Mamet's 'Old Religion': provocative parallels


"The Old Religion," by David Mamet. The Free Press. 195 pages. $24.

There are few things more annoying than a chatterbox, unless, of course, the chatterbox is David Mamet.

The playwright talks incessantly in his new novel. But unlike the precise, riveting dialogue of power and politics in his plays "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Oleanna," the speech in "The Old Religion" is internal. It doesn't shout. It whispers.

Mamet's protagonist is Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who is falsely convicted of raping and murdering a white girl in Georgia and is then castrated and lynched by a mob. This volatile stuff becomes curiously listless in Mamet's hands, all the more surprising because the story is true.

It's not that the novel is indifferent. Rather, its sense of outrage simmers so low and for so long that a reader comes to feel nearly as helpless as Frank himself. And that, it seems, is the intended effect. Mamet successfully immerses us in a consciousness that is as maddening as it is intriguing.

Frank's wandering thoughts are peppered with the kind of idle mental exercises that comfortable people have time for. He is "content to be the head of the family, to be a man, happy with his friends, relaxed and full of a good dinner, and to be serious in the way people are when the subject is arguably more personal than gossip but devoid of any real threat."

At the mention of the Ku Klux Klan, Frank dismissively thinks of "bugbear stories around a campfire." To be a Jew in white Southern society around 1915 is not so difficult - at least, not until he is charged with murder. Then, his old religion, the Judaism he has nearly discarded, becomes new, while the new religion of democracy shows itself to be, when its priests are bigots and liars, false.

Mamet peels away layers of racism. The whites "claimed, as their racial due, the right to intimidate," based on "some supposed inherited merit" because their ancestors had fought Indians and British. They condemn Frank partly by refusing to believe in the intelligence of a black prosecution witness who, it turns out, is probably the murderer.

While Frank's trivial thoughts grow to be more meaningful, they are also frustrating. The entire story is told through the lens of his astonishing passivity. Did the real Frank not once leap to his feet and loudly defend himself to the court, to his jail mates, to his own quietly hostile lawyer? This Frank lets the trial seep into his consciousness erratically, through the filter of his bewildered resignation.

While Frank studies in jail, a rabbi tells him, "if we are unable to understand our powerlessness, our mortality, then we denominate ourselves God" (a bad thing). As if to prove the point, when Frank begins to believe that his appeal may succeed, an inmate cuts his throat. In the hospital, he imagines himself as a Jew whom Christians could love: Jesus. The parallel is provocative.

Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in the Maryland Poetry Review, Premiere and elsewhere.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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