Communion and Duplicity in The Shawl, The Cryptogram, and Other Works

Mamet’s Divided Magics: Communion and Duplicity in The Shawl, The Cryptogram, and Other Works

Brewer, Gaylord

David Mamet’s 1985 play The Shawl was recognized by one critic to be written in the playwright’s trademark “terse, elliptical style” while adding a “new element . . . the suggestion of the supernatural and the mystical, all the more haunting for its quotidian context” (Brustein 28). Although The Shawi represents one of the more conspicuous examples of Mamet’s interest in magic and mysticism, such a fascination has increasingly informed his works for two decades. Generally, “magic” in Mamet appears in one of two guises: either as sleightof-hand, such as card playing (House of Games, Prairie du Chien), or, more often and more significantly, as an ambiguous spirituality linked with miracles, manipulation, and faith (We’re No Angels, Speed-the-Plow). The two concerns-physical dexterity of the con man/magician and healing insight of the priest/clairvoyant-are inextricable in Mamet’s oeuvre. “Magical” skills are further linked to theatre, both as metaphor and practical example, and, in Mamet’s revealing recent play The Cryptogram, tied to central notions of language, belief, and fundamental human relationships. These concerns also coalesce provocatively in the succinct play The Shawl, and Christopher Bigsby accurately ascertains what sets the piece apart from Mamet’s more aggressive plays: “The furious pace. . . is here stilled. The result is a work of genuine lyricism, a tone poem …” What John and Miss A “jointly seek is some kind of absolution…” (129). To discuss magic and mysticism in David Mamet’s work is to chart a growing preoccupation with individual and family identity, with grand but simple questions surrounding one’s place in a world fragmented by avarice, loneliness, and fear.

Card playing is the most conspicuous and recurring representation of Mamet’s interest in the basic, physical skill of tricks and sleight-of-hand. In his essay “Black as the Ace of Spades,” Mamet explicates with minimal irony his regard for the numerology of cards, the importance of chance and its interpretation. In poker, “a magic is created”:

The game is not about money. The game is about love, and divine intervention. The money is a propitiatory gift to the Gods. It is the equivalent of Fasting and Prayer: it is to gain the God’s attention, and to put the supplicant in the properly humbled frame of mind to receive any information which might be forthcoming.

For the Cards are the symbols of the universe.

There are few of them, but their possible combinations are myriad. (172-73)

Central to an appreciation of the cards’ meanings is the ability to read, to “see” them. The three-card monte dealer in Edmond inquires suggestively, “Who saw the queen? We got two cards left. Pay on the red queen, who saw her?” (246). Of course, Edmond chooses incorrectly, typical of his stymied search for discovery. His attempt to reveal a swindle also fails. The sharper explains: “You ain’t goin’ see no motherfuckin’ cards, man, we playin’ a game here . . .” (247). In short, Edmond can’t read the signs and isn’t privy to whatever answers they might reveal. Proof of gullibility and “illiteracy” is his only lesson.

A comparable altercation develops in Mamet’s brief, ambiguous Prairie du Chien. A gin game is interwoven with a story of ghosts and murder, and, while no rational connection is offered between the narratives, the gin dealer’s proclamations throughout the play speak to the cards’ evocative if unclarified symbology. “I play the king right back. (Pause.) And I get the heart five. (Pause.) The five of hearts. What does that tell us? (Pause.) When he has taken the three diamonds?” (58-9). The dealer’s running banter throughout the game is similar to the sharper’s and even more suggestive of a card reader, an inquisitive teller of fortune. The other player, consistently losing, suspects like Edmond a rigged game, and his request for the dealer to show his hand also brings neither clarity nor agreement. “And what if I don’t want to show it to you?” (78) the dealer responds ominously. The subsequent act of violence is easily interpreted as the player’s frustration at not being able to anticipate, to read, the signs. Mamet explains, “When we are betting on the cards, we love their combinations. Their beautiful unfolding means that God Loves Us, their malevolent conjunction means that Someone is Trying to Teach Us a Lesson” (“Black” 173).

Frequently, however, characters are shown the cards. That is, they are brought into a circle of knowledge that purports an understanding of symbols and the ability to interpret them. This introduction often results in an even more perilous situation for the participant. During the opening machinations of House of Games, Margaret Ford is invited into the con men’s lair ostensibly as a friend of Mike, the lead hustler. “I want you to do me this favor. I want you to be my ‘girlfriend’ for a while, come in the game, you stand behind me, watch me play” (16). Mamet’s closeups of the men’s hands over the table, enclosed in a circle of light, further heighten the feeling of sleight-of-hand skill, of card tricks, of a “show” performed for Ford’s unsuspecting benefit. Tellingly, Mike’s designated foil in the scene is played by Ricky Jay, a renowned magician whose own credits include the 1977 volume Cards as Weapons. The pool hall’s backroom, where the game takes place, is nearly identical in appearance to John’s fortune-telling parlor in The Shawl: a table, the appropriate number of chairs, and correct lighting are all that is required to create the ambiance for a specialized “play” at conjuring. This latter analogy to theatre is integral to Harriet’s design. Within moments, the hustlers in House of Games are demonstrating short cons/tricks to Ford as “reward” for her acuity. “The Mitt,” “the Tap,” “the Flu,” all involve insider knowledge and practiced skill. “Timing, timing, it’s all timing!” (26), explains Joey, played by Mike Nussbaum, who also portrayed John in the initial productions of The Shawl. Mike invites Ford to “come back again and I’ll show you some other Jolly Pranks” (27). As her cab pulls away, he absent-mindedly produces a coin; it disappears in his hands (28). Their hook is in.

