An interview with David Mamet on Israel and Zionism
Aging American playwright, lover of Israel, seeks Hebrew teacher.
David Mamet likes to rile people. The playwright who brought street talk from the alleys of Chicago to Broadway, and upset theater-goers with plays about sexual harassment and white-black relations in America, has assumed a new public persona: that of a neoconservative fighter who is out to shatter the "dogma" of the liberal left and defends Israel aggressively.
In his new book, "The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture," published last June, Mamet describes his late political conversion to conservatism and launches a scathing attack on the value system and way of life of those on the left.
"The Israelis would like to live in peace within their borders; the Arabs would like to kill them all," he writes. As he sees it, "The Liberal West would like the citizens of Israel to take the only course which would bring about the end of the disturbing 'cycle of violence' ... That course is abandoning their homes and their country ... Is this desire anti-Semitism? You bet your life it is."
In the book, Mamet excoriates the left-wing milieu that was his first political home with the same outspokenness with which the characters in his plays and films speak. Clearly, he is still a master at infuriating the public. "The Secret Knowledge" was vilified upon its publication. The late, uber-journalist Christopher Hitchens, who was himself often criticized for his political zigzags, blasted the book in The New York Times. He described Mamet as "one-dimensional," sloppy about checking his facts and prone to make shallow arguments. "Propagandistic writing of this kind can be even more boring than it is irritating," he observed.
Unfazed, Mamet gave interviews in which he continued to play his self-cast part. Asked by a New York Times reporter whether he wasn't worried about alienating the very people who bought tickets for his plays, he replied, "I've been alienating my public since I was 20-years-old ... of course I'm alienating the public! That's what they pay me for."
A correspondent for the Financial Times was offended at Mamet's characterization of the British establishment as a gang of anti-Semites. "I'm not going to mention names because of your horrendous libel laws, but there are famous dramatists and novelists over there whose works are full of anti-Semitic filth," Mamet said. When the interviewer mentioned Sarah Palin, Mamet snapped, "I am crazy about her." Last month, in an article in The Wall Street Journal about the Iranian nuclear threat, Mamet likened the West's attitude toward Israel to the sacrifice of Isaac, to the ancient rite of sacrificing the beloved son in order to appease the wrath of the gods.
What it means to be Jewish
I was fascinated by Mamet's pro-Israel militancy. What prompted the greatest American playwright of his generation, and a successful figure in American cinema, to invest such energy in us? Mamet's Broadway and Hollywood success reflected the Jews' integration into the upper echolons of American society and culture. It's impossible to go further. But now he returns to his roots and wraps himself in them: "Being among my people is a delight," he writes in "The Secret Knowledge." "We Jews live among ourselves. I love it."
I met Mamet in early November in Los Angeles. He invited me for lunch at his neighborhood Italian restaurant in Santa Monica. It's close to his house, which is adorned with a collection of Zionist souvenirs, including posters from the beginning of the last century and decorated clocks. We partook of salmon and risotto and talked about our similar family background in Volhynia, a region in the western part of the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Tsarist empire. His paternal grandparents were born in Hrubieszow, Poland, about two hours from the hometowns of my maternal grandparents.
The Mamets sailed to America in 1921, a year before my grandfather, Zvi Hurvitz, immigrated to Palestine. I told Mamet that my family had left Eastern Europe before the Holocaust and that I have many distant cousins all over the world. "We don't have anyone," he replied sadly. "We've got one of the beautiful portraits of my grandmother in Hrubieszow, maybe in 1912, and she's with her two brothers. She always used to say, 'This one was killed by Stalin, and this one was killed by Hitler.'"
With your status and fame, did you encounter anti-Semitism? Did you suffer from it as a child?
"Oh, I felt it as a kid, definitely. Well, it's chutzpah to talk about anti-Semitism with an Israeli, because the anti-Semitism I encountered in my life is literally nothing, except that I had the cops at my house because the kids from across the tracks in Chicago used to come over and scream 'Christ killers' at us."
But is this an experience any of your kids has felt?
