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Book Reviews

Reviews of Arthur Holmberg David Mamet and American Macho and Jon Dietrick’s Bad Pennies and Dead Presidents


Perhaps David Mamet recognized the excesses of O’Neill’s stage directions since from the outset he eliminated nearly all stage directions from his playtexts. In one sense, rectifying this absence, Arthur Holmberg, Literary Director of A.R.T. where Mamet-directed plays debuted in the 1990s, recalls the rehearsals of the family plays The Old Neighborhood and Cryptogram. In David Mamet and American Macho (Cambridge) Holmberg quotes Mamet in rehearsal: “In my plays I want the facts to speak for themselves. Don’t sentimentalize. The less significance you guys find in what you say, the more significance the audience will find.” Mamet clearly trusts actors no more than O’Neill, but instead of filling in directions, he tries to keep the actors from intruding into his work. Tony Shaloub is then cited: “Mamet does not want actors to do too much work for the audience. […] He wants the audience to fill in the colors so that the audience, not the actors, go through the experience.” But Holmberg has plenty of insight into Mamet’s staging, especially of these two plays, as intentions were made physical with the actors.

Holmberg’s thesis on Mamet’s “American Macho” is nicely constructed as he sets up theories of gender and then cites essays that reveal Mamet’s typically convoluted views. Citing “Late Season Hunt” Mamet describes himself as fed up with NYC, “site of ‘luxury and fashion,’ coded symbols for a fear of decadence and the feminine.” Up in Vermont, tracking deer in the winter, he is “delighted” essentially reasserting his masculinity. But he never took a shot or got close to deer: “As a hunter, of course, I am a fraud.” Holmberg observes that “Contemporary American men hunt not to put red meat on the table but to resurrect a cultural archetype of masculinity.” The key point  is not that this is masculine, but rather that it is simply a performance—play at being masculine. So Mamet both ridicules such rituals at the same time as he participates in them. His characters are equally ambivalent, seeking to appear masculine always, they are more concerned with the performance than any inner nature.  Holmberg concludes “His characters both embody tough masculinity and critique the masculinity they embody.”

But when he gets to the chapter on the plays he observed throughout rehearsal, Holmberg writes on Freud, Oedipus, and Mothers undermining children, apparently taking Mamet declarations at face value. He cites both Donny in Cryptogram as an unfeeling mother, damaging her son, and Jolly in The Old Neighborhood who laments her mistreatment in childhood. And Mamet’s own experience after his parents’ divorce is included as support. Mamet, asked by Charlie Rose about the impact of that divorce replied, “You’ll have to ask me when I get over it.” This is no macho tough guy, but rather a whiner like Jolly herself is at times. Mamet normally rebukes such sentiments—as Bobby does in disparaging therapy in The Old Neighborhood. Yet Holmberg does a nice job of tying the two plays together with this view of parents, and even stretching it to include the third Mamet directed ART premiere, Oleanna. The connection there is the play’s epigraph from Samuel Butler on unhappy children: “it is astonishing how easily they can be prevented from attributing it to any other cause than their own sinfulness.” The payoff in using this approach is through another quotation from Shaloub on his role as Bobby in The Old Neighborhood who, “when he sees his sister spinning her wheels, he ‘comes to understand that locking one’s self into a perpetual pursuit of the past is a trap.’” As John says in a screenplay draft of Oleanna which Holmberg has discovered, “Now: what is magical about the past. It does not change … A case could be made that it never existed. It is a fiction.”

These specific insights into Mamet’s views are revealing, though much of the book is shaped by generalizations and sociological studies that just seem too facile. On John in Oleanna: “Men love to hog the floor to display expertise.” Or on Jolly’s lament that she didn’t get skis for Christmas: “The wrong gifts signal parental hostility. […It] tells the child that his wishes, thoughts, and feelings count for nothing. These unspoken messages alienate the child from himself.” Some supporting arguments come from contemporary playwrights like Rabe and Wasserstein, but sometimes the support seems far afield: “For a boy, the father looms large as the model of masculinity. Big, Bushy Mustache, a popular children’s book (ages five to eight) illustrates this process and the despair that implodes when anything, no matter how trivial, interferes.” Holmberg’s conclusion is, not surprisingly, another generalization: “Mamet’s plays diagnose a malady of American males: they want to be men, but they do not want to grow up. Their quest for authentic manhood becomes a search for lost boyhood. They confuse masculinity with infantile narcissism.” Perhaps the “infantile narcissism” is why Big Bushy Moustache is relevant for Holmberg.

Jon Dietrick’s Bad Pennies and Dead Presidents : Money in Modern American Drama (Cambridge Scholars) gives close readings of Dead End, Death of a Salesman, American Buffalo, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Susan Lori-Parks’s plays. Dietrick uses the loss of the gold standard leaving the dollar to float on the open market as a metaphor for ambiguity replacing literalism in language. When there was a gold standard, realistic language was straightforward but that has receded as has the notion of fixed value to money. Despite the title then, Dietrick is less interested in money than in language in his analysis of the plays. So Arthur Miller’s play explores “the distinction between saying and doing, talk and action.” And “Mamet complicates the naturalist distinction between talk and action, soft currency and hard value, exploring the dislocating effects of both money and language.”