The Shawl by David Mamet

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BBC World Service, 10 May 2008

David Mamet’s short 1985 play is about a faith healer who promises to reveal the truth to Ann, a 30-ish girl, about the secret of her dead mother, and why her mother altered her will so as to cut the daughter out. This is a play of paranoia created by language; is Charles (John Mahoney) actually a faith healer or a con-artist? Is he just exploiting the girl’s affections for her dead mother, or employing his exceptional powers of human observation to extort money from her? The shawl of the title refers to the shawl belonging to the girl’s dead mother, which the soothsayer advises the girl to wear so as to discover her mother’s intentions. As with many Mamet plays, The Shawl shows how words can be used to persuade, or create a series of dramatic illusions, similar to those created by the soothsayer. Words themselves become the means to transfix human beings. Charles seems to be the master of language, with an ability to mesmerize the unfortunate Anne (Rebecca Pidgeon) and so obtain finances both for himself and his co-conspirator Neil (Jack Piper). But this is no Tartuffian comedy of deception: Mamet suggests at the end that Anne knew all along what was happening – she realized Charles was a charlatan and decided not to act upon it. Maybe she was simply glad of the chance to imagine she had access to her dead mother, or perhaps she did commune with the woman in some way that the soothsayer could not understand. Perhaps his words exerted an hypnotic power, stimulating Anne’s unconscious. Whatever the explanation, it is clear that Mamet understands the power of language both to manipulate and to stimulate in ways that no one can understand.


This production, directed by Scott Zigler for Theatreworks Los Angeles, began with an introductory talk praising Mamet for creating dramas in which “all is not what it seems”. Both John Mahoney (as Charles) and Rebecca Pidgeon (as Anne) demonstrated that the play was about something more; the power of words to affect the unconscious as well as the conscious mind. This is what renders The Shawl mysterious.