Debra Winger and Patti LuPone star in David Mamet's "The Anarchist." In this production, Cathy (LuPone) and Ann (Winger) spar over how one determines if a person has truly been "saved." Photo Source: The Hollywood Reporter
“He who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate.”
In Judaism, the Midrashim are textual volumes that offer deeper interpretation of traditional biblical narratives, exploring their more complex, even metaphorical meanings. One such Midrashic interpretation concerns the treatment of the "wicked" and asks if bestowing compassion on those who have committed unspeakable ill will only result in a greater ill being perpetrated against the just.
This concept is equally relevant today as it was at the time of its conception -- particularly as debates on law and order and crime and punishment abound. It is this nuanced examination of compassion and cruelty, lovingkindness and rule of law, that is explored not just in ancient Jewish texts, but so poignantly in acclaimed screenwriter David Mamet's newest theater production, "The Anarchist," which opened on Broadway this past weekend.
Based on Ayers?
Starring veteran actors Patti LuPone and Debra Winger, the classic tragedy centers around Cathy (LuPone), a former 1960s radical (in the vein of Bill Ayers' Weather Underground) and murderess who appeals to Ann (Winger), a representative of "the state," for parole after serving 35 years in prison for killing two police officers during an armed bank robbery. Ultimately, Cathy is the embodiment of Ayer's wife Bernadine Dohrn or more pointedly, fellow Weatherman Kathy Boudin, who, like her stage-counterpart, was convicted in 1984 of murdering three people during her participation in an armed bank robbery.
LuPone's character laments the fact that, because her conviction fell under the banner of "political crime," she has served a much longer prison sentence than would have been mandated for simple murder. Thus, the state judged her not just based on the murder, but for the motivation behind it as well. This, Cathy maintains, is inherently unfair -- an argument "not without merit," according to Mamet.
Our "Cathy," now a self-proclaimed born-again Christian, claims the radical views she held decades earlier were merely the folly of youth and maintains she no longer poses a threat to society. Throughout her performance, the inmate references her collection of memoirs penned over the course of a nearly four-decades-long internment, as a chronicle of her religious awakening. She also cites her exemplary behavior while in incarceration as proof of her transformation.
But Cathy is no fool. A well-educated, multilingual heiress to a wealthy Jewish family, she may simply be feigning her newfound salvation as do so many inmates seeking parole. In fact, prisoners only tend to perfect their skills of deception whilst in prison -- something Mamet also stressed throughout the production.
As a clearly gifted wordsmith, it is also revealed that the aging activist once authored anarchist pamphlets inciting anti-colonialist youth to rise up in violence. What's more, Cathy is a student of human nature and clearly possesses the intellect needed to manipulate people's emotions if she so desires.
Ever shrewd, Cathy consistently argues throughout the play that she is an "old woman," implying that, given her ailing state, could not possibly pose a physical threat to anyone. Winger's character, however, knows that the least of Cathy's crimes came from "the end of a gun," but rather through the written word. What if Cathy were to be released, only to create and disseminate a new batch of radical writings meant to influence the next generation of young, impressionable minds? What if those malleable youth were, like some forty years prior, moved to kill by those very writings?
Here, again, we see Mamet underscore the power of words and their ability to be a conduit for evil, just as they can be a conduit for all that is good.
Is Cathy's manuscript merely a tool for manipulation, or does it comprise the account of one who has genuinely been "saved"? It is Ann's duty (a theme that repeats itself throughout the production) to determine if her ward has truly been born again. For the warden, she says in all of her years reviewing inmates' parole requests, she's never seen a person truly change, although she'd like to think that it is possible.
This leads to another question explored in "The Anarchist": Should one be judged on his or her actions alone, or also the thoughts that drove those actions?
Just as Mamet's mastery of the English language lays bare the soul of his characters, so, too, does his wisdom for knowing when silence is all that is needed. This is never more evident than when, throughout the entire 75-minute-long dialogue between these two sparring women, Cathy never actually takes ownership of slaying the two officers that fateful day, nor does she express remorse over the deed even though the victims' families are listening-in on her appeal.
