To call David Mamet a “Chicago boy, bred and born” would not be entirely accurate, but he did live the formative years of his childhood and youth in the embrace of that giant Midwestern hub of the free enterprise system—the “hog butcher of America.” Mamet was reared by his mother, who was a teacher, and his father, who was a labor lawyer, in a Jewish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, and attended grade school and high school in the city. Following his parents’ divorce when he was eleven, Mamet lived with his mother and sister, his high school education then split between a suburban high school and Francis W. Parker School in Chicago.
Various odd jobs taught Mamet how the working world operated and exposed him to the rough and colorful language of the streets. Much has been made of his early experience at Second City (an improvisational comedy group) as a busboy, where he saw the improvisational artists and, more important, learned the language of the stage. As a backstage volunteer in neighborhood playhouses, he furthered his interest in the theatrical world. His father, Bernard, a Chicago lawyer, was an early influence in Mamet’s sensitivity to the musical rhythms of natural language
Although his father had a law degree in mind for Mamet, the young high school graduate preferred the broadening education of Goddard College in Vermont (where he received a B.A. in English in 1969), where the liberal arts were taught in an experimental atmosphere. He intentionally interrupted his graduate education to spend more than a year in New York City, taking acting classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse by day and working at night as house manager for an Off-Broadway musical, the long-running success The Fantasticks (1960). This coincidence, together with his earlier accidental discovery of Second City in Chicago, convinced him that the theater world had something to offer him, and although he was never successful as an actor, he continued in the theater from that time on.
Mamet’s stage writing had begun in college with a musical revue called Camel, but his first serious stage effort was Lakeboat (1970), written on demand for an acting class he was teaching at Marlboro College. When that teaching job was over, Mamet returned to Chicago for a series of nontheater jobs; once again, his sensitivity to the rhythms of business was to stay with him during his playwriting hours. Especially notable was his stint with a real estate development company selling Florida lots from Chicago, an experience that was to be dramatized in Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross (1983). College teaching still appealed to him, however, and he returned to Vermont, this time to his alma mater, Goddard College, where for three years he taught theater and served as artist-in-residence. During these years his writing became more clearly articulated, and he began to write scenes for his students to work with in acting classes.
As an offshoot of his combining actor training with playwriting, he formed the St. Nicholas Company, but he moved to Chicago in 1972, where this company, under the name St. Nicholas Players, was re-formed in 1974. Mamet began in earnest his grassroots research into the nature of human discourse, wandering the streets of the city, visiting his father’s law offices, trying out on paper the dialogues and ideas that flooded into his head. From that period came Duck Variations (1972), produced in Vermont in 1972, a nondramatic dialogue between two elderly gentlemen sitting on a park bench watching...
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Mamet’s plays might appear on the surface to be all rough language, superficial relationships, static or absent plots, and unpleasant characters, but they deserve a closer look. The language is often quite beautiful when heard with a sensitive ear to the sensitivity of the rhythms of ordinary speech. Relationships that appear to be superficial are, in fact, deep and complex. Actions of a very subtle kind drive the plays forward, embedded in speech and in unspoken bonding. Often, the violent climax of the play comes as an inevitable release of tensions built up through the whole play’s structure. Mamet can never be said to be loveable, but behind his facades and protections, he is an astute observer of the human parade and,...
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