Mamet Vs-Mamet: He's Playwright, Director, Theorist - and His Own Worst Enemy

By London, Todd | American Theatre, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview

Mamet Vs-Mamet: He's Playwright, Director, Theorist - and His Own Worst Enemy


London, Todd, American Theatre


HE'S PLAYWRIGHT, DIRECTOR, THEORIST - AND HIS OWN WORST ENEMY

"All that nonsense [Brecht] wrote about his writing I think is balderdash, a direct contradiction of the writing itself...All of the comics like me always want to be tragedians."

- David Mamet, quoted in In Their Own Word

David Mamet possesses something rare and dangerous for a playwright: a voice. Shaw was proof of the dangers; he had a voice, and critics complained (still do) that, as a result, his characters had none of their own. They sounded like "rows of Shaws." Other influential playwrights have taken the opposite path: working for the kind of voicelessness the poet Keats described in Shakespeare as "negative capability." "A Poet," he wrote, "is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity - he is continually infor[ming] and filling some other Body." But Mamet has a voice so distinctive that almost anyone who has seen a single play of his can parody it or, at least, get the joke, whether it's the New Yorker cartoon that depicts the monosyllabic conversation on "Late Night With David Mamet" or the one about the Times Square beggar, who chastized by a Bard-spouting passerby to be "neither a borrower nor a lender," quotes Mamet back at him, in just two words, second word "you."

At his best, Mamet sets up, via this voice, a crammed-full linguistic world, sealed off from everything but the jagged rhythms of its own fricative riffs. Within this world, Mamet's characters appear neither as puppets nor quite like individuals, but more as creatures feeding at the same language pool. At his worst, Mamet does Mamet, slipping into the kind of self-parody usually reserved for much more limited artists, spent and past their prime. When this occurs, in Speed-the-Plow, for instance, it becomes tempting to think of his famous voice as a pose and Mamet himself as a poseur. It's only too easy, then, to see the unexamined misogyny of his characters and their inflated macho cock-surity in the poker-playing, cigar-sucking, con-loving, Chicago-boy-turned-Vermont-woodsman of the Mamet legend. If he's posing, then maybe this playwright of voice is merely a technician, a wannabe Hemingway endowed with a good ear and a flair for simulating power play on stage.

The better Mamet, on the other hand, can be said to have ushered our theatre's naturalistic, post-WW-II critique of capitalism into the age of Pinter. His rigor and clarity of creation also marked an end of an era of experimental (sometimes sloppy, sometimes exciting) playwriting in America and reinvigorated American stage dialogue with a fresh new idiom. Even his characters seemed new. Whereas many playwrights of the '60s and early '70s experimented with fluid characters who transformed before our eyes, Mamet's creations have always been essentially fixed beings, defined by their actions, limited by their native tongue.

Mamet's recent efforts - Oleanna, The Cryptogram and his adaptation/staging of J. B. Priestley's Dangerous Corners - show his play-writing talents reconfirming themselves, not exactly stretching, but honing, doing more with less. Unfortunately, Mamet the playwright seems lately to be in the grip of Mamet the director and Mamet the theorist, whose reductive thinking has the opposite effect: that of making less out of more, until it appears that he has turned against himself. The plays are getting the worst of it.

Mamet the playwright knows things that Mamet the director doesn't. Specifically, he understands what may well be one true fact about the theatre: All meaningful plays are mystery plays. Whether it's a mystery of event, existence or self, whether the fiddle has us looking to gods, fortune, natural selection or human psychology for answers, theatre works when it points to something just out of grasp, some ineffable something that, however everyday our actions, guides or makes sense of us. The stage can never do more than allude to this something. …

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