This would be a corny platitude coming from a writer with a less astonishing résumé. Mamet may be best known for the brilliant provocation of Oleanna and the tough Americana of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross (which will be revived on Broadway with Alan Alda and Liev Schreiber in May). But he’s rarely mined the same vein for long. In theater, he’s roamed as far as melodrama (The Winslow Boy) and Edwardian lesbian comedy (Boston Marriage). In Hollywood, he’s scripted action classics (The Untouchables) and absurd Grand Guignol (Hannibal), while writing and directing nine of his own films. In print, he’s written pedagogy, poems, essays, the experimental novel Wilson, a book of Judaic reflections (Five Cities of Refuge, with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner)—even the children’s book Henrietta (he’s at work on another). In 1998, he also introduced a small, manly clothing line. (“It came from a desire for loose-fitting, practical garments,” he says, and then wisecracks self-mockingly: “I think that’s how the Ku Klux Klan got started.”) He claims his practical hunting jackets were not only cut from the same cloth as the rest of his projects but are the “best example” of how all his work is part of a unified “aesthetic philosophy.”
At 57, Mamet’s in the latest busy phase of a lifelong tear, gleefully ripping into new creative fields. He’s writing a comic script for a kids’ movie, and, for the Mark Taper Forum, his first musical: a “Gilbert and Sullivan meets Bertolt Brecht” confection, about a waitress “who ends up in Yellowstone Park surrounded by park rangers trying to kill her.” Later this year, he’ll debut as a cartoonist with the collection Tested on Orphans, for which he blames his late friend Shel Silverstein: “He told me, ‘Thurber couldn’t draw, either.’”
It’s tempting to analyze this recent spurt as a turn toward the comic—but Mamet’s always had a bit of the Borscht Belt riffer in him. Even his most venomous rants have scored blows with knockout punch lines. And though he usually counts Tolstoy, Dreiser, Beckett, and Pinter as his most direct literary influences, Mamet got his start as a busboy at Chicago’s Second City comedy club, playing piano for light kiddie revues on the weekends, soaking in the stand-up of guys like David Steinberg, Fred Willard, and Robert Klein at night.
“How dare you—who makes a living making fun of Swedes!—criticize me for my writing, you brain-dead, ridge-running redneck.”
“Bob was very, very dry indeed,” says Mamet, chuckling as he recalls a mock sermon in which Klein played Job, shouting, “What kind of a God is it that would kill my children and spare my wife?” The fingerprints of that era are all over Romance, which is also indebted to the fun he had while teaching theater to William H. Macy at Goddard College.
“One of the first plays we did was an out-and-out Hellzapoppin’ farce about the scenery falling down, called Lone Canoe,” recalls Mamet, munching on cantaloupe. “Later, Macy said, ‘Why do you write this lugubrious bullshit that puts everyone to sleep?’ And I said, ‘What about your acting? How dare you—who makes a living making fun of Swedes—criticize me for my writing, you brain-dead, ridge-running redneck?’ And this went on for decades. So this is it. My riposte, in dramatic form, to Billy Macy.”
Romance is also—in Mamet’s own, profane way—his nostalgic tribute to their good ol’ days, staged on the twentieth anniversary of the theater’s founding. “Before we all left Chicago, what we all had was this: None of us were going home. We were like those Indian stake warriors. You know the phrase staked out? They would go into battle and they would stake themselves out, meaning, ‘I won’t leave this spot. I’m either going to prevail or die here.’ That’s what we all had in those days, and that’s why we’re all doing it 40 years later. We all said, ‘I’m not missing out on this fun.’ ”