Magician behind Bars

Michael Rogin

  • The Old Religion by David Mamet
    Faber, 194 pp, £9.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 571 19260 2

On 15 August 1915, a band of 25 men, among them the leading citizens of Marietta, Georgia, kidnapped Leo Frank from the Milledgeville Prison Farm, tied a rope around his neck and lynched him. Frank, the Jewish manager of an Atlanta pencil factory owned by his uncle, had been convicted of the perverted sexual abuse and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who worked at the factory. He was convicted on the testimony of the actual murderer, Jim Conley, a black sweeper at the factory, who claimed that Frank had ordered him to remove the girl’s body from the main floor to the basement (where it had been found) and to write the notes implicating Newt Lee, the black nightwatchman who found the corpse.

The jury voted to convict Frank in an atmosphere of mob hysteria. Conley’s testimony had been well rehearsed; and the prosecution intimidated two other African Americans, Conley’s girlfriend and the husband of Frank’s cook, into retracting evidence favourable to the accused man, who was duly sentenced to death. A massive national campaign to force a new trial failed before the Georgia and US Supreme Courts, while the former Populist Tom Watson used his newspaper to whip up rural Georgia into an anti-semitic frenzy. In the midst of all this, the outgoing Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment. The Governor’s own investigation had uncovered a conclusive flaw in Conley’s story: if the sweeper had used the elevator merely to transport the dead body to the basement, as he claimed, then the excrement he admitted depositing at the bottom of the elevator shaft that morning would have been crushed on the day of the murder rather than when the police went down in the elevator to recover the body. ‘Two thousand years ago another governor washed his hands of a case and turned over a Jew to a mob,’ Slaton explained. ‘If today another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands.’ Watson’s newspaper fulminated against Slaton’s decision to commute the sentence and the good citizens of Marietta enforced the ‘lynch law’ he had urged against ‘the satyr-faced New York Jew’.

The Leo Frank case, which occurred in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair in France and at the time of the imprisonment of the Ukrainian Jewish factory manager Mendel Beilis on a charge of ritual murder, was a highwater mark in American anti-semitism. Shortly after the Georgia jury convicted Frank, a jury of Ukrainian peasants acquitted Beilis. Yet during the decades when tens of thousands of innocent African Americans were imprisoned or murdered in the South, it was Ukrainian – not American – Jews who fell victim to anti-semitic pogroms. The puzzling feature of what was called the ‘American Dreyfus case’ was that, in the state with the greatest number of lynchings of black men between 1889 and 1928, a guilty black man was let off with a year in prison so that an innocent Jew could be hanged.

In making the ‘pervert’ Frank the manipulator of ‘His Man Friday – Jim Conley’, as an Atlanta reporter put it, Georgia anti-semites were sharing in the fantasy of Jewish control over blacks that prevailed among American opponents of jazz, in Nazi propaganda and, more recently, in the bible of the white supremacist militia movement, The Turner Diaries. These anti-semites were assigning to the imaginary Jew the position they themselves occupied. Jews such as Frank were vulnerable stand-ins for the forces of Northern capital invited into the defeated Confederacy by proponents of the New South. Combining non-productive financial conspiracy with unnatural, unreproductive sexuality, the Jew of anti-semitic fantasy enticed young girls from their farm homes to the factory, there to fall prey to perverted Jewish lust. The absence of an intact hymen without any evidence of rape suggested the unthinkable, that the move from country to city had liberated a sexually active Southern white girl. The notion of Jewish perversion could now be invoked to lay that ugly suggestion to rest, as a stereotypical black sexual assault could not. Innocent black men were lynched for real or imaginary defiance, but Conley’s tale of assisting a Jewish pervert was just what prosecutor and jury wanted to hear.

Far from signifying the alliance between Jew and black imagined by anti-semites, the Frank case made trouble between the two pariah groups (as Jeffrey Melnick shows brilliantly in his forthcoming A Trial of Black-Jewish Relations). Frank’s lawyers and some of his Jewish defenders invoked racist stereotypes to point the finger at Conley; the African American press which held out for Conley’s innocence was, in turn, not immune to anti-semitism. The reaction against this internecine warfare, however, helped to promote a black-Jewish civil rights alliance that endured for decades. Forgetting its origins in the case that set black against Jew, this alliance made it possible to commemorate the lynched Leo Frank as a martyr in the cause of both persecuted peoples.