"I don't think so, and I don't want them to feel it, so it's important to me and my wife that they understand what it means to be a Jew; I mean, there's responsibility in certain circumstances to be Jewish and be responsible for the Jews."
This is a reflection of the differences between the Jew from America and the Jew from Israel, whose grandparents came from the same shtetl. I told Mamet that as a sabra I had never felt anti-Semitism, only heard and read about it. But in his perception, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the hostility to the Jewish state that we Israelis are constantly experiencing are far sharper expressions of anti-Semitism than the invective hurled at the children in his Chicago neighborhood.
Mamet rediscovered his Judaism as a result of his marriage to his second wife, the actress and singer Rebecca Pidgeon. He met Pidgeon, who is 18 years his junior, during rehearsals for the London production of his play, "Speed-the-Plow." Mamet went up to her and said, "You know, I always wanted to meet a girl like that." They married after a two-year intercontinental courtship.
"Rebecca was raised in England, her father is a physicist and her mom is a yoga teacher, so she was raised with no religion whatever, but she says she wanted to be married in a Jewish wedding, so she started going to introduction to Judaism classes, and I realized I knew nothing," Mamet says. "Many times it's the case in this country, the newcomer takes the born Jew back to [his heritage]. It's a common story. So you want to get married and Larry Kushner is a wonderful rabbi. He said, 'If you want to get married, you'd want Rebecca to have a conversion before you get married.' So she started learning intensively and we had a beautiful Jewish wedding."
Kushner, a "neo-Hasidic Reform rabbi," as Mamet puts it, served in a suburban Boston congregation, where he taught the congregants Hebrew and Hasidic stories. Mamet, captivated by the charms of the tradition, started to attend services with his wife on Shabbat. He also wrote several books about Jewish legends, one of them jointly with Kushner. Mamet also cast the rabbi and his wife in walk-on parts in his film "Oleanna." Their bit ended up on the cutting-room floor. In an article Kushner wrote afterward, "What it Means to Me to Be a Reform Jew," he explained that he simply was unable to get into the character that was written for him, of a non-Jewish American. "I was preoccupied with the wording of my Oscar acceptance speech," he writes. "But no sooner had the first take begun than I hear David calling, 'Cut. Cut!' and he's walking straight toward me." He and his wife were supposed to lip-sync a conversation, but Mamet told him, "You're talking with your hands again." When Mamet and Pidgeon moved to the West Coast, he asked Kushner, "So who's the guy in LA who's like you?" Kushner recommended Rabbi Mordecai Finley, who leads a small synagogue, Ohr HaTorah, together with his Israeli wife, Meirav. "They came, and they never left," Finley says. "They come every Saturday they're in town. Rebecca is one of our High Holidays Torah readers. She's fantastic, she's really exceptional. She has an exquisite voice and really has the precise kind of kavanah [intentionality]. She understands the words and understands how the trope is actually a kind of perush, it's shaped around the meaning." Mamet takes pride in the Hebrew lessons he and his wife take. He would now also like to learn the modern language, so he'll be able to converse. "That's what I should do now, find someone to give me a private ulpan for several hours a day," he says, referring to a crash course. Rabbi Finley lives in a fine suburban house, complete with swimming pool, in Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley. He plays the electric bass, drinks Turkish coffee and speaks excellent Hebrew. His wife, the Rebbetzin Meirav, grew up in Eilat and did military service in the air force. The couple has two daughters and two sons; one of the sons became Orthodox and immigrated to Israel.
Last Pesach, Finley presided over an interfaith seder with a Muslim imam and a Christian clergywoman. The three spoke about what the holy scriptures of the three religions have in common. The Israeli singer Idan Raichel was the featured performer in the artistic segment, and the Israeli actors Alon Aboutboul and Tal Mosseri were in the audience.
"The common denominator is spirituality, ruhaniut," Rabbi Finley says. "This means a deep focus on the inner life, very much influenced by musar [ethics], Hasidut and what we call the spiritual and psychological dimensions of kabbala. There are people of the mystical tendency, and those few I can lead. But [our] focus is inner-life application of the tradition on many levels."
