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David Mamet and the Tragedy of the Literary Tough Guy

So David Mamet decided that he had to weigh in on gun laws, and tell everyone that everyone should have lots of guns all the time. This has required him to publish various claims that are not true, or defy common sense, or are painfully obviously not true, such as his weird assertion that the Founding Fathers were "not politicians." Ta-Nehisi Coates and Andrew Sullivan have efficiently excellent takedowns. But let me say a few words, without excusing him, about the difficult position Mamet is in.

David Mamet got famous as a tough-guy writer. They're a relatively rare breed, but they do better because of their very scarcity, and the literary establishment is always happy to make room for them. Writers aren't generally very tough or macho, spending hour after hour at your desk fine-tuning sentences doesn't make you seem any tougher, and writing of the highest quality is pretty scarce already. So when a writer turns up who is both doing original and powerful work (and Mamet has written some wonderful plays), and  also projecting an "authentic," streetwise masculinity, that combination is an extremely rare and valuable commodity. He becomes enormously marketable, and lots of other writers, who don't necessarily feel so streetwise or authentic themselves, are eager to embrace him. Hemingway basically invented this role for the 20th century, while Norman Mailer and others tried to play it. The early press coverage of James Frey, before he became exposed as a crude fraud, set him up for this special form of fame. And Mamet, writing compelling drama about con men and other street characters in persuasively authentic language, was embraced by a bookish establishment that is perennially afraid of losing touch with the real world. There's always a place of honor for writers like Mamet who can turn in great work while also Keeping It Real.

But in the long run, being the Literary Tough Guy almost always becomes a trap. If your job is to Keep Things Real for literary publishing types by being an Authentic Voice from the Street and whatnot, it's impossible to keep that job up after twenty or thirty years of success and acclaim. Nobody's an Authentic Voice from the Street after twenty-five years of paying capital gains taxes. It's just not an option. At a certain point, you're a guy who started out a tough newcomer decades back, and spent those decades in cushioned comfort. But Tough Guy persona, for whatever reason, doesn't have any clear exit path, no route to some other recognizable literary persona. There's no obvious second act except for has-been. So the Literary Tough Guy is forced, more and more as he ages, to continue asserting his toughness, to posture as the kind of person he started out by more or less being. It's not a fraud exactly, but it is a pose, and it becomes stiffer and more exaggerated the further the Tough Guy gets from the street.

Hemingway, who played the Literary Tough Guy role better than anyone, was also one of its biggest victims, who spent his last twenty years as a prisoner of his celebrity. He couldn't explain to his third wife, the great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, why he didn't want to go to Europe to cover World War II, because he couldn't admit he was scared. And he spent his last years in an increasing series of insistently macho poses that he could manage while keeping out of any personal danger. By the end he was simply an aging gentleman who enjoyed the company of bullfighters. And maybe two-thirds of Norman Mailer's weird behavior over the years comes down to his need to preserve his expired Tough-Guy cred.

And so Mamet is in a familiar position: the aging Tough-Guy writer who now needs to give a theatrical performance of his toughness and "authenticity." That position requires him to make gestures that communicate the idea of toughness without requiring him to exercise any. Speaking out angrily for "gun rights" is tailor-made for his needs. It allows him to play Tougher Than Thou, and do it on the cheap. David Mamet is not actually worried about crime. He can afford doormen and security systems and valet parking. He's not going to get mugged on the street because he hasn't been on the street in years. What David Mamet is worried about is losing his reputation, no matter how much he has to embarrass himself to keep it.

It must be embarrassing when the pose leads a Tough Guy to be one-upped on the realities of, say, urban crime by someone like Andrew Sullivan, who makes no pretense of toughness or machismo. But that's the truth: Sullivan is currently a better witness to what it's like to live in a city with a high crime rate, and a neighborhood with a high crime rate, than someone like Mamet is. We've reached the sorry point where David Mamet no longer has any idea what it's like to actually live in Chicago.

