No More Mamets
We must take a hard look at how our own field participates in the creation of hate. If you believe that Trumpism is a threat to decency and democracy, we should look at how we produce decency. The theatre is a site of culture, a site for transmission of ideas. As such, it played key roles in both the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century, and in the establishment of derogatory and dangerous stereotypes about people of color that persist today. We must understand that theatre is always political, whether implicitly or explicitly, and that what narratives we choose to promote is a political decision about whose stories deserve telling and get resources.
Just as we need to produce more women, LGBTQIA artists, and people of color (that is to say, more people who aren’t straight white men), we need to consider what plays should no longer be produced. This is not about political correctness. This is not about censorship. This is drawing a moral line that defines what is in and out of bounds in our culture.
Neither is this a call for a quota in representation—not about the identity of cultural producers. Rather we must examine the politics within plays. This is a call to move beyond what’s been occasionally derided as “identity politics,” but what might be better termed as a neoliberal diversity politics. That is, we need to meaningfully reckon with politics around identities, rather than offering up lip-service to them. Having a gay man at the helm of a project, for example, does us no good if that project is misogynist and white supremacist. Here, Hamilton provides an excellent (and more subtle) example: while it appears to pass a diversity test, it is a play that not only tells a normative, nationalist, hero narrative, but offers a loving, uncritical portrayal that celebrates wealthy white slaveholders by using black and Latinx aesthetics.
David Mamet’s plays provide an excellent example of the work that we must cast out. In the so-called post-truth era, Mamet has been lying for years. If we count his plays, like Oleanna, which carefully construct scenarios that don’t exist in order to flip real-world power relations on their head, he’s been doing it for decades. While Shakespeare said, in the words of Hamlet, that the play should hold the mirror up to nature, Mamet would rather invent nature to suit his worldview. Mamet has written extensively about his shift from liberalism to conservatism, but his liberalism always rang hollow, as seen in his plays. Or, if you consider liberalism to be part of the problem, then his plays might demonstrate the vacuousness of that worldview.
Just as we need to produce more women, LGBTQIA artists, and people of color (that is to say, more people who aren’t straight white men), we need to consider what plays should no longer be produced.
Mamet’s Oleanna manufactures a fictional power dynamic in order to undermine feminism (it was the Anita Hill hearings that inspired him to finish the play). The play’s misogyny becomes literal violence in the third act. This should show that John, the university professor, gets everything he deserves, yet the play begs for sympathy with him—it is a “false” accusation, after all, that drives him to violent action. Mamet’s later play, Race, offers a similar treatment to its title subject.
Neil LaBute, too, does similar maneuvers. In The Shape of Things, he creates a straw man “feminist” who is more caricature than character. His Some Girl(s), too, is a misogynist fantasy: a man, given the genericizing and universalizing name Guy, visits his exes—and records the conversations for some future exploitation. In an afterword to Some Girl(s) introducing a deleted scene, where Guy faces a woman whom he sexually assaulted when she was a pre-teen, LaBute writes in his afterword for the play that “Guy (in the wrong hands) runs the risk of coming off as a self-serving, deceitful shit-head.” A remarkable concern that reveals LaBute’s politics, considering Guy is written as a self-serving, deceitful misogynist. The play’s sympathetic treatment of him makes not just for a misogynist character, but for a misogynist play.
Theatre…offers space for narratives that television and mainstream cinema do not. Whereas Hollywood relies on celebrity and is controlled by heavily monetized interests, theatres have the space to hire actors who look like America.
These plays deserve no place in the canon, nor in popular culture, and especially not in college production calendars. There remains room, of course, for critical study and, as in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon, critical creative interventions into such texts. An Octoroon takes on Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon, an abolitionist melodrama filled with the racist tropes of the day, transforming it into a new anti-racist work that reckons with theatre’s role in the construction of those tropes. We should and must contextualize these works as what they are.
Theatre, as an often small endeavor that relies more on community than on big names, offers space for narratives that television and mainstream cinema do not. Whereas Hollywood relies on celebrity and is controlled by heavily monetized interests, theatres have the space to hire actors who look like America. Where Hollywood makes blockbusters about action heroes, theatres have the space to produce plays about almost anything they like: we can have narratives about women, immigrants, workers, and queer people. We can produce plays by playwrights like Jacobs-Jenkins, Sarah Ruhl, Suzan-Lori Parks, Universes, Naomi Iizuka, Taylor Mac, and Sylvan Oswald to tell these stories.
We must assert our right to do so. We must help delineate what is in and out of bounds for our communities. Indeed, it is our duty as cultural producers to help define these limits, as we already participate implicitly in their formation. We must say:
No misogynist plays.
No racist plays.
No xenophobic plays.
No homophobic plays.
No transphobic plays.
And we can go further:
No plays but feminist plays.
No plays but anti-racist plays.
No plays but inclusive plays.
No plays but queer plays.
Like we witness John’s violence in Oleanna, we have seen the misogyny in these plays play out, actualized as violence, in our culture. We must no longer allow that violence to have a voice in the theatre. Mr. Trump, like Mamet, wasn’t really a conservative until a few years ago—when he decided to run for office. They’re both the product of the same culture: a culture which, rather than placing in the spotlight, we must hold the mirror up to.
These plays work insidiously in the service of hateful ideologies—Oleanna, Some Girl(s), and The Shape of Things in service of misogyny, and Race in service of white supremacy. They plant the seeds of these ideas, normalizing them, building a cultural foundation for racism and misogyny to flourish—for stage violence and metaphor to blossom into violence in our communities. To produce these plays or to teach them as masterful, without radical criticism, is to do the work of hateful men. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic plays belong in the dustbin of history. Let us put them there. We must draw a line and declare: no more Mamets!