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How fear consumed American theatre Broadway now exists to promote ideology, not art

Most plays are no damned good (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Most plays are no damned good (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)


April 7, 2022   5 mins

We all know our consciousness is corrupt, and a long life, examined, brings the burden of regret, shame, and indeed a horror at our own actions that, at times, becomes scarcely bearable.

The theatre, and tragedy particularly, offers a median between outright confession and conscious, rational (which is to say flawed or at least untrustworthy) understanding.

The tragedy is like the story around the campfire and, just like the joke, frees us from rational consideration. In listening, we are transported into another world. “Once upon a time”, just like “there were these two guys”, not only reassures but instantly bypasses our, necessary, quotidian concerns with our own position, well-being, and self-image.

In hearing these mystic incantations, we relax, because we know the story is not going to be about ourselves. Should we suspect, in our unprotected state, that we are actually listening to a cautionary tale (that is to say, to an advertisement), the spell is broken, and we must bring our self-protective capacities to bear.

Here we are like the radio listener, as the host describes the humiliation of some public figure, when he segues, unannounced, into a commercial for internet-image protection and we realise we were hearing an ad.

When we thought we were getting a bedtime story.

The bedtime story exists to address the child’s fear of the night and his understanding of his own frailty. He is not called upon to face it and to deal with it through reason (“There are no such things as monsters”), but he is soothed by a mechanism bypassing his frail consciousness, and his equally frail capacity to be soothed by the same. Which frailty the child shares with us all.

To address his fears by saying, “So remember, never be changed into a wolf”, is to make the same error as putting on plays with a “message”. These are a terrible misuse of the theatrical moment. As are the “talk-backs”, transforming an evening at the theatre into an English class.

As free speech disappears like Jimmy Hoffa, producers and theatregoers are left with fear. Not only has a mechanism for relief been suppressed; the art form has been pressed into service of the repressive mechanism.

The theatre has long been turning and now, on its (potential) revival, will be found to have turned into the arena for the proclamation of right-thinking. The proclamation, that is, of the reign of the goddess Reason, that is, of mob rule.

We have seen, on Broadway, the usual forms of comedy, drama, and tragedy supplanted by the pageant. A pageant is a celebration of human accomplishment, intelligence, grace, or luck — finally of human power over nature or circumstance. It exists to celebrate a person (the birth of Galileo), a place (the founding of Des Moines), or an idea (National Farm Week, the Munich Rally).

It is a perfectly reasonable excuse for a performance and addresses our need for togetherness. But it is the opposite of the drama. Finally, it’s just, for good or ill, “the high school play”. We attend to applaud the notion presented in the pageant’s title. We will not and cannot experience those emotions nor, then, that catharsis for which the theatre has always existed. We will not leave the pageant cleansed, calmed, surprised, laughing, weeping, thoughtful, or disturbed. And we will not leave having had the burden of our consciousness momentarily laid aside.

We know that he who rises refreshed from his prayers has had his prayers answered. Our prayers have, similarly, been answered in leaving the magnificent ballet, concert, or indeed football game: our burden had been lifted for a time. The pageant, however, answers not our prayers but the prayers of others. They, for good or ill, for whatever reason, civic pride, the hope of gain, the quest for adherents, have staged what is, finally, a demonstration.

The pageant has long supplanted the drama on Broadway, for the reasons following. Seventy-five percent of the Broadway audience are tourists. They come, legitimately, seeking an experience. They come to Broadway exactly as they come to Disneyland. As in that happiest place, they do not come to risk their hard-earned cash on a problematic event. (They might not like the play nor appreciate being “challenged”; they might just want a break after a day of shopping.) But no one need doubt that the teacup ride will function as advertised.

The knowledgeable Broadway audience, in the days of Odets, Miller, Williams, et cetera, is long in their graves, and their grandchildren basking in Scottsdale.

The middle-class New Yorkers (and the working class) supported the growth of the American drama. The tourist is not paying to do so, any more than he would pay to go to an amusement park with thought-provoking roller coasters.

Most plays are no damned good. The only way to write a play is to write a lot of plays. One learns through putting it on in the garage, in the storefront, off-Broadway, et cetera, trying and failing in front of a paying audience. There is no other way to learn how to write a play.