Andrew Sullivan, who makes no pretense of toughness or machismo

Because of what fate dealt him, though, he does happen to have had some very unique experiences with the same, along with some very interesting thoughts about the same.

An excerpt of page 2, for a taste:

Because the testosterone is injected every two weeks, and it quickly leaves the bloodstream, I can actually feel its power on almost a daily basis. Within hours, and at most a day, I feel a deep surge of energy. It is less edgy than a double espresso, but just as powerful. My attention span shortens. In the two or three days after my shot, I find it harder to concentrate on writing and feel the need to exercise more. My wit is quicker, my mind faster, but my judgment is more impulsive. It is not unlike the kind of rush I get before talking in front of a large audience, or going on a first date, or getting on an airplane, but it suffuses me in a less abrupt and more consistent way. In a word, I feel braced. For what? It scarcely seems to matter.

And then after a few days, as the testosterone peaks and starts to decline, the feeling alters a little. I find myself less reserved than usual, and more garrulous. The same energy is there, but it seems less directed toward action than toward interaction, less toward pride than toward lust. The odd thing is that, however much experience I have with it, this lust peak still takes me unawares. It is not like feeling hungry, a feeling you recognize and satiate. It creeps up on you. It is only a few days later that I look back and realize that I spent hours of the recent past socializing in a bar or checking out every potential date who came vaguely over my horizon. You realize more acutely than before that lust is a chemical. It comes; it goes. It waxes; it wanes. You are not helpless in front of it, but you are certainly not fully in control.

Then there's anger. I have always tended to bury or redirect my rage. I once thought this an inescapable part of my personality. It turns out I was wrong. Late last year, mere hours after a T shot, my dog ran off the leash to forage for a chicken bone left in my local park. The more I chased her, the more she ran. By the time I retrieved her, the bone had been consumed, and I gave her a sharp tap on her rear end. ''Don't smack your dog!'' yelled a burly guy a few yards away. What I found myself yelling back at him is not printable in this magazine, but I have never used that language in public before, let alone bellow it at the top of my voice. He shouted back, and within seconds I was actually close to hitting him. He backed down and slunk off. I strutted home, chest puffed up, contrite beagle dragged sheepishly behind me. It wasn't until half an hour later that I realized I had been a complete jerk and had nearly gotten into the first public brawl of my life. I vowed to inject my testosterone at night in the future.

That was an extreme example, but other, milder ones come to mind: losing my temper in a petty argument; innumerable traffic confrontations; even the occasional slightly too prickly column or e-mail flame-out. No doubt my previous awareness of the mythology of testosterone had subtly primed me for these feelings of irritation and impatience. But when I place them in the larger context of my new testosterone-associated energy, and of what we know about what testosterone tends to do to people, then it seems plausible enough to ascribe some of this increased edginess and self-confidence to that biweekly encounter with a syringe full of manhood.

Just so happens that this 14-page article was one of those "devour and never forget" articles for me, and that's why it came to mind. I must admit I haven't re-read the whole thing right now to pick out the things that might address your points, but from what I remember, I feel certain there are many.

Interesting piece by Sullivan, aa.  That blow-by-blow as the testosterone shot takes hold and then diminishes is fascinating and might explain a lot about why men (or even women) lose control and do foolish or dangerous things.   

I latched onto this part:

Testosterone is clearly correlated in both men and women with psychological dominance, confident physicality and high self-esteem. In most combative, competitive environments, especially physical ones, the person with the most T wins. Put any two men in a room together and the one with more testosterone will tend to dominate the interaction. Working women have higher levels of testosterone than women who stay at home, and the daughters of working women have higher levels of testosterone than the daughters of housewives. A 1996 study found that in lesbian couples in which one partner assumes the male, or ''butch,'' role and another assumes the female, or ''femme,'' role, the ''butch'' woman has higher levels of testosterone than the ''femme'' woman.

