The Secret Knowledge by David Mamet: Playwright’s Dismal Right Turn

One of America’s great playwrights will shock his fans with a new book that attacks liberals with rants ripped from conservative talk radio. Ben Crair on David Mamet’s dismaying willingness to become a sacrificial lamb.

David Mamet, June 21, 2010 (Photo: Charles Sykes / AP Photos)

“I am a new-minted Conservative.” So declares David Mamet, great American author and playwright, on page 152 of his new book, The Secret Knowledge. By that point, his political conversion isn’t a surprise. Earlier statements, such as “Our culture is being destroyed by the Left,” and “The Left longs for the one-party state or dictatorship,” had given it away. I imagine Jonah Goldberg had hardly cracked the second chapter before dropping a National Review cruise invitation in the mail. 

We have grown used to right-wing outrage from muscleheads and country-music stars, but Mamet makes his living on the other end of the cultural spectrum. The author of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow is, to many minds, the best living American playwright. The liberals who have patronized his work cannot dismiss him now without looking craven, and Mamet plays this to his advantage. Armored in highbrow credibility, he lashes out with low blows. 

The deeper Mamet’s reputation sinks, the easier it will be to hate the “liberal elites” who betrayed him.

He recently told The Weekly Standard that he does not read political magazines and blogs; that his main interface with the modern conservative movement is talk radio. “I drive around and listen to the talk-show guys,” he said. “Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved.” Whack through The Secret Knowledge’s abundant quotations of Friedrich Hayek and you’ll find all the shock jock’s canards: “Carbon emissions do not in any way affect the temperature of the planet”; we “won in Vietnam”; an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan is “a cultural obscenity”; FDR “elaborated a bad economic downturn into the worst depression in history”; the “erosion of marriage”—pinned to sex education, homosexuality, and abortion—is “a moral affront.” These are not points that Mamet sets out to prove, mind you. Had this been the case, he may have written an interesting book. Instead, he accepts them at face value, packs them into his shotgun, and blasts away at liberalism’s sitting ducks: Jane Fonda, Al Sharpton, Noam Chomsky.

Mamet, whose plays are most renowned for their dialogue, turns out to have little to add to the political conversation. Has he lost his mind? Not exactly. His plays have typically been dog-eat-dog affairs; it makes sense that he views politics as trench warfare. “The opposition [between Left and Right] appealed to me as a dramatist,” he writes in The Secret Knowledge. But theater and political theater are not the same, and Mamet mistakes his own contribution. On the political stage, Mamet is not a dramatist; he is merely acting. 

As evidence, look no further than the right’s giddiness over the book. Fox News’s Greg Gutfeld is running a “David Mamet Attack Countdown Clock,” while Jonah Goldberg opined, “Already, critics are saying his work is slipping. Soon, they will say his work was never that great to begin with.” They’ll be disappointed with anything less than a total critical repudiation. The deeper Mamet’s reputation sinks, the easier it will be to hate the “liberal elites” who betrayed him. Mamet will have become another David Zucker.

“It is the nature and profession of the actor to see himself as the Hero,” Mamet writes in The Secret Knowledge. He should have known better than to cast himself as the culture war’s sacrificial lamb.

Ben Crair is the deputy news editor of The Daily Beast.