Who Tells Your Story

I'm joined by contributor and producer Jeremy Terry to discuss David Mamet's new play, Bitter Wheat. 

Taryn: David Mamet - playwright and director of Oleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed-the-Plow, has been asked by a Broadway producer to write a play about Harvey Weinstein, called Bitter Wheat. Some say he’s the absolute wrong person to write this play, is that true? This wouldn’t be the first time Mamet has put pen to paper to talk about uncomfortable topics. Does he handle them well, or does it just need to be someone else telling this story?

 David Mamet at the premiere of  Red Belt  at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo by David Shankbone

David Mamet at the premiere of Red Belt at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo by David Shankbone

Jeremy: Mamet says one of his producers suggested to him that he write about Weinstein, so he did. I think it's interesting that they both looked at the stories surrounding the #MeToo movement and thought it would be appropriate for a man to tell this story. Whenever we create art, our unconscious biases influence it. As a cis white man I can recognize that there are certain stories which aren't mine to tell. So why would we want to hear a man's version of a story about woman being systemically abused?

As you mentioned, this isn't the first time Mamet has written about uncomfortable topics. I think he's a talented writer and has a way of taking an uncomfortable issue and forcing you to confront all sides of it through his works. But he's written about assault before, and his anti-feminist tone has rarely been well-received. He tends to sympathize and apologize for his male characters, while implying the audience should not necessarily believe the accusations of women. Oleanna is a perfect example of this - he used his voice as an author to sow doubt into abuse and harrassment claims, rather than viewing a woman's voice as something to be believed. One reviewer of the 2009 revival pointed out that Mamet's play is supposed to be "he-said, she-said" but instead he sets Carol up to be "a sexless, vengeful, patriarchy-hating monster arising from Mamet’s primal fears, painted over with a veneer of minimal sympathy." 

T: Apparently Weinstein’s former personal assistant, Leslye Headland, wrote a play about harassment in the workplace, and while claiming it did not mirror real life, you can’t help but see similarities. The boss is referred to as an overweight cat, tyrannical and temperamental, and his logo is a large ‘W’. I’m sure she didn’t have to stretch her imagination. So why wasn’t her play chosen, or, if it’s not that good, why not ask any number of women to write a play for the stage? Mamet is a known quantity. Are there any women out there who are known quantities and are asked to write a debut on Broadway? 

J: I saw that when I was researching some of the information about this. I'm not sure why her play didn't receive a wider audience when it was produced. It might have been timing - no one wanted to go up against a big producer like Weinstein until everyone else was. We saw this recently with another large producer on Broadway - harassment claims came out against Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney Theatrical, and instead of covering the story most theatre outlets were completely silent. Now it's almost as if the whole thing has gone away in people's minds, though it likely hasn't for those that are were allegedly harassed.

I think without a doubt there are MANY talented women authors who would be great choices for writing a play about the Weinstein story. I would bet Leslye Headland [isn't] the only one with direct experience, either. So why aren't they asked to write these stories? It's because as you say, they're not necessarily "known quantities". This is something that authors like Paula Vogel have been fighting against. It can be hard to face the fact of systemic sexism in the industry, but authors who are men are more likely to be classified as a known quantity than those who are women. But how are women supposed to become known quantities if they aren't being produced and supported on Broadway? Of the four best play Tony nominees last year, two were by women. Guess which two were panned by the NYTimes.

There is a great article from last season in the NYTimes about the gender disparity in the works produced on Broadway. The piece is about how both Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel are Pulitzer winners and considered leaders of the field, yet neither one was produced on Broadway before last season. Ironically enough, the article is written by a man. 

   
  
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  Gisela Chípe (Halina/As Cast) and Miriam Schwartz (Chana/As Cast) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of  Indecent  by Paula Vogel, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. Music direction by Lisa Gutkin, choreography by Yehuda Hyman, scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Anne Kennedy, lighting design by Josh  Epstein, sound design by Kate Marvin and projection design by Alex Basco Koch. February 17 – March 24, 2018 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. Photo by Dan Norman.

Gisela Chípe (Halina/As Cast) and Miriam Schwartz (Chana/As Cast) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Indecent by Paula Vogel, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. Music direction by Lisa Gutkin, choreography by Yehuda Hyman, scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Anne Kennedy, lighting design by Josh  Epstein, sound design by Kate Marvin and projection design by Alex Basco Koch. February 17 – March 24, 2018 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. Photo by Dan Norman.

T: I saw that article, and it was the first time I’d heard that neither woman had been on Broadway - despite having known their work for years as powerhouse writers. Gender disparity is incredibly widespread, and I’m glad to see someone tackling the issue - even if it is a man. And that’s what we’re told to be grateful for, that at least the story is getting told. Then you want to push a little farther, and have the right people tell the story. But Mamet has had that mindset for a long time. He wrote a play in 2009 called Race that dealt with a white man accused of raping a black girl asking a law firm made up of a black man and a white man to take his case. While Mamet deftly talks about the issue of race from all angles, the question remains, should he? 

I firmly believe in supporting new artists and giving voice to the underrepresented, but when the income of your business is based on getting people to see your show, you tend to pander towards what the audience wants to see. Is that what this Broadway producer is thinking? 

J: It’s definitely the commercially sound position. I mean, a David Mamet play will sell tickets, a play about Weinstein will sell tickets, and having a star attached will definitely sell tickets. But that brings us back around to the main question: we know they can do it, but SHOULD Mamet be writing this?

My thought is no. What better place to start ending the systemic discrimination of women in theatre than in how we tell women’s stories? If we allow a man to tell this story, particularly one who traditionally is not supportive of women, have we learned anything at all?

For the sake of argument though, you also have to wonder about artistic freedom. Is saying that Mamet shouldn’t be writing this story because he’s a man a way of censoring or moderating his art? You’re one of the more vocal proponents I know for free artistic expression so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that side of it.

T: Let’s take what should have happened out of the picture. Do we start telling people what they can or can’t write/portray/talk about? Indecent tells the story of a 1906 play called God of Vengeance. Sholem Asch, a straight man, wrote a play about a Jewish brothel owner whose daughter falls in love with one of his (female) prostitutes. Should Asch have written that play, given his sexuality? We could say that no woman/lesbian was writing plays at that time, but we could also say that he should have used his privilege to find a woman to write the play. Indecent uses Vengeance as a springboard to discuss censorship - more in the terms of content, but how far do you have to go from censoring a lesbian relationship to censoring artists? Every dictator in history has or has tried to limit artists to those who paint him in a good light. While Mamet vs Headland is hardly on the same terms as dictatorship, how do we decide who gets to tell which stories? What if Headland was pro-Weinstein - would we still rally for her story? Mamet should use his position to offer up a woman to write or co-write this play, but he doesn’t have to. We should call for more women playwrights on Broadway, and if the NYT is panning the only two women nominated for a Tony, we need to ask them why.