Another powerful concept explored in Mamet's production is the repeated idea that the state exerts its "power through the end of a gun." Of course, this quote was coined by Communist butcher Mao Zedong, who said, "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." It is ironic that Cathy would rail against this concept given that radicals of her day lauded the likes of Chairman Mao, whose power over the Chinese people sprang from his penchant for violence -- his gun.
Our conversation with Mamet
TheBlaze had a rare opportunity to interview the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer-director to discuss the genesis for "The Anarchist" and what influenced the subject matter of his production. Mamet, who is himself a conservative, was asked how one reconciles a just society charged with protecting the innocent with the legal precept that a criminal deserves a second-chance after paying his or her debt to society.
"I am not sure they are reconcilable," he said soberly. In civilization, "the error will be on one side or the other." This, he explained, is manifested in Kabbalistic (Jewish mysticism) principles of "Chesed," or lovingkindness and "Gevurah," which is God's method of punishing the wicked and judging mankind in strict accordance with the law. In Judaism, Chesed and Gevurah are opposing concepts, forever in struggle with one another.
In other words, compassion and cruelty.
"Evil can come from lovingness, or chesed, and so can the reverse," Mamet told TheBlaze. It is about the translation of justice.
When asked to expand on how concepts of Judaism have informed his works, the Tony Award winning playwright said he has, of late, been occupying himself with the ancient questions posed by great Jewish thinkers concerning justice, adjudication, poor choices versus moral choices, and "how do we get on with it [life] as sinners."
How can one make choices of which God would approve while being the flawed mortals that we are? These deeply philosophical questions are explored in The Anarchist, as well as many of Mamet's other works.
The distinguished director also drew parallel between LuPone's character and the insidious, at times destructive, nature of certain advocacy groups, which through their more astute members, have the power to affect change, though sometimes not for the better.
The issue Mamet stressed is that Cathy might be released from prison not because she is a good person who has truly changed, but because she is a good writer -- a good advocate for herself -- whose words simply have the power to engender sympathy, not necessarily convey truth.
Despite all of these rather political-sounding themes, Mamet maintains that "The Anarchist" is not a "conservative play," as these ethical dilemmas are ones people of all walks are wont to experience at some stage in their lives. He said it is also about being faced with difficult choices.
"Someone must choose," Mamet told TheBlaze. "That is the tragedy" of Winger's character." She is striving to save a murderess. "Her duty obligates her [to choose]."
Mamet said he was inspired to write "The Anarchist" after reading Bill Ayer's column in the Chicago Tribune directly following the September 11 attacks, in which the former Weatherman admitted that under the right set of circumstances, he would engage in the same acts of domestic terrorism that made him infamous to begin with, all over again.
"And I thought, what a horrendous statement," Mamet confessed before adding that he found Ayers' article not only doubly disturbing because it directly followed 9/11, but because he was a professor of the University of Illinois-Chicago shaping the young minds of tomorrow.
What sets Mamet apart as more than simply a playwright or director is his proclivity for weaving so many moral, ethical, legal and philosophical questions into the framework of his productions. "The Anarchist" broaches questions of faith, deception, arrogance and duty. It also asks the age-old questions of whether or not people can change, whether it is wise to show mercy to those who possess capacity for great ill, and houses themes of personal responsibility and the appropriate role of the state in relation to the individual.
"The Anarchist" also perfectly encapsulates the adage that the "pen is mightier than the sword," as it is Cathy's powerful writings that Ann reveres, and perhaps fears most of all.
Among his many talents, Mamet is perhaps best known for weaving densely layered, highly nuanced dialogue into his scripts, reinforcing his belief in the power of words. LuPone navigates the dense waters of Mamet's highbrow vocabulary effortlessly, leaving the patron without doubt that her character is every bit the master manipulator and killer she is accused of being, and that her weapons are, in the end, both the sword and the pen.