Like the confidence artists, John demonstrates the skills of his craft. In a passage cited by many critics as central to The Shawl’s theatrical metaphor, the seer explains to his partner/protégé Charles:

I show you the trick ‘from the back’ and you’re disappointed. Of course you are. If you view it as a ‘member of the audience. One of the, you will see, the most painful sides of the profession is this: you do your work well, and who will see it?

No one, really. (26)

These lines could have been lifted nearly verbatim from Mamet’s 1977 play A Life in the Theatre, when the older actor Robert is still confidently and confidentially expounding the history and craft of acting to his younger colleague. The behind-the-scenes moments that constitute the centerpiece of that work serve the same function as the two behind-the-curtain scenes of John and Charles in The Shawl: to elaborate “magical” skills inherent and hidden in persuasive performance. Curiously, like The Shawl, A Life in the Theatre is one of Mamet’s few plays to develop a homosexual theme, as if the relative quiet of the plays, and some element of their performance intimacy, asserts a voice usually drowned in characters’ masculine bluster.

Mamet’s recent collection of essays on acting, True and False, begins with an epigraph by Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin: “A magician is an actor impersonating a magician” (vii). Throughout that volume, the author inverts, amplifies, and adapts this assertion, simultaneously stripping acting of the psychic baggage of the “Method” and locating thespian training in the same practical realm as magic. “Singing, voice, dance, juggling, tap, magic, tumbling. Practice in them will perfectly define for you the difference between possession and nonpossession of a skill” (True 103). Magic is the conspicuous item in the list, yet it perfectly suits Mamet’s pragmatic thesis. The magician as craftsman is the figure employed here as exemplar for the novice actor: “He or she is as free of the necessity of ‘feeling’ as the magician is free of the necessity of actually summoning supernormal powers. The magician creates an illusion in the mind of the audience. So does the actor” (True 9). Again, the actor/magician as professional, possessing honed and practicable skill, is separated, as in the plays, from whatever psychic or mystical occurrence may result. The “magician’s” job, whether in the parlor, pool hall, or theatre, is to perform with expertise, precision, and courage. A profound connection is developed between actor and audience, between-in the case of The Shawl-“seer” and client. Actress Lindsay Grouse recalls the original production: “How do you get across the idea of someone being a medium? Do you have to have Mike wear a turban?…If the audience is told you’re a king and you carry yourself like a king, the audience will believe it” (in Freedman). This echoes Mamet’s own credo of an audience’s willingness to trust; to, in essence, be duped by the proffered “reality” of performance. “The audience will accept,” the playwright asserts simply, “anything they are not given a reason to disbelieve” (True 114).

In The Shawl, Mamet deftly blends the ingredients of insider knowledge and spiritual effect: “The Shawl tells a story … ‘from the back’ without losing the simultaneous acknowledgment of the unseeable, the intangible-in effect, it insists upon the recognition of theatrical narrative’s power to ‘conjure’ images” (Geis 65). Director Gregory Mosher, Mamet’s longtime advocate and collaborator, chose to begin his tenure at Lincoln Center with a production of The Shawl, appropriating the play’s quiet entanglements as representative of a theatre director’s struggle of art versus commerce:

It’s not about reading the future. It’s about just seeing clearly, unimpeded by this barrage of opinion that comes at you every day…So, this clairvoyant’s assistant is consistently saying ‘Let’s go out and make some money,’ and the guy’s saying, ‘No, I have to respect the power, which I don’t even understand, although it’s inside me.’ So, it’s a metaphor for reopening the theater. It was a metaphor for artistic creation. (237, 242)

Even Mamet links The Shawl’s subject matter, and his creation of the text, to the skillful “trick” of playwriting.

I did do a certain amount of research on mentalism and on cold reading, which is what The Shawl is about. But I had never actually seen these things done. And so I had to go back to square one and create them myself. I think the same is true of me as a playwright. (“Celebrating” 94)

Although Mamet’s connection here between playwright and magician goes unexplored, one may assume an author’s pride in his “conjuring” of a play, enabled by practiced and tested skill in the theatre trade.

