God I Wish David Mamet Would Just Get Over Himself

King of Dramaturgical Overreach or Prince of Paranoia?

I want playwright David Mamet to sue me. Or scream his head off at me in front of the Atlantic Theater Company on West 20th Street, preferably in broad daylight with a camera crew from all major networks covering it, and Megyn Kelly, in sultry mode, beckoning me for an interview. I want Mamet’s lawyer — his whole legal team! — to be so full of testosterone, so alpha-male and so hyper-aggressive as to make Marc Kasowitz, Donald Trump’s ethically challenged personal lawyer, seem like a very special episode of Little House on the Prairie. I want Mamet and his legal team so frothing at the mouth, so eyes rolling in the back of their heads, so steam coming from their ears, that it’ll be their public goal to haul me to the hoosegow, to tar and feather me, to force me into the ultimate indignity: registering Republican. Why, you may ask, would an individual wish such an unspeakable fate upon themselves? Because back on Sat., Oct. 10, 2009, following the 2pm matinee of the Broadway revival of Mamet’s play Oleanna, I participated in a post-performance talk-back on the stage of the Golden Theatre. And, as you may have read a couple of weeks ago, Mamet has now authorized the attachment of a clause to all future license agreements for productions of Oleanna that if a post-show talk-back takes place, or if “anything like it were to happen within two hours after the performance,” a fine of $25,000 will be levied.

What a shame Mamet-the-meanie can’t crawl into the Internet’s wayback machine and retroactively sue the producers of that Broadway Oleanna — including such venerable mainstays as Jeffrey Finn, Jed Bernstein and Ken Davenport. Or sue me or one of the other talk-back-ers, like veteran theater critic Pia Lindstrom and former CNN journalist Cynthia Tornquist.

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At the core of the matter is the Outvisible Theatre Company, a two-year-old Equity troupe located in Allen Park, MI, which produced Oleanna back in April of this year. As reported (excellently) by Chris Peterson of the Onstage Blog, Outvisible’s original agreement didn’t feature a restriction on a talk-back; only one was scheduled for the run. Then, four hours before the opening of the play, in swooped the Dramatists Play Service with Mamet’s hella-haughty contract update. What could the company’s rather blindsided artistic director, Adriane Galea, do? As Peterson reported, she could only capitulate to an apparently paranoid playwright:

As the director of Oleanna and the Artistic Director of Outvisible, I was disappointed in the talkback restriction. Oleanna is a captivating, intelligent, and very relevant piece of theatre, and I believe allowing the audience to talk through and ask questions about what they had just witnessed would’ve created a brilliant dialogue. But I also understand and respect Mr. Mamet’s legal authority to control the conversation surrounding his intellectual property.

I do question Mamet’s “legal authority” to control the conversation after the performance — even as I respect Galea for not poking at the angry lion for fear of his sharpened clause. I’d further argue that the assertion of “legal authority” over “anything like” a talk-back is ripe for a rip-roaring challenge in court.

If you don’t know the play, by the way, Peterson helpfully provides an idea of why its theme might lend itself to post-performance dialogue:

The two-person play centers on the power struggle between a university professor and one of his female students, who accuses him of sexual exploitation and, by doing so, spoils his chances of being afforded tenure.

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So far as I have determined, the US Copyright Office does not grant authorial rights beyond the “scope” of the dramatic work itself. Based on custom and common sense, such “scope” presumably covers the experience of seeing the play, from design elements and program information to how a play might be characterized in flyers, posters, marketing and press releases. It is a well-established, incontestable fact that playwrights may exert veto power over both casting and creative teams, too, for unlike film and TV, playwrights hold all the cards in the theater. I use the word “incontestable” very much on purpose, for the playwright, indeed, has a legal basis for that level of control, even if — as with those now accusing the estate of Edward Albee of being raging racists — we dislike the result.

The question is to what degree the “scope” of a dramatic work legally extends beyond the experience and performance of the play. To wit: does a talk-back actually constitute part of the “performance”? If it does, then when does a “performance” end? Has a playwright the sole and exclusive right to determine when a performance ends, even if it’s two hours after the curtain comes down?

