David Mamet

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The subtitle A Life in the Theatre that Ira Nadel has selected for his biography of David Mamet, replicating the title of his subject’s 1977 play, signals that readers should not expect an expansive, full-blown narrative covering events from the dramatist’s birth to the present. Rather, Nadel focuses almost exclusively on Mamet’s prolific output as a writer, largely for stage and screen. One reason for this strategy may be, as Nadel notes, that Mamet tends to be circumspect, “maintaining a wall around himself,” preferring to be defined by what he does instead of who he is. Another may besurprisingly so for an academic scholarthat Nadel chose not to research the available archival material containing Mamet’s 175 journals from over a thirty-five-year period, relying instead on secondary sources. Nor is there evidence that he saw need to speak with Mamet directly, though he does quote from interviews by others with the dramatist. Eschewing any interest in psychologizing his subject or delving into his personal relationships, Nadel lays claim only to what is, for a contemporary biographer, the modest aim of “telling . . . ’WHAT HAPPENS NEXT,’” though admittedly this is Mamet’s chief intent as well. The result is a workmanlike rendition of mostly already-known facts, accompanied by extensive plot summaries.

What emerges is a portrait of a bifurcated individual: a Midwesterner born-and-bred in Chicago, yet at home in and lauded on the world’s stages; someone who is street-savvy and suspicious of appearing overly intellectual, yet touted as the theatrical heir of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter; a critic of capitalism and consumerism, yet a ready participant in the Hollywood system. The first several chapters, about a quarter of the book, chronicle Mamet’s birth in 1947 on Chicago’s South Side to Bernard and Lenore Mamet, a labor lawyer and a teacher, respectively, who were descendants of Polish Russian Jews; his early years going to films, taking piano lessons, and listening to stories told by his maternal grandfather; his stints on radio and television; his nonstellar record at a progressive school; and his voracious reading of works by Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser at the Chicago Public Library. After his parents’ fractious marriage ended in divorce, Bernard remarried three days later, fathering two more sons; Lenore, too, married again, to another Bernie, who turned out to be physically abusive to Mamet’s sister. The young Mamet was first introduced to theatergoing at Hull House and later at Second City. One of the side stories Nadel sketches is the rather remarkable position of Chicago as an incubator for writers and actors, second only to New York (and of Mamet’s part in that development), with its myriad of storefront and regional playhouses, including the Organic, the Ivanhoe, the Royal Court, the Goodman, and Steppenwolf.

Mamet’s attendance at Goddard Collegefocused on experiential learning that allowed him to write a play for his senior thesisbegan his love affair with the geography and hardworking craftsmen of Vermont. Eventually, he would buy a home, build a writing cabin in the woods in Cabot, and use it as the setting for a novel, The Village (1994), and a screenplay, State and Main (2000), as well as a collection of essays, The Cabin (1992), and a travelogue, South of the Northeast Kingdom (2002). While a student, Mamet learned about the theater of Bertolt Brecht, worked backstage Off-Broadway, and began to study actingwhich he would teach when he returned to Goddard as a faculty member in the early 1970’s after a period of depression and psychoanalysis, about which Nadel provides no illuminating details. It was at Goddard, too, that Mamet started to assemble a coterie of actors (beginning with William H. Macy, but later including such Mamet regulars as Mike Nussbaum, Joe Montegna, Felicity Huffman, and Ricky Jay) who would work with him at the St. Nicholas Theater in Chicago and at the Atlantic in New York.

Mamet’s return to his hometown and the launching of his playwriting career with Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974) began his long association with Gregory Mosher, artistic director of the Goodman Theater, with whom he collaborated on an adaptation of what he considered the greatest American...

(The entire section is 1772 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

American Theatre 25, no. 9 (November, 2008): 80-81.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 22 (November 15, 2007): 1192.

Library Journal 132, no. 20 (December 15, 2007): 120.

Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2008, p. E11.

The New York Times Book Review, February 24, 2008, p. 11.