Throughout the plays under consideration, the “magician” figure may assume various forms, but always the crucial similarity is an ability to listen and be open to the confessor/client/mark. Additionally, these “seers” are inevitably tied to a vaguely defined but crucial tradition, a putative history that distinguishes them amidst the fragmentation and isolation of a society that sends the supplicant in search of help. In Mamet’s monologue Mr. Happiness, a radio advice jockey stresses his lack of credentials-“Folks, you know that I’m no doctor. I’m no priest. I’m no professor”-but then expounds on his ability to “see the facts” for his simple, hackneyed truths: “It boils down to this: We don’t know where to turn. We feel alone. We need a friendly ear to tell our troubles to … .” (80). This failure at community is central in Mamet’s most discussed plays (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glenn Ross, Okanna). As the possibility of meaningful human connection increases, so too do mysticism, faith, and an ideal of spiritual union. The Water Engine, for example, otherwise a bleak nostalgia play, is laced with the oblique, ghostly voice of the chain letter, its mixed message of optimism and threat: “Make sure you send the letter on to someone who you trust will send the letter on. All people are connected. (Pause.) Do not send cash” (39).

On one level, the seer dons the mantle of priest and thus the responsibility of administered grace. Tellingly, Mamet’s dark moral journey, Edmond, begins with a fortune-teller’s ruminations: “If things are predetermined surely they must manifest themselves. Surely, then, there must have been signs. If only we could have read them” (220). Just as John seduces Miss A with the notion that she has “some psychic ability” (5), the fortune-teller posits to Edmond, “We all like to believe we are special. In your case this is true” (221). John continues: “And what powers DO exist? And what looks after us? And…you ask…and can things be known. Can things be known. (Pause.) And, of course, they can” (5). The fortune-teller’s probable spiritual huckstering can hardly be distinguished from John’s priestly guidance and ontological investigation. Finally, perhaps legitimacy and charlatanism can only be separated by their relative spiritual efficacy for the listener. Edmond juxtaposes fortune-teller to three-card hustler to, thirdly, fundamentalist preacher. These constitute a collective street voice for the protagonist. “To all of you who say his grace is not meant to extend to one as black as you I say to WHO but you? To you alone. Not to the blessed” (274).

Ironically, it is during Edmond’s subsequent desire to “testify” (275) with the preacher that he is identified and arrested. The irony compounds as the protagonist discovers relative peace and solace, achieving a modest spiritual awakening behind bars.

EDMOND: I don’t think we can know. I think that if we knew it, we’d be dead.

PRISONER: We would be God. […]

EDMOND: I don’t think even a genius can see what we ate. {…}

PRISONER: Well, something’s going on, I’ll tell you that. I’m saying, somewhere some poor sucker knows what’s happening.

EDMOND: Do you think? (294)

Knowledge is attainable not by intellect, but by submission to the unknowable. Dennis Carroll notes that in The Shawl, the final moments between John and Miss A in are “enriched by everincreasing trust, and by mutual respect for the primacy of the intuitive and the mysterious. Their rapport recalls that of Edmond and the black cell-mate, and the final conversation in that play about the privileged knowledge that certain people can develop in isolation from society” (113). Curiously, as in The Shawl, the emergence of Edmond’s homosexuality – he is sodomized by his cell mate – seems to assist his internal blossoming, the shedding of a restrictive masculine identity.

The prison cell allows, indeed demands, introspection, relative solitude, and an ascetic habit comparable to monastic life. This connection is fully explored in the screenplay We’re No Angels, an intriguing – albeit comic -treatment of escaped convicts masquerading as priests. The script explores the necessity of faith and communion to one’s physical or spiritual release and offers Mamet countless opportunities to satirize the trappings of the Catholic church: the convicts’ attempts to hide are routinely mistaken for prayer or confession, their nonsense “messages” as profound and refreshing theology. “Sometimes you just need help” (77, text only), the convict Ned asserts. In his role as priest help is asked of him and, ultimately, help is offered. In this burlesque landscape, the bumbling Ned and Jim are effective priests. Jim notes that cloistered life is, like prison, “three squares and a cot” (87) and begins an unorthodox but profound spiritual enlightenment. His later public sermon ends with this recognizable encouragement: “All I know, something might give you comfort…maybe you deserve it…it comforts you to believe in God, you do it” (108). Like Mamet’s Mr. Happiness, who declares himself “no priest,” Jim nevertheless offers a colloquial message of support, a message readily embraced by his audience. Father Levasque applauds the impostors for the text they are credited with writing, a pragmatic explanation of the weeping Madonna:

That’s the wonderful thing about what you have written, you and your friend. (Beat.) That we never forget that it’s simply a hole in the roof. FATHER LEVESQUE and then NED look up. Point of view: The hole in the roof- Night. The water dripping on the head of the Madonna. (76)

The hole in the roof, the icon’s miracle, is another example of seeing the trick or performance “from the back.” In Three Uses of the Knife, additional recent essays on theater, Mamet asserts an important conflation of beliefs: “The purpose of the theater, like magic, like religion-those three harness mates-is to inspire cleansing awe” (69).

