David Mamet

The Cryptogram

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The Cryptogram Summary

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The Cryptogram is a play by David Mamet about John, a little boy who is confronted by his parent’s sudden and tumultuous divorce the day before a scheduled camping trip with his father. The play follows John and his mother, Donny, as well as Donny’s friend Del, as they discover the affair that ended John’s parents’ marriage, and as John witnesses the fallout from the disastrous event. Originally produced and staged in London in 1994, the play is set in 1959. Since the original production, it has been produced Off-Broadway and again on stage in London in 2006.

The play begins on the iconic, enormous stairway that makes up the majority of the set of The Cryptogram. John, a prepubescent boy, is up late anxiously waiting for the camping trip he has planned with his father the next day. While he is waiting at the foot of the stairs, he notices a note from his father to his mother. John opens the note and sees that his father has decided to end his marriage. John is devastated, but mostly because he assumes that means the camping trip is off.

The next day, John shows his mother the note. Donny is devastated and deeply confused by her husband’s sudden decision to leave the family. Donny calls a family friend Del, a gay confidante who as long been a part of her and her husband’s lives. Del reveals that he has known about John’s father’s affair for a long time. In fact, Del has often covered for John’s father, letting him use his shady hotel room for frequent trysts with his girlfriend.

Donny is, of course, heartbroken. Del cries too, promising that this is the only way he has ever betrayed Donny. That Donny is broken by the events of the last day is clear on her face. John is mostly forgotten in the background, alienated from the world of adults.

The play continues on, without a meeting between Donny and her husband, or any interaction between John and his absent father. The relatively short play ends a month later, as Donny and John prepare to move out of the family home, presumably because they can no longer pay for it.

John cannot sleep; he has been hearing voices that confuse and disorient him. For the last month, he has been fixated on a blanket in the attic, already packed for the camping trip, and then neglected. He insists on retrieving the blanket, as Donny mostly ignores his pleas because of her own grief.

Finally, Donny gives in to John’s insistent cries for the blanket. The blanket is packed in a box in the attic, so she gives John her father’s hunting knife, presumably to open the box. However, in this final, ominous scene, John climbs the huge stairs of his family home, holding the knife like a weapon in his hand. Del and Donny look on as John climbs toward the attic and the memory of his father; the assumption of what could happen is far more nefarious and horrifying than merely opening a box.

Ultimately, the play is about one child’s perception of grief, abandonment, and betrayal by a beloved father. John is unable to fathom how someone who claimed to love him could treat him so cruelly.

An American playwright, author, screenwriter, and director from Chicago, Illinois, David Mamet has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award nomination for his plays Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988). Mamet has also written a collection of poetry, four novels, short plays, and a collection of monologues, and has directed and written for film. He has also written for the Huffington Post and other news sources and has written a book on directing called On Directing Film. He is known for talking about the controversy between Israel and Palestine, and for widely polarizing depictions of gender politics in his plays and films. He is also known for his dialogue writing, which is often repetitive, interrupting, and insistent – characters talk over each other and speak with tension.