The New York Times is very good at what it does — which nowadays involves a lot of lying in service to a leftist agenda. There are the outright lies (such as the paper’s recent distortion of a police bias trial to make the NYPD appear racist), the lies of omission (such as its lack of full reporting on the Obama administration’s fatal acts of malfeasance and dishonesty in, say, the Benghazi and Fast and Furious scandals), and the atmospheric lies (such as its rose-colored reporting on the disastrous economy in bluer-than-blue California). Altogether, these lies combine to make the paper something like the Matrix: a plausible imitation of reality intended to deceive people so that their substance may be milked to feed an overweening state.
As in the 1999 sci-fi film that begat that metaphor, rebellion against the illusion results in swift retribution. And nowhere does the Times rush to punish resistance so quickly as in the arts. Times reviewers consistently give sympathetic treatment to leftist cultural works while attacking those of a conservative bent, often regardless of quality.
Which brings me to David Mamet.
One of the most important American playwrights of the last 40 years, Mamet, in 2008, at the age of 60, broke from the near-universal leftist conformity of the theater community and declared in an essay in the Village Voice that he was “no longer a brain-dead liberal.” He followed this up in 2012 with a book entitled The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, which was nothing less than a conservative manifesto.
For the Times’ culture writers — and anyone else interested in preserving the left’s near-monopoly on our arts — Mamet’s political conversion presented a problem. The Pulitzer-winner’s credentials could hardly be any more impressive. He’s written mainstays of the modern theater like Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, and screenplays for such terrific films as The Untouchables and The Verdict. His original mix of American tough-guy vernacular and Pinteresque allusion had a huge effect on stage writing throughout the last third of the 20th century. He is an American master.
So the Times set out to destroy him.
The one time I met Mamet, I asked him if he had paid a price for admitting to his conservatism. He laughed and replied that, after his Voice piece, the New York Times had given his next play not one, but two, bad reviews! I do not believe the paper has given a new play of his a good review since. When they praise his early plays, it is often to compare them unfavorably to his later ones. And when his latest play, “The Anarchist,” opened on Broadway last December, they not only savaged it but celebrated its commercial failure with a nasty, slanted post-mortem.
While no one under the emotional age of 127 looks to the New York Times to set his cultural agenda, live theater is the one art form that remains somewhat dependent on the paper’s good opinion. Manhattan is still the center of the theater universe and a review from the Times can be decisive. So when Times chief theater critic Ben Brantley greeted “The Anarchist” with a childishly sneering, dismissive, and largely content-free pan, it was perhaps unsurprising that the play proceeded to close shortly thereafter.
The Times then followed its bad review with its subtly brutal obituary, “Behind a Flop, A Play(wright) Within a Play,” by Patrick Healy. Healy opines that the rapid “demise of ‘The Anarchist’ raises questions about the theater business.” These questions, according to Healy, are: Did loyalty to Mamet and the hope of a big score lead the producers to rush the play to the stage? Should Mamet have been allowed to direct his own work? And — the big one, given a paragraph of its own: “Does Mr. Mamet... still have something to say to a contemporary audience?”
Are these, in fact, the questions the play’s closing raises? What about: “Can a Broadway dominated by musicals and revivals still support new, small, serious drama?” Or how about: “Has the Times’s politically-inspired sniping at the playwright cost him popularity?”
But no, to Healy, the questions are only: is Mamet too influential, is he unable to direct, is he too old?
This last is a particularly vicious swipe in a culture world overeager for the young and hip — especially among Times readers, for whom the word “hip” is too often followed by the word “replacement.” And since it often requires several decades for an artist to acquire the wisdom and courage to openly embrace conservatism, the charge that he is past his prime is usually readily available to his left wing detractors.
But never mind. Let me try to answer Healy’s questions.
Over the last week or so, I’ve been steeped in Mamet’s latest stuff. I watched the HBO drama Phil Spector, which Mamet wrote and directed; I attended the Los Angeles revival of “American Buffalo” at the Geffen Playhouse; and I read “The Anarchist” (a performance wasn’t available to me).
Phil Spector is a smart, entertaining bagatelle. It’s largely worthwhile for Mamet’s superbly kinetic direction (answering one of Healy’s questions) and the brilliant speeches written for Al Pacino’s Spector. (“Extraordinary accomplishments... transform the grateful into an audience, and the envious into a mob.”) It’s not a major work, but it’s a minor work by a major talent. This and the fact that Mamet’s 2009 “Race” was a hit on Broadway despite more sneering attacks from the Times seems to answer another Healy question: yes, Mamet can still bring it.
As for American Buffalo, it was great. The Geffen revival is some of the best theater I’ve seen in LA (where the Los Angeles Times has also been waging an anti-Mamet campaign). The story of three small-time thieves losing track of everything that matters in their illegal pursuit of an endangered American dream is as powerful and relevant today as it was in ’77. The fact that a revival of this terrific play bombed on Broadway in 2008 (after another Times pan) reminds us that artistic and commercial success don’t always gibe on the Great White Way.
And what about “The Anarchist?” My judgement here has to be provisional. Mamet’s plays reveal themselves in performance more than on the page because... well, because they’re plays. All the same, I think I can safely say that this short, two-handed drama is a small but important work of the American theater. It will be re-staged and reconsidered long after Ben Brantley, Patrick Healy and the paper they work for are all forgotten.
Like Robert Redford’s recent movie The Company We Keep, “The Anarchist” concerns a Weatherman style leftist terrorist (Cathy). After 35-years in prison for killing two policemen during a politically motivated bank robbery, Cathy is brought before Ann, an authority figure who has the power to facilitate her parole. Cathy claims that she has converted from Judaism to Christianity, and deserves her freedom. Ann is suspicious. The intellectual fencing match between the two women slowly reveals Cathy’s outlook and motivations.
Of course, it was the play’s politics that were going to get under the Times’ skin. Redford’s movie, with its soft focus view of ‘60’s radicals, got a lukewarm but affectionate and sympathetic review from the paper, but Brantley brusquely dismissed Mamet’s tougher approach. (“If you know Mr. Mamet’s politics... you know which way Ann leans.”)
This is not just biased, it’s dumb. The play is informed by Mamet’s politics, sure, as Redford’s movie is informed by his, but “The Anarchist” is much more deeply informed by Mamet’s Jewish faith. The verbal battle between Cathy and Ann is underscored by a bold critique of Christian forgiveness in light of the demands of Jewish justice. In this, “The Anarchist” sings a sort of counterpoint to the Merchant of Venice. Since Merchant – and much western culture — depicts Jewish justice as rigid and bloodthirsty while Christian mercy droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, to see Mamet stage the argument from a Jewish perspective is radical and bracing.
It’s powerful intellectual theater, rich, deep and provocative. It’s no surprise it had a short run on a Broadway dominated by musicals and paltry star vehicles — especially with the Times on the leftist warpath.
But whether my judgement of the play is borne out or not, the larger point perhaps is this. An art world with only one opinion is an art world inhospitable to the arts. David Mamet has come roaring into the maturity of his vision. He is a conservative. Perhaps the lockstep guardians of our political sensibilities should get over it and give him the honest consideration he deserves. The New York Times’ ongoing treatment of one of America’s most important artists will determine whether the paper still has anything to say to a contemporary audience.
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