When Did David Mamet Wake Up as Joe Six-Pack?

Why the unscrupulous Gould falls for such artsy dreck (as opposed to salable dreck)—and cancels Charlie’s surefire prison buddy movie with a bankable star in the bargain—is the surprisingly soft center of Speed-the-Plow. Bobby discovers real values, love and grace literally overnight—until, that is, the showdown finale when desperate Charlie, wired like a coke addict, puts him right; the seductive Karen is felled, slain like the wicked witch; and the natural order is restored.

Mr. Mamet prefers it that way, apparently. However much we might regret the Hollywood system, he argues, “the alternative … is public financing, Public Broadcasting, and after a lifetime of experience as a viewer and 40 years as a supplicant, I swear to you I’d rather deal with Commerce (Tool of Greed) than with Public Benevolence (Tool of the State).”

Actually, it’s the state subsidy and public benevolence of America’s nonprofit theaters that first took a chance on Mr. Mamet’s plays in Chicago and elsewhere—and still do. It was Lincoln Center Theater that first produced Speed-the-Plow in New York in 1988, and the subsidized National Theatre that first staged it in London. It’s the not-for-profit theaters that have so often offered his plays a home—a safe harbor, support.

 

SPEED-THE-PLOW (with its hyphens) is an unusual choice of title. The saying “God speed the plough” can be seen occasionally on antique plates and mugs: It’s a phrase sung by 15th-century ploughmen wishing for success and prosperity.

And to that I say, Thank God for Google. There’s also Thomas Morton’s artful 1798 play Speed the Plough, of course, which gave birth to “Grundyisms” in honor of its prudish Mrs. Grundy. But Mr. Mamet surely isn’t concerned about that. He confirms in the Times piece that his tastes are unapologetically populist.

“And yes, yes, yes,” he adds impatiently, “we right-thinking folk go on about the need for culture, but on Sunday afternoons we turn on the ball game in preference to the biography of Shostakovich.”

And there we have it. When it comes to highfalutin stuff like Art, Ploughman Mamet has morphed into Joe Six-Pack.

Or maybe he’s simply the biggest con artist of them all. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That.

His Times piece concludes on a ringing campaign note:

“I believe that the business of America is business, and the aim of drama is to put tushies in the seats; and that the best way to do that is to write a ripping yarn, with a bunch of sex, some nifty plot twists and a lot of snappy dialogue.

“If you are looking for such, I suggest Speed-the-Plow.”

And judging by the standing ovations it’s getting on Broadway, I’d say he’s on the money.

jheilpern@observer.com

When Did David Mamet Wake Up as Joe Six-Pack?