When Hollywood finally filmed the story in They Won’t Forget (1937), the Jewish moguls’ fear of stimulating anti-semitism turned Leo Frank into a gentile Yankee businessman. But Robert Rossen, the young Jewish Communist who adapted the story for the screen, didn’t forget what he saw as his own betrayal of the Jews. A decade later, directing the first Hollywood Jewish/black buddy film, Body and Soul, Rossen made the last shot of They Won’t Forget into the first shot of his prizefighter movie. A swinging mail-bag standing in for Frank’s lynched body drops into a passing freight train after the lynch mob has taken its victim from the train travelling in the opposite direction. Reincarnated as a punch-bag swaying from a tree, that sack comes to signify the body of the black boxer in Body and Soul who (in a reversal of the Leo Frank case) has died to save the Jew.

David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 22 plays and 14 screenplays (and director of five films), has written a novel about Leo Frank. Although The Old Religion credits some of the sources from which I have taken the above account, it keeps both its readers and the fictional Frank almost entirely in the dark about the case. Instead of investigating the political and social context of Frank’s martyrdom, Mamet withdraws into the prisoner’s inner life; this master of aggressive dialogue falls into interior monologue. The archaic language Mamet adopts is entirely at odds with the profane argot that gives his plays their distinctive voice.

The historical Leo Frank, optimistic until the end that he would be freed, exchanged thousands of letters with supporters around the country and took an active role in his defence: Mamet’s Frank is isolated and talks to himself about the trial, his memories of his family and the Old Testament. Talmud, Torah and Hebrew-language study substitute for Frank’s actual invocation, in response to his persecutors, of Christ’s words on the Cross. An invented turn to the old religion by this modern Jew (suggested only by a single unsubstantiated sentence in one of the novel’s sources) gives Mamet’s Frank a fatalistic distance from – and makes him a philosophical spectator of – his own inexorable destiny. Gone the nightwatchman whose existence makes sense of Conley’s notes; gone the national campaign for Frank’s release; gone the Governor who tried to save him and the defeated Populist who instigated his murder. Gone all the lawyers and prominent figures who came to his defence, collapsed into a single attorney who wants, Frank believes, to see him dead. (Frank’s defence was criticised for antagonising the locals by pointing up the prosecution’s anti-semitism.) Mamet’s Frank remembers neither the Dreyfus nor the Beilis affairs, in which international campaigns defeated anti-semitism, but reflects instead on forcibly baptised Jewish children kidnapped from their parents. He also dwells on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan: the novel conflates the first Klan of the immediate post-Civil War years with the one reborn only in the aftermath and as a consequence of Frank’s lynching (and of The Birth of a Nation, the film celebrating the original Klan, which came out the same year). The Marietta Journal and Courier’s boast that the ‘vast throng’ that hanged Frank did ‘no violence’ to his body was an exaggeration, but unlike the historical Leo Frank, and in imitation of the black victims absent from this version of the tale, Mamet’s Frank is not only lynched but castrated as well.

Mamet ignores historical background: false comfort, The Old Religion implies. Yet his impressive achievement depends on having it both ways, since he calls up a historical cause célèbre whose inner life he has invented. By turning the case of Leo Frank, horrifying enough on its own terms, into an ahistorical nightmare, the novel derives its fictional power from claustrophobia. What has led David Mamet into this cul de sac?

The Old Religion solves the problem that has predominated in Mamet’s work since his classic plays American Buffalo (1977) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1984). Those plays put us inside his creepy – and now familiar – world of paranoia and mutual suspicion, of small-time tricksters, confidence men and salesmen, of the unstable identification of victim and victimiser, the world of male competition that leaves no one unsure of the meaning of a recent comment by a Dreamworks executive that the relations between the company’s co-owners, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, had ‘David Mamet overtones’.

Increasingly, Mamet has extended his interest in the confidence games that made his reputation to a search for the pure victim of these games. Leo Frank is not the only innocent target of demonic forces about whom Mamet has recently written. As well as publishing The Old Religion, last year he wrote and directed The Spanish Prisoner, itself a remake of his first directorial effort, The House of Games (1987), but with a difference. The hero of The Spanish Prisoner, an innocent prodigy to the end, is entirely unable to distinguish the sinister from the benign. Failing to discover just who is involved in the conspiracy that has stolen his priceless scientific formula, he is saved only by the deus ex machina of external law and order. The House of Games offered no such reassuring splits between innocence and power, good and evil. For, as the female psychiatrist turns the tables on the confidence man who has taken her in, our sympathy shifts to the man she is about to kill. At the chilling end of this film the doctor has become the thief it turns out she always wanted to be.

Speed-the-Plow (Broadway production, 1988) retains the dizzying syntax, foul street poetry and mutual insults of the earlier masterpieces, but something has begun to go right, and therefore wrong, with the plot. Charlie Fox brings his Hollywood boss Bobby Gould the option on a sure-fire hit and we expect Gould to screw Fox over the credit. Instead, Bobby lets his new secretary seduce him into agreeing to save his own soul by making an unfilmable middlebrow novel rather than Charlie’s violent schlock. Charlie rescues Bobby and himself from this self-destructive effort at redemption, itself ironised by the worthlessness of the novel in question, but the play suffers from the implausibility of Bobby’s temporary loss of his self-protective cynical edge.

