When the artistic director of the local Jewish theater, Theater J, spends half the program notes apologizing for putting on a production of a right-leaning playwright, and consoles the audience with the thought that the playwright might occasionally say something that hinted at the truth, one hopes the play will be better than the narrow minds the audience are presumed to possess.
The play is “Race” by David Mamet, which premiered on Broadway in 2009 and is now making the rounds in the regional theaters. Coming from a playwright who thinks that we are at our most human when we act like swine, it’s about race in the same way that his plays are about anything—an exposé of humanity’s worst prejudices and self-deceptions. A clerk demands to know, “Do you think blacks are stupid?” and her boss replies, “I think people are stupid. I don’t think blacks have an exemption.”
The commentary on race relations itself is shallow—blacks feel shame, whites feel guilt—although the sympathetic titters from the crowd at such fare as a black man cheerfully announcing, “all black men hate whites” suggest the artistic director wasn’t far wrong in his assessment of the audience—nor was Mamet.
The play is staged entirely in the lobby of a law firm. A rich white man, Charles, goes to the firm of two male partners, one black, Henry Brown, one white, Jack Lawson, and their black female clerk, Susan, hoping to employ them to defend him from a young black woman’s charge of rape. The partners, having heard that he parted ways with a previous firm, suspect that his case is unwinnable. When Susan erroneously accepts a check from Charles, and Henry and Jack become legally obligated to serve as his counsel, their schemes for winning the case are repeatedly assailed by a stream of evidence that Charles is guilty, or, what will make their case far harder to win, that he’s a racist. Under the lines of this detective-story plot, the racial prejudices of the play’s four characters unfold despite their best efforts to conceal them. The unnamed woman who filed the complaint against Charles never appears, and progressively recedes from memory, as Charles’s guilt appears to have nothing to do with whether he really committed the deed, but whether it is possible to avoid prejudging him based on his skin, wealth, and sex—and yours. The meaning of new evidence is deconstructed into the meaning of how it is perceived.
The production, directed by John Vreeke, is of high quality and played straight. (I would love to see an adventurous staging with black actors playing the white characters and vice versa.)
Mamet’s social insights have always bettered his embarrassing political screeds. The characters entertain as types rather than as individuals. They are pieces in a chess game in which Mamet is playing both sides, and the suspension of disbelief hangs by just a few threads of personality. But his striking verbiage carries off the reduction engagingly, as Jack on legal justice: “Two parties two a case—loser ever say, ‘Yes I lost. But you know what? The other guy was right.’ Each side thinks it’s right. And justice, if it exists–lies only in the imperfect and mutually unacceptable result of their interaction.”As a significant contribution to the discussion of race, it fails, though not by as much as his disenchanted liberal critics imagine. (He made a spectacle of them and himself in 2008 when he published “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal‘” in The Village Voice.)
The play hypersensitizes its audience to repressed motives that are too ugly and too dangerous to be found out. But that makes the play itself dangerous. “Once you ask the question, you can’t unask it,” the white lawyer mourns—his professional détente with his clerk has just been threatened by racial and sexual tension.
This is where Mamet’s conservatism shows its limitations. He reads Aristotle’s theory of tragedy as an early iteration of psychotherapy—the art of healing the psyche by uncovering repressed knowledge. His understanding of human nature has more in common with Jean-Paul Sarte than Russell Kirk. For Mamet, political compromise is a cover for our feelings of hate and envy. His political conversion, so far as it goes, is towards a fatalistic tolerance of that tragic condition, to believe that, as bad as things are, America—on account of the Constitution, which takes a full account of human corruption—is living in the best of its possible worlds. But his deconstruction of ordinary human good faith places him in precisely the philosophical tradition he thinks he escaped.
The play ends weakly—the plot cries out for a decisive conclusion to the relationship between the lawyers and their client. But Mamet’s last line, presumably meant to be dramatic and revelatory, simply restates as a magisterial axiom a hypothesis the characters have already discussed ad nauseam. The lights go black as Susan declares that she knew all along that Charles was guilty “because he’s white.” Mamet has deconstructed the deepest possible misplaced passions about race, and seems to have decided that since there was nothing left to say about it, he had no more use for the characters.
In a 2009 NYT essay on Race, Mamet wrote, “All drama is about lies. When the lie is exposed, the play is over.” If I have been too harsh on Mamet, that is because it is the business of criticism to expose faults, and when there are no more faults left to expose, the essay is over.