David Mamet Essay - Critical Essays

David Mamet American Literature Analysis

In Mamet’s dialogue, the American language of informal discourse becomes a tool for combat and defense, a song of near meanings, and a sanctuary in slang for the dangerous exposure to true feeling. He has perhaps caught the rhythms of the spoken language as no one has since William Shakespeare, and his characters are true to their speech. He is often compared to Eugene O’Neill, and some critics believe that he surpasses that great American playwright in his ability to make believable the speech patterns of common street life. Several observers of Mamet’s canon have used a musical analogy, calling his dialogue “Chicago jazz” or “a fugue” otherwise underlining the sense of rhythm that his speeches seem to evoke.

Some critics, while noting the strength of the dialogue, interpret the talking scenes as static or undramatic. While it is true that “action” in its basic sense is often missing or concentrated at the end of the plays, the “action” inside the dialogue is complex and multilayered. All speech is, in fact, “speech-act,” the establishing of relational strategies by means of speech. The dialogue in a Mamet play, then, is a series of defenses, justifications, explanations, probing into opinions, and establishing common ground; and underneath all the talk is action as dramatic as any more obvious or physical action. Mamet’s characters admit, deny, offer, accept, deceive, sell, plead, reveal, and conceal in their language. Many times, as critics have noted, the dialogue conceals the emotional content of the scene, as though (in Voltaire’s words) “words conceal meaning.” In this respect, Mamet, more than any other contemporary playwright, finds his true genre in stage writing in which the action is carried almost exclusively in the character dialogue.

Mamet’s views of personal relationships, a theme important to his work, are easily revealed in the content and the mise-en-scène of his plays: Love is treated not as a gentle or honest relationship but as a hard-fought conclusion. Usually love is seen as it collapses, as a relationship breaks apart. In Sexual Perversity in Chicago, for example, the getting together of Dan and Deborah takes place briefly and almost offstage; their break-up, however, is open and on the stage. Even the scene in which Deborah moves in with Dan is not placed in a neutral or happy setting but in her former apartment, with her former roommate Joan angrily concealing her own bitterness and unhappiness with a series of smart-aleck rejoinders. In every play, love is shown in off-handed, negatively connoted scenes.

Where Mamet stands in terms of business and enterprise is not so easily revealed in a single examination of one play or scene. While it is certainly true that the shoddy, “grifter” side of business takes center stage, the question remains whether Mamet applauds that attitude or finds fault with it. In one sense, the dynamics of a business transaction are like drama, but in another sense, the phoniness and false intentions of business dealings are antithetical to true communication. Mamet has chosen to dramatize the inability or reluctance of the characters to enter into an honest negotiation and at the same time their willingness to join in friendships and bonds that transcend simple business dealings.

In the play Glengarry Glen Ross, Roma’s best scene is a brutally honest rephrasing of the principles of existentialism, and for a moment the audience thinks that this is Mamet himself speaking. When Roma turns salesman, however, the audience realizes that his apparent frankness was only the warm-up to the duplicitous business of selling Florida property to an unwilling restaurant owner. The Water Engine dramatizes the inventor’s dilemma of finding financial security without selling out to the free enterprise system; both this idea and the theme of Speed-the-Plow are reminiscent of some themes of playwright Sam Shepard in this respect, showing the artist at odds with the world of enterprise.

More viscerally important than either love or business is Mamet’s prevailing theme of language as defense, as shield against encroachment by honest emotion. In American Buffalo, the affection between Donny and Bobby is never spoken of outright, but it is there in Donny’s long-suffering patience, in his attempt to include Bobby in the scheme (against Teach’s wishes), and his defense of Bobby when Teach hurts him in the final scene. Teach is all alone in the world, with no friends; even Ruthie, an offstage presence, hurts his feelings when he asks for a piece of her toast. Bobby and Donny, however, have developed an awkward, unspoken father/son relationship in the dingy setting of the junk store. Bobby’s devotion to Donny (as witnessed by his attempts to buy the coin) is an example of how simple, less articulate people show their affection. Donny, on the other hand, a bridge between the world of business and deceit and the world of human interaction, has none of the verbal brittleness of Teach. Teach is all words; he is adept at using talking as a shield, a defense, and an aggressive agent.

