David Mamet Biography

David Mamet is perhaps the most influential playwright in contemporary theater. He writes a style of dialogue so unique that it has its own name: “Mamet speak.” His plays are also characterized by quick, often vulgar characters and masculine themes. Mamet's first taste of the theater was as a busboy at The Second City in Chicago. Mamet was a founding member of the Atlantic Theater Company and first gained success in 1976 with three plays: The Duck Variations, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and American Buffalo. In 1984, Mamet won the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet has also written screenplays, three novels, several nonfiction pieces, and children’s stories.

Facts and Trivia

  • Mamet’s themes of machismo and male dominance have often incited controversy and drawn criticism from feminists.
  • Mamet was nominated for an Academy Award in 1983 for his screenwriting work on The Verdict and again in 1998 for cowriting Wag the Dog.
  • Despite Mamet’s penchant for foul language in his plays, most interviewers describe him as self-controlled and serious without resorting to swearing.
  • Mamet was vocal about his dislike for the film Schindler’s List. He felt that it was exploitative.
  • Mamet currently blogs at The Huffington Post. 

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1475

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.

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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 and feeding ducks. Its form helped Mamet find a writing style that freed him from elaborate stage directions and the other paraphernalia of stage scripting, allowing him to concentrate on the spoken (and unspoken) rhythms of speech and pause, and at the same time giving actors the respect they deserved for finding the sense of the line without parenthetical assistance.

Similar in style is Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), again essentially a series of simple dialogues, in bars and on the beach, in which the two main characters reveal the complexity of their relationships without directly addressing them. In this play, more elaborate than Duck Variations, three of the four characters share the dialogue series from time to time. There is also a love relationship in this play, a theme Mamet would not examine again until The Woods (1977). Mamet combined these two plays as his first attempt at a New York success, at the Off-Off-Broadway showcase house St. Clements Theatre, in 1975. It moved to the Off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre in 1976, opening June 16, and Mamet enjoyed his first recognition from the difficult New York theater community.

Back in Chicago, Mamet’s play American Buffalo had been staged with great success in 1975 at Stage 2, an adjunct to the Goodman Theatre, a prestigious not-for-profit theater. The three-character play moved to Broadway in early 1977; in that same year Mamet married actress Lindsay Crouse. The play marks the beginning of an important new theme for Mamet (although Sexual Perversity in Chicago hinted at the possibilities): the examination of the world of business and enterprise. Here, three crooks plan a burglary, but the setting and plot are larger metaphors for the absence of moral principle in business. Far from a symbolic play, it is an ultrarealistic look at the lifestyles of its three colorful, if self-destructive, characters.

A period of intense playwriting and production activity followed. Of the plays of these few years, which included Dark Pony (1977), The Water Engine (1977), and Mr. Happiness (1978), perhaps the most completely realized was A Life in the Theatre (1977), a two-character drama about the waxing and waning of two theater actors’ careers; this story, too, is told in the short-scene, blackout style that had already worked so well for Mamet. The mise-en-scène of backstage theater life, with its combination of art and commodity, continued his study of the conflict of business and friendship (or, as some critics view the play, an exploration of love).

A steady stream of powerful plays began to emerge from Mamet’s imagination. Occasionally suffering from adverse critical opinion, they nevertheless contain potent characterizations and stunningly convincing dialogue. Lone Canoe (1979), a musical/historical study of Indian life versus advancing civilization, for example, was not successful but continued the daring verbal experimentation that has come to be associated with Mamet’s work. Edmond (1982) is a dark look at the descent of an average man, from his tame married life to a new if subterranean view of love in a prison.

In 1984, after a run in London, Glengarry Glen Ross came to Broadway, an event that announced the maturing of Mamet’s work. Here, he had found his voice and his subject and joined them in a powerful, unforgettable theater experience. That year it won for him the esteemed Pulitzer Prize, as well as the virtually unanimous praise of the New York critics. As well, Glengarry Glen Ross would, over two decades later, win the Tony award for the Best Revival of a Play in 2005. Speed-the-Plow (1988), another three-character play, examines the world of Hollywood film “product” development (a world to which Mamet had been introduced through his screenplay for the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice). The production of Speed-the-Plow dominated the press because of the presence of pop star Madonna, and much of the criticism and publicity centered on her rare stage appearance. Whether the play itself carries the full weight of Mamet’s talent is a matter of critical debate, but some of the dialogue illustrates Mamet at his best.

Mamet’s screenplays have been successful as well. Often working on rewriting classic films, such as We’re No Angels (1989), starring Robert De Niro and Sean Penn, and The Postman Always Rings Twice for director Bob Rafelson, Mamet has also written original screenplays, such as American Buffalo (a play of pawn shop enterprising that he wrote in 1975, which went to the screen in 1996) and House of Games (1987), in which his wife, Crouse, starred. Mamet has adapted other writers’ works for the screen, such as The Verdict (1982), directed by Sydney Lumet, from Barry Reed’s 1980 novel of the same name. He has had his stage plays adapted, such as About Last Night (1986), directed by Edward Zwick and starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, based on Mamet’s 1974 classic Sexual Perversity in Chicago. He has also directed numerous films, among them a 1994 version of his play Oleanna (1992), which had earned him a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding New Play.

Further screenplays have included such blockbusters as The Untouchables (1987), starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery; Hoffa (1992), directed by Danny DeVito and starring Jack Nicholson; The Edge (1997), starring Anthony Hopkins; and Wag the Dog (1997), a frighteningly realistic take on waging a war to deflect attention from a president’s sex scandal, staged by a Washington spin doctor and a Hollywood producer played by Dustin Hoffman and De Niro, respectively.

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