David Mamet, whose new play, Speed-the-Plow, is having a successful run in New York, grew up in Chicago, where he sought a career in the theater by, among other things, working as a busboy at the Second City and (because his uncle was director of broadcasting for the Chicago Board of Rabbis) performing as an actor on religious programs on television. His success as a playwright began with his plays Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo, both of which were praised for their fine construction and the skillful way in which Mamet was able to re-create the talk of his characters, most of them con artists and deadbeats. He went on to write other kinds of plays, like A Life in the Theater, and Glengarry Glen Ross, which won both the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. He has also written the screenplays of the films The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Untouchables, among others.
The New York Times has apparently discovered in him the abundant creativity and promise its critics have found in such other cultural figures as Stephen Sondheim and Elie Wiesel, and have amply celebrated him. An article published in 1985 entitled “The Gritty Eloquence of David Mamet” commented that in “both his stark writing style and his fascination with the male tribe…Mamet resembles Ernest Hemingway more, perhaps, than any other writer of his generation” (Samuel G. Friedman, The New York Times Magazine, April 21, 1985, p. 32). The theatrical critic of the Times, Frank Rich, wrote that Glengarry Glen Ross showed that Mamet’s talent for “burying layers of meaning into simple, precisely distilled idiomatic language” is a talent that “can only be compared to Harold Pinter’s.” In his review of Speed-the-Plow, which opened early in May, the same critic wrote that the play “may be the most cynical and exciting yet” of the “genre” of writing about Hollywood by embittered novelists and playwrights and other writers; it is a play, he goes on, that “pitilessly implicates the society whose own fantasies about power and money keep the dream factory in business.” In still another piece he called Mamet a “master of language” and the play a “crackling good tale.”
Mamet’s are actors’ plays, opportunities for spectacular performances, while not always conveying much of interest in themselves. Reading a play like Speed-the-Plow gives one little idea of how exciting some of it can be when skillfully directed on the stage and performed by actors of the caliber that Mamet has been able to assemble, in this case Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver. He is also fortunate to have a gifted director, Gregory Mosher, once the director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago and now the director of the Lincoln Center Theater, who has directed many of Mamet’s other plays. Mosher moves the action of the play along expertly, if at times somewhat too quickly, as if the play were another Front Page. But even with these advantages, the play is a disappointment, at moments startling to watch yet morally unchallenging, even insipid.
Speed-the-Plow, which Mamet has said is “about my experiences in Hollywood,” concerns Bobby Gould, the new head of production at a Hollywood studio—his office furniture is still covered with sheets—and an independent producer, Charlie Fox, who depends on Gould to “greenlight” his movie projects and to gain approval for them from the head of the studio. An influential Hollywood figure named Doug Brown—we cannot be sure whether he is an actor or a director—has brought Fox a script about prisons that is commercially valuable just because Brown is willing to be involved in it. Fox has brought it in turn to Gould, who claims to be overcome by gratitude for this act of loyalty. The two men discuss the money they will make:
Gould: The question, your crass question: how much money could we stand to make…?
Gould: I think the operative concept here is “lots and lots…”
Fox: Oh, maan…
Gould: Great big jolly shitloads of it.
Fox: Oh, maan…
Gould: But money…
Gould: Money, Charl…
Gould: Money is not the important thing.
Gould: Money is not Gold.
Gould: What can you do with Money?
Gould: Nary a goddamn thing.
Fox: …I’m gonna be rich.
Gould: “Buy” things with it.
Fox: Where would I keep them?
Gould: What would you do with them?
Gould: Take them out and dust them, time to time.
Fox: Oh, yeah.
Gould: I piss on money.
Fox: I know that you do. I’ll help you.
Gould: Fuck money.
Fox: Fuck it. Fuck “things” too…
Gould: Uh huh. But don’t fuck “people.”
Gould: ‘Cause people, Charlie…
Gould: Are what it’s All About.
Fox: I know.
Gould: And it’s a People Business.
Fox: That it is.
Gould: It’s full of fucken’ people…
Fox: And we’re gonna kick some ass, Bob.
Gould: That we are.
Fox: We’re gonna kick the ass of a lot of them fucken’ people.
Gould: That’s right.
