Academic journal article American Drama

Remediation in David Mamet's the Water Engine

Academic journal article American Drama

Remediation in David Mamet's the Water Engine

Article excerpt

The work of David Mamet is marked by many "remediations" of sorts--from his early drama's refashionings of Beckett and Pinter (Price, 1993) or the conversion into film scenarios of his own plays (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna), to his screen adaptations of other writers* novels (James M.Caan's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Thomas Harris's Hannibal), from the often remarked-upon lyricism of his realistic speech (Goldensohn) and the presence in his drama of specifically narrative forms like interior monologues (Maufort) to his incorporation of cinematic techniques into the theatre (Blattes; Callens). The latter case, of older media recycling newer ones (also illustrated in Mamet's hypertextual novel, Wilson), is an interesting one for demonstrating that remediation disregards chronology. As if eager to preserve their cultural status (or their practitioners' livelihood), the older media will indeed appropriate the newer, whether it is television adapting the split screen technique and windows of computers, or print publications emulating webpages and hypertext (which is what the footnotes somehow do in Wilson). According to the same principle, Mamet, when discussing the genesis of The Water Engine, the work I here want to focus on, acknowledged having "learned a lot about playwriting," a two thousand-year old art form, by "writing for radio," a much younger technology (1986: 13).

In the following comments I consider the medium-specific implications of some of the forms which The Water Engine has assumed. Originating as a story and movie treatment, this work was reconceived as a radio play for National Public Radio's Earplay (1978), but it was first produced on stage by the St.Nicholas Theater Company, Chicago (1977), as directed by Steven Schachter. It was subsequently adapted to the screen by Mamet for Turner Network Television (1992). Far from being neutral operations, each of these media transpositions has had a profound impact on the work, including the media featured within it (postal service, telephone, train, car, plane), thereby extending the material's ostensible concerns and format (a melodramatic thriller set during the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition) to a complex critique of performative and social production. Given the devious production history of The Water Engine, it is likely that each of its subsequent versions (wittingly or unwittingly) retains traces of its earlier incarnations. Similarly, the remediated forms which Mamet's material has assumed offer analogues to the remediations discussed within the story, i.e. the historically developing forms of transportation and means of communications. It is as if the material itself insisted upon these diverse remediations the more fully to establish its underlying points. For one, The Water Engine, in whichever of its generic guises, is no dead art "object" but a medium similar to radio and television or cars and planes, or the roads and corridors travelled. And as the demarcation lines between genres get blurred in the postmodern world, these genres also fuse with the media in a constant process of remediation, one in which chronology and sequentiality give way to a recombinatory logic.

The definition of remediation I here rely on is that provided by David Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin (1999), in which not just the contents of a work (characters, plot) are repurposed, but the earlier medium, too, is represented in the remedial process, apart from its coming to terms with the media's social functions. To the extent that Bolter and Grusin build on Marshall McLuhan's ideas (1964), they also distance themselves from any overly deterministic or utopian interpretations, subsumed by the reformist potential of remediation and implied by The Water Engine's underlying environmental concern. Charles Lang's invention would seem to allow for an environmental restoration, embodied by the country dream he and his sister Rita share, as if his water engine could literally empower their escape from their industrial, urban prison. …

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