Like the convicts, John in The Shawl pretends to be what he is not, and the role of clairvoyant offers numerous analogies to that of priest. “For we look to the stars. As they did. What do we see? We see this: that they named the constellations on their knowledge of the traits which appear” (3). Later, attempting to dispel Charles’ belief in “tricks,” John refers derisively to earlier mysteries and offers an interesting juxtaposition: “Are you free now? Now that you know the Mysteries? (Pause.) The Pythagorean mysteries? (Pause.) The Sacred…? (Pause.) Three cups. And which cup hides the ball…” (47). As in Edmond, religion and huckstering are linked, yet it is clear throughout The Shawl that John recognizes and cannot betray his priestly function, and his con man rhetoric cannot quite convince us of its disingenuousness: “And the questions of the spirit rise. And troubled, you come here. And we will lift your troubles. And answer your doubts” (13). His compelling performance allows the “sinner,” Miss A, to expose herself. He explains: “Only common sense, and the idea of the mystic frees her to expound” (17). To seek comfort, Mamet suggests, to put aside fear and to trust, is to receive comfort, regardless of the legitimacy of the seer. “Common to many Mamet plays, The Shawl concerns people who, needing mystery, are desperately trying to exorcise the meaninglessness out of their lives. This life may indeed be a sham and a hoax, but there is a destiny to it…” (Christiansen). It has been further argued that Miss A needs John as “psychologist and surrogate father” (Carroll 116) more than as psychic, and John does at times co-opt the language of therapist: “To…face herself…as we will help her…and she will reward us. And we’re making progress. As you saw” (20). Although Charles would prefer to believe that “we’re making progress” involves his approach to a lucrative pay-off, John is more concerned with the “we” of therapist and patient, seer and client, priest and confessor, the latter hinted at by his ascetic lifestyle: “What I have…whatever I have, whatever I have is yours. Just now that’s very little. In material things” (25-6). The Shawl concerns John’s own spiritual growth, his increasing “capacity for self-knowledge in the midst of corruption” (Schvey 78).

The eventual communion – and the sacramental overtones are appropriate in this context – between John and Miss A is at the heart of The Shawl’s message. This closeness is enabled, ironically, by the admission of John’s betrayal, which in turn causes an apparently legitimate moment of clairvoyance. In an ambiguous scene, John “divines” the shawl of the play’s title: “Oh, God Help Me. I see Your Sainted Mother. Wrapped you in a Shawl. A Red Shawl . . .” (44-45). The same item of clothing appears briefly in We’re No Angels, again locating The Shawl’s concerns to be not only with mother and child, but with religious rites. “Onepriest reaches in the cabinet below the Shrine, takes out a vestment for the Madonna, while chanting in Latin. NED is still looking back at the jail. The Canadian priest adjusts the garment, a shawl, over the Madonna” (113). The consequence of violence briefly assumes the miraculous: “The area around the heart and that area on the shawl are covered in blood. FATHER LEVESQUE: My God…Do you see what’s happening…?” (113-14). This moment initiates a series of events – involving selflessness, personal risk, and courage – that results in a legitimate miracle. Ned, previously the skeptic, rises from the (baptismal) river with a deaf child who begins to speak. The translator pronounces, “Oh, my God, it’s a miracle” (118, text only). Molly, the girl’s mother, has earlier doubts-“What’s in it for mel You understand? If I ‘believe . . .’?” (67)- answered: “My baby’s talking” (118). Shortly before the final revelation that ends The Shawl, John intuits of Miss A, “…but still skeptical. Good. We can’t overcome our nature. For it protects us. You ask what you wish to ask” (50). Paradoxically, this desire for self-protection, to shield against physical or spiritual injury, represents the armor that must willingly be shed.

Many of these same concerns are subtly but provocatively woven into Mamet’s 1995 play of family isolation, The Cryptogram. Although the play at first appears to have little explicitly to do with magic, its odd reality and the inscrutable iconography suggested by its title reveal the play’s centrality in Mamet’s examination of the mysterious, unrevealed, and intentionally “cloaked.” Perhaps more than any other Mamet play, The Cryptogram abounds in totems, stage visuals that alternately assist and confound interpretation. One critic asserts that the form approaches “dramatic fetishism: Object after object is verbally idolized. The slippers, the teapot, the blanket John wraps himself in against the cold” (Simon 79)- Indeed, the play could reasonably be entitled The Blanket, a mysterious wrap, like the shawl, associated with childhood, the past, culpability, and, by its tear, the fractured and violated past. In The Shawl, the titular object comprises

a rich symbol for the multiple levels of illusions Mamet exposes. On the most literal level, it conjures up images of a loving mother…Farther into the subliminal, the shawl perhaps suggests a mantle suitable for a shaman…Ultimately, though, the shawl is a cover for John’s tricks. (Kolin 10)

The shawl briefly present in We’re No Angels is associated both with religious iconography and the violent, “worldly” causes of seeming miracles. The ghostly red dress in Prairie du Chien (67, 75) functions similarly, as an ambiguous covering for the supernatural, the past, and the consequences of blame.

The child protagonist in The Cryptogram- conspicuously, also named John – introduces the totem when he returns from the attic (the play’s locus of subconscious darkness and bound Pandora’s boxes) “wrapped in a plaid blanket” (25). In the subsequent conversation, past and present, guilt and discovery blend and overlap as if pieced inextricably together in an aged blanket. The Shawl’s rhythms are evoked:

JOHN: I tore the blanket. I’m sorry.

DONNY: You tore it?