As a woman, I try to put myself in there where Sullivan places me, and I don't know where I fit when it comes to my testosterone levels.  Now and then I have to pluck hairs from my chin, and my voice has definitely lowered with age, and it could be that I'm a might more aggressive assertive than I once was, but (hide your eyes, guys) the boobs are still growing long past lactating stage.  I am woman "femme".

Well worth the read on many different levels.  Thanks for sharing.

A very good piece, and I think it serves to remind us all (men and women) to be careful when judging others. We don't know what hormones might be coursing through their system affecting their judgment, and most of us don't truly know how we would re-act under similar circumstances. That doesn't mean that there shouldn't be consequences for destructive behavior, just that I think it's worthwhile to dispense those consequences along with some compassion.

Oh, those tough guys--Hemingway, Mailer, and now Mamet--their egos were so far gone they never looked outside to see how they were perceived.  Rather pathetic, that clinging to an impossible, even fictitious by-proxy manhood.

Hemingway killed himself at 61, already thinking he was an old man, one who had become impotent in more ways than would suit such a carefully groomed public vision of manliness.

I read that piece by Mamet earlier and thought about contrasting it with Stephen King's piece on being a gun owner who nevertheless can understand the need for controls, but I realized there was really no comparison.  King has never taken himself that seriously, and doesn't see himself as a wordsmith-philosopher-game-changer.  (His book on writing, however, is the best I've read.  I'm not a big fan of his novels but boy, does he get it.)

I remember that moment when Charlton Heston gave the "From my cold dead hands" speech at the NRA in the year 2000, warning of looming liberty lost unless we get ready to take up arms against a government that could go rogue at any minute.  I felt anger as much as I felt pity for that has-been actor trying so hard to pretend he could be one of his own characters. 

It's much the same way I felt when I read the Mamet piece.  You put it together perfectly.  Yes, that's what it is.

I felt anger as much as I felt pity for that has-been actor trying so hard to pretend he could be one of his own characters.

I cannot escape the feeling that so much of what's been coming out of the right wing these days is simply a lot of old white men, angry at the fact that they're growing old.

I'm afraid to criticize it.  Not sure how gracefully I'm going to take it.

I remember that moment when Charlton Heston gave the "From my cold dead hands" speech at the NRA in the year 2000, warning of looming liberty lost unless we get ready to take up arms against a government that could go rogue at any minute.  I felt anger as much as I felt pity for that has-been actor trying so hard to pretend he could be one of his own characters.

The flip side to that is a kind of expanded typecasting where an actor has a hard time shaking a public perception of themselves as a role or roles they played.  It never really occurred to me before that writers too might have trouble shaking a public persona that no longer suits them.  The transition must be especially brutal for those who initially write for the prize choirs.  Maybe Mamet will write about it!

That phrase "From my cold dead hands" always reminds me of the scene from Men in Black where the big bug replies, "your proposal is acceptable".  laugh

 

Your bringing in of Stephen King's opinion about guns and your suggestion to the comparison of their personality types made me curious about what kind of gun owner Papa Hemingway was. I found a clue in this preview of a book on his guns written in 2010, my bold:

This book, the result of two years of research, is a highly detailed and thoroughly illustrated account of more than two dozen Hemingway guns ranging from a Westley Richards .577 Nitro Express to a Thompson submachine gun, including his beloved Model 12 and 21 Winchesters; Browning, Beretta and Merkel over/unders; a W. & C. Scott & Son pigeon gun; various Colt Woodsman pistols; the Mannlicher-Schoenauers he bought for himself and his wives; and the famous Springfield .30-06 he commissioned from Griffin & Howe in 1930.

This little clue does suggest he might be more on the side of Wayne La Pierre and David Mamet rather than just another avid sportsman, even a bit past the enthusiast-of-just war type like the Rough Rider TR.

