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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 432-434
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Weasels and Wisemen:
Ethics and Ethnicity in the Work of David Mamet
Weasels and Wisemen: Ethics and Ethnicity in the Work of David Mamet. By Leslie Kane. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999; pp. xii + 404. $55.00.
Leslie Kane's Weasels and Wisemen: Ethics and Ethnicity in the Work of David Mamet examines the impact of the playwright's "renewed Jewish faith" (3) on his theatre and cinema since 1975. Moving from the unpublished play Marranos to the Hollywood screenplay The Edge (1997), Kane identifies the "diction, discourse, depiction and disconnection of drifters, con artists, stoop philosophers, and scholars" (3) in works "seemingly devoid of ethnic reference" (2) as Mamet's definitively Jewish aesthetic. In chapters rich in biblical allusion, scriptural [End Page 432] exegesis, and Jewish cultural history, Kane argues that the "Jewish thought, values, and cultural experience" (1) central to Mamet's canon are shaped by the "ethical ideals and moral imperatives" (2) of Judaic law. Kane's study explores (Jewish) pedagogy as a central theme in Mamet's canon that is an expression of his own "moral vision": a "personal quest to rediscover Jewish history and reaffirm its teachings, both threatened by assimilation and anti-Semitism" (23).
Kane locates this pedagogical dynamic or "teaching trope" in the interactions between Mamet's signature con men, spin doctors, and thieves. Grounding her study in Martin Buber's notion of education as a central tenet of Judaism, Kane reads male relationships in, for example, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, and Things Change not as mercenary or essentially disingenuous--as they have been positioned in many critical accounts--but as the "site of ethical choices and consequences of conduct" (2). Indeed, throughout Mamet's work, "every transaction is an act of faith or the loss of it" even as these protagonists reveal themselves to be ethically flawed. In American Buffalo, for example, as the junk shop owner Don plans a heist, he "teaches" his naïve accomplice Bob, whom he will betray, about "the skill, loyalty, health, self-reliance, and vigilance on the job" central in Kedoshim, the Torah's discussion of ethical laws. Don gives a lecture on the "business of life" ("watch your back, do a job right") that supercedes his own actions and sets high standards of obligation and conduct" (31). In this teacher-student relationship, a "symbolic, biblical, and ethnic referent" (55) in Mamet's canon, Don's treachery almost precipitates Bob's death before he later decides, in accordance with Leviticus 18:5, that he must save Bob's life (51). Although the play's characters "may be labeled liars, fabricators, and frauds" (50), Kane argues, Don's guilt leads him to self-knowledge, and his example illustrates for Bob a valuable lesson about the difficulty of making moral choices.
Kane underpins her focus on Judaic law with rigorous attention to Mamet's use of language, which she understands as a discourse filled with the "rhythm, minimalism, and cadence of Yiddish" (3). The storytelling, axioms, aphorisms, and aggressive dialogue of Mamet's protagonists also evoke both the aggadic (imaginative) aspect of Jewish narrative and the "six-thousand year-old Jewish tradition of argument" of the Talmud (3). More significantly, though, this ethnically encoded discourse suggests European notions of Yiddish and Hebrew as linguistic signifiers of Jewish cunning and criminality. Using Sander Gilman's cultural history of Jewish discourse and antisemitic stereotypes, Kane establishes Mamet's use of stereotype as evidence of his concern with Jewish persecution. As such, she urges us to consider the crimes of his protagonists as legitimate, moral responses to their oppressive circumstances. Just as Joao learns in Marranos that he must lie to keep secret his Jewish identity during the Inquisition, Levene's deceptions in Glengarry Glen Ross are a "method of survival" against his boss, the "cold, critical" (98) gentile who embodies "flagrant, abhorrent anti-Semitism" (100). In this context, Kane gives a provocatively sympathetic reading of Oleanna's John, the verbose "scholar Jew...