Finley was a Reform rabbi before founding Ohr HaTorah as an independent synagogue in 1993. The congregation presently numbers 270 families. "It's a boutique synagogue," he says. "People come to us from all over Los Angeles, and there are also quite a few Israelis."
Mamet has little if any interaction with the large Israeli community in Los Angeles. He has visited Israel twice, in 1991 and in 2002, both times as a guest of the Jerusalem Film Festival. On his first visit he also went to Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea mud baths. The second visit entailed a deep emotional experience. Jerusalem was being battered by suicide-bomber attacks. Mamet was deeply apprehensive but decided to go. "I showed up, and there's nobody in Jerusalem. Lia van Leer [the festival's founder] called and invited me to come to her office the next day. Her office was full of flowers. I asked how come it's full of flowers, and she said, 'Everybody called at the last minute and apologized that they can't come.'" Mamet toured the sites of terrorist attacks on Jaffa Road, Jerusalem's main thoroughfare, escorted by the mayor at the time, Ehud Olmert. He took part in the gala opening of the festival at Sultan's Pool, an outdoor venue, ate falafel in the Old City and was invited to Shabbat lunch by the Horensteins, who were his neighbors and close friends from Newton, Massachusetts. "I get out of the cab, and they greet me warmly. There is a group standing outside the front door, among them a nice-looking, obviously Christian gent, around my age. How like the Horensteins, I think, to extend their hospitality, to share their Jewish home with a non-Jewish friend," he wrote later. But the nice-looking gent was not a Christian. He was the historian Michael Oren, the Horensteins' cousin and presently Israel's ambassador to the United States. Mamet was taken with Oren, a former paratrooper whose son was then serving in the air force's rescue unit and whose sister-in-law had been killed in a terrorist attack. "To me, a Diaspora Jew, the question is constant, insistent and poignant while in Israel. At this meal it is more than poignant, it is painful. How, I wonder, can I not be here; and how is it possible that I did not come here (as did Michael Oren ) in my youth, and 'grow up with the country,' instead of wasting my time in show business? I am full of grief, as at a middle-aged meeting with the girl I did not marry," he wrote in an article about his visit to Israel, which was published in the New York-based Jewish newspaper Forward. In the article Mamet defended Israel, which was struggling against its enemies, when "much contemporary opinion in the West is anti-Semitic," and described how he had been moved by the thousands of young people who attended the film festival despite the intifada and the terrorism. According to one of Mamet's friends, the article was originally commissioned by the intellectual periodical Granta. However, its editors did not care for the message and decided not to publish it, hence its appearance in Forward.
In the years that followed, Mamet continued to write intensively in favor of Israel and against its critics. During the Second Lebanon War he published pro-Israel cartoons in The Huffington Post. In his book, "The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews," published around this time, he wrote, "I believe we have to be frank: The world hates the Jews. The world has always and will continue to do so."
But despite his sincere enthusiasm for Israel and his self-questioning about why he spent his life on Broadway and in Hollywood instead of "making aliyah," Mamet hasn't been back since 2002. I asked him whether he would like to move to Israel or spend a longer period in the country. "My problem," he replied, "is that I have little kids at school. I wanted to shoot two movies in Israel, but that hasn't happened. I'd love to come back for a month or two to teach and so forth."
Like many American Jews who idolize the Israeli army but whose knowledge of everyday Israeli life and culture is superficial, Mamet has only a shallow acquaintance with Israel. When I told him about our national author, S.Y. Agnon, he showed an interest and asked me to recommend a good English translation of "Tmol Shilshom" ("Only Yesterday" ). I sent him a link to Amazon. To us it sometimes seems, I told him, that the debate in the American Jewish community about Israel has to do with an ideal, an idea, and not with the actual country we live in. I asked what led him to become so preoccupied with Israel.
"My interest in Israel," he replied, "came from discovering my vast interest in Judaism. It's hard for a Jew of my generation, an American Jew, who is philo-Zionistic, not to romanticize Israel. No matter if I lived there for years and years. Because, you know, two years before I was born, they were still burning Jews in ovens."