JOHN (Simultaneous with “tore”): I was opening the box. I think there was a nail sticking out. I heard something rip… […] .

DONNY: No, it was torn years ago.

JOHN (simultaneous with “ago”): I didn’t tear it?


JOHN: I heard it rip.

DEL: You may have heard it in your mind . . .


DONNY: No we tore that long ago.

DEL: I think your mind is racing. (25-26)

The leading, elliptical dialogue is reminiscent of conversations between John and Miss A, with the conspicuous difference that roles are inverted. The child John, unwilling and novice “seer,” is led through a series of unilluminating answers by the adult world, particularly that world as represented by his mother. The cause of the tear is uncertain, but the blanket seems to empower John’s hope of understanding, of seeing clearly. Late in the play, after being deceived by his adult guardians, the boy’s frustration is manifested in the loss of the blanket.

DONNY: No one can help you. Do you understand? Finally, each of us.

JOHN: Where is the blanket?

DONNY:!… Each of us…

JOHN:…I want the blanket.

DONNY: Is alone.

JOHN:…the stadium blanket.

DONNY: (simultaneous with “stadium”): I’ve put it away. {…]

JOHN: You told me I could have the blanket.

DONNY: Goodnight, John.

JOHN: You told me I could have the blanket. (90, 100)

Up to the play’s final moment, John remains adamant and increasingly assertive – in desiring the blanket returned, as if he intuits its totemic power in interpreting the world of betrayals crashing around him. “John is the ultimate victim and the minioracle who sees into the darkness that surrounds this ordinary family committing their lethally ordinary treacheries” (Kroll). The boy is, in a telling sense, a confluence of John and Miss A from The Shawl. Like Miss A, he is inquisitive and increasingly desperate for answers, understanding, and truth. However, he is perhaps more aggressive, and, haunted by voices and ghosts, wields within himself whatever powers of divination might save him. Both The Shawl and The Cryptogram share a peculiar tone, eerie and off-center. This is reflected in the dialogue, which in its repetitions and hesitancies is far from realistic. What one reviewer noted of The Shawl links the two plays, that the language “begins to assume more of a ritualistic and even unnatural sound than it does when wedded to… [Mamet’s] more realistic work” (Watt, in Smith).

Mamet’s reliance on totemic symbols connects his plays in other manners. In The Shawl, prior to beginning an explanation of methods to Charles, John first displays a conspicuous pride in the tea he serves:

CHARLES: She came in.

JOHN:…More tea?

CHARLES: Thank vou.

JOHN: Quite good don’t you think?


JOHN: Scald the pot.

CHARLES: As you say…

JOHN: Yes. She came in. (16)

This innocuous exchange seems, prima facie, little more than an affirmation of John’s subservient, “effeminate” role in the relationship. However, the discussion of tea is integrated with a recollection of Miss A’s entrance, a juxtaposition doubly telling when compared to an occurrence in The Cryptogram. In that play’s early moments, Donny announces off-stage that she has “spilled the tea” (7) and further admits that she “broke the pot, I broke the teapot” (8). On a domestic level, again, the accident announces Donny’s inadequacy as a traditional mother in the kitchen and suggests her fragile, fractured state. It also clearly foreshadows her inability at divination, the “reading of leaves” at which The Shawl’s John is proficient.

Another intriguing symbol is The Cryptogram’s, unnamed book- a children’s book-of prophetic wisdom. From the beginning of the play, Del acts as surrogate father to John but also as supernatural mentor. He continually encourages John to assign meaning to events and objects and teaches him a game to “sharpen your skills” (32) of vivid recollection. Such training focuses on the habit expatiated in The Shawl to separate diviner from seeker: “what separates us, finally, from them is this: that is we look clearly” (27). The increasingly disquieting tone of The Cryptogram, with its focus on prescience, ghosts, and the unknown, lends extra suggestiveness to its almost mantric repetitions. “It’s all such a mystery,” (21) Donny asserts, and a moment afterwards Del echoes her confusion: “Well, it’s a mystery. The whole goddamned thing” (24). Only the recitation of the “book” seems to bring a ritualistic-and verbal-order to events:

DEL: “My blessings on your House.”

JOHN: That’s what the Wizard said.

DEL: That’s right.

JOHN: “And mine on yours.”

DEL: “Until the whale shall speak.”

JOHN: “Until the Moon shall Weep.” Mother?

DONNY: I don’t remember it… (14)

Donny has forgotten the book’s incantations, and the adults seem unable to conjure appropriate words without such knowledge. Significantly, the boy believes the text’s fantastical prophecies. “‘When we think of sickness, sickness is approaching,’ said the Wizard. Misfortunes come in threes” (29). John alone recognizes and assigns symbolic meaning to the events of the evening: the broken teapot, the torn blanket, and, to conclude the first scene, a note from his father that he seems to suddenly and magically produce, “…when did this get here…?” Donny asks, confused. She reveals the letter’s content, a third misfortune – like the torn blanket, initiated in the past – to close the act: “My husband’s leaving me” (51).

