November Comically Examines the Election
by Patrick Pacheco
In David Mamet’s comedy November, incumbent American President Charles Smith, facing reelection with poll numbers “lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol,” initiates a crazy quilt of bribes, threats, and trade-offs to bully his way back into the game. Spewing enough xenophobic, homophobic, and racist rants to turn the Oval Office blue, Smith warns his truculent lesbian speechwriter that he’ll rendition her to Bulgaria if she doesn’t do his bidding. “That’s breaking the law,” she protests. “Not if I don’t get caught,” gleefully retorts the commander-in-chief.
In his 2011 book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, the veteran playwright described the political farce as “a love letter to America.” He wasn’t kidding. “The play explores resourcefulness, and one of the things that Americans are most admired for is resourcefulness,” says Scott Zigler, who will direct a production of the 2008 Broadway hit at the Mark Taper Forum from September 26–November 4. “America is driven by the free-enterprise system, and the play has a healthy respect for how free enterprise can be manifested within the political system. Each character has something desired by another person. ‘What is it worth to you?’ ‘What will the market bear?’ These are quintessential American questions.”
President Smith answers those questions for himself by asking the head of The Turkey and Poultry Association for a billion-dollar campaign contribution in exchange for the annual pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkeys. When the lobbyist balks at the outrageous demand, Smith inducts his ace speechwriter, Clarice Bernstein, to help him make good on his threat to convince the nation to abstain from eating turkey at Thanksgiving.
The idea for the play came to Mamet when he was told that a pair of turkeys pardoned by George W. Bush were flown first-class from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles so that they could lead a Disneyland Thanksgiving Day Parade. “This intersection of these two hucksterisms drew me irresistibly to a fantasy,” he writes in The Secret Knowledge.
As a playwright who has often looked at the conflicting desires and machinations of small-town crooks (American Buffalo), double-dealing realtors (Glengarry Glen Ross), and Hollywood executives (Speed-the-Plow), Mamet knew exactly what he was doing by lobbing this comic grenade into the middle of a presidential election. In 2008 the playwright was well aware that it was money and imagery, not policy, that determined elections. In November, Smith says to his loyal aide that the money will allow them to “inundate the undecided” with ads. Four years later, the play seems even more prescient in the aftermath of what has become known as “Citizens United,” the Supreme Court decision to allow unfettered corporate contributions to political action groups.
“What seemed a total farce four years ago is more or less what we see all around us now. We now live in a day when a single person has said he’s willing to spend $100 million to get his candidate elected,” says Zigler referring to Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas magnate and Romney supporter. “Some people may agree or disagree with that, but behind his statement is the belief that this is what America is all about. And if the play is in fact about America’s id being unleashed, then it is the Supreme Court that has unleashed it.”
The cacophony of this election season—and the hand-wringing that goes along with it—is not necessarily a bad development, according to November. Bernstein, the speechwriter who is as much the moral center of the play as any other character, tells her boss, “If you look at the polls, it seems we are a ‘nation divided.’ But we aren’t a ‘nation divided,’ sir. We’re a democracy. We hold different opinions.” If those messy and polarized opinions lead to congressional gridlock, then so be it. After all, that is what the vote of a free people has led to.
Not that Mamet, despite the fact that he renounces his past liberalism in The Secret Knowledge, has any specific agenda in November. By working in the tradition of the ancient satirists like Plautus and comedia dell’arte, the playwright has freed himself of the gravitas of just what it might seriously mean to be the leader of the free world. At its heart, November is less a scathing indictment of our jerry-built election system than a scatological, politically incorrect hellzapoppin’ of scheming politicos, Native-American casinos, Chinese adoption mills, and gay marriage.
“David’s always been very clear that his primary job is to entertain,” says Zigler. “You can’t be boring. He’ll leave it to the audience to determine meaning, and everyone who comes to the play will take away whatever meaning they want and think that it’s the right one. And that’s the strength of a play like this.”
Tickets range from $20–$65 for November, which runs from September 26–November 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA, 213-628-2772
photography by brigitte lacombe
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.