Years ago, in Hollywood, Mamet met Lou Lenart, a Jewish-American pilot who was one of the founders of the Israel Air Force during the War of Independence. Lenart introduced him to his friend Al Schwimmer, with whom he smuggled U.S. surplus planes to Israel and who later founded and managed Israel Aircraft Industries. Inspired by their deeds and by the stories Rabbi Kushner told him of the Ba'al Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, Mamet wrote a still unproduced screenplay, "Russian Poland." It tells the story of two American soldiers who make off with a plane in Europe in 1948 in order to get it to Palestine. On the way, they meet a Jewish DP, a Holocaust survivor, who guides them by the force of his wisdom and Hasidic fables from Volhynia (a region known as "Russian Poland" in Mamet's family ).
"Meeting with guys like Lou Lenart and Al Schwimmer," he says, "it's like sitting down with Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. When the pioneers did what they did, it was basically impossible. That there's 50 years from the Dreyfus trial to the Jewish state, three years from closing Dachau to the Jewish state - it's a miracle. I know it's also a country, of course, but I'm a dramatist."
You know, some of the allegations against Israel are substantial. It's a country that has problems with its neighbors, and sometimes it's in the right and sometimes it's not.
"Well, of what country is that not true? Do you know who Eric Hoffer was? He was a great American philosopher who was a longshoreman. He wrote a book called 'The True Believer,' and he wrote about Israel that it is the only country in the world that's expected to act like Christians. In 1960 he wrote that the West has 40 years to get off oil. If we don't, in 40 years forget the third world war and forget the Soviet Union, we're going to be at war with the Arabs."
It's all autobiography
Mamet was born 64 years ago in Chicago. His father, Bernie Mamet, was an attorney who specialized in labor law. He worked at first in the law firm of Arthur Goldberg, who was counsel for the trade unions and a prominent Democratic activist, served as a Supreme Court justice and was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (where he helped draft Security Council Resolution 242 after the Six-Day War ). Mamet's father later started his own law firm and continued to represent labor organizations.
Mamet relates that he grew up in a neighborhood of Jewish immigrants. "That emigrant culture that I grew up with - everybody in the shops, on the street was from Volhynia, and they all spoke Yiddish to each other. I didn't know anybody whose grandparents were born in America." But the aspiration in his home was to move away from the Yiddish roots and assimilate into American society. In a major New Yorker profile of Mamet in 1997 by John Lahr, the magazine's theater critic, Mamet said, "My life was expunged of any tradition at all."
His younger sister, Lynn, who is also a playwright and a screenwriter, noted, "The virtues expounded were not creative but remedial: let's stop being Jewish, let's stop being poor. There was a great deal of pressure for us to be the best Americans we could be. There was no room for us to make mistakes." In another interview from around the same time, in The New York Times, Lynn said, "Suffice it to say we are not the victims of a happy childhood ... There was a lot of violence, but the greatest violence was emotional. It was emotional terrorism."
When Mamet was 11 and his sister eight, their parents were divorced; each later remarried. In the years that followed, Mamet moved back and forth between his mother's home in the suburbs and his father's home in Chicago. According to John Lahr, the dominating themes in Mamet's dramatic works - "the sense of not belonging, the imperative of speaking out, the betrayal by authority" - can be traced "directly to his childhood," to his parents' high expectations and his misery at school.
"As a playwright and theorist, Mamet has adopted his father's advocate style of thinking against the system," Lahr wrote. In the cinematic adaptation of Mamet's play "Glengarry Glen Ross," about fraudulent real-estate agents in Chicago, the hero, played by Al Pacino, explains his philosophy of life: "I subscribe to the Law of Contrary Public Opinion. When everybody thinks one thing, then I say, bet the other way."
When I read your book, I thought that was an autobiographical line.
Mamet: "Well, [it's all] autobiographical."
I read that you were a nonconformist even in school.
"I wasn't a nonconformist. I was just a fuck-up."