As the play progresses, even Del is increasingly inadequate to the visionary world. Shortly after John is given medicine to alleviate his fever – the condition of a “seer” – Del’s comic failure to offer a proper toast suggests a world of failed spells and potions: “And…May the Spirit of Friendship… (Pause.) oh, the hell with it. I mean, can’t people just have a drink…for the love of God?” (61). Dels recognition appears to move roughly from a pantheistic to a Judeo-Christian deity, perhaps signifying his failure in the world of the Wizard’s magic. In act two, his unintentionally ironic quoting of the Wizard, ‘”My blessings on this house…,'” is deflected by John with a salient question: “When is my father coming for me…?” (58). (The promised trip, a son’s potently symbolic “trip to the woods” with his father, never materializes.) Immediately following this “denial” of Del’s privilege with the magical text, Del twice asks Donny to play cards, is rebuffed, and then, as noted, is unable to deliver a proper toast/incantation. He is, in short, powerless. “Well,” he admits, “I know I know I’m limited” (60). In what serves as a wonderfully appropriate explication of The Cryptogram, Mamet has further written of cards that they

are a survival of our less rational, more frightful, more beautiful past.They commemorate a numerology based on thirteen rather than ten; they restate the mythological hierarchy of the Monarchy, of a state which recapitulates our infant understanding of the family-as-world… (“Black” 174, italics added)

The Cryptogram charts the failure of such a father/king monarchy, just as John struggles with a numerology/symbology unsuited for his age of ten.

The secret of the obscure text also appears in Mamet’s most concealed “mystery” play, Speed-the-Plow. The Cryptograms book of the Wizard finds an earlier incarnation in The Bridge, that mysterious tract of ponderous wisdom mocked by studio executives but embraced by the secretary Karen. Her voice, reading from the book, begins Act Two on a note of miracle and belief: “He puts his hand on the child’s chest, and he says ‘heal,’ as if he felt he had the power to heal him, he calls on God…” (47). She appears profoundly moved by the book’s story of radiation, changed forms, repudiated fear, and assumed grace, finally presenting herself as sign, emissary, and vessel of the text’s “magic”: “You say that you prayed to be pure. What if your prayers were answered? You asked me to come. Here I am” (60). Temporarily, Karen is empowered by the force of her convictions. “The power that this thought will release…in, in, in everyone. Something which speaks to them…this book spoke to me. It changed me…I…” (55). Of course, The Bridge’s message is soon swept aside, along with the woman, in the wave of the producers’ overarching greed, cynicism, and belief in public complacency. Back in the harsh glare of the studio, the book read aloud is absurd. Fox quotes balefulIy, “The Earth burned. But the last man had a vision…,'” then directs his venom toward Karen: “You ever come on the lot again, I’m going to have you killed. Goodbye. see you at the A and P.” (80). His self-willed denial curtails any possibility of spiritual redemption: “I wouldn’t believe this shit if it was true…” (73). Fox returns Gould from his flirtation with spiritualism with a last reminder of their venal orthodoxy: “And what if this fucken’ ‘grace’ exists? It’s not for you. You know that, Bob. You know that” (81). In The Shawl, John summarizes the questions to which those who come to him want the answers, questions that distill Speed-the-Plow’s dialectic. ‘”How will the World End.’ ‘Will I Be Rich'” (47). In Hollywood, the vacuous second question easily subordinates and mocks the second, and Karen, temporary apostle/seer, is cast out.

Ironically, Gould ‘ reappears in Mamet’s one-act Bobby Gouldin Hell, where the devil, the “Interrogator,” suggests another scenario for magical redemption:

Just Say a Magic Word. If all the suffering…You, Bob…all the things you’ve seen…The things which you regret. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if they had never happened. (Pause.) If, in effect, you’d just ‘dreamed’ them, and you could return, and, not only not have done them, but learn from them. (39-40)

Although Gould, through his suspicions, sacrifices the opportunity to return purified, he is moved by the romance of the proposition. Bobby Gould in Hell is light-hearted comedy and finally fairly silly, but it is worth noting that the Interrogator functions roughly in the priestly/mystic role, that particular niche where the Mamet protégé probes, inquires, and holds the key of special knowledge, power, or sight, with the possibility of either beneficent or damaging use. Also curious, the unnamed devil appears on stage “festooned with fishing gear” (7); when Del, in The Cryptogram, confesses to Donny of betraying her and of how “Evil” he is, he recalls sleeping in his library “in fishing clothes” (74). The confession, like the accusation against Gould, involves infidelity and misrepresentation in adult sexual relationships (“sport” in murky waters?).

