“Theatre”: Farber and Farber, Inc., NY, NY, 2010, 155 pages
David Mamet has unequivocally earned his entrance into the pantheon of great American dramatists. In addition to authoring such cut-to-the-bone plays as “Glenngarry Glen Ross,” “Oleanna”, “American Buffalo,” and, most recently “Race,” Mamet has also penned various acclaimed screenplays, including “The Verdict” and “The Untouchables.”
Along with Edward Albee, Mamet stands as a pillar in our “national” theater. Both Mamet and Albee are heirs to the legacy of stagecraft and storytelling handed down by the 20thcentury giants of American dramatic arts—names that are immediately associated with titles and archetypal dilemmas: O’Neill = “Long Day’s Journey into Night”; Williams = “A Streetcar Named Desire”; Miller = “Death of a Salesman.”
Liker Arthur Miller, Davis Mamet is an intellectual and prolific cross-genre writer. Similar to Tennessee Williams—that master of the melodic feminine monologue—Mamet is known for his unique voice and trademark rhythms; those with an open mind and an ear for language recognize and appreciate Mamet’s ability to create poetry out of profanity. And, in a fashion vaguely reminiscent of O’Neill, Mamet’s theatrical vision is of a rough and tumble man’s world, which often stages mano-a-mano showdowns as well as uber-macho jeers and cheers.
It should, therefore, be unsurprising that Mamet holds lean, mean, and muscular ideas regarding the craft of theater. In his latest book, “Theatre,” Mamet, indeed, demonstrates his firmness on the subject of theater arts. In 155 pages and 26 short chapters, with terse headings such as “Emotion”; “Repression”; “Impertinence”; and “Time,” Mamet boils theater— acting, directing, playwriting, and design—down to its component parts, and then to its very essence.
In a chapter called “The Fatal Spin,” for instance, Mamet draws a parallel between flying an airplane and putting on a play. In effect, Mamet argues, “The plane will fly itself.” Many a pilot, after parachuting from a downwardly spiraling aircraft, according to Mamet, “saw the… pilotless plane right itself.” Similarly, Mamet suggests “that the play and the actors can ‘fly themselves.’” In short, all that’s needed to make theater, says Mamet,” is a text (the playwright) and some actors.”
Referring to the actor’s craft in the chapter titled “Totalitarian Tendencies,” Mamet, in repudiation of the so-called Stanislavski Method of Acting, writes, “There is no inner life of the character.” Further, Mamet declares, “The character is only a few words of speech delineated on the page.” As if to prove his point, Mamet adds, “Rhett Butler never lived…but is the illusion of a character…formed by the conjunction of the text and the performance of Clark Gable…who merely showed up and said his lines.”
As blasphemous as Mamet’s theatrical ideology may seem to many theater aficionados—particularly those who direct and act—the brilliance and vitality of Mamet’s aesthetic perspective lie in the simplicity of his approach to play-making: put ebullient storytellers (writers) together with passionate players (actors). Let them work it out; then present it to a paying audience.
This is where Mamet’s artistic impulses meld with his newly found political conservatism. Mamet believes hardily in the forces of the free market. Government subsidized theater, university-supported stagings, and even season subscriptions are anathema to quality productions; because, all of these sorts of theatrical presentations undermine the thrill of and intentional investment in live productions.
Audiences behave politely but not enthusiastically to plays paid for all or in part by government. Season subscriptions Mamet claims make for “a dreadful audience, almost inevitably sullen.” Why? Because, says Mamet, it functions like “all you can eat buffets” and “they are for barging hunters.” Like an endless smorgasbord, “the only way one can make sure one has gotten their money’s worth is to make oneself sick.” While Mamet’s theater credentials are impeccable, his theory of dramaturgy seems, to anyone acquainted with the longstanding traditions of drama and theater, heretical and unimaginative.
Nevertheless, they proof is in the playing and Mamet—once a teacher of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama—has left a legacy of proof in the form of many successful play and movie scripts. His strong voice on the topic of theater cannot be ignored.