A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Described by David Mamet as ” a morality play about modern society,” his tragicomedy “Edmond,” brilliantly revived at London’s National Theatre, stars Kenneth Branagh as a middle-class Everyman. Discontented with his life, he follows advice from a fortune-teller to go forth and seek his potential. He denounces his wife as spiritually and sexually unsatisfying and leaving her screaming, departs his home to embark upon a journey through an urban underworld for which he is ill-equipped:

“You know how much of our life we’re alive, you and me? Nothing. Two minutes out of the year. When we meet some one new, when we get married, when, when, when, when we’re in difficulties…Once in our life at the death of someone that we love. That’s…in a car crash…and that’s it. You know, you know, we’re sheltered.”

As Edmond, Mr. Branagh achieves brilliantly the monumental assignment of changing from discontent to fear to violence to acceptance. Constantly onstage, moving on the revolving stage, his body language indicates his moods, loosely-strung in the massage parlor, taut and dominant as he kills his first victim, crazed and flailing as he murders his second. His flexible, everyman face registers indecision and fear at first, then hardens into hate.

Seeking sex in a massage parlor, Edmond tries to bargain the prostitute’s price. Here, stripped to his sagging shorts, he is both a figure of fun and Shakespeare’s “bare, forked animal,” As he peels off his business suit and tie, so his thin veneer of civilized behavior disappears, to reveal his hidden hatred of those he encounters – black pimps and con-men, a homosexual hotel clerk, and a waitress he briefly befriends. Even a bystander is not exempt from his misogyny. When he attempts to strike up a conversation with a middle-aged woman in the subway and she does not respond, he unleashes a torrent of vituperation at her.

Losing all his money to street experts at three-card monty, he goes to a pawnshop and exchanges his wedding ring for a “survival knife.” His violence increases from verbal to physical, as he turns on a mugger posing as a pimp and enraged, kills him. Empowered by winning this street fight, newly-confident Edmond impresses an out-of-work actress waiting on tables. After they have sex, her account of her love of the theater and its power to transform falls on deaf ears, and they argue. Because she refuses to accept Edmond’s insistence that she is a waitress, not an actress, he knifes her to death.

Toward the end of the 75 minutes of “Edmond,” he comes upon a mission preacher promising salvation, and is about to enter the church when a policeman arrives, accompanied by the woman he insulted on the subway, now accusing him of rape, for which he is arrested. At police headquarters, he is interrogated: “Why did you kill the girl?” and then jailed. Observing that “every fear hides a wish,” Edmond says as he enters his cell, “I always knew I would end up here.” With his burly black roommate (Nonso Anozie) he attains a kind of peace, and even love.

Mamet has never been a realistic writer; he transforms carefully selected everyday idiom into poetry through rhythm and repetition, as in the quotation above. As to his plots, their ingredients are “real” enough to be convincing, but there is always more. On one level, they are all “moral fables,” his term for “Edmond.” And because his dialogue is so taut and the human foibles of his characters often comic, we accept the morality. “American Buffalo,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and “Speed the Plow” are all about greed and power despite their very different settings and characters. As to the violence in “Edmond,” which also is about greed and power, Mamet states, “I believe that we all have the propensity for violence, that we all have violent fantasies and that drama, and especially tragedy, has the power to bring these fantasies to light: to release the repressed in a safe – indeed, in a sanctified – setting and so, restore balance to the individual.”