January 29, 2003

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By J.H. Tompkins

The m-word

Teach: Grace and Ruthie up your ass, you shithead; you don't fuck with us, I'll kick your fucking head in. (I don't give a shit.)

Walter "Teach" Cole, from David Mamet's American Buffalo (1975)

I HAVEN'T COUNTED expletives in America Buffalo, which opens at American Conservatory Theater Jan. 15, but someone at Artisan Home Entertainment tallied them up in Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, which they reissued on DVD to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the film adaptation. The total: fuck and derivatives, 138; shit and derivatives, 50.

Mamet is famous for turning the air blue. The prince of profanity, a friend called him back when he was still young enough to be one, and she was right. But what separated him from vulgar imitation – it seemed so easy – was not the language he used but how he used it. Lesser talents went for shock value; that, for Mamet, was just a point of departure.

The trio of bumbling hustlers who share the stage in American Buffalo fire off lines in quick, explosive bursts, as when, during preparation for a robbery, Don volleys with Teach: "What's that?" "What?" "That." "This gun?" "Yes." "What does it look like?" "A gun." The percussive exchange in turn underscores the melody in the still rough-edged but by comparison extravagant observation that follows: "It's not a question do we need it...Need...Only that it makes me comfortable, OK? It helps me relax. So, God forbid, something inevitable occurs and the choice is (And I'm saying "God forbid") it's either him or us."

Mamet's work is often talked about in musical terms – his gift is his ear for the melody and natural rhythms lurking in stripped-down language. Jazz is frequently mentioned, although the term has been bastardized enough to mean almost anything that isn't rock. Volume is among rock's important variables, a quality it shares with Mamet's famous profanity. Still rock beats in four-four time and life never does, and – driven by fear, greed, desperation, and impotence – the staccato currents surging between Don, Teach, and Bob, the third of Buffalo's hapless hustlers, are free from the tyranny of the kick drum. Strictly speaking, the comparison to jazz works only in the crudest way. The contemporary sound closest to Mamet's work is the cacophonous din of improv – music that hovers at the edge of jazz – full of bleats, wails, and, often, pure noise.

As common as it is to describe language in musical terms, the script rarely flips back the other way. But Mamet-esque is a good word for what I recently heard at the Black Box on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. A band featuring onetime Eskimo member and current Bay Guardian staffer John Shiruba on guitar, along with drum, bass, and a couple of horns, played a set in which musicians clashed, raged, and occasionally spoke quietly to one another. Among many things that could be said about the performance – the music that night was at times stunning – is that the band had only one woman; more to the point, the audience was overwhelmingly male.

In this regard I was reminded of a television commercial by fast-food vendor Jack in the Box in which a young Jack asks his father about the difference between boys and girls. As Jack Sr. is explaining, the screen fills with a vision of pretty young girls, gracefully dancing in dresses that flair out as they twirl. Cut to a small boy sitting in a sandbox, pounding the pail that covers his head with a spoon.

If Mamet's characters tend to bang their headgear, the playwright hears a hundred possibilities in one four-letter word. The space lurking behind profanity's seeming limits was best addressed not by theater critics, but by onetime Black Panther chair Bobby Seale in his 1970 history of the Panthers, Seize the Time. He wrote, "Motherfucker is a very common expression nowadays. Eldridge [Cleaver] ran it down to me once when a number of people got upset over this vernacular of the ghetto. Eldridge said: 'I've seen and heard brothers use this word four and five times in one sentence and each time the word had a different meaning and expression.... But today, check the following sentence: 'Man, Let me tell you. This motherfucker here went down there with his motherfucking gun, knocked down the motherfucking door and blew this motherfucker's brains out. This shit is getting to be a motherfucker."

Mamet lives in an elemental world of winners and losers. It's the American way, he is fond of pointing out – so fond, in fact, that today his slot on the winning team adds an ugly smug quality to his observations. "Nobody ever says exactly what they mean," he told John Koch of the Boston Globe in a 1997 interview. "They say what they understand to be best calculated to get what they want.... Who did you ever know who spoke to reveal themselves?"

Observations like that gave Mamet shock value in the saccharine love-in that was the '70s. In today's post-Enron world, they're only as new as George W.'s latest war cry. Still, Bush is in charge and, like it or not, Mamet's work has new context and energy. On a bad day, it'll make a person think of Teach, who at the end of American Buffalo rages: "The Whole Entire World / There is no law / There is no Right or Wrong / The World is lies."

And that, in case you haven't been paying attention, is a motherfucker.

'American Buffalo' opens Jan. 15, Geary Theater, 415 Geary, S.F. (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org. See Stage listings for show times.

E-mail J.H. Tompkins at tommy@sfbg.com.