David Mamet on his new play, The Anarchist
HH: Last week at this time, I sat down behind the microphone and told you I’d been I New York over the weekend, and had stayed an extra day so I could go see the new play, The Anarchist, by David Mamet, who joins me now from New York. David, welcome back. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving.
DM: I had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and it’s great to hear from you, Hugh.
HH: It’s great to talk to you, and by the way, I loved your play. I wrote a review of it at Townhall. I’ve got so many things to ask about it…
HH: But start by telling me how it’s been received by your old pals on the left.
DM: Well, I mean, I the old pals on the left haven’t, you know, the rabid mice of the critical establishment have not come yet, but they’ll come over the weekend. And I thought I could save them the trouble and write the review, but I’ll let them do it.
HH: I don’t think they’re going to like it, because I loved it. This is, I’m sort of a contrary indicator of what theater critics think.
DM: Well, you know, they’ve kind of turned their back on me when they found out that I hadn’t drank the Kool-Aid, or that I’d stop drinking the Kool-Aid. And the critical establishment is fairly compulsive. That is if they don’t understand it, they’re going to look for, they’re going to take their disquiet, which should be part of the purpose that we write tragedies, should be to disquiet the public or to raise questions. And they’re going to take their disquiet and attribute to some fault of the play.
HH: Now David Mamet, it’s been ten days since I’ve seen it, and I’m still thinking about Patti Lupone’s character. And if you would set it up for people about, I read your op-ed piece in the New York Times before the play came, and I saw it in previews, obviously. So I didn’t see the show that the critics will be reviewing. I doubt very much it’s going to change, but give people sort of the overarching view, then I’ll come at you with my questions.
DM: Sure. The play is about two women in their 60s, one of whom is or was a member of some radical group in the 1960s or 70s, and was convicted of murdering two police officers. And she’s been in prison for decades. And the other woman is, has been, it’s not clear whether she’s the warden or the parole officer or whom she is, but she’s in charge, who she is, she’s in charge of determining whether or not Patti Lupone, who plays the prisoner, is to be let out. And the warden is played by Debra Winger, and she’s about to leave her job. And she’s about to leave her job, and it’s her last, it’s Patti Lupone’s last time to appeal to this person.
HH: And so their conversation extends over the roughly hour and a quarter, hour and a half of the play, and it’s a two woman show with of course a telephone ringing and a couple of other things like that. But I’m just, I’m totally drawn in by this conversation, because it’s the conversation between the radicals of the 60s, and then I would say the party that I belong to, the party of order and of the rule of law. And they’re having this conversation, and I think it resonates with everyone. What kind of reactions are you getting to it?
DM: Well, I think, you know, I don’t talk to much of anybody. I’m just, I’m also directing the play, so I’m looking at the performance. But I had a real interesting, I sat down with Alan Dershowitz, who came to see it, and he and I are old friends. And he was fascinated by it. He said he was going to send all of his students at Harvard to come see it. And he said it’s a Talmudic discussion. And I think that that’s true, because the play was really prompted by a verse, I don’t know if it’s in the Talmud or if it’s in Proverbs that compassion to the wicked is cruelty to the just. So the question is what is compassion? Should this woman be let free because she served more than the sentence one would serve for a “regular” murder? Or should she be imprisoned because she’s a dangerous radical, and someone’s got to bell the cat?
HH: You see, that is what, I just was drawn in completely and surprised. I don’t want to give the play away to anyone who sits there. I also have to tell you, I sat two rows back and a few seats over from Woody Allen.
DM: Oh, yeah.
HH: So my whole experience was mediated by I kept thinking what does Woody Allen think about this? And does that often, do people react to your plays that way, they wonder about what other people think about them?
DM: Well, I don’t know, because since I write all of them and direct most of them, all that I’m wondering is what’s everybody going to…
HH: What’s everybody thinking, well, because you know, he’s such an old lefty, and I kept thinking old lefties and whether or not they would understand the indictment? And I don’t know if the indictment is intended to, I don’t know how you expect the theatergoer to leave, whether they’re supposed to be with Debra Winger or with Patti Lupone at the end, because it’s so carefully constructed. But I can’t imagine the old left will be happy with you, David.