Mamet relates that he didn't get along in school - "I just couldn't do it" - and that this attitude was passed down to the next generation in the family. "I have three daughters and a son. My 17-year-old daughter just left high school. She said, 'Dad, I can't take it anymore. It's making me crazy.' So she got her graduate equivalent degree at 16, and she went to a court and had herself declared an emancipated minor."
Mamet is proud of having worked at many odd jobs in his youth. He cleared tables in a Chicago theater, played poker with crooks, sold real estate to the elderly and got to know the street life of his hometown. The turning point came in college. He attended Goddard College, a private progressive liberal arts institution in Vermont, which he called "sex camp" in the New Yorker profile. He started to write plays in his senior year at Goddard, after having tried unsuccessfully to study acting. By 1975, six years after graduating, he was already a famous theater figure.
Two works were instrumental in Mamet's theatrical breakthrough: "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," about the relations among four young people in and out of bed; and "American Buffalo," about four friends who plan to steal a coin collection. "American Buffalo" debuted in Chicago in 1975, and had its Broadway premiere two years later, with Robert Duvall in the lead role.
America was going through a period of liberal disillusionment after the Vietnam War and Watergate, and was shedding Nixonian conservatism. The atmosphere was right for new and daring experiments, and Mamet was the playwright of the hour. He wrote in a free language, with slang from the 'hood, and was not afraid to use obscenities and macho crudities. His protagonists made liberal use of words like "fuck" and "fucking." The critics and the audience loved it, and the term "Mametian" or "Mametspeak" was enshrined as a type of theater idiom. It was nothing short of a revolution.
"He belongs in the pantheon of this century's great dramatists; he has done for American theater at the end of the century what his hero, the iconoclastic sociologist Thorstein Veblen, did for American sociology at the beginning: provide a devastating, often hilarious new idiom to dissect the follies of American life," Lahr wrote in The New Yorker.
Manny Azenberg, a leading Broadway producer (his 72 productions include all of Neil Simon's plays ) says of Mamet, "He created a style now much imitated - let's call it heightened naturalism - which changed the way playwrights (and also TV and screenwriters ) wrote dialogue. The negative is we rarely see language plays anymore and naturalistic writers don't write as well as Mamet. The positive is great American plays like 'Glengarry Glen Ross' and 'American Buffalo.'"
In 1976, Mamet moved from Chicago to New York and married the actress Lindsay Crouse, a daughter of the American cultural and media establishment. Her father, Russel Crouse, was one of the authors of "The Sound of Music," and her brother, Timothy Crouse, wrote one of the great books of American journalism, "The Boys on the Bus," about the press coverage of the Nixon-McGovern presidential race in 1972.
Lindsay Crouse got Mamet his first screenwriting job in Hollywood, at a time when his theater career was in crisis following the big success of "Sexual Perversity" and "American Buffalo" on Broadway. Crouse was auditioning for Bob Rafelson's remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," and Mamet told her to tell Rafelson that "he was a fool if he didn't hire me to write the screenplay." Rafelson gave him a chance and thereby launched Mamet's long career as a Hollywood writer and director. (Crouse didn't get the part in the film, in which Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson have sex on the kitchen table. )
Among the well-known films Mamet has written or directed (in some case both ) since then: "House of Games," "The Untouchables," "The Spanish Prisoner," "Wag the Dog," "The Winslow Boy" and "State and Main." "Mamet is the only major American playwright ever to succeed as a screenwriter," John Lahr wrote.
Mamet wrote "Glengarry Glen Ross," the play that brought him a Pulitzer Prize, in 1982. It was first produced at the National Theater in London, with the encouragement of his friend Harold Pinter, who would later be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As Lahr recounts, Mamet sent Pinter a draft of the play, with a note, "There is something wrong with this play. What is it?" Pinter immediately wired back, "There is nothing wrong with this play. I'm giving it to the National." At the beginning of the 1990s, Mamet's controversial play "Oleanna," about a power struggle between a professor and a female student who accuses him of sexual harassment, was produced. Both plays were adapted for the cinema. Mamet's latest Broadway success was "Race" (2009 ), which deals with three lawyers who defend a white suspect accused of committing a crime against a black woman. James Spader played the lead, but the critics were lukewarm.
