- David Mamet and American Machoby Arthur Holmberg
Arthur Holmberg’s book is an ambitious examination of themes of masculinity and masculine malaise in the works of David Mamet. Holmberg, both an academic and the literary director at the American Repertory Theater, offers critical perspectives on Mamet’s dramatic characters and scenarios. Instead of presenting a linear, historical approach to Mamet’s career, each of the book’s five chapters features a cross-section of Mamet’s films, plays, and essays in a consideration of the writer’s treatment of the male condition, and supplements insightful analyses with interviews, Mamet’s biography, and compelling accounts of Mamet as director. Carefully placing titles by Mamet on a continuum with [End Page 312]other iconic works of American theatre, Holmberg contextualizes his influence on the culture of masculinity on the American stage and screen in ways that will be of value in a range of fields.
Holmberg argues that Mamet both celebrates and critiques the dominant mode of masculinity, what Holmberg dubs “American macho” (9)—a rugged, violent stereotype that he traces to the late nineteenth century in response to Gilded Age capitalism, first-wave feminism, and the ideal of the genteel patriarch. Mamet depicts various modes of American macho through characters that both deconstruct the stability of the stereotype and uphold its influence. This truly interdisciplinary study approaches Mamet’s works in each chapter through a variety of methods, including anthropology, sociolinguistics, and historiography. The first chapter articulates the construct of American macho through analyses of Hoffa, The Untouchables, American Buffalo, and The Voysey Inheritance. Here, Holmberg writes that the “age of enterprise” in Chicago brings with it iterations of the outlaw, the figure of the cowboy. In fact, Chicago is the backdrop for most of Holmberg’s selections from Mamet’s oeuvre, the city serving as the setting for unruly, urban personae and scenarios depicting “[r]ough-and-tumble capitalism in the prairie metropolis” (11), a final frontier, a blue-collar city of industry, a gangster hideout, and a gambling haven. Still, Holmberg also locates a city idealized by Mamet, who was born in Chicago and conditioned by the culture of 1950s Americana.
Chapters 2 and 3 trace the lingering contradictions of the 1950s, which both celebrated and scrutinized traditional values through a complex interpretation of the theatricality of Mamet’s characters. Invoking Erving Goffman’s “gender display” (82) and Richard Schechner’s “restored behavior” (87), Holmberg offers a sophisticated revision of familiar terrain. In chapter 2, he discerns Mamet’s ambivalence toward his dramatic male characters, describing the paradox of masculine identification as “a site of conflict and anxiety and strain” (65). Throughout, Holmberg is careful to note that Mamet does not endorse all of his characters and their actions—many, indeed, are to be frowned on. Holmberg finds this ambivalence in the celebrated and scrutinized cowboy in Mamet’s film The Edgeand in a television episode of Hill Street Blueswritten by him, locating the frontier of American macho at the core of all of Mamet’s work for stage and screen. Chapter 3 hinges on psychoanalytic theories, as Holmberg applies feminist re-readings of Freud to Mamet’s autobiographical dramatizations of the bonds among mother, son, and father, comparing Mamet’s language to neoclassical playwright Racine in the “companion pieces” The Cryptogramand The Old Neighborhood(105). He further situates Mamet’s dramatic strategies alongside the absent father, who has haunted the American stage since the plays of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and William Inge (124).
Holmberg is particularly strong in discerning subtle distinctions between a play and its film adaptation, carefully distinguishing between the implications dictated by the logic of each medium. For example, in chapter 4, he details the restrictive binds of “boy culture” (133), the social and psycho-sexual forces that prevent men from maturing, and examines the lifelong task of gender socialization, the psychology of the process, and the establishment of a masculine pecking order. In analyses of the film Lansky, the play and film...