DM: Well, I mean, you know, the old left was just the age of me. And thankfully, most of us are dead, so there’s not a lot of us left anymore. We’ve forgotten largely in culture that provocative means I’m not sure, I’ve got to figure it out. You know, provocative doesn’t mean taking some universally applauded position and standing up greatly for it.
HH: Right, right. Where did you learn your Jesus talk, which is so authentically conveyed?
DM: Thank you. You know, I was very influenced by you over the years, Hugh, and listening to your show as I do every day, and listening to you talk about your Catholicism, and the Catholicism of your friends. And also as a practicing Jew, I was very touched by one of my rabbis, a fellow Yeshiva student who was a Protestant minister who went to Yeshiva, because he said to understand Jesus, he had to understand the Jews. To understand the Jews, he had to understand the Talmud. And that, and he came to, he used to come every Christmas and give a sermon. And one Christmas, he said you know, people say Christ was a Jew. He said I disagree. Chris is a Jew.
DM: And it just opened, everybody in the synagogue, was all of us fellow Jews, were just balling. It was one of the most beautiful things I ever heard.
HH: And she hits her knees at one point in a prayer, Patti Lupone does.
HH: And it’s so pitch perfect, that then when I’m undone a little bit later as to the sincerity of her belief, I was wondering if you, David Mamet, not in the play, but if you detect, do you have a meter to detect whether or not people are telling the truth when they profess their faith?
DM: Well, there really is no meter, and you know, when I was young, I worked for a while in a prison. I was working for a group called the Free Street Theater in Chicago, and we were supposedly teaching acting to prisoners both in a male prison and a female prison in Illinois. And I was very impressed, because as the warden character says, a prisoner lies all the time to anyone in authority, that’s anyone who’s not incarcerated, because they have to. And I spent a lot of time with criminals, and they’re good at lying, because they don’t have any compunction. So the question Patti Lupone raises is how would you judge my sincerity if not for the fact for 35 years in prison I’ve dedicated myself to good works? And the Debra Winger character says what if you were just doing that to impress? And Patti Lupone says what if the saints did their acts to impress? We don’t know their motives. And so that’s really, that’s kind of one of the engines of the play.
HH: Oh, it’s the dilemma. The guy I wish I could talk to or see it with is Chuck Colson, of course, who’s gone.
DM: Of course, sure.
HH: Because Colson spent his life working with the incarcerated. And of course, among the incarcerated will be genuine converts, and among the incarcerated will be frauds.
HH: And therefore, the question you pose here is the question every parole board member confronts every time they’re asked to commute a sentence, right?
DM: Yes, indeed.
HH: Wow, I was blown away by that. Now let me ask you about the language. There’s quite a lot of back and forth in The Anarchist about what does that word mean. And I found myself thinking the 60s was full of blather.
DM: Of course.
HH: I mean, just absolute blather.
DM: I mean, of course. You know, I went back and I read that, when I was writing my political book, I went back and I read all that stuff again, and I read Noam Chomsky, you know, both on the filth that he writes and also on the linguistics, which is, you know, I may just be ignorant, but I sounds like gobbledygook to me. And I read Deepak Chopra and all the stuff that came out of the 60s, and the Patti Lupone character says the words had no meaning. They were essentially a sort of chant.
HH: Yeah, and explain to people what that meant, though. That’s a tribal calling together.
DM: Yes, indeed, that Patti Lupone is accused by her jailor of having written in the 60s a bunch of garbage that which the jailor describes as, she says I read that filth. And Patti Lupone said they were the writings of a child. And Debra Winger says they weren’t the writing of a child. They were evil, wicked heresy. And the heresy is that nothing has any meaning, that words only, you know, the deconstructionism.
DM: The only thing that has meaning is the meaning that we give to it. And so Patti Lupone says yes, that’s why the French were the terrorists, because if nothing has meaning, save the meaning that we give to it, what meaning is there to another’s suffering?
HH: I also was impacted by the fact that I had spent most of the previous fortnight with Jon Voight, Dennis Prager and Michael Medved flying around the country. And Voight talked a number of times. Do you, you must know him, David, correct?
DM: Yes, I do.
