The Water Engine was first written to be performed on radio; the stage version was first produced in May, 1977, in Chicago. Generally, plays that evolve out of another form do not fare well on the stage; many times the differences between being seen and being read are in direct conflict. But Mamet is a playwright first and foremost, and he has adapted the various elements of The Water Engine with such skill and thought that no awkwardness is perceptible.
Long before modern man worried about the present energy shortage, he attempted to build “the better mousetrap.” This invention provides the basic inciting incident in The Water Engine. Charles Lang, inventor and “common” guy, has invented the dream most of us share: he has developed an engine that runs on water. One would think that such an invention in a modern technological society like America (even in 1934) would be a historical event. As the play opens, we find our protagonist on his way to a lawyer to get a patent. The trouble for Charles, his wife Rita, and his friends is just beginning.
Mamet’s approach to the story line would be no better than that of the average hack if it were not for his outstanding use of language and style. The entire play is done as a radio show. Actors move to and from microphones. Unlike the theater, the scene can change swiftly, and the reader or observer can be transported from one locale to another. Certainly it is an unorthodox theater structure, but it works well. The playwright is very skilled as he manipulates the readers from office to telephone to Bughouse Square in Chicago.
In an almost classical struggle,...
(The entire section is 684 words.)