Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Woods is, like other Mamet works, a play in which the characters delve into their backgrounds to achieve a limited self-understanding. On one hand, this effect is accomplished through a simple, minimalistic two-character play that conforms to the classical demands of setting, time, and action. Its plot revolves around two characters who, in addition to being afraid to be alone with themselves, have great difficulty being with and communicating with each other. Their basic fears, which they try to hide, cause them to alienate each other as much out of a sense of self-preservation as from mistrust and misunderstanding.

On the other hand, the play has multiple meanings as deep as the hole that Nick’s father fell into and as elusive and slippery, perhaps, as the shimmering golden bracelet that falls out of reach. The play can be seen both as a classical retreat into the pastoral mode and as a metaphorical dramatization of a naturalistic fairy tale. When Ruth and Nick go to the cottage in the woods to get away from the civilization of the city, the natural environment forces them to come to terms with their more primitive instincts. (Nick tells the story of a savage bear that returned to bury itself under the cottage, which was placed upon the bear’s den.) Through the retelling of their forebears’ stories, they search for meaning that simultaneously shows them to themselves and entraps them therein.

The play’s ending is rich in the same multilevel ambiguity seen throughout. Although Ruth does not mean to stay, and probably should not stay, she does so, at least temporarily, at his request—validating her pessimistic foreknowledge about relationships in the 1970’s, “We pick the people that we know are bad for us. We do that all the time.”