David Mamet Drama Analysis
David Mamet is an ethicist. From his initial plays—Camel, Lakeboat—to those pivotal works that first brought him notoriety—Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo—and from Glengarry Glen Ross to Oleanna, Mamet explores a delicate moral balance between private self-interests and larger public issues that shape modern culture. Indeed, Mamet is at his best when critiquing the tensions between his heroes’ sense of public responsibility and their definition of private liberties. Throughout his theater, Mamet presents a dialectic that, on the one hand, recognizes the individual’s right to pursue vigorously entrepreneurial interests, but that, on the other, acknowledges that in an ideal world, such private interests should, but do not, exist in equipoise with a civic sense and moral duty. This underlying tension produces in Mamet’s protagonists divided loyalties. Such tension also gives his theater its particular unity of vision and ambivalent intensity. Mamet has often mentioned that his views of the social contract have been greatly influenced by Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), and such indebtedness in part accounts for Mamet’s preoccupation with business as a sacramental world. Veblen’s work, like Mamet’s, underscores human action and response in terms of “pecuniary emulation,” imperialist ownership, primitive sexual roles as first seen in ancient tribal communities, questions of honor, invidious comparisons, and the relationship between self-worth and wealth. Mamet is a theatrician of the ethical precisely because his characters, plots, and themes map out a predatory world in which only the fittest, and surely the greediest, might survive. Hence, Mamet’s plays all are concerned with charting the moral relationship between the public issues of the nation and the private anxieties of its citizens.
Mamet seems at his best when dramatizing the way in which public issues, usually in the form of business transactions, permeate the individual’s private sensibilities. “Business,” for Mamet, becomes an expansive concept, including not only one’s public, professional vocation but also one’s private, personal existence—the problematic “business” of living itself. Under the guise of healthy competition and the right to pursue a contemporary version of the myth of the American Dream, Mamet’s heroes too often conveniently twist such business savvy to suit their own selfish needs. Further, this examination of “business” suggests, for Mamet, that people live in a Macbethean world, where “fair is foul and foul is fair,” where sharp business practice too often leads to corruption, where deception and stealing are simply regarded as being competitive within the American business world.
Mamet believes in the powers of the imagination and art to liberate, to create a liberal humanism. This is exactly what John in A Life in the Theatre and Karen in Speed-the-Plow believe. Such an attitude, however, clearly does not make sense, Mamet also implies throughout his theater, because there is little or no place for such romantic impulses in a hurly-burly business world. What makes Mamet’s heroes so theatrically engaging to watch concerns an invisible inner drama, a subtextual crisis that haunts them: Underneath the character’s hard-boiled, enameled public bravado lies a figure plagued with self-doubt and insecurities. If Mamet’s heroes try to come to some higher consciousness, as do Don in American Buffalo, Aaronow in Glengarry Glen Ross, and Karen in Speed-the-Plow, such valiant impulses to come to awareness are not ultimately to be realized. Many of Mamet’s best characters—Bernie in Sexual Perversity in Chicago or Teach in American Buffalo—simply seem unwilling or unable to understand what Mamet believes are the regenerative powers implicit in self-awareness and self-responsibility. Some of his characters—most of the men in Lakeboat , for example—do not seem to understand...
(The entire section is 4,147 words.)