While the harsh language of virtually all the characters suggests that Mamet is always coarse in his treatment of relationships, it is a mistake to see Mamet’s plays as devoid of warmth. The play A Life in the Theatre is touching in many instances, and at base is a pas-de-deux of two like souls. Told poignantly and sensitively, it is a graceful work. While not entirely devoid of the rough language of Mamet’s other plays, the dialogue moves through a more sophisticated vocabulary, because the characters are educated actors in the midst of the world of theater rather than people in a working-class environment.

The Woods is a love story as well, despite the harshness of its conclusion. Sexual Perversity in Chicago, on the surface about the coming together and breaking apart of the couples, is also a story of male bonding, however crude and insensitive Bernie is to Dan’s problems. It is a play about the inability to love, and as such shows the influence of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and other absurdists, showing characters caught in the dilemma of a need for love and a world that sees love as a weakness. In the big city life that pervades Mamet’s work, love has no permanent place. In fact, business is not so much a subject as a metaphor for all human relationships: intimate contact for personal gain, duplicity and deceit for protection. The love stories are always concerned with implied and stated contracts, with the unspoken rules with an ineffable morality that transcends the gutter talk of the dialogue itself.

Storytelling is an art both for Mamet’s characters and for Mamet himself. In every play, at least one long monologue is devoted to telling a story of the past, both as protective device and as a form of bravado on the part of the speaker, to hide or to reveal his inner self. It is as though the speaker tells his story to avoid revealing himself, yet reveals himself at the same time accidentally. Whether that can be said of Mamet himself is open to question. An open, talkative, witty, and accessible personality, Mamet often appears with a large cigar, a “prop” behind which he successfully hides his personal life.

American Buffalo

First produced: 1975 (first published, 1976)

Type of work: Play

Three petty thieves try to steal back a possibly valuable buffalo nickel from the man who purchased it.

The scene is a sleazy junk store, run by Donny, in a run-down urban setting. Donny runs the shop in a low key, using Bobby to run errands for him. The world of the shop is cluttered and arbitrary, an organic construction rather than a carefully designed one. The financial stakes are low here; an occasional sale to a passerby is enough to sustain the two men in their unambitious lives.

Into this mix comes Teach—angry, “wired,” full of venomous energy—with a plan, a scheme, a project of the will (to use Henrik Ibsen’s term). It is not enough for Teach to plan and carry out the crime; his innate secretiveness, paranoia, and distrust must extend to his partners, Donny and an offstage figure (Fletch) who eventually deserts the project. Teach brings an anger with him that has become emblematic of the kind of vicious energy that drives Mamet’s plays forward. One sees the same kind of energy in Bernie (Sexual Perversity in Chicago) and in Roma (Glengarry Glen Ross), although Roma is closer to a hero than other destructive Mamet characters.

Driving the minor-key greed of the two more passive characters (Bobby is slightly simple, helpful, and, in a scheme of his own, determined to please Donny) is the possibility of stealing back a coin Donny sold to a customer some time previously. Apparently the coin, a buffalo-head nickel, has some value, because the customer paid fifty dollars for it. Rather than taking delight in Donny’s windfall, Teach sees the customer as a cheat who probably knows the coin was worth even more. Thus, as a kind of angry revenge, they can steal the coin back with a clear conscience—the customer has somehow turned into the villain, and the trio become, in their own minds, the Robin Hood-like righters of wrongs.

What goes wrong with the burglary is distrust and lack of sophistication. First, the victim is not away from the house; the thieves have been misinformed by Bobby, because he left his observation post. Also, their silent partner has not shown up, and they suspect that he has preceded them in the theft and betrayed them. In fact, he is in the hospital, but they do not believe the story. At the end of the play, Donny shows that he is not another Teach but a friend of a more compassionate order.

The play is not exactly an indictment of all business. The question of trust, of partnership, is examined, and the conclusion is double-sided. The agreements between Donny and Teach are suspect because they are based on distrust; however, the relationship between Donny and Bobby is more genuine. In the opening scene, when Bobby is sent to get food for Donny, there is a sense that the way business works best is by trust—Donny tells Bobby to buy some food for himself as well and does not quibble about the money.

When Teach enters, his first lament is about an incident that occurred in the same restaurant—an argument over half a piece of toast. While the scenes are immediate and dynamic, on reflection they represent two ways of “doing business” (which for Mamet means joining in any relationship). Either the business arrangement is the only connection between partners, in which case duplicity and trickery are parts of the agreement, or else the business arrangement is part of a larger relationship, one of affection and mutual trust, in which case the...

(The entire section is 4470 words.)