While in Speed-the-P low the magic book is explicitly denied, in The Cryptogram it remains an unclarified, abstruse influence. Another significant divergence between Speed-the-P low and The Shawl can be summarized in the agon of commercialism versus spirituality. In the former play commercialism triumphs; in the latter, vision and community, “in which the need for a restored intimacy ultimately triumphs over the impulse to exploit it. The Shawl…is a subtle and ultimately a lyrical work in which faith is both betrayed and vindicated” (Bigsby 127). In both plays, the agent of possible communion is a woman who intrudes between two men. In one case she is denied, in one – The Shawl, where the male relationship is homosexual – she is accepted over the other. Provocatively, the final dynamics of Speed-the-Plow and The Shawl are similar in one regard: the non-sexual relationship is finally valued over the sexual, whether for financial or spiritual profit. Often in Mamet, especially in his more “mystical” plays, traditional sexuality is displaced. Among the works discussed here, both The Shawl and The Cryptogram feature only homosexual men (figures otherwise rare in Mamet’s canon), sodomy is linked with spiritual enlightenment at the conclusion of Edmond, Speed-the-Plow ends as a testimony to male “bonding,” and We’re No Angels concerns, ostensibly, sexually abstinent priests. Robert Skloot noted that The Cryptogram, “with a cast comprised of a boy, a gay man, and a straight woman . . . lacks any of Mamet’s sexual tension amid his explosive, enclosed environments” (9). On a simple level, (hetero)sexual demands of the body seem to yield to pervasive demands of spirit.

Another explanation for the relative lack of sexuality in both The Shawl and The Cryptogram is the prominence of parentchild relationships, specifically mother and child. This relationship, when it appears in Mamet, often represents a flawed, failed variation of teacher and student, one rendered unique by its lack of choice for the participants. This is examined with father and daughter in Mamet’s early plays Reunion and Dark Pony. In Prairie du Chien, the Storyteller on three occasions asks the Listener, the father, whether his son is asleep before continuing a gruesome account of betrayal and murder. “And then this man caught him. There had been stories…Is the boy asleep?” (73). This dramatic device continuously reminds the Listener that the horrific elements of the account are unfit for his child’s ears. For his part, the Storyteller admires the boy’s ability at innocent sleep. In The Cryptogram, this situation is reversed, with John informing us early that he “couldn’t sleep” (3) for consecutive nights, presumably because ghosts from the adult world haunt him. When he dozes briefly in the middle of the play, he awakes troubled and dislocated:

JOHN (waking): What did they say? What?

DONNY: Go to sleep, John.

JOHN: I was going there. But you said to bring the, bring . . . (Pause.) Bring them the…(Pause.) I don’t like it. I don’t like it. No. (43)

John’s peculiar phrasing “I was going there” lends sleep the feeling of a palpable, foreign place. When John appears later in the play, presumably having again awoken from restless sleep, his troubling interrogation of his mother suggests her as his primary ghost. “Are you dead? I heard you calling. I heard voices and I thought they were you.” He continues, in the tone of a mysticvisionary, “And so I said, ‘…there’s someone troubled.’ I walked around. Did you hear walking?… and so I went outside. I saw a candle. In the dark” (75).

At the conclusion of the short play Jolly, the second piece of Mamet’s 1997 triptych The Old Neighborhood, the adult child suffers a similarly eerie dream of maternal menace:

And I’m having this dream.’Let me in,’ and I know that they want to kill me. MOTHER: Mother’s voice, from just beyond the door: Julia, Let Me In.’ I open the door, this sweetest voice, and there is Mom, with this expression on her ia.ce…(Pause) And she wants to kill me (84).

In The Shaivl, the mother returns to Miss A as a beckoning ghost. “She stood…don’t you hear her? She stood by your bed. She called you. Are you…you asked, you prayed to her, to come, to reveal…” (38). Although the apparition here appears beneficent, nearly holy, still the visitation itself signals unrest. John labels Miss A “an anxious child” who “couldn’t sleep” (47). The simple fact the Miss A feels in need of John’s services, whether these be interpreted at mystical, priestly, or therapeutic, indicates turbulence with the mother’s ghost. Obviously, as in Jolly, the legal will – a symbolic “ranking” of devotion – constitutes a source of surprise, hurt, and anger. The legacy of the parent is not what one had hoped. John’s final vision, which concludes the play, shows Miss A burning her mother’s shawl. “In rage. Standing somewhere by the water, five years ago” (53). Although the cause and precipitate of this action remain undisclosed, clearly a “heated” schism between mother and daughter exists. Since the burning of the totemic shawl ends the play, perhaps Miss A’s self-induced destruction of maternal/material connection cannot be restored, however sincerely repented.

John Lahr, quoting Mamet, writes that the playwright “sees myth and drama and dream coming down to the same childhood issues-‘the terrors and pleasures of existence before we learned to repress and to filter and to abstract that into conscious perception.'” The Cryptogram, Lahr continues, “bypasses reason and prompts deep, visceral feelings about the past which have a way of making the memory of the play implode in the imagination” (33). Finally, it seems impossible to meaningfully discuss magic – that is, tricks – in David Mamet’s plays without connection to the writer’s more significant concerns with faith, fear, and ritual, and how these participate in forming public performance and private identity.

This supposed ability to sidestep, to forgo, ritual comes from a mistaken belief in one’s own powers and a misapprehension of personal grace. It is misplaced and it is sad, like the viewer at a magic show who confides, “You know, he really didn’t make that duck disappear.” Now of course the magician didn’t make that duck disappear. What he did was something of much greater worth – he gave a moment of joy and astonishment to some who were delighted by it.

