The Cryptogram by David Mamet


I was somewhat surprised by The Cryptogram because Mamet’s plays I’d read or seen so far always contained some humor, and I didn’t find even a grain of humor here – this is a very dark and depressing play.

The play deals with existentialist topics: with the inability to communicate, with the lack of understanding among humans, with alienation, with the ultimate unknowability of other people. Besides this, there’s also a fair bit of philosophizing about who we are, why we exist, and how do we even know we exist. (These topics always fascinate me, and I can read any number of books about them.)

As regards the events in this play: the characters are a mother, her son, and a family friend. During the first act, the three of them spend the evening together, packing things, drinking tea, talking – mostly about little nothings, constantly interrupting one another, circling over and over the same ideas. Every once in a while they try to touch on more serious topics but someone always steers the conversation away – and anyway, it’s hard to conduct any meaningful conversation when the participants are often in different rooms of the house and they can’t hear or understand what the others are saying. In any case, this is supposed to be an average evening at home – the characters are waiting for the father to come home, and meanwhile they are packing some bags because the plan is that the father will take his son on a trip the next day. At the end of the evening, however, they come upon a letter that had been lying around somewhere – in the letter the father says he’s leaving his wife.

In the other two acts, the theme is developed further, we learn the details of the relationships between the characters and the missing father, and the characters wonder whether the father’s departure had already been in the air, whether the family friend had known about it in advance, and why he didn’t say anything if he had.

Besides the impending divorce, the other main theme is the son’s, John’s insomnia, which is not taken seriously by his mother – and this topic is much more prominent than the divorce. John’s been having a hard time falling asleep – he spends his time in bed wondering about life, he thinks he’s hearing voices, and he’s afraid of being alone with himself and his thoughts, which is not surprising, as he struggles with the kinds of thoughts that can be terrifying for not only a 10-year old boy.

The climax of the play is John’s extremely affecting, fragmented-frightened-desperate monologue where he tries to articulate his night-thoughts. In fact, the boy doesn’t want to deliver a monologue – he’s trying to have a conversation with his mother about everything he finds bewildering or confusing, but his mother’s reactions don’t amount to more than a few “well-well” and “aha” scattered here and there.

In John’s monologue there’s everything I mentioned in the second paragraph, and it left me shivering, the way he expresses how absolutely terrifying it can be – simply to exist, and how frustrating and hopeless it is – to try to understand anything or anyone, to try to crack an infinitely complex cryptogram. A cryptogram we make all the more confusing for ourselves – with lies, with interruptions, with lack of attention, with digressions, with deliberate misunderstandings.

I’m not a depressed existentialist in general – I like to think that understanding is possible, and that living forever and ever in our own private world is not the only option we have. But for the characters here, understanding is out of the question. And this is devastating.