Instant Depths

Michael Wood

  • The Cryptogram by David Mamet
    The Ambassadors Theatre
  • A Whore’s Profession: Notes and Essays by David Mamet
    Faber, 412 pp, £12.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 571 17076 5

The earlier plays of David Mamet seemed to spring from a meeting between Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter, as if the characters from The Caretaker or The Homecoming had caught the American anxieties of Death of a Salesman. Pinter is also never far from the later plays, and he directed Oleanna in London; but other, more oblique influences now hover in the air. Gregory Mosher, the director of The Cryptogram, thinks Oleanna was ‘Shavian’, and the new play has undercurrents of Chekhov, even Ibsen. At the end, as in The Wild Duck, a child takes off to an attic to die, the victim of the games adults don’t quite know how to play.

Well, we don’t know that the child dies. He just mounts the stairs with a heavy knife in his hands, ostensibly to cut some twine on a box containing a blanket he wants. He can’t die, since that’s where the play ends. He’ll always mount the stairs with the knife, for as long as the play runs and as often as it’s performed. But the play is heavy with danger to him; from the very beginning, it’s hard to think of the child as safe. The knife is like Chekhov’s shotgun on the wall, which has to go off some time. We just don’t hear it going off. This is the 20th century, and Pinter has been here.

The Cryptogram knows where it’s going, but seems uncertain about the road or the reasons. It’s hard to tell whether this is an effect of the writing or of the production. Like Oleanna, it’s a short play in three scenes, with a small cast: three this time instead of two. It’s full of silences and absences, haunted by the unspoken, which is quite an achievement for such a talky writer. Here, as in the essays collected in A Whore’s Profession, Mamet knows when to leave stories alone, how to tell just enough to let them unfurl in our minds. A play, he says in his notes on The Cherry Orchard, ‘speaks to our subconscious’, or should do. The Cherry Orchard is not about trees: ‘Nobody in the play gives a damn about the cherry orchard.’ This makes Chekhov sound like Hitchcock, a man with a McGuffin, and can’t be right; but it does point to the indirection and silence of a play where people talk a lot, and it does suggest buried or implicit connections between the action of a play and the worries of its characters, and between those worries and what the audience is going to pick up, consciously or not. The Cryptogram is also full of what have become Mamet mannerisms: overlapping dialogue, characters constantly repeating the last phrase that was spoken to them. In this mode they recall not Ibsen and Chekhov but Henry James, who could create a riddle out of any old banality: ‘Well, I see everyone at my place.’ ‘Everyone?’ The trouble with such instant creation of depths is that the whole world looks shallow after a while.

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