an elaborate con game. Kane delineates that the viewer is drawn into the con and “plays the patsy” in Mamet’s world. Kane’s expertise in Mamet scholarship is seen as she deftly interweaves game theory, Hitchcockian film analysis, and semiotics to illuminate how the film “plays on the audience’s innate paranoia” as well as the audience’s ability to discern the structural connections of their meanings.

    

    Helen Huff

    City University of New York