How many plays and books have you written?
You stopped counting?
"It's kind of embarrassing."
"It's a lot. I've probably written 25 or 30 scripts that got made, probably 25 or 30 that didn't get made, and 40 or 50 plays and 15 books of nonfiction. See? It's boring."
So you're sitting all day writing, basically?
"Yeah, or screwing around."
That takes a lot of discipline.
"No, what else am I going to do?"
Mamet doesn't have a computer. He writes longhand, with a pen, though he used to use a typewriter more. I recorded this interview on my iPad, but Steve Jobs' gadget is of no interest to him. When he remembered something, he tore bits off the place mat and wrote himself notes. When he wanted his personal assistant to bring him screenplays and books, he asked me to make the call on my cellular.
You don't even have a mobile phone?, I asked in amazement. "I have one someplace," he replied. His assistant, Pam Susemiehl, manages his email correspondence.
Where are the theater and the cinema headed in the age of the Internet and social networking?
"It's all going to the Internet. Things change. But you know, things changed so rapidly in the 20th century. At the beginning of the 20th century you had vaudeville, and it went from vaudeville to movies, and the vaudevillians said, I'm not gonna do the movies. And then it went from movies to radio, and people said, I'm not gonna do the radio. And I still remember that at the beginning of television, in the late '40s, early '50s, the people who were becoming huge stars on television, were kind of the second-raters in radio and movies. And now we're going to the Internet. Things change, it's shocking."
But does it change the writing, too? Plays by the Greeks are still being produced, even after 2,000 years.
"It's hard to write a good plot, it's very hard. There are not many good plays, and we treasure them. Somebody said English is unusual in that the English, the Anglophones, are the only people who have a dramatist as their head writer. The Russians, the Spanish and the French have novelists."
A few years ago, I came across directions Mamet sent to the writers of the television series he created, "The Unit," about a top-secret military division. In typical Mamet fashion, the guidelines, from which the following is an excerpt, are couched in direct, succinct language: "OUR FRIENDS, THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION - AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US. BUT NOTE: THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN'T, I WOULDN'T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA. QUESTION: WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1 ) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2 ) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER (sic ) DON'T GET IT?
3 ) WHY NOW?"
I told Mamet I had sent his advice to many editors and writers who had enjoyed the directness, the simplicity and the logic. "It's simple," he says. "I mean, I studied jujitsu, right, and the stuff they tell you in the first month - these simple rules, if and when you master them, you can beat anybody, but it will take you 20 years. So it's the same thing in writing, you know: the rules are very simple and very few, but can take you forever to master, and it really doesn't get any easier. It's always difficult."
What were you trying to achieve as a writer?
"I was just writing plays, that's all. That's all there is. That's what I am, some guy with an idea, not some guy with an idea about to change somebody else."
And these ideas come easily to you?
"Yes, the idea is easy. The working them out is sometimes difficult, but it's a small price to pay. You know, working in a factory, which I did as a kid, I was very fortunate as a kid I did every job in the world."
That gives you a big bank of ideas?
"I don't know if it gives you a big bank of ideas, but it's a good way to grow up. My daughter worked in a movie all summer as a production assistant. You know, she's out there standing in the rain all day, every day for 18 hours. It's priceless."
Mamet frequently mentions his wife and four children (two from his first marriage, two from his marriage to Rebecca Pidgeon ) in the conversation. I asked him whether the harsh reactions of his former friends on the left to his rightward shift had affected his social life. He said it hadn't.
"I don't really have a social life. I have a wonderful family, thank God, and we don't go out. I have two or three friends, over the years. You know, they say you can't make new old friends. I've been friends with these people for 40 years, from Chicago, from New York. I'm not a social guy, you know. I'm never more at home than when addressing 5,000 people from the stage, but I'm not the kind of guy you want to put in a party."
