Playwright David Mamet’s recently announced conversion from the wrong-headed liberalism of his youth to a new clear-eyed conservativism has garnered a good deal of publicity, as one would expect from such a political about-face from such a well-known and controversial figure. This, after all, is the man who for much of his career was unable to write a line of dialogue without resorting to at least one of those “expletives deleted,” formerly anathema to so many of his new conservative cohorts, so his conversion, even though he couldn’t quite manage it without at least one of those choice expletives, comes as something of a gift from heaven. Presuming, that is, that he at some point pays homage to family values by forswearing swearing. Ordinary sinners entering the fold are all well and good, but there is nothing like a conversion of note to bring joy to the heart of the faithful.
On the other hand, there is something of a cliché at work here. Liberal youthful idealism giving way to conservativism in middle or old age is not exactly an unusual occurrence. My own favorite example is the English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth. As a young man, Wordsworth was a vocal supporter of what would have been considered ultra-radical causes. He was passionate, for example, in his support of the French Revolution. He wrote glowingly of the common man in the language of the common man. While he may not have been as radical in his thinking as, say, Shelley, he was clearly a believer in liberal values. But as he grew older, he began to change. His politics and his religious ideas became more and more conventional, more and more conservative. Eventually, his thinking became so hidebound that it was said he refused to look at the newspapers.
The interesting thing is that for a long time it was conventional thinking among literary critics, leftist liberals by definition (some would say), that Wordsworth deteriorated as a poet the more conservative he became. All of his really great poetry was written pretty much before 1810. He still wrote a good bit of poetry afterwards, but most of it goes unread. While this may be little more than the institutional bias of progressive academics, it is hard to find anything in the later poetry to equal masterpieces like “Tintern Abbey” and “The Intimations Ode.” Of course, this may well have more to do with youth than it does with politics, but it is something for an artist to think about.
Now certainly, as Mamet himself affirms, it is an honorable act to change one’s mind when the facts show that one has been wrong. Certainly one can change one’s mind even when the facts show nothing of the kind. This is a free country. Liberals can see the new conservative light, and conservatives can close their Milton Friedmans and open their John Kenneth Galbraiths. And they do, especially late in life. An artist like Mamet, however, may well want to give some thought to the experience of Wordsworth. Will there be any more dramatic masterworks like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross or are we destined to see Mamet’s equivalent of Ecclesiastical Sonnets?