Robert Kennedy once described himself thus: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’” Perhaps the strongest criticism against liberalism is the charge that too many of its prescriptions for achieving the good life begin from premises in a world that doesn’t exist.
For cold-eyed realists like playwright David Mamet, the answer to Kennedy’s second question is easy: people are tempted to pride and selfishness. And after a lifetime spent in the intellectual employ of liberalism’s ‘why not’ ethos, Mamet rejected his former worldview in an essay for the Village Voice, and followed up his rejection of state control in favor of free markets in his new book Theatre.
A review of the book by Commentary’s Terry Teachout reveals Mamet’s stinging rejections of the liberal mindset in favor of conservative-libertarian explanations for how the world actually works. For Mamet, his conversion is a matter of his personal philosophy catching up with his art, which is characterized by dark struggles for power in an unfair world.
But lest readers think the notion of realism is code for worst case scenario of the human condition, don’t worry. Instead, Teachout describes Mamet’s reading of conservative luminaries like Thomas Sowell, Paul Johnson, Milton Friedman and Shelby Steele as persuading him that “a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than the idealistic vision I called liberalism.”
For the moment, Mamet stands alone as a free market supporter in the playhouses of elite theater. Taking a cue from his characters in Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, Mamet probably doesn’t care what others think.
Admittedly, there is a certain attraction to dreaming of a world that doesn’t – and probably can’t – exist. It explains the popularity of fantasy tales for which Hollywood studios make hundreds of millions of dollars selling as a form of escape. For artists like Mamet, though, the real world in all its imperfect complexity provides a much richer source of inspiration.
In an era where politicians are challenging playwrights for creating the most compelling drama, it’s good to know of at least one professional artist who prefers reality to fantasy.