Mamet’s Wisdom

A bracing essay collection from the author of 'Wag the Dog'.

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

I’ve just discovered a compelling new essayist - who, as it happens, is a 74-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo) and screenwriter (The Verdict, Hannibal). To be sure, I was already aware that David Mamet, a red-diaper baby and erstwhile showbiz lefty, had made a right turn some years ago, but I hadn’t encountered the fruits of his second thoughts until I read his just-published collection of essays, Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch. It’s a gratifying, bracing, and electrifying, read. 

What, you ask, does he write about? Answer: What doesn’t he write about? In one essay after another, he seeks to make a big point about life, or America, or human nature, or art, and in doing so he leaps from one image or story or idea to another, drawing connections across time and space in an energetic stream-of-consciousness manner. In one essay, for example, he links Sigmund Freud to the movie King Kong to the friendship between Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. In another, he strings together a childhood anecdote, a historical tidbit, a joke, a couple of lines from Kipling, and a passage from a humor book. Impatient to stay in one place for long or to overstay his welcome, he begins and ends his essays abruptly, and in between the beginning and ending may well veer from social and literary criticism to historical commentary to biblical exegesis and back.

Mamet has the same gripes about the world today that many of us have, but he serves them up in a thoroughly original way, with a spin all his own, and with a wit that should hardly be unexpected given that this is the man who wrote Wag the Dog. A tummler, kibitzer, kvetch, and rabbi all in one, he’s as book smart as he is street smart, gifted both with common sense and with a wisdom about the present rooted in a deep knowledge and understanding of the past, not to mention in the Jewish and Christian faiths. And - remarkably enough in the year 2022 - he’s a conservative, and a Trump fan to boot, who has yet to be dragged down by the mob from his position as a leading figure of mainstream American culture.

Reading through Recessional, I kept looking for something to disagree with strongly. I never found it. Literature? While Mamet confesses that he “can’t read the sea novels of Conrad” or most of Dickens and is cool on George Eliot, he loves Trollope. Right there with you. He considers The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a masterpiece. Ditto. And he thinks Yeats is “the greatest English poet since Shakespeare.” Agreed. (Of course he means “English-language poet.”) “The talentless,” he posits in one of many thought-provoking apothegms, “seem to feel a ‘sense of wonder at the beauty of the world.’ Such may give us, at its uttermost best, the anodyne of Robert Frost but not the poetry of Yeats.” I wouldn’t second “anodyne,” but otherwise, nice point.

Granted, I was surprised to see Mamet name Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page (1928) as the greatest of American plays - I always found it corny and creaky - but his enthusiasm is so convincing that I’m tempted to revisit it. (Elsewhere in the book he calls Our Town America’s finest play, but I don’t plan to reopen that question.) I’m not at all familiar with Virginia Faulkner (1913-80), a writer whom he calls “more droll than Dorothy Parker,” but on his say-so I’ll definitely be checking her out. And while I don’t share his view of Whitman’s poetry as “heartfelt drivel,” I couldn’t agree more that, as he maintains, Walt’s barbaric yawp has spawned mountains of “poetic trash.”

As suggested by its title, the theme of Mamet’s book is decline - in poetry, in art, in pretty much everything. Broadway is dead. The movies are dead. But he was there when they still had life in them. In one essay, a memoir of the Broadway subculture during his early years as a playwright, he amusingly describes Lee Strasberg, who taught “method acting” to Brando, Clift, et al. (and who played Hyman Roth in Godfather II), as “the King of the Hucksters” and persuasively slams Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s 1955 stage version of The Diary of Anne Frank as “a sitcom.”

It’s when he turns to politics, in the broadest sense, that Mamet is at his best - and bravest. An unashamed patriot, he refers to America as “our magnificent country” and as “the freest and most prosperous [nation] in history.” Looking back at some of the individuals and organizations whose cockeyed ideas helped shape the contemporary scene, he puts Margaret Sanger and John Dewey in their place and deplores the ACLU as “the most absurd bunch of Jews since the Three Stooges.” He recalls that his initial reaction to the coinage “Department of Homeland Security” was to find it (as I did) not just “loathsome, clunky, and offensive” but “un-American” and, indeed, rather unpleasantly “Teutonic.” Moving on to the present, he’s splendidly dismissive of all the claptrap du jour - from Critical Race Theory and man-made global warming to covid hysteria, gender insanity, and Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Indeed, it’s wonderfully gratifying to see an author with Mamet’s record and reputation who, far from reflexively despising Donald Trump (like virtually everyone else in the Dramatists Guild, Directors Guild, and Writers Guild of America West), repeatedly praises and defends him. “Part of the Left’s outrage at Trump,” Mamet writes, “was his refusal to speak in hieratic language….He speaks American, and those of us who also love the language are awed and delighted to hear it from an elected official.” And: “Trump was vilified with greater vehemence than anyone in Western memory. He was hated because he was feared - because he held that prosperity was to be enjoyed as the legitimate reward of sacrifice, struggle, patriotism, and the American culture that was their conjunction.”

And again: “Trump was vilified by the Left because ‘he lied’; in fact, he was at a disadvantage because he did not lie. He was, by inclination and experience, a superb director - that is, one who achieves a goal through inspiring employees - but he had neither the inclination or the experience to rule, which is to control disparate groups through false promises, stealth, deception, propaganda, and lies.” Alas, Trump was brought down by the same forces that are bringing down America as a whole. And when it comes to that falling-off, Mamet doesn’t mince words. Raising the specter of “national death,” he asks: “How can a country survive, whose electorate has never seen a man, except their gardener, with dirty hands?” How indeed?

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