Off Broadway, off-off-Broadway, are no more. The regional theatres have long devoted themselves to developing a subscriber-ship, “outreach”, “social consciousness”, and other means of destroying the possibility of attracting actual, ardent audiences.

No one says to his or her spouse, “Look online and see if there are any plays supporting the notion that (FILL INTHE BLANK) are people, too.” Or, “Get dressed, because, though you wanted to stay home and have a beer, it is the third Tuesday in the month, and we have to go use our subscription tickets to see some play.”

(By the way, what greater pleasure than recognising, of whatever event, that one is, at the moment, happier at home, and the tickets, whatever they cost, can go hang?)

Finally, to write a good play requires talent. There is not a lot of it around.

It was, I believe, Milton Friedman who, stunningly, said that the free market must exist to entice the able to reveal their abilities. If one has no possibility, in the theatre, of doing anything but staging platitudes, the talentless will (and do) step up, but the inspired have no reason to do so. The reward of the talented is unfettered creation.

The painter or composer may work in solitude. The creation of the dramatist is complete only with the addition of an audience. He is writing for them. To create, in them, a transformative experience (the laugh, the gasp, dead intent silence, or tears) is the greatest of thrills.

The hack is unaware of the existence of talent. He may happily take his pointless facility to producers happy to put on a show of no more actual worth than the monochrome canvases beloved of museum curators.

The New York Times, our newspaper of record, and the liberal media, in conjunction with the schools and colleges, insist that nothing shall be said or staged which does not express “right thinking”, that is, statism.

Outreach, education, diversity, and so on are tools of indoctrination. So, for example, are marine boot camp and the Bar Mitzvah. But art is the connection between inspiration and the soul of the observer. This insistence on art as indoctrination is obscenity, denying and indicting the possibility of human connection to truths superior to human understanding, that is, to the divine.

This is an extract from Recessional: The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of A Free Lunch by David Mamet. 

© David Mamet 2022


David Mamet is an American playwright, film director, screenwriter and author. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross.


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Phil Dolin
Phil Dolin
2 years ago

I love a playwright who can quote Friedman like that; it actually gave me a little chill along my spine. This sadly makes me think of how art is turned to propaganda under totalitarian regimes; please let’s not slide further from here


Last edited 2 years ago by Phil Dolin
Richard Riheed
Richard Riheed
2 years ago
Reply to  Phil Dolin

If you’re looking for propaganda masquerading as art look no further than the UK playwright David Hare (or Sir, as he is). His is a complex world view: left=good, right=bad. His characters have the complexity of Donald Duck (sorry, Donald – I take your name in vain.) He is more than happy to excoriate the state that has paid him so handsomely for his polemics (drama to Sir David) over the past half century. His hero is Berthold Brecht – that should tell you all you need to know about both the content of his work and the quality.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

David Mamet says it like it is. He will take some heat, no doubt. But at this stage (pun intended) of his career, he doesn’t care a fiddle.
What he is doing is a rally cry for those of us, like myself, who are further down the creative totem pole. But who, like Mamet, want to write honestly, from the heart, without feeding some sick social agenda.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Then good luck with your work.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

Thanks.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

A hundred years ago, when new immigrants stepped ashore, finally, at New York, a world of wonder and possibility and cheer in theatreland must have instantly warmed the cockles of the hearts of those artistically inclined among them who could quickly gravitate to Broadway and the dazzling lights of its environs. What value cheer was for many who escaped hard and cruel, very cheerless places to get to America!

A hundred years later and the West shoots itself in the foot. New arrivals from cruel and harsh lands, deserving of wonder and cheer, will in the 21st century arrive at a scenario that less than warms the shackles of their hearts, the last remaining shackles that are the almost permanent legacy of having lived under tyranny or cruelty for so long. They get a lecture. They get warned instead. Now new Americans, they are told how concerned they ought to be. How concerned and not proud their fellow Americans are. Now they can’t shake loose those last remaining iron shackles that take all the heat. There’s nothing warming on the scene, no tonic. No cheer. Nothing to inspire or that would be a good night out – with one’s dear. Among them, some may never know unadulterated entertainment. (They might have to stumble upon The Muppet Show on TV for that). They may never know if the idea of entertaining for entertainment’s sake is forever lost.
The faces of laughter and tears, those signature signs of the theatre, seem amiss now. They seem amiss in a place of pontification. Who or which country in the world now is left to cheer up the world? India? Through Bollywood? The immigrants arriving today hoping for a dose of Elvis instead receive angry rap. No matter how much they fiddle with the dial.