Though I should hasten to add that I have met more than a few gun collectors over the years, in the auction biz and attending auctions, and there are many in their ranks who look at all guns for their aesthetics as finely-engineeed machines, judging them that way, and not as objects of manly power. Matter of fact, I  quickly learned that one could easily interest  such collectors in cast bronze sculptures and the collecting field of scientific instruments, and that they often were more aesthete types than wild macho men with quick tempers and hatred of authority. (For this reason, this essay by Wolfrum kind of fell flat with me as to sarcastic effect, as  to me it seemed he was confusing one type of gun lover with another type of guy who buys guns for another reason and melding them into one.)

confusing one type of gun lover with another type of guy who buys guns for another reason and melding them into one.)

This is the difficulty in discussing this issue and the reason so many of the articles on gun owners and gun violence seem lacking. There are so many different types of gun owners and gun violence.

That's why the Kirn article What Gun Owners Really Want  referenced by Maiello in Civilization and its Armed Discontents left me feeling cold.

Kim writes about how, "recoil becomes a source of pleasure. You want to do it again, again, again!" I've never felt anything like that. I guess I'm just not that type of gun owner. In fact almost nothing in that article seemed to be about me as a gun owner. I wonder how many gun owners see themselves in the Kirn article.

There are gun owners and there are gun fans--short for "fanatic" for good reason.  You obviously don't fall into that category but there are plenty who do.  And they're the ones getting the attention these days.

The contrast reminds me of motorcycle riders.  Some just like tooling around on their motorcycles, getting from one place to the other al fresco, while others have to have a specific Hog, have to join clubs and wear the preferred uniform, and to hell with helmet laws and the lousy government wanting to enforce them.  Neither type understands the other, but they do understand the desire for motorcycles.

 

I can't say I really know much about gun culture (although I have several relatives who do), nor even that much about motorcycle culture, but I can say I have a close friend who falls somewhere between those two types you describe: he loves to ride his motorcycle, has all types of "achievements" (riding so many miles in a day, etc.), and certainly has a favorite motorcycle (but not a Harley). However, he greatly respects helmet laws and is more liberal than I.

I suspect the same thing is true about gun owners. I.e., while there might be camps similar to what you describe, it's a tricky proposition to try to lump all or possibly even the majority of them firmly into one camp or the other.

their egos were so far gone

This is another interesting point, Ramona. It's common, though not a rule, for great artists to be egomaniacs. After all, in many cases, they think they are offering a view, interpretation or skill that no other human has presented before,  often where it's them vs. the world at large, the iconoclast. If they are one of the lucky ones where the world finally agrees they as special as they thought they were while they are still alive, there is the natural tendency to think along the lines of "I built that" with little help, hence a Mamet-turns-conservative scenario once they are successful.

I see someone like Stephen King as a quite different type of artist, one that starts out intentionally trying to please and capture the mass market, rather than one trying to challenge and antagonize and change the minds of masses.

This is so right on:

If they are one of the lucky ones where the world finally agrees they as special as they thought they were while they are still alive, there is the natural tendency to think along the lines of "I built that" with little help, hence a Mamet-turns-conservative scenario once they are successful.

It's the God factor and it requires a healthy ego, but I'm not sure their belief in their own independence and originality would turn them conservative.  Many a brilliant artist has turned liberal instead, having studied humanity with such a fine glass there's no other conclusion to draw but the one leaning toward using those God-like powers for good.  (Steinbeck, Hugo, Arthur Miller, and even that misogynistic rapscallion, Picasso, with his Guernica, among many others.)

I really love David Mamet and his rightwing conversion was difficult for me.  If you look at his great works like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, there's a touch of the progressive Arthur Miller at work -- smart, clever and worthy people are taking each other down because they're trapped in a system that puts them at each other's throats.

The failures of Stanley Levine in Glengarry mirror the failures of Willy Loman and we know that hotshot sales guy Ricky Roma is headed down that path -- we even see him con a guy into buying Florida property (using some of the most fun and absurd smooth talk ever) only to have the guy show up at the office near the end demanding his money back.  "I don't have the power," the man admits (paraphrasing).  "My wife controls the money."

