The Playgoer: Mamet's "November"

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Mamet's "November"

I must say, after his apparent rightist epiphany, and after being bombarded with the lamest jokes from the show, I actually enjoyed David Mamet's November much more than I expected.

The key to appreciating it is to acknowledge it has nothing to do with satirizing the current President or political practice and/or policies. The politicians in Mamet's world (or at the least the one on-stage politician, the president) are less out of The Daily Show than old Harper's cartoons of the pigs at the trough. I would classify the character Charles H.P. Smith as more Boss Tweed than George W.--except that he's a pathetic failed Tweed. Especially as embodied by Nathan Lane as a cranky nebbish, Smith is all graft--and still can't get re-elected.

(I must say, to my mind, Lane has never been funnier. His absolute assurance in the role and combination of jaded ennui and charming cynicism I don't think could be matched by any other actor right now.)

So much of the fun of November is just relishing Mamet's piling on of vicious corrupt-politician tropes, and the volleys of super-speed guttural utterances tossed back and forth by Lane and the sly Dylan Baker, playing his dispassionately criminal Chief of Staff. (Joe Mantello's spitfire pacing is right on the money.) Anachronistic dramaturgically, perhaps. (Like something out of George S. Kaufman, in fact.) But dated subject matter? Of course, not. Corruption never goes out of style.

In short and unsurprisingly, for Mamet, the White House is simply the biggest con in town. And reelection here is the heist. That the circumstances of the plot are patently ridiculous and contrived are kinda the point by the end. Rather than ideological political satire, November is a classical farce, using the raw material of our sacred democratic institutions as fodder for a portrait of the sleazy side of the American spirit.

As any Mamet fan knows, the writer is capable of denouncing ruthless business practices while simultaneously admiring the gumption of the hucksters who excel at them. (See Glengary Glenn Ross, obviously.) But it's worth pointing out here something that wasn't pointed out by a lot of the play's negative reviews--the heist here completely flops. The crooks are hapless and doomed. Could this be the end the Mamet con-man's confident reign of machismo?

Let me now shift to another take on the play in the online HOTReview by my friend and sometime academic mentor, Robert Vorlicky, of NYU. He's written the most insightful and surprising take to date on November that is a must-read for Mamet fans. And even Mamet-haters.

In short, Bob has blown the cover of David Mamet's secret gay agenda. Stay with me, I'm serious. An authority on modern American drama, particularly Mamet, as well as "queer studies," he links November to a fascinating trend running through the last three new Mamet plays--the others being Romance and the brand new Keep Your Pantheon, just now premiering in LA. This trend is the gradual displacement in the plays of the white hetero Mamet-man by the homosexual other.

As Bob persuasively argues, for all of Mamet's recent chest-thumping "conservative" cheerleading, he has simultaneously been working out in the his plays a complex reevaluation of his depiction of gender roles and sexual preference. (Note: Keep Your Pantheon is about a troupe of gay actors in Ancient Rome.)

This all relates back, of course, to the role played in November by Laurie Metcalf, as Clarice Bernstein the lesbian (and somehow liberal) speechwriter working for the bigoted and seemingly rightist President Smith. I think no experienced Mamet-watcher expects such a character to hold their own in one of his plays (without being savagely ridiculed perhaps). But between Metcalf's compellingly dignified performance and the sheer power dynamics in the writing itself, her character clearly comes out on top--that is, if you're bothering to follow the plot, which perhaps the play's detractors gave up on.

Naturally, the coinciding of the play with the infamous Village Voice essay has complicated reception of it, to say the least. Given his stated exasperation with "brain dead liberals"--plus his increasingly ultra-conservative Judaism and apologias for Israeli militancy--we were all ready for Mamet's coming out as a Republican in all but name. But is it possible he's throwing us a curve?

As Vorlicky speculates: "At times, while reading 'Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal,' I wondered if Mamet's pseudo-polemics, his 'eye opening' confession were a bit of a 'con' -- a beautifully crafted piece that challenged the reader to think for herself or himself." Well, maybe; maybe not. Maybe he's not even fully conscious of the self-negating contradictions emerging in his later work. But, still, the triumph of the liberal in November over the dinosaurs of white-male-hetero power is pretty indisputable.

