“Roll back the clock, and every possession of every great country started with a crime,” playwright David Mamet told The Daily Caller in a wide-ranging interview.
He was paraphrasing Balzac, by way of the first page of Mario Puzo’s Godfather, but he might as well have been quoting any of the modern writers who call themselves Mamet disciples. His new book “3 War Stories” is a trifecta of short novellas dealing with war, crime, and history in ways that avoid easy moral conclusions.
The stories deal respectively with a 19th century writer/spy (“The Redwing”), religion within the context of the American Indian Wars (“Notes on Plains Warfare”), and a peculiar crime committed against the backdrop of the start of the Israeli War of Independence. But through them all runs themes consistent to Mamet’s work since his early plays in the 1970’s: criminality, ethics, and the dysfunctional ways people treat each other in societies.
War, it could safely be said, is just the most extreme example of the casual violence that has always colored David Mamet’s world. And his views on the matter are just as complex as his work would suggest.
“You can’t write about history without writing about politics at some point. History is about movements of people,” Mamet said. “What is criminality and what is government is a theme that runs through every history. You can even see it today with John Kerry in Vietnam. He was highly decorated for his service then he came back and decided the Vietnam War was a crime. Now he’s doing the same thing in Iran.”
Mamet, an observant Jew who believes Kerry’s recent easing of sanctions on Iran represents the Obama administration turning its back on Israel, is a rare outspoken conservative in show business, crediting the economist Milton Friedman as having helped him transform from a typical Baby Boomer liberal.
“Obama is a tyrant the same way FDR was a tyrant. He has a view of presidential power that states: the government is in control of the country and the president is in charge of the government. He’s taken an imperial view of the presidency,” Mamet said.
“I don’t think war is inherently necessary. It used to be thought that a country shouldn’t go to war unless it is absolutely necessary,” he said. “War is tragedy. The great war stories are tragedies. It’s the failure of diplomacy. “War and Peace,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Those are some of the greatest tragedies.”
But in the event of tragedy, according to Mamet, compromise is off the table.
“You can’t have a limited war I don’t think. If the other side thinks at some point you’re going to give up then you’re going to lose.”
Mamet, 66, is by now as close to an inimitable brand as any living American writer, and certainly the poet laureate of his native Chicago. His classic plays, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1984) and pitchblack Hollywood satire “Speed-the-Plow” (1988), anticipated cultural shifts when they were still just taking shape. His 1992 play “Oleanna,” for instance, told the devastating tale of a female college student ruining the life of her professor with accusations of sexual harassment, just one year after Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas, when the subject was radioactive at best in the public debate.
His screenplay for the Robert de Niro-Dustin Hoffman film “Wag the Dog” (1997), which told the story of a U.S. president staging a fake war in Albania to divert attention from a sex scandal, was constantly referenced within the White House as Bill Clinton planned war in Kosovo during the Monica Lewinsky scandal the very next year.
“That was one of the most bizarre coincidences of all time ever. It’s one of the only times in my life I’ve ever been stalked by the press,” Mamet remembered with a laugh.
So it seems bizarre that a writer whose finger is pressed always to the nation’s pulse should take readers back to the 19th century Plains, or to 1947 in Palestine. And though his new stories each reveal things about the modern world and how to understand it, Mamet is coy about admitting it.
“A lot of writers of course were also spies. Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham. Eric Ambler was a spy,” he said of his story, “The Redwing,” written in the first person by just such a character, who gives us the contradictory lines “pirates are, after all, but criminals” and also “my world had changed (though for the better) violently.”
“That was a fascinating time,” he said of the setting of his second story, the American Plains of the 19th century. “A lot of those people on the Plains wrote memoirs, and some of the greatest historical novels of all time were Plains memoirs. Especially as they related to the birth of modern warfare. That was the beginning of the Western understanding of war.”
Mamet’s writing style, in prose as on stage, is distinctly conservative and direct. “The good thing about writing fiction,” he said, “is you get to rein in a fellow talking about his feelings, talking about the past, or philosophizing.”
“I was a reporter as a kid, a 14- or 15-year-old sportswriter,” he said, noting that he writes fiction and drama in the same tradition as a news reporter: straight to the point, and grateful to maintain the audience’s attention. “When I started, it was Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, to a certain extent Sinclair Lewis, the Midwestern writers, that made sense to me, being from Chicago.”
Florid, wordy writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald? “I didn’t understand them,” he said.
He also doesn’t understand the lip-service populism practiced by many in the arts, noting that some of the most famous writers who “bitched about capitalism” were complete frauds. “We’re all bitching against the establishment, but what are we doing? Just changing the curtains for something more expensive.”
And what about “Glengarry Glen Ross,” arguably his defining work, which is seen by many as a scathing critique of capitalism and the dog-eat-dog mechanics of the private sector?
“When I wrote that play I was working in a boiler room. A lot of people stuffed into a cubicle, making cold calls to try to influence people to buy something or other and that was that play. I haven’t done that in a while. I could keep writing that play all the time but it wouldn’t be interesting or any good, plus I’d starve to death. I’d have to take up golf and shit.”
He hasn’t given up theater, despite criticizing the stage business in the past (“We’re all quitting every night”), and he’s already at work on a new play that he’s very excited to see open. It’s about a Jewish dentist in Malaysia who gets captured by pirates.
“I’m pretending to live in Santa Monica, and I think I do like it,” said Mamet, whose daughter Zosia now stars on the hit HBO sitcom “Girls.” His adoptive city’s motto, translated from Latin, means “Fortunate people in a fortunate land,” though Mamet said it could also be known, with its high property values, as home to “the stupidest Jews in the world.”
As for his legacy, the Tony and Oscar-nominated writer isn’t too concerned about it. He doesn’t read reviews because “the good ones are never good enough and the bad ones are really devastating,” and “of course some schmuck is always going to look at me and say, ‘who does he think he is?'”
“My pal [2nd century Roman emperor] Marcus Aurelius said, ‘Why would you want the good will of posterity? Do you think those people are going to be any less stupid than the ones who you knew in your own lifetime?'”
He was paraphrasing, of course, but that wasn’t all Marcus Aurelius had to say.
“I had a dream last night…” Mamet began, describing another unconscious encounter with the late Roman statesman, who visited the playwright in Santa Monica to give him some advice. So what did Aurelius tell him?
“Stop bitching about life.”