Mamet got his Glengarry dialogue from two places.  First, from years of listening to his father, who worked in a cutthroat insurance sales office.  Second, through the careful study of Harold Pinter and by workshopping the short pieces that make up the indispensable Goldberg Variations with his actor friends William H. Macy.  So, it's part tough guy stuff and part artistic study.  In American Buffalo, there's the famous "Fuckin' Ruthie" speech given by, I think, Teach, who earlier that morning plucked a piece of toast off of his friend's Ruthie's plate and took a bite.  She said, "Help yourself." Hours later, Teach is on a tirade about it.  How dare she quip "help yourself," to hum after all the times he's picked up a check, paid for the beer, brought her to a ball game... turns out that whole speech stemmed from Mamet visiting William H. Macy's apartment and taking a piece of cheese out of his refrigerator.  Macy said, "Hey, help yourself."  Mamet couldn't take the condescension.  What sounds like tough street talk, though, really sprang from two sensitive artists (at the time, struggling) quarreling over cheese.

So, Mamet is as much Pinter as he is Hemingway and Hemingway was as much Gertrude Stein as he was an amateur pugilist.  A life in the arts won't put callouses on your hands.

But, I believe there's something more than macho pose in Mamet's conservative turn.  For awhile, he got tired of the theatre.  He started to see it as a flabby art form, undisciplined by the higher budgetary demands of film.  He went on to make a few great films and to write for television.  His work thrived within the demands of economy.  He became very market oriented bout his creative work.  Meanwhile, a whole lot of theatre is now driven by either non-profits or public funding or a combination of both an he kind of hates many of the results.  Also, he's gone right wing on Israel.

I don't know, I like him too much to see all of this as a macho pose.  I think his esthetics just trump his politics.  It's like that with a lot of the really good writers and artists.

 

 

A life in the arts won't put callouses on your hands.

It depends on whether your second job is as a waiter or a dish-washer. wink

I've lucked out with day jobs.  Most of my calluses are in my head.

I like his work, too. But then, I think Hemingway made some major contributions, too.

I'm comfortable with the idea that artists whom I admire as artists are not always admirable as people.

Well, I think Hemingway and Mamet are both admirable people.

They are both provocateurs.  Even when Mamet was a self described liberal he wrote "Oleanna," which was meant to take on the issue of sexual harassment and gender power from a devil's advocate stance.  And... it's a masterpiece of a play (and that's hard to pull off with two characters).

Hemingway did, in fact, put his body on the line for his convictions and, when he could no longer do that but had a name, did the same.  His work against the Spanish fascists is the stuff that people at Dag should still be celebrating.

For the most part, when I encounter "the artist vs. the person arguments" I find that the best artists are mostly both right, but not in equal proportions.  They're undeniably right as artists while they make a damned better showing as people than others credit them.

Don't get me started on Woody Allen.

Well, I think Hemingway and Mamet are both admirable people.

They are both provocateurs.  Even when Mamet was a self described liberal he wrote "Oleanna," which was meant to take on the issue of sexual harassment and gender power from a devil's advocate stance.  And... it's a masterpiece of a play (and that's hard to pull off with two characters).

Hemingway did, in fact, put his body on the line for his convictions and, when he could no longer do that but had a name, did the same.  His work against the Spanish fascists is the stuff that people at Dag should still be celebrating.

For the most part, when I encounter "the artist vs. the person arguments" I find that the best artists are mostly both right, but not in equal proportions.  They're undeniably right as artists while they make a damned better showing as people than others credit them.

Don't get me started on Woody Allen.

Does the following quote from David Mamet's 2012 book The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture bring to mind machismo, toughness, authenticity or a person  unhinged from any connection with reality:

"Sarah Palin was a commercial fisherman. She actually worked with her hands, and, so, she like Harry Truman, was, to the Left, an object not only to be dismissed, but to be mocked. For the Left loves "the workers" only in the abstract; to find that they not only exist as individuals, but are willing to bet their subsistence upon their principles of hard work and thrift...."