Vorlicky continues:

If the reader of his essay espouses liberal politics, Mamet suggests, then she or he needs to confront the degree to which this position is fraught with contradictions. At sixty, Mamet finds himself defining liberalism, or the "synthesis of this worldview," as a politics of "everything is always wrong." Clarice Bernstein, the liberal lesbian speech-writer in November, sees the world this way, and her view, the playwright implies, is exactly why today's liberal is "brain dead." Clarice's sort of "brain deadness" is what Mamet now claims to have escaped.
However, clever Clarice is really not brain dead. In fact, her brain is alive and well; it guides her in being actively successful in getting what she wants. Her world is not as black and white as Mamet theorizes. Against all odds--that is, against the playwright's conception of the rigid polarization he claims to have created in November--she materializes her "utopic" vision and thereby makes it real. She outsmarts the man in power and gets power, forcing him to officiate at her legal wedding to her lesbian partner.
This is what happens in the play, but the playwright argues otherwise in his Village Voice essay. The play and the essay are at odds. It's as if the genres of dramatic writing and the personal essay clash at this moment in Mamet's hands: the visibility of Clarice in the play versus the presence (or visibility) of Mamet in the essay (which renders Clarice invisible). In order to claim the death of liberalism for himself, Mamet--at least in his essay--erases the success of his liberal character in November. The play doesn't support the theory of his fall from liberal political sympathies after forty years.

Anyway, I'll let Prof. Vorlicky make the case. (Again, full essay here.) But I'll just add it's gone remarkably unnoticed that November is probably the first play on Broadway to explicitly sanction gay marriage-- especially notable at a political moment when the issue is reaching a boiling point. No need to embrace Mamet as the poster-child for gay equality now, I know. But notable nonetheless the first such statement on the Broadway stage comes from him of all people.
So in short, there may more to this play than at first met the critical eye. There's still time to see for yourself, if you haven't. But not much. November closes this Sunday, July 13th.

PS. The McNulty LA Times review of Keep Your Parthenon Vorlicky references is here.


Brian said...

Mamet's interest in queer subjects dates back as far as "Boston Marriage" -- in fact, he may be the only straight playwright in America who has consistently written about gay characters in his last several plays. I haven't seen most of them but it seems that Mamet is getting more and more wildly satirical in a very old-fashioned (as in, Aristophanes old-fashioned) way, as you point out.

Mamet's political bent has always struck me as basically libertarian - free market, dog eat dog, no regulation -- which cuts across party boundaries of Democrat and Republican to say "government shouldn't interfere with people." And that totally squares with letting gay people do whatever the fuck they want to do...

Anonymous said...

The man works in HOLLYWOOD.

Of course he's pro-gay.

He has to be in Hollywood.

Otherwise he wouldn't work anymore.

It's up there with Ovitz and the Gay Mafia. It exists.

Joshua James said...

Mystery Man and I talk about Mamet's Voice article (among other things) here:

we both agreed it was a calculated con of sorts, an amusing one.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks Mamet isn't conservative hasn't read his book on Judaism and Israel, "The Wicked Son," nor have they watched "The Unit."

He does have a libertarian streak which makes him moderate on social issues, and he does have a paranoid streak, which makes him suspicious of all power. But he is not in any way a leftist.

That one of our most respected playwrights would write an apolitical farce while the current resident of the Oval Office is blowing up the world and letting American cities drown is absolutely reprehensible.

Anonymous said...

At times, while reading 'Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal,' I wondered if Mamet's pseudo-polemics, his 'eye opening' confession were a bit of a 'con' -- a beautifully crafted piece that challenged the reader to think for herself or himself.

In much of his essay writing sweeping generalizations are framed as pure absolutes and one finds oneself staking out the "truth" in the negative space between his polemical fury and the real world. His writings about Israel remind me of nothing less than his writings about acting.