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David Mamet Reflects on Holding the Mirror Up to Nature

In the Guardian, David Mamet, in London for a new production of his play Oleanna, ponders the artistic problem of men writing women and draws a lesson from a Brown University student's reaction to a dress rehearsal for the play's 1992 premiere:

The play ended and I asked the folks what they thought. 'Don't you think it's politically questionable,' one said, 'to have the girl make a false accusation of rape?'

I, in my ignorance, was stunned. I didn't realise it was my job to be politically acceptable. I'd always thought society employed me to be dramatic; further, I wondered what force had so perverted the young that they would think that increasing political enfranchisement of a group rendered a member of that group incapable of error - in effect, rendered her other-than-human. For if the subject of art is not our maculate, fragile and often pathetic humanity, what is the point of the exercise?

Link via Critical Mass.

Update: Related in only the most tenuous way, an interesting observation from The Note at ABC News contrasting a prominent person's attitudes toward certain institutions vs. the individuals of which they are comprised:

You all know the deal: this is just the third primetime news conference that this President Bush has had, in part because of his disdain for the ways of the Washington press corps (as contrasted, paradoxically, with his abiding affection for most of the human being reporters who cover him).

Comments

bridget

This is how the backlash agasint the women's movement marches neverending. Only one person asked if the writer thought he was being inappropriate, to which the answer simply could have been, "No" and moved on, or "No, the writer chose this character to do this very wrong thing and this becomes part of the drama produced." It wasn't the whole of womenkind marching en masse in to question and pummel the world's men into submission. It's a valid question by a student, perhaps one who even really likes men, and "No" one is of the valid possible answers to her question. Whining and complaining about this person's question is a mysogenistic response, where as the answer "No" and a few educational words on why writers write what they write (which seems to have been petulantly done) would have been the right thing to engage this student body.

bridget

Hope you didn't mind too much, George. That was supposed to be more of a gentle reminder than a reprimand. For all that I love and respect men, I am simply tired of the backlash. Feminsm was a good idea and still is and needs to continue to grow. These days you'd hardly know there was ever a Women's Liberation Movement. Most men I know do not fear a competent woman, and rather enjoy her company, however, you just hear less about that than you do dumb blonde jokes, Spike TV, the Man Show and all the other retro-take-my-wife...please business. Men aren't victims of women's liberation. But you know what's just as unappealing as a strident, hysterical, whining woman? A fish in a blender with chocolate sauce.

George Wallace

Hellooooo up there! Can anyone hear me from the bottom of this smoking crater?

Bit of an overreaction to Mr. Mamet's anecdote, methinks. As I read it, the student who questioned him meant to convey precisely the contention that some faults may not be ascribed to any individual member of a particular group -- women in this instance, but the proposition could be made for any other group.¹ That's a fallacy, plain and simple. Any individual human being, whatever his or her other descriptions and subcategories, is capable as an individual of displaying all manner of flaws and distasteful qualities: he or she may lie, be selfish, be cruel, be violent -- or not -- each after his or her own unique fashion. Mamet reels from the student's suggestion that the portrayal of a single fictional instance of a particular woman who engages in morally repellant conduct --that of making a knowingly false accusation of an act that is itself repellant -- is categorically impermissible. So long as women are a subset of "maculate, fragile and often pathetic humanity" -- and I don't think you would contend that they are not -- justice requires that an artist must be permitted to truthfully portray individual members of that or any other subset moral warts and all.

Heaven knows, Mamet himself has written a far larger number of dreadful male characters than female. And it must indicate something that many strong intelligent female actors -- in the current case, it's Julia Stiles -- have over the years actively sought out the opportunity to play the part that Mamet wrote (and have long fought for the opportunity to play equally flawed or unlikable women from Medea to Lady Macbeth to various members of the Soprano family).

As the post title suggests, one of the artist's roles is to hold up (to borrow a variant on the phrase from Elvis Costello) the "deep dark truthful mirror" to life. There is an abundance of false artistry in the world, portraying people as behaving in ways that we know are not within the range of human likelihood, and it should be roundly criticized for its departures from honest portrayal. It is not helpful, however, to criticize a truthful portrait of an unpleasant character simply because of that character's membership in [insert group identity here]. Surely feminism, or any other form of human equality, cannot mean that it is no longer permissible to paint the occasional dead tree in an otherwise lush forest. Can it?


¹ This proposition is not limited to groups with a history of being mistreated or under-respected. Ronald Reagan's "eleventh commandment" -- "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican" -- is another example of the fallacy that membership in a group renders the member immune from truthful criticism.

bridget

And I was saying, I am surprised he was stunned. It was a student, a student asking this question. Students are supposed to ask questions exactly like this. How are we going to put wrong headed thinking right (and I'm with you, George, this was wrong headed thinking on the part of the student) unless we take that question seriously and explain to the student(s) what you just said, without getting so horribly offended. Students will say some pretty offensive stuff but how are they to right it when it isn't put in proper perspective.

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