Plato in Hollywood: David Mamet and the Power of Illusions

By Pearce, Howard | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1999 | Go to article overview

Plato in Hollywood: David Mamet and the Power of Illusions


Pearce, Howard, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


As Aristotle long ago observed, mimesis is a two-way street: as much as humans take pleasure in seeing representations of themselves, so much are they disposed to imitate what they see. As Plato's dialogues suggest, however, dramatic characters can take different forms, just as there are different ways of responding to art or to the dramatic experience: at one extreme there is the Socrates type who evaluates the performance by the standards of "thought, intelligence, memory...right opinion and true reasoning," while at the other there is the Philebus type who abandons himself to the "mixed pleasures" involved in encountering the characters and events of a play (Philebus 11b, 50e). Contemporary philosophers, of course, continue to believe in the learning experience involved in theater, and indeed Hans-Georg Gadamer devotes a section of Truth and Method to this topic. As he sees it, drama as Erlebnis ("experience") provides "something of an adventure" and operates by interrupting "the customary course of events....It ventures out into the uncertain" (69). As he further explains in The Relevance of the Beautiful, for this very reason theater provides "the alien shock that shakes our comfortable bourgeois self-confidence and puts at risk the reality in which we feel secure" (64).

For David Mamet as for Gadamer, the theater challenges our ideas of what is real, engaging us in a "marvelous adventure filled with ... risk and danger" (Some Freaks ix-x). Although Mamet is now most widely known as film writer and director (e.g. recent popular films like The Edge and The Spanish Prisoner), his stage career has also earned him recognition as a major playwright. American Buffalo in 1975 was the first of his critically acclaimed plays, followed by other successes such as A Life in the Theatre, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna. In addition, Mamet is known for his critical theorizing which has been dispersed in several volumes of essays, including Writing in Restaurants, The Cabin, and Make-Believe Town; and he has published fiction as well, notably The Village and The Old Religion. The diversity of his accomplishments, finally, also includes film directing, a role he performed in his House of Games. Both this film and the play Speed-the-Plow raise those questions about reality that are central to Mamet's drama, looking from one side and then the other at a woman's entry into a man's world. In House of Games the protagonist, the psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Ford, descends into the underworld to encounter Mike and his con men, whose base of operation is the bar and gambling house, the House of Games. From another perspective, in Speed-the-Plow the audience is engaged in the world of Hollywood entrepreneurs, Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox, who ritualize their treatment of a female interloper, the temporary secretary Karen.

Approaching these two characters, Karen and Maggie, as they encounter alien worlds and reveal themselves, needs to be illuminated by theoretical concerns--not only Plato's but also Mamet's and Gadamer's-about the existence and value of the aesthetic in a world of commerce and "serious" thought. As much as Plato sets up the antithesis of Socrates and Philebus, the philosopher and the aesthete, so much does Mamet undercut the distinction in a defense of the artist. Karen and Maggie must finally be seen in terms of this apologia. As I see it, since the occurrence of art in the world entails appearances--the illusions that Plato objects to in the artist as sleight-of-hand man - Mamet's habitual playing upon illusions must be recognized as a means of probing the reality of both his characters and their worlds. To present my case, after first looking at the two women in terms of theoretical issues I will follow first Maggie and then Karen in their encounters and their development. My moving in this way from the theoretical concerns toward a clearer and fuller view of these two characters is designed to show how they function as variations on the artist figure in themselves and in terms of their relationship to the audience. …

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