Review

The Old Religion

by David Mamet



In 1915 Leo Frank, after being convicted of a crime he did not
commit, was kidnapped from his jail cell and lynched by a
bloodthirsty mob. Two years earlier, when Mary Phagen was raped and
murdered in the Atlanta, Georgia factory that Frank managed, he was
tried and sentenced to death despite the fact that there was no
evidence against him. Anti-Semitism raged and economic tensions
boiled over during the investigation and subsequent trial, and when
Frank's death penalty was commuted to a life sentence, some angry
citizens took matters into their own hands. This well-documented
case has had important ramifications in United States history and
inspired the formation of both the Ku Klux Klan and the
Anti-Defamation League. In THE OLD RELIGION, his fictional
retelling of the Leo Frank story, David Mamet explores the thoughts
and imaginings of Frank's last days.

Leo Frank is a young Jewish man, intellectual, hardworking and
involved in the Atlanta Jewish community, although rather
acculturated, when he is accused of the murder of 13-year-old Mary
Phagen. Although he is not the first suspect in the case, the
investigation soon focuses on him and he is brought to trail. From
his prison cell, Frank recalls the time leading up to his arrest
(he poignantly remembers conversations at the Passover table, a
time when Jews reflect on current and historical struggles for
equality and freedom). He questions whether his lifestyle brought
the hatred and wrath of the town upon him, or if, as a Jew, he was
doomed to this fate. As he remembers the trial (the tone more so
than the details) Frank's frustration grows. He immerses himself in
the study of Hebrew grammar and philosophical discussion with the
rabbi who comes to visit him weekly. The emotional violence and
turmoil Frank feels is finally matched by two acts of physical
violence against him.

Mamet's novel is short, powerful and deeply philosophical. Instead
of focusing on the details of this case, THE OLD RELIGION takes the
reader into the tormented mind of Leo Frank. Although innocent of
the murder of Mary Phagen, Frank questions his own spiritual
innocence as he examines his life and his Jewish religion and
identity. Reminiscent of Kafka's THE TRIAL, THE OLD RELIGION also
suggests that the belief that logic and justice will prevail is
naïve and potentially damaging. Also reminiscent of the
Dreyfus Affair in France, the Leo Frank case warns that racism,
anti-Semitism, and what Mamet calls "Americanism" in the justice
system, are part of American history as well.

This stream of consciousness narration is a bit of a departure for
Mamet. However, as one of America's most unique and powerful
writers, he has again proved his talent for capturing the dynamics
of American culture. For readers familiar with the Frank case, this
novel will add an interesting dimension to the story. For those
unfamiliar with Leo Frank, this novel is sure to spark an interest
in the actual events. All readers will be treated to Mamet's
forceful treatment of religion, American society and its justice
system, and the strength of the human mind and spirit.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011

The Old Religion
by David Mamet

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 194 pages
  • Publisher: Overlook TP
  • ISBN-10: 1585671908
  • ISBN-13: 9781585671908