Before moving to Los Angeles - mainly in order to advance their Hollywood careers - Mamet and Pidgeon lived in a converted farmhouse in Vermont, with a log cabin that was used as his study. "It was marvelous," he recalls. "It didn't even have electricity. When the sun went down I went home. But I also had a gas lamp, so sometimes if I wanted to stay an extra half hour I just lit the gas lamp, but it got very, very cold and I just heated with this old wood stove and it was marvelous." Interviews, articles and books from that period underscore Mamet's macho image: rifle bearer, would-be hunter and poker player who toyed with writing captions for a porno magazine.
Among Mamet's few friends are two who were with him in college: the comedian Jonathan Katz, creator of the animated sitcom "Dr. Katz" (in which Mamet appeared as himself ); and the actor William H. Macy ("Fargo" ), who has appeared in a few of Mamet's films. Mamet works with a small group of actors, among them his wife Rebecca, who was in "The Spanish Prisoner," "State and Main," "Oleanna" and "Heist." His first wife, Lindsay Crouse, starred in the first film he directed, "House of Games."
Mamet says that in the past, he took little interest in politics. A perusal of sites of political donors in the United States shows that in 2007 he made small donations to the campaigns of the Democratic senator from Connecticut, Chris Dodd. From his perspective, supporting the Democrats was the default option. "My dad, who worked for the trade unions, voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential elections. I asked him, 'How did you do that?' And he replied, 'I thought he was the better guy.'"
And you voted for Jimmy Carter?
"God forgive me, I voted for Carter. I mean, there's a hell I'm going to for that. Did you read his book ["Palestine: Peace not Apartheid"]?"
In April 2008, Mamet published an article in The Village Voice about his political turnabout and his shift to the conservative side. The editors titled the piece "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'" - "and all of a sudden, kaboom, half the country won't speak to me anymore. It was immediately embraced by the right, and it was a nice welcoming."
Blogs and magazines tried to figure out what had happened to the admired playwright, who was suddenly sounding like Fox News. Was it because of his age? The money he made from the theater and films? His anger at the so-so reviews? Or his growing support for Israel and his disappointment at the anti-Israel allegations voiced by the left?
"I met some conservatives for the first time in my life four years ago," Mamet relates. "I met them at the synagogue and the main thing that impressed me was their demeanor. They were all so friendly. I was used to the accepted norm for liberal American politics: 'Do you know what those swine did? You know what those sons of bitches did? We know they're fools, liars, charlatans.' People on the right don't talk that way, but they're characterized that way by the left. I was stunned by it."
That got you to reboot your politics?
"That got me to think: what exactly is a democracy, what is self-government, going back to the Constitution, thinking what those guys were actually trying to do and what they accomplished. The answer is, they accomplished a document which has kept a country of 330 million people together for 230 years. It's extraordinary and was done by an understanding of human nature. It's also profoundly influenced by the Torah, because that's what they all read. The New Testament was a vision, and the Old Testament was a guide. That's what America is founded on."
In "The Secret Knowledge," Mamet relates that two of the people who prompted him to rethink his politics were Rabbi Finley, whom he terms "a centrist," and the musician and photographer Endre Balogh, who is a member of the Ohr HaTorah congregation. They gave him the book "White Guilt," by the black conservative Shelby Steele, a fierce opponent of the "victimization" of the African-American community and of affirmative action plans for blacks, and a vocal supporter of Israel. The book turned Mamet on. The next must-read book was "The Road to Serfdom," a 1944 work by the Austrian-British economist Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel laureate, who was a prophet of free-market capitalism and an enemy of government intervention and socialism. Hayek is revered by Margaret Thatcher and Benjamin Netanyahu. Mamet was even more enthusiastic. "Liberalism is like roulette addiction," he writes in "The Secret Knowledge." In the book Mamet savages the "herd mentality" of the American left and the tendency of its young advocates to study useless "professions" like semiotics. He asks why his parents and their generation, who came to America 60 years after the abolition of slavery and did not harm the blacks in any way, should have to carry the guilt feelings of the whites. He assails the social initiatives of President Barack Obama and the feminist movement, and attributes to the American left an approach that rejects Israel's existence and wishes to hand the country over to the Arabs, who want to liquidate it. He regrets having gone to college during the Vietnam War instead of serving in the military. (In his previous political incarnation, he regretted not having been more prominent in the antiwar movement. )
From Rabbi Finley, Mamet learned that a political discussion needs to be conducted on the basis of mutual attentiveness and an examination of the facts. Finley went through the same process before him. He too grew up on the left and became disillusioned as an adult. When he was a child his family lived in a mixed neighborhood in Los Angeles and his parents insisted on staying there on principle, even after most of the whites had left. According to Finley, "Most of our conservatives used to be Democrats. And there's a very familiar trajectory." Above all, he notes, there is disappointment at "dogma and axioms, when a person presents a conclusion as an axiom." Liberals, he says, refuse to even listen to a conservative viewpoint. He styles himself a "moderate Republican."