In suspending their disbelief – in suspending their reason, if you will – for a moment, the viewers were rewarded. They committed an act of faith, or of submission. And like those who rise refreshed from prayer, their prayers were answered. For the purpose of the prayer was not, finally, to bring about intercession in the material world, but to lay down, for the time of the prayer, one’s confusion and rage and sorrow at one’s own powerlessness (Knife 68). At the center of the author’s concerns is this welding of ancient magician’s technique to heady matters of spirit and belief, of practiced skill to willingly perceived miracle.

Miss A – “freed by ‘magic,'” (21), as John informs us – finally by suspension of disbelief, by an act of faith, achieves the submissive state necessary for communion. Of course, communion is mutual by definition, and with that hopeful tableau The Shawl ends, for “it’s not,” as John rightly says of both characters “divination that concerns you. Finally” (51). The last words oiThe Cryptogram, however, are markedly less optimistic:

JOHN: I can’t fall asleep.

DEL: That’s up to you, now.

JOHN: I hear voices. They’re calling to me. (Pause.)

DONNY: Yes I’m sure they are.

JOHN: They’re calling me.

DEL: Take the knife and go.

JOHN: They’re calling my name. (Pause.) Mother. They’re calling my name. (100-101)

Dismissed and abandoned by the adult world, and lacking the tools – the blanket? – that might comfort or decode an encrypted language of deceit and abandonment, John is offered a replacement totem. The father’s knife, linked consistently with betrayal in the play, is a dubious emblem of right-of-passage. John ascends the stairs a final time – led by the ghosts in his head – toward the attic’s arcane monsters and mysteries tied in boxes.

Like The Shawl, The Cryptogram ends enigmatically, potentially at the beginning of something more significant than what has preceded. Yet the boy’s ritual promises to be a dark invocation, and a lonely one. Perhaps Mamet leaves John, as some critics have suggested, on the verge of a personal blood-letting, a self-sacrifice. Perhaps, even more common and frightening, it is the bonds of childhood that the boy will sever, setting loose adult knowledge – evil – into the world again.1


1. The author is indebted to the Faculty Research and Creative Activities Committee, Middle Tennessee State University, for the reassigned time that enabled the writing of this essay.


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Brustein, Robert. “On Theater.” New Republic 10 Feb. 1986: 26+.

Carroll, Dennis. David Mamet. London: Macmillan, 1987.

Christiansen, Richard. “Mamet’s Shawl Plays Perfectly in New Theater.” Chicago Tribune 24 Apr. 1985, sec. 2: 5.

Freedman, Samuel G. “Theater Returns to Lincoln Center.” New York Times 21 Dec. 1985: L15.

Geis, Deborah R. “David Mamet and the Metadramatic Tradition: seeing ‘the Trick from the Back.'” David Mamet: A casebook. Ed. Leslie Kane. New York: Garland, 1992. 49-68.

Kolin, Philip C. “Revealing Illusions in David Mamet’s The Shawl.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 16.2 (Mar. 1986): 9-10.

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Lahr, John. “David Mamet’s Child’s Play.” New Yorker 10 Apr. 1995: 33-34.

Mamet, David. “Black As the Ace of Spades.” In Some Freaks. New York: Viking, 1989. 172-174.

__. Bobby Gould in Hell. Oh, Hell: Two One-Act Plays. New York: Samuel French, 1991.

__. “Celebrating the Capacity for Self-Knowledge.” Interview by Henry I. Schvey. New Theatre Quarterly 4 (Feb. 1988): 89-96.

__. The Cryptogram. New York: Vintage, 1995.

__. House of Games. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1987.

__. A Life in the Theatre. New York: Grove, 1977.

__. The Old Neighborhood. New York: Vintage, 1998.

__. The Shawl and Prairie du Chien. New York: Grove, 1985.

__. Speed-the-Plow. New York: Grove, 1988.

__. Three Uses of the Knife. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

__. True and False. New York: Pantheon, 1997.

__. The Water Engine: An American Fable, and Mr. Happiness. New York: Vintage, 1998.

__. We’re No Angels. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

__. The Woods, Lakeboat, Edmond. New York: Grove, 1987.

Mosher, Gregory. “Interview with Gregory Mosher.” Interview by Leslie Kane. David Mamet: A casebook. Ed. Leslie Kane. New York: Garland, 1992. 231-247.

Sauer, David K. & Janice A. Sauer eds. David Mamet: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport: Praeger, 2003.

Simon, John. “Broadway Goes OfF.” New York 24 Apr. 1995: 76+.

Skoot, Robert. Rev. of The Cryptogram. David Mamet Review 3 (Fall 1996): 8-9.

Smith, Sid. “Mamet Plays Strike Out with Critics.” Chicago Tribune 27 Dec. 1985, sec. 5: 3.

GAYLORD BREWER is a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, where he founded and edits the literary journal Poems & Plays. His criticism includes David Mamet andFilm (McFarland, 1993) and Charles Bukowski (Twayne/Macmillan, 1997), and his most recent books of poetry are Barbaric Mercies (Red Hen, 2003) and Exit Pursued by a Bear (Cherry Grove, 2004).

Copyright American Drama Institute Summer 2005

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