Friday, July 30, 2010

Terry Teachout tries to understand David Mamet, he really does

Tim True in Third Rail Rep's production of Mamet's "American Buffalo."
Arts Dispatch hasn't stumbled upon it yet, but it's entirely possible that somewhere a website exists devoted to the inconsistencies and contradictions of Terry Teachout, the conservative Wall Street Journal theater critic. After all, the digital culture in all its fecundity has generated websites entirely dedicated to misplaced apostrophes, and one of my new favorites records examples of "fake" fliers -- you know, the ones with the tear-away strips at the bottom.

Teachout on David Mamet, the formidable and recently apostate playwright, is quite a bit of fun in this way.

He begins his new essay in Commentary magazine with the following unexceptional assertion: "American theater is a one-party town, a community of like-minded folk who are all but unanimous in their strict adherence to the left-liberal line."  We could quibble, but what would be the point? Teachout really believe that there's a "left-liberal line" that all "left-liberals" follow in lock-step, despite overwhelming evidence that they disagree loudly about almost everything, from basic philosophy to process to priorities to the performance of our left-liberal president. And "strict" in no way describes either left-liberals or the subset of left-liberals who happen to practice theater.

But this is an essay about "Theatre," a new book by Mamet, who famously recanted his "left-liberal" politics in a Village Voice essay, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal,” a couple of years ago and embraced a conservative, "free-market" philosophy.  And what is the thing that "will fill the vast majority of his colleagues with horror"? The following excerpt:

"The theatre is a magnificent example of the workings of that particular bulwark of democracy, the free-market economy. It is the most democratic of arts, for if the play does not appeal in its immediate presentation to the imagination or understanding of a sufficient constituency, it is replaced. ... It is the province not of ideologues (whether in the pay of the state and called commissars, or tax subsidized through the university system and called intellectuals) but of show folk trying to make a living."
Since Teachout approves of anything that "horrifies" the "left-liberals" who dominate the ranks of American theater,  I think we can assume that he agrees with this particular assessment of Mamet's, right?  So which it? Is theater a den of ideologues feeding at the government trough producing predictably awful plays that advance their "left-liberal" line? Or is a free-market that rewards the great play and punishes the bad ones? Is it ideological, as Teachout would have it, or a free market? Oh, and by the way, have either of you considered that "free-market" used in this context is actually an ideology?

Mamet himself is obviously confused by it all, the heterodoxy of theater, maybe because theater exists in a multitude of forms for a multitude of purposes, sometimes specifically ideological and sometimes not so much, sometimes subsidized by universities, foundations, the public (as distinct from theater consumers), corporate sponsors (isn't that "commercial"?) and wealthy Americans who have prospered in the free market, and sometimes not.  It's not one thing or another.

I do like this quote from Mamet's book: “In the great drama, we follow a supposedly understood first principle to its astounding and unexpected conclusion. We are pleased to find ourselves able to revise our understanding.” That might describe "Angels in America," right? By that arch-"liberal-left" playwright Tony Kushner?  Because the understood First Principle of "free-market" America, until Kushner and Kramer and other gay playwrights taught us otherwise, was that gay Americans weren't really people at all. Or that the stories of the African American neighborhood of Pittsburgh weren't worth telling, until August Wilson showed that they were. I could go on.

Theater, left to its own devices and free of coercion, IS subversive of the dominant, operating social conventions.  It revises our understanding. Primarily because conventions can't contain or govern all of our experience.


Teachout's review proceeds from there, to discuss Mamet's Zionism as the reason for his abandonment of previously held liberal positions and to talk about Mamet's realization that humans aren't good by nature, which is supposedly a belief of the liberal '60s, another of those useless generalizations Teachout enjoys.

I think that Teachout is still struggling to accommodate the world of Mamet's famous plays -- "American Buffalo," Glengarry Glen Ross," and "Speed-the-Plough" -- into his canon. Don't they describe the harshest Darwinian world, the free market at its most vicious, conniving worst, the survival of those with the fewest scruples?  Shouldn't that free market actually become self-regulating and eventually turn into a system in which narrow ideas of self-interest broaden to include the whole? Teachout's got a lot of reconsidering to do, but only if he wants to remain consistent.