Mamet, in contrast, makes no effort to portray himself as moderate. He was and remains outspoken. Two and a half years ago, he taught a writing seminar for graduate and undergraduate playwrights and screenwriters at the University of Texas in Austin. According to the participants, he called Muslims terrorists and Arabs pedophiles in the seminar. To students who took him to task he reportedly replied, "Why shouldn't we pick on Arabs? They blew up New York City." The students filed a complaint and asked the university to ban Mamet from the campus. He was supposed to return there a year after the event but, he says, he came down with the flu and did not show up. Mamet mentions the episode in "The Secret Knowledge" as a negative example of liberal education, which revolves around "aggressive identity politics," accusations and slanders. The students, he said, were "young Stalinists."
Will you teach in Austin again?
"No, I will never go back there."
Mamet will not return to the university to which he gave his archives in 2007, including his diaries and the drafts for his plays and screenplays ("333 document boxes, 17 serial boxes, 12 oversize boxes, 1 galley folder, 21 oversize folders," according to the website of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin ). But from his perspective, the dispute he stirred and the left-wing and liberal criticism of him only convince him that he is on the right path. He wrote "The Secret Knowledge," he notes, in order to "burn my bridges" and state his position in a way that will mean there is no going back.
In an interview you gave after the book's publication you said you are proud of having angered the public since you were 20.
In what way?
"I remember people walking out of 'American Buffalo' in its first time on Broadway, and then a lot of people screamed at 'Oleanna.' I think Somerset Maugham is a very good guide to all this. He says, just don't pay them any attention, of course they don't like you. The best advice I ever took is: 'Do you want the good opinion of these people? Didn't you tell me yesterday that they were fools and charlatans?'"
Later this year, HBO will broadcast a docudrama by Mamet about the musical producer Phil Spector, who was convicted of the second-degree murder of his girlfriend, with Al Pacino in the lead role. In the autumn a new Mamet play will hit Broadway - "The Anarchist" - which is about two female characters, a terrorist and her parole officer. "It'll be fun," Mamet says.
He drew the inspiration for the terrorist from the Weathermen Underground, which operated in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He learned later that several of the group's members had been with him at college. He didn't know it at the time, but recalls that they used to disappear for days at a time. A few of them were involved in the Eleventh Street townhouse explosion in New York in 1970. Mamet notes an interesting coincidence. On September 11, 2001, when the hijacked planes slammed into the Twin Towers, Mamet was on a flight home from the Toronto Film Festival. A few days earlier, in a Toronto hotel, he came across a newspaper clipping about Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, the Weathermen's leaders. Ayers was caught and tried but not punished.
"I started to think about it a lot," he says. "There's a great book by George Higgins about the Weathermen, called 'Outlaws' . I always admired that book, so I wrote the play."
Did you try to contact your anarchist friends from college?
"No. But I'll tell you how crazy my college was, and this is an absolutely true story. My roommate was reading Kierkegaard and Marcuse and Frantz Fanon, all this shit I could never get into, 'Concerning Violence' [Fanon's book]. Somebody burned down the guardhouse on the campus. Why would anybody want to burn down the guardhouse? When it came time for graduation the student had to write a thesis, and his thesis was how he burned down the guardhouse as an act of political expression. And he graduated. They said, 'Oh, well done.' That's how crazy it was."
And what was your thesis about?
"Herman Melville - wrote a book about a whale, or some kind of fish."