HH: Okay, and as you know, he repents of his time in the 60s and the early 70s when he was an unthinking radical. And he talks to audiences about the burden that they carry because of Southeast Asia and the butcher of millions. He talks about that quite movingly and at length in front of very disparate audiences. But I don’t think many of the old radical left do, do you?
DM: No, I don’t. Jon was, is responsible in large part to my conversion. He gave me the book Witness…
DM: …which is of course, you know, the greatest…
DM: …provocateur of any, in this case, a communist who saw oh, my God, what have I done?
HH: Oh, that’s amazing. And has Voight seen this play yet?
DM: No, he hasn’t.
HH: Okay, so that’s going to, do you expect it will have a leveraging impact on some of the radicals of the old days to make them look in the mirror?
DM: No, I don’t.
DM: But you know, as I figured out a long time ago, it’s not, as speaking of populations, it’s not that people change, but that people die.
HH: (laughing) But some, don’t you have a hope as a playwright? Well, hold on one second, David, if I can keep you one more segment.
HH: I’ve got to ask about your hope for this.
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HH: I can’t remember the name of the theater, David. Which theater is it at?
DM: It’s at the Golden Theater on Broadway.
HH: On Broadway at 45th Street, and it’s really great. Here’s one of the, a couple of the questions I wrote in my review, David. Will anyone under 50 get this? Under 60, even? Slowly, inexorably, the drama builds as the voices of the Weathermen come back coded over four decades of obscurity. Where did they go, the bomb throwers and the sit-in heroes? Sure, we know that Ayers and Dohrn are in Chicago still peddling nonsense, and the Port Huron gang has spread far and wide, some of them via ash scatterings. But generally, they’re in academia. They’re in government agencies. They’re blissfully unaware, I think, of what they did, David. Or am I wrong? Do they know what they did?
DM: No, they don’t know what they did, but I’ll tell you what they did. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal about, I believe it was the dean of students at Yale. I could be wrong. It was one of the Ivy League schools, and a conservative, I don’t even know if it was a conservative, it was a political organization asked Ann Coulter to come. I know you’re aware of this.
DM: And the dean interceded with the students and said please think again, please think again. The students withdrew their invitation, and the dean wrote them a letter of praise saying that in the interest of free speech, they had fought the good fight, and they’d seen the light. That’s what they did.
HH: So that everything is emptied of meaning. It’s all just about power, relationships…they won, in that respect. That’s what I come, that’s what was depressing about The Anarchist is they’ve kind of won.
DM: Well, they kind of won, but the idea is again, it’s maybe too, you know, a cat may look at a king to compare it to enemy of the people, that the jailor has to do the right thing. And so it can be seen as the drama of the prisoner, but it can also be seen as the tragedy of the jailor, that she had one chance to vindicate her career, and she’s incapable of doing that.
HH: Yeah, okay. Now talk to me a little bit about informers. Some of my favorite novels are the Patrick O’Brien novels, and Stephen Maturin is a wonderful character over 23 books.
HH: And the one thing that makes his skin crawl are informers.
DM: That’s right.
HH: And there’s one bit of dignity left in your antihero here, the Patti Lupone character, is she will not inform. And I admire that. What is your thought of the informer?
DM: Well, I’m a huge fan. You know, Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey are quoted in my household almost more than anyone.
HH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
DM: Oh, yeah. I wrote O’Brien’s obituary for the New York Times.
HH: I didn’t…oh, I have to go look that up now. Okay, so we have this in common. So you know how he loathed anyone who had any sense of being an informer.
DM: Well, of course. He says I regret, sir, that you think I have the face of an informer.
HH: Yes (laughing). So is that, is that redeeming of her? Or is it part of her culpability that the warden has to consider?
DM: I don’t know. Well, the situation is that the warden says I want a sign of your repentance. And Patti Lupone keeps bringing to, she keeps bringing up her religious conversion. And the warden says no, no, no, thank you, but I can’t accept that. I need a quantifiable act of which the board can take notice. Give me the name of your informer. And Patti says no, no, no, no, no. First, she says I don’t know it. Then she vacillates, and she says I’m not going to do it. And the warden finally breaks down and says just for me, I swear to God I won’t tell anybody, please, please, please, tell me what you know, in an attempt to vindicate her thing. And then Patti blows up at her and says you can’t force, the state does not have the power to force me to inform. She says you have kept me here for 35 years for refusing to inform, which it’s a legitimate gripe.