Where the woman fails in Speed-the-Plow, the Jewish underground succeeds in Homicide (1991), seducing the detective Bobby Gold with the promise of an authentic identity in order to do him in. Fleeing from black anti-semitism in the police force and his own Jewish self-hatred, Bobby is entrapped into firebombing a supposed Nazi headquarters. Longing for a ‘home’ among the Jews, Bobby allows his Irish partner, his only ‘family’, to be gunned down by a black drug lord – only to discover that the old Jewish woman whose murder has led him astray was killed by black ghetto youngsters, not by a Nazi cell. The disconnection between our sympathy for the Jewish counter-conspiracy and its manipulative paranoia leaves the audience with Bobby in the last shot, guilty, exposed and alone.

In the paranoid male fantasy, Oleanna (1994), by contrast, the conspiracy that undoes the hero elicits no redeeming sympathy. A professor about to be awarded tenure falls prey to a militant femiNazi and her ‘group’, as she not only falsely accuses him of rape, but also demands that he remove from the college library his own book and other objectionable publications as the price of the withdrawal of her charges. Although the professor is paying for the slight arrogance he originally exhibited to the student, the punishment so far outstrips the crime as to reinvent him as innocent victim. Oleanna makes Fatal Attraction look like a feminist tract; that Mamet and his friend, the celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, find it even-handed is a sign not simply of their own derangement but of the problem for which The Old Religion (Dershowitz’s praise is on the American edition) finds a solution.

The problem goes back to Mamet’s childhood: family torture generated both the writer’s confidence games and his victim-identification alternative. ‘Last night when you were all in bed, Mrs O’Leary left a lantern in her shed’ is the ‘camping song’ epigraph for The Cryptogram (first produced in London in 1994), the eerie, quiet family nightmare seen from the child’s point of view, which ranks with Mamet’s best work. Four years later, Mamet has returned to this subject, staging as a single play called The Old Neighbourhood three one-acts about a middle-aged Bobby Gould that he had originally written separately in 1982 and 1989. Act II draws on the bond developed by Mamet and his sister against their abusive mother and stepfather, territory also covered in the brief memoir, ‘The Rake’, included in his 1992 book of reminiscences, The Cabin, which is dedicated to his sister.

Act I of The Old Neighbourhood, ‘The Disappearance of the Jews’, embraces even as it gently mocks the wish to go backward to the old neighbourhood and beyond, to return to the now-destroyed shtetl. Since Mamet’s upwardly mobile immigrant parents had left their religion behind, Jewish nostalgia is an escape from them as well. Affecting and linguistically rich, The Old Neighbourhood departs from Mamet’s trickster method (parents manipulating children, children trying to turn the tables on parents) that intensifies menace as it seeks to control it. Mamet has called Bobby Gould his fictional alter ego; a sympathetic listener devoid of guile, he is this aggressive author’s Dr Jekyll.

Bobby is leaving his wife in The Old Neighbourhood. In 1991 (the year his father died), Mamet divorced Lindsay Crouse and married Rebecca Pidgeon. Pidgeon, playing on film the young Jewish woman who accuses Bobby of anti-semitism, converted in life to Judaism. Mamet joined her, following the path to redemption that had finished off Bobby Gould.

In the course of returning to the old religion, Mamet has sorted out his imaginative world into separate good and evil parts. Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List from the same choices (second marriage, Jewish convert), but Mamet has raged against that film – in the 1994 essay, ‘The Jew for Export’ – as melodramatic ‘pornography’. Schindler’s List ‘exploits’ Jews by showing them rescued by a gentile, Mamet charges, allowing audiences to congratulate themselves on their difference from the Nazis. He now wants entirely to embrace the victim position, at least in Oleanna, The Spanish Prisoner and The Old Religion. In Wag the Dog (1998), where a media-invented imaginary war diverts attention from Presidential sexual abuse, the writer makes black comedy by once again turning victimiser into victim. The result in Oleanna was straightforward misogyny. In Leo Frank, by contrast, Mamet has discovered his objective correlative. And in The Old Religion he has finally found his home, alone with the persecuted Jew. Having insisted in the essay ‘In Every Generation’ (published in Make-Believe Town, 1996) that anti-semitism is an existential and invariant fact, the author of the Frank tale has put bad history in the service of powerful fiction. The magician of Lublin, in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel of that title, abandons his life as confidence-man and seducer to brick himself up in a tiny cell. The magician of Chicago, David Mamet, has, in The Old Religion, built his own prison.