Here is the statute governing the 1976 Copyright Act. I can’t find specific language that would grant a playwright, explicitly or implicitly, the legal right to censor a post-performance conversation. While Mamet’s assertion of broader authorial intent is certainly in line with his previous behavior (as Peterson notes), I’m not convinced it’s legally defensible or enforceable. Who gets to define what does and does constitute a “discussion”? We can be sure that Mamet, his legal team and Dramatists Play Service have chosen the words “anything like it” carefully. For within ambiguity there is power.

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Peterson contacted Craig Pospisil, director of nonprofessional licensing at Dramatists Play Service, who gave him a statement. Today I contacted Pospisil with follow-up questions; he asked that I send them to Peter Hagan, the president. These were the questions I posed:

  1. How does Mr. Mamet, his legal team, and/or Dramatists Play Service specifically define “anything like it”? Collectively, are you asserting the legal authority to determine what does and doesn’t constitute a “discussion”? What if, for example, actors gather formally or informally in the theater lobby after a performance and chat with audience members about the play?
  2. Should a producer, artist, production staff or any affiliate of any production of Oleanna, formally or informally, create, advertise, market and/or verbalize any opportunity for a ticket-holder or audience member to meet off-site — at a bar across the street, say — to talk about the performance, would this trigger immediate legal enforcement of the clause?
  3. Assuming that Mr. Mamet, his legal team, and/or the Dramatists Play Service would expect federal, state and local government to honor Mr. Mamet’s intellectual property rights in any litigation resulting from the enforcement of this clause, is it your collective legal assertion that the clause poses no threat to the First Amendment rights of any producer, artist, production staff or affiliate of any production of Oleanna?

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I have not received an answer, but should Hagan provide them — or “anything like” a statement — The Clyde Fitch Report will publish it in full. So stay tuned.

It may also be instructive to — forgive the dirty word here — discuss Mamet as both a playwright and a political figure. Artistically, in my view, he’s not exactly having a good century, at least in terms of his new plays. Of his four most recent original works on Broadway — November (2007), Race (2009), The Anarchist (2012) and China Doll (2015) — none were wildly well-received; The Anarchist lasted 17 performances and China Doll 54, the latter benefiting from Al Pacino’s, er, curious performance. At the aforementioned Atlantic Theater, Mamet’s latest play, The Penitent, was described by Alexis Soloski in The New York Times as a “short play with a long face”; it was her observation that the relationship that “fails to excite” was “the one between audience and play.” (She ends her review with just two words: “So what?”) Mamet does seem content to coast on aging hits: his Glengarry Glen Ross, which won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has been revived twice on Broadway in the last dozen years. Oleanna, which opened Off-Broadway nearly 25 years ago, is one of Mamet’s most enduring and popular works, no doubt because of its controversial theme and plot.

Meantime, Mamet’s “conversion” to right-wing politics is very well known. Ever since he “came out” as a conservative in the pages of The Village Voice — in his scattershot 2008 essay, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal” — he has challenged his theater colleagues to guarantee him a fair shake. Here’s more on Mamet’s “conversion” in a video interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Check out what the interviewer does around 5:35. He asks Mamet about his recognition, “implicit in all your work and all your life…[that] you actually like America” — as if to imply, as right-wingers do, that the left hates America. The playwright artfully resists the bait. No wonder: this is the man who won his Pulitzer for a play about deceit, deception and Darwinism in real estate. He can spot a tell a mile off.

But while Mamet acknowledges that the left may love America, he plainly doesn’t love the American predilection, inspired by a nearly 230-year-old constitution, for a free exchange of ideas. True, the First Amendment is a specific bulwark against government interference in free expression, and a post-show talk-back after a performance of Oleanna doesn’t fall into the category of state-sanctioned censorship. Surely we can agree, however, that a core tenet of modern conservatism is the single-minded dedication to preventing the government from meddling with its citizens — and to put all faith in the power of the market, all faith in the safe hands of private individuals. Should David Mamet happen to be one of those private individuals, and should he be disposed to exercise any opportunity to censor a post-show talk-back of his play Oleanna, then all he has done, really, is thrown in his lot with those who would transfer the power to oppress from the government to the dramatist. Oppression is still oppression, regardless of who or what oppresses.

In the video, when Mamet talks regretfully about how America has descended into tribalism, he’s right: we are so polarized that can’t talk to each other anymore. Certainly not after a performance of Oleanna.