Google books

@NCD:(With regret) What a putz! . The Wagner dilemma, now repeated ( as per the aphorism) as farce.

I knew Harry Truman, Harry Truman was my friend. Sarah Palin is no Harry Truman.

I guess she got the VP shot, the 6 figure GOP wardrobe, the 7 figure book contracts, her PAC, TV Show and that multi-year 7 figure job from Murdoch because of her long history as a hard workin' frozen knuckled old salt of an executive experienced Russia watching commercial fisherwoman. Now she doesn't have to fish anymore, so liberals can love her.

Find me a liberal who can love her--just one.  I'll wait patiently until

 

"I claim that when a writer becomes successful, generally, without giving it too much thought, he assumes another style of living. I don't think you can come out of the Stork Club with your belly full and caviar rolling down your vest, and rush home and write a 'Grapes of Wrath,'   In fact, I've argued with John Steinbeck about this, but he says you can, so I must be wrong." - Radio comedian Fred Allen 

  As someone who likes Mamet's early work like 'A Life in the Theatre' and 'The Water Engine', but finds most of his later work, over-blown and self-indulgent (Speed the Plow, yuck!), I think you're right about his turning Conservative.  I think he built his reputation on writing great dialogue.  And he was, and is, a great writer of dialogue.  He has an incredible ear for street-wise dialogue and tough-talking every day slang.   But, I agree, it was all just a pretense.  He wasn't really street-wise.  He had an ability to replicate street-wise and put great assemblages of tough-talking words in his character's mouths.  As he got praise for that, he took it on as his own persona.  He enjoyed being the provocateur.  But what he didn't possess, in my opinion, was / is the ability, (or perhaps the desire), to construct well-structured plays.  As someone once noted, "You don't go to Mamet's plays for the plot, you go for the dialogue."  As he has aged, Mamet has become the theater's version of John McCain; a cranky old guy.  You're right, Mamet can't replicate his early successes because they were built on a street-wise persona and toughness which was an affectation all along and he doesn't have play structure to fall back on, and so, like McCain, he has to go further and further to the Right to keep up the pretense of being a tough guy.  Let's face it, Mamet's plays, even the highly praised ones, are mostly just characters talking at each other.  In my opinion, they satisfy our desire to hear great wordplay, but leave us wanting in terms of theatrical catharsis.

I would rather sit through a dozen more performances of Long's Day Journey into Night, than see one more production of Glengarry Glen Ross.

 

 

 

It's funny because when you read Mamet about his own work he thinks he's all about the story.  But, I agree... he's not a great storyteller.  He's good when he has a puzzle to tell you about (The Spanish Prisoner) and plays like Glengarry & American Buffalo certainly have conflict and secrets but they are not, strictly speaking, well made plays.  Sexual Perversity in Chicago is a great romp but not a proper farce or comedy.  Glengarry isn't really a tragedy though it is a drama.  He can do plot.  The guy wrote The Untouchables.  But when left to his own devices, he lets character and conversation dominate the structure.

You don't like Speed the Plow?  It's one of my favorites.  But I bet he doesn't like it anymore.  He was satirizing something that he soon after bought into.  Last new place I saw by him was Race.  Not his best work.  But you could just kind of set the outdated, issue-driven plot aside and listen to the actors tick of the lines with alacrity.

Yes, I did like the Untouchables, even if some of the images were 'borrowed from' ...oops, I mean, an homage to, other films.  (Like the Battleship Potemkin 'steps' scene, complete with baby carriage.) 

Many years ago, I used to help out a friend who coached actors privately by teaching her students about play structure, and I used 'Speed the Plow' as one of the 'bad examples'.

;-) 

Hey, Mr. Smith... would you mind shooting me an email?  I believe you can contact me through the site.  I'd like to take some of our discussions offline and perhaps discuss some people we might have in common the 80s performance art scene in the LES.

Done.  

 

 

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