Book Review: Recessional by David Mamet

The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch

David Mamet is a good writer. That is not to say that he is a brilliant writer. I think not. Although, his plays might be considered so. Who can doubt the brilliance of Glengarry Glen Ross or The Verdict or Wag the Dog. However, these little essays of three or four pages each fall flat. And they are loaded with misinformation, lies, and incorrect conclusions. He sometimes gets his facts right but draws the wrong conclusions. I could disagree with him more on some of these points but I don’t see how. Mr. Mamet seems to have lost his way if not his mind.

There are a few things in the book that do I agree with, and one or two things that I actually identify with. But for the most part it is poppycock.

Here is what I like and agree with:

He says, and I quote: “…works that I have found helpful writing drama: Aristotle’s Poetics. Campbell’s, Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

I have both of these books in my library and have always wanted to read them. I will now be putting them on my TBR list.

“Each characterization of the hero…that does not jibe with our self image takes us out of the story. An invaluable understanding for the story teller.”

And an invaluable lesson for the writer as well.

“The script exists to describe to the cameraman what to shoot and to tell the actors what to say. Everything else is besides the point…The nature of a script is a recipe.”

Very sensible.

“We human beings are a bad lot. Unchecked, we divide into predators and food.”

“Great paintings and music can inspire, suggest, soothe, thrill, but they cannot teach, Neither can literature. The arts exit, as does religion, to touch those portions of the human soul beyond the corruption of consciousness.”

OK, you had me all the way up to that last sentence. What exactly is the “corruption of consciousness?”
“Most plays are no damned good. The only way to write a play is to write a lot of plays…To write a good play requires talent. There is not a lot of it around.”

“…The journey of the writer and that of the hero are one and the same. Both are forced to make difficult choices.”

“I was raised in the horror of the Chicago public schools…I didn’t learn a goddamn thing. It might have helped my grades if not my education if I ever opened a school book, but I was bored to catatonia…but outside of school hours, I read voraciously and was certainly better read than the teachers.”
Now, this I can relate to. I had the same experience going to public schools. But I went to 14 schools in 12 years. My father was a Navy man and I transferred schools quite frequently as we moved around the country whenever my dad got new orders. I did however manage to get a pretty good education, even thought I was bored out of my mind much of the time.

“Samuel Beckett was the greatest dramatist since Shakespeare.”

No argument here. I would add perhaps Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.

“What is art for? It has no use. No more than a sunset…Art has no purpose, but it has a use (direct contradiction, but I know what he means). The oyster cannot use the pearl (cue Steinbeck). Observers may admire its beauty, but that does not allow them to understand the pearl, beauty, or the oyster.”

Now, for what I don’t like:

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war. The offer of Freedom (American constitutional democracy) is at issue, and the tyranny of the left displays the carrot and the stick to a legitimately disturbed populace.”
I think the tyranny is on the right and not on the left. And there is ample evidence to support this contention. But I won’t use up valuable space here to refute it. Suffice it to say, I beg to differ. Domestic terror attacks emanate from the right far more than they do from the left.

There is another place in the book at the beginning where Mr. Mamet makes the argument that the left tried to steal the election. This is patently untrue and is rather the other way around. Has he forgotten about the January 6th insurrection when the members of the right-wing stormed the capitol in a failed to overthrow the government? Bill Maher called him out on this on his show and Mamet just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Skip that page.” Unfortunately, he makes similar statements and arguments throughout the book. We should perhaps skip the entire book.

August Strindberg

Sunday. 2/6/2022. 2:58 pm Riot Café. Reading August Strindberg – Miss Julie and Other Plays. Notes to follow.

Riot Café. Photo by the author

The Red Room, A satirical novel written by Strindberg in 1879. It is not a far cry to go from Red Room to Redrum to Murder. Just saying.

“Strindberg’s naturalism is not a slice of life, but rather the intense, immediate drama associated with what he called, ‘the battle of the brains.’ This is fought, not with theatrical swords or daggers, but with the equally lethal mental cut and thrust of two implacably hostile minds, bound to each other by desire and hatred. It is a battle in which one of them ultimately destroys the other’s will and commits ‘soul murder.’” One is immediately put in mind of Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Indeed, Translator Michael Robinson makes the very same observation writing about, The Dance of Death, a play written by August Strindberg in 1900, as a depiction of a marital inferno. He cites the numerous critics who regard it as the forerunner to Eugene O’Neill’s, Long Day’s Journe into Night and Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Why read Strindberg today? Because he is as relevant today as he was in 1887.

Strindberg was one of the most extreme theatrical innovators of the late 19th century and ultimately the most influential. The five plays presented here mark his transition from naturalism to modernism.

In The Father, Strindberg shifts away from social and political questions towards more psychological writing. Strindberg was more concerned with the discussion going on in Scandinavia at the time about the “woman question,” sexual morality, marriage, and the shifting psychological states of his characters (Robinson).

The Father is a three-act play with eight characters. The two principal characters are the Captain and his wife, Laura. It is a naturalistic tragedy about the struggle between parents over the future of their child.

The Captain is a scientist and freethinker whose marriage has gone south. He is engaged in a power struggle with his wife, Laura, over their daughter who wants to keep the girl home under her own influence whereas he wants to send the girl away to school. In an attempt to dominate her husband and get her way, Laura decides to drive her husband insane by first insinuating that he is not the girl’s father. The mother (Laura), uses her cunning to subdue and finally destroy the father (The Captain).

Strindberg is a great purveyor of naturalism, but in The Father, he is reaching for “greater naturalism” which is intense, immediate, and associated with a battle of the brains. (Battle of the sexes, battle of wills). The two main characters can be seen as representing the male and female principles.             

Strindberg believed that life is a series of struggles between weaker and stronger wills.

What initially brought me to revisit Strindberg were the films of Ingmar Bergman. Always a big fan of Bergman I began to realize what an influence Strindberg had on the filmmaker. I began to do a little research and it turns out in his lifetime Bergman directed eleven Strindberg plays for the stage, eight for radio and two for television. He was responsible for altogether twenty-eight Strindberg productions. He often returned to the same plays, producing A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata four times, The Pelican three times and Miss Julie, Playing with Fire and Stormy Weather twice.

My favorite Bergman movie is The Seventh Seal. It has many similarities to the play, The Saga of the Folkungs. They are both set in the 14th century, the plague is present and religion is a major component.

Sources:

  1. Michael Robinson, Translator, Introduction and Notes to Miss Julie and Plays by August Strindberg.
  2. Strindberg and Bergman, Egil Tornquist, November 2012

The Plague

Social Distancing in Elizabethan England in the Time of the Plague

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William Shakespeare

In William Shakespeare’s time, London was ravaged by the bubonic plague. Public health regulation was haphazard at best in Elizabethan England, but one official measure that people seem to understand was that isolation of plague victims seem to slow down the spread of the disease. Hence the nailing shut of quarantined houses. They grasped too the relationship between the progress of the epidemics and large crowds. Authorities did not cancel church services, but when plague deaths began to rise they did shut down the theaters. This, of course, included the Globe Theater in which Shakespeare mounted his productions. The rule of thumb to shutter the theaters was 30 deaths per week. The enemies of the theaters became even more strident in their criticism, shouting that God had sent the plague to punish London for its sins, above all whoredom, sodomy, and playacting.

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The Globe Theater

Source: Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt

Photos: by Benn Bell