Study Guide

A Life in the Theatre

by David Mamet

A Life in the Theatre Summary

Introduction

A Life in the Theatre is one of American playwright David Mamet’s early successes. The two-character drama/comedy has hallmarks of Mamet’s later work: intense characters; taut, revealing dialogue; and a mentor/teacher relationship. Describing life in the footlights from an actor’s point of view, A Life in the Theatre focuses on the relationship between two thespians: Robert, an older, experienced performer; and John, a relative newcomer. Though Robert’s guidance is welcomed by John at first, as the play progresses Robert falters as an actor and mentor, and John emerges as a mature actor.

Mamet was inspired to write A Life in the Theatre by what he had observed backstage as well as by his own experiences in his short, unsuccessful career as an actor. A Life in the Theatre made its premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, in February 1977. A slightly different, expanded version of the play debuted in an off- Broadway production in New York City’s Theatre de Lys in October 1977.

A Life in the Theatre has been regularly performed around the world since these first productions, and though a few critics vehemently dismissed the play, it has received generally positive review. Many who praise the play share the opinion of Edith Oliver in the New Yorker. Writing about the original New York production, Oliver declared, ‘‘Mr. Mamet has written—in gentle ridicule; in jokes, broad and tiny; and in comedy, high and low—a love letter to the theatre. It is quite a feat, and he has pulled it off.’’

A Life in the Theatre Summary

Scene 1
A Life in the Theatre opens backstage after the end of an opening night performance. Two actors talk. They are Robert, an older actor, and John, a relative newcomer to the stage. Robert compliments John on his performance and asks about his plans after the show. John informs Robert that he is going out for dinner. He compliments Robert’s performance in one scene, but tells him he was ‘‘brittle’’ in another. When Robert questions him on the latter, John backpedals, faulting the actress in the scene. Robert pontificates on being an actor. Robert asks about another scene, and John flatters him. Robert takes the opportunity to expound on his feelings about the scene, implicitly praising himself. John later invites Robert to join him for dinner. As they leave, John notices that Robert still has some makeup on. John fetches a tissue and wipes it off.

Scene 2
In the wardrobe area backstage, John worries about being in Robert’s way. Robert soliloquizes a line, to which John is indifferent.

Scene 3
John and Robert are onstage in a play set in the trenches of World War I. John plays a character very upset over the killing of a fellow soldier by the enemy. Robert’s character tries to calm him down. John’s character decides to charge the enemy. He is shot after running offstage.

Scene 4
Backstage after a curtain call, Robert chides John for his swordplay in the Elizabethan piece they are in. Robert shows him how to do it right, and they practice a couple of times.

Scene 5
Robert pontificates to John on how actors, and others, work on their bodies but not their voices and accents. Offensive sounds are his pet peeve. He tells John about the importance of style and that they, as actors, must continue to grow. Robert admonishes John several times to keep his back straight. When John asks if his back is straight, Robert says no.

Scene 6
At the end of the day backstage, John is on the phone telling someone he cannot go out with him or her because he is obligated to go out with an actor, Robert. Robert appears, telling John that he must have a life outside of theater. John will not tell him who was on the phone.

Scene 7
The pair meet coming in for a morning rehearsal. Robert is more friendly than John.

Scene 8
At the backstage makeup table, John and Robert ready themselves for a performance. Robert believes the show will be special this night. Robert pesters John about a new brush he has. John is terse with him. Robert compliments John on how he takes care of his possessions, then asks him to do a little less during their scene together. John is offended by Robert’s implications.

Robert becomes frustrated when the zipper on his fly breaks. John insists on helping him pin it, but has problems completing the task.

Scene 9
John and Robert are in a scene onstage in a lawyer’s office. Robert plays the lawyer. John’s character, David, enters, informing Robert’s character that David’s wife is pregnant with the lawyer’s child. In the middle of the scene, Robert flubs a line, but corrects himself. The scene ends with Robert’s character wondering if he will be harmed by David.

Scene 10
Robert and John are in the wardrobe area....

(The entire section is 1383 words.)