HH: But in your mind, is that a noble thing? Because the person whom she is not turning in is a murderer, or an accomplice to murder.
HH: So it, to me, it’s a quandary. Maybe that’s why you’re writing about it. I don’t know what is the right answer there. I suppose that’s what makes for great drama. But what do you think?
DM: I don’t know what the right answer is. I don’t know what the right answer is anyway. At the end, I’m not going to say what happens at the end of the play, but…
HH: No, don’t.
DM: But I don’t know what the right answer is. It’s, you know, they say that bad law makes hard cases. And what it comes down to is that the jailor is put in the position of saying I have the power, I have to decide, there’s nobody here but me. Nobody cares about you but me. Everybody wants you dead. The policeman’s family has been coming for 35 years to want you dead. Your family turned their back on you. The public doesn’t know your name. There’s nobody but me. Help me to make a correct decision, because I have that power for good or ill.
HH: Yeah. How long did it take to write this?
DM: Oh, heck, I don’t know. You know, it’s like your children grow up, and at the same time, you think gee, it took so long and so soon?
DM: So that’s the same thing as writing. You know, sometimes…it’s like with the kids. You know, the childhood goes by like mad, and the afternoons are endless.
HH: And working with Lupone and Winger, I mean, they’re both extraordinary in their roles. Did they come to these roles with any kind of ambivalence, because Patti Lupone is playing basically Dohrn, basically Boudin, people who are terrible human beings, and whom time may have rounded the edges off of. And Debra Winger is playing Javert.
HH: I mean, she’s…and so they’re horrible roles. Did they hesitate?
DM: Oh, that’s so wonderful. I never thought of, of course, she’s playing Javert. No, but Patti, of course, a great actress, these are both great actresses, has to fall in love with the part. So Patti from the first, speaking not about the issues involved but about the character said of course, she’s right. She served 35 years for a crime anyone else would have served eight years for. And they didn’t let me bring forward my political beliefs at the time of the trial to mitigate the sentence. Why are you bringing them up now? It’s inconsistent. That’s a pretty strong position.
HH: It is. It is. How about Debra Winger representing the state?
DM: Oh, it’s great. You know, oh my God, she’s, I’m crazy about her. She’s just got the heart of a lion, you know, because it’s such a hard, it’s a difficult part.
HH: Oh, it is. Oh, gosh, it is, because no one likes you.
HH: Nobody likes you at the end. All right, we’ve got just a couple of minutes left, David. Tell me about the audiences they leave. Do you hang around afterwards and listen into them? Or do you sequester yourself as a director away from them?
DM: I’ve been doing it for many too many decades, and I’ve never heard a comment by the audience except one time. And after doing many plays, and I heard these two people saying oh my God, that’s, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. And the other one says yes, I agree with you. This is the most…and so I come close, and they’re talking about one of those sonic devices for the hearing impaired.
HH: Well, I sat next to a Brazilian venture capitalist who was blown away.
DM: Oh, good.
HH: And we were both watching Woody shuffle out wondering what in the hell does Woody Allen think about that? So we were kind of in two different dimensions at the same time. Is it selling out well? I mean, is everyone going to see it as I would expect?
DM: Oh, yeah, yeah. And indeed, of course, they haven’t even opened, yet, so the New York Times is going to get its chance to put in their two cents’ worth.
HH: Oh, to Hell with the Times. Last question, where do you sit? Where are you during the performance?
DM: I’m hiding way, way back in the back, or peeping through the curtains and then taking notes.
HH: And have you changed it much in the first, in during previews?
DM: I’ve changed it very, very little. What happens during the previews is that the cast learns how to play it for an audience, which is a very, very different thing than playing it in the rehearsal room. They learn how to pace themselves, and where the pauses are, and the play starts to come to life as a, this is going to sound icky, but it’s true. It’s kind of a mutual construction of a cast and the audience.
HH: Well, it’s a wonderful, wonderful work. Congratulations on it, David Mamet, and I look forward to talking to you again soon. And who cares what the New York Times says. I hope everyone who’s listening makes their way to the theater when they’re next in New York and sees The Anarchist. Thank you, David.
DM: Thank you very much, and you’re welcome.
End of interview.