Critical Context

One can readily see the influence of Anton Chekhov, specifically of Chayka (pr. 1896; The Seagull, 1909), on Mamet’s early work, The Woods. Both plays include natural imagery as symbols for the process of decay. The storytelling motif is used by Mamet much as Chekhov uses the play-within-the-play, which the characters see as a fictive quasi reality. Nick becomes the bear who cannot speak, much as Nina becomes the tossed-aside seagull.

One can also trace the development of Mamet’s storytelling device in The Woods from that of his short, one-scene Dark Pony (pr. 1977), in which a tender father tells a favorite story to lull his daughter to sleep. Dark Pony was published as a companion piece to the more dramatic (and more hopeful) Reunion (pr. 1976), in which a different father tells a story to try to explain himself to his daughter. In Reunion, as in The Woods, the characters seem able and willing to set aside their differences, if only for the moment, out of their need and loneliness. In addition, Bernie gives Carol a bracelet as a token of his love in Reunion, much as Ruth gives one to Nick. The Woods, therefore, can be seen as a beneficiary of earlier plays and as a springboard for the development of later ones, specifically Speed-the-Plow (pr., pb. 1988), which has as a subplot the same major theme, how to “know oneself,” and is also structured with a neoclassical unity of time, space, and action. Ruth recognizes that people are afraid to be alone and afraid to die. Her love is giving, curative, and maternal; yet she needs to feel loved to be secure. Nick needs her to smother his aloneness. He does not love her; nevertheless, they “go on,” with Ruth lulling Nick’s fears by telling him a story.