Gould is an ambiguous figure from the beginning of the play. He calls himself a “whore” and boasts of his power, yet we have also seen him express skepticism about the worth of his way of life by claiming to “piss on money.” At the beginning of the play he is found reading a novel about “radiation and the half-life of society,” whose author, according to the studio’s summary of the book, “seems to think that radio and television, aircraft travel and microwaves were invented solely to irradiate the world and so bring about genetic change in humankind” and ultimately destroy the world. His boss has asked him to give the novel a “courtesy read” before rejecting it. Gould jokes that as the new head of production he could actually make the movie if he chose to do so.
Just after Gould has agreed to back the prison script Fox has brought to him, the third character in the play, a temporary secretary, expresses an interest in the radiation book. She is, or pretends to be, “naive”—so much so that she tries to reserve a table for Gould at a popular restaurant without mentioning his name—and Gould finds her attractive. He asks her to read the book for him, and to report to him about it that night at his house; and he makes a bet with Fox that he will succeed in seducing her. When she visits him that night, he is taken aback when she speaks with passion about the book and then seduces him. She speaks of
the perfection of the story, when I read it…I almost, I wanted to sit, I saw, I almost couldn’t come to you, the weight of it… (Pause) You know what I mean. He says that the radiation…all of it, the planes, the televisions, clocks, all of it is to the one end. To change us—to, to bring about a change—all radiation has been sent by God. To change us. Constantly.
And later she reads from the book:
“The man saw that it all had been devoted to one end. That the diseases of the body were the same diseases in the world. That things were ending. Yes. That things must end.”
To this and similar arguments Gould responds that he cannot make the book into a film, that he is in business to “make the thing everyone made last year.”
The next morning, Gould reports to Fox that he has decided not to make the prison film but instead to convince the head of the studio to make one based on the novel about radiation. Karen, the secretary, has convinced him, he says, that the ideas in the book are sound, and even that his own life is a “sham.” There follows a scene that, in its construction, direction, and acting, is among the most powerful in the play. Gould says that “I think your prison movie has a place…and I respect your…” and Fox yells back at him:
I don’t want your respect. Your respect stinks. You know why? You’ve proved yourself insane. You’re gonna buy a piece of shit…you’re gonna spend ten million dollars for a piece of pussy, you were “up all night…” You were up all night boffing the broad. Are you getting old? What is this? Menopause? Your “life is a sham”? Two days in the new job, you can’t stand the strain…?
And later, “Did you miss your wake up call?”
The outraged Fox then knocks Gould to the ground:
Fuck you…Fuck you…. (He hits Gould.) Fuck you. Get up. (He hits him again.) I’ll fucken’ kill you right here in this office. All this bullshit; you wimp, you coward…now you got the job, and now you’re going to run all over everything, like something broke in the shopping bag, you fool—your fucken’ sissy film—you squat to pee. You old woman…all of my life I’ve been eating your shit and taking your leavings…. Fuck you, the Head of Production. Job I could of done ten times better’n you, the press, the money, all this time, and now you’re going to be some fucken’ wimp, cost me my, my, my…fortune? Not In This Life, Pal.
He later tells him,
You’re a whore…Bob. You’re a chippy…you’re a fucken’ bought-and-paid-for whore, and you think you’re a ballerina cause you work with your legs?
He tells him that he is ruining both of their prospects by submitting to the wishes of a secretary who wants “power. How do I know? Look: She’s out with Albert Schweitzer working in the jungle? No: she’s here in movieland, Bob, and she trades the one thing that she’s got, her looks, get into a position of authority—through you.”
Fox asks Karen in front of Gould whether she slept with him the night before and whether she would have done so if he had turned down the radiation movie project. She admits that she would not have and asks Fox to leave, telling Gould that they have a meeting with the head of the studio to sell the radiation movie. But as both Fox and Karen claim his attention and help, he sits at his desk, saying “Al right. Al right. Al right. Al right” and he asks to be let alone. In the end the scales fall from his eyes: he dismisses the secretary, admits that he “wanted to do Good” but “became foolish,” and the two men revive their personal—and commercial—friendship.
Much of this is implausible. Are film projects today really “greenlighted,” or even brought for discussion before the head of the studio so casually, merely on the basis of big names and a schematic outline of a story? So many expensive films whose content and budget have depended on “bankable” stars like Elizabeth Taylor or Marlon Brando or Barbra Streisand or Robert Redford have turned out to be colossal failures that one suspects that this is not how films are made any longer, if they once were. How likely is it that a “buddy picture” set in prison in which black inmates threaten to rape the heroes would be approved so easily by the head of production? Is it true that film producers try to “make the thing everyone made last year”? This sounds right for Beverly Hills Cop II or the Rambo series, but not for many other “sequels.”