The great and open-to-all capital of entertainment and dreams and stories has been Broadway, over many decades. I imagine! There have been dips – the great nights-out sometimes at risk by a tendency to too much seriousness and gloom, such as in the 1960s. But America was always an open society, not the crass depiction of a so-called privileged society for an Ă©lite make-up only.

If society is to be upended, must the fare, entertainment-wise, have that miserable sting to its tail now? Even if it’s already billed as fun? The sting of being lectured to. Oh the condescension!

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

I am very partial to a decent drama, but rarely go to the theatre now. When they do put on dramas now they are either straight out propaganda laid on with a trowel, so that even when I agree with the sentiment it puts my back up, or dramatisations of actual political, historical or social events with the obvious pupose of (and you guessed it) propaganda. There are the occasional plays which still serve the pupose that Mr Mamet mentions, I recent saw o performance of When the Long Trick’s Over in Bury St Edmunds (title taken from the last line of Masefield’s poem Sea-Fever), a thoughtful, human-scale drama about … swimming (and other things).

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

We used to attend theatre regularly to see standard productions and the odd challenging piece, but you’re right, it’s a big gamble these days that you’ll be lectured at by a writer who doesn’t understand other views.
On TV I try to keep an open mind about new dramas and comedies and watch at least half an hour or one episode before I make a call on continuing with it.
So Derry Girls was a big win for me.

Jim R
Jim R
2 years ago

I watched Mamet’s play Oleanna when I was in grad school back in the early 90s. It was such a refreshing and nuanced exploration of power relationships. At the end the producers hosted an audience feedback discussion for people to react (likely not sanctioned by the playwrite). The first person to stand up was the ‘Sexual Harassment Officer’ from the university who went on an emotional tirade that the play should never have been allowed to be shown and saying that the objective to stamp out campus sexual harassment had been set back decades. Then she promptly marched out of the hall before anyone could respond.

JĂĄnos Klein
JĂĄnos Klein
2 years ago

I stopped going to theatres long before the covid shut them down for months.
Do we still expect good shows in the theatre to entertain, surprise, shock or make us think? Have we not become used to films on TV, Netflix, or YouTube?
I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for a good musical ( West Side Story, South Pacific, Hair etc. ) but it seems nobody writes them any more, and that being so, I’ll make do with reading plays at home and using my imagination.
Sorry.

Last edited 2 years ago by JĂĄnos Klein
Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago

A great piece. Our situation reminds me of the scene in Watership Down where the rabbit(s) come across the terrible dead atmosphere of a rabbit pen.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I found it odd that vice-President Pence, or vice-President-elect Pence, had been singled out for hectoring from the stage at the conclusion to Hamilton – it must have been in the run-up to Christmas of 2016, shortly after Trump’s shock victory in the election.
Perhaps some of the cast from Hamilton felt a little tinge of guilt afterwards, four and a bit years later when they would have seen Pence at Biden’s inauguration ceremony listening intently to the young and dignified poet, the young African American lady, deliver her poem to mark the occasion.
I just remember at the time when reading about the Hamilton-Pence incident that something had gone terribly wrong with show business. And even the audience may not be looked upon as ladies and gentlemen.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Yes that was disgraceful.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

‘Socialist realism’ actually produced some great work, ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ for example. But what prospect that ‘social equity’ can manage anything even remotely close to that?

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Smith
JĂĄnos Klein
JĂĄnos Klein
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

America is nothing like the Soviets were.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

There is doubt Sholokhov wrote the novel and Solzhenitsyn has expressed similar thoughts. He shared a prison cell with a white russian officer who died.

Alan Groff
Alan Groff
2 years ago

David, how can we foresee when the decadence of this inquisition has opened the way for a spiritual awakening — for a profound sense of conviction, faith, and redemption?

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Ahem, Broadway has always promoted ideology. It promoted Mamet’s once.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

“The painter or composer may work in solitude. The creation of the dramatist is complete only with the addition of an audience.”
Wow! A very blinkered judgement from a supposedly intelligent writer – there are virtually no painters or composers who have produced work without consideration of their audiences and need for their approval. Just like him, they almost always need some kind of validation.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

A reasonably debatable point, hardly worth the ‘wow’ or ‘blinkered’.