Mamet, David (Vol. 9)
Mamet, David 1948–
Mamet is an American playwright. His plays reflect a wry sense of humor and their dramatic language, often obscene, reveals the loneliness and fear he finds in our culture.
If the style of "Sexual Perversity" derives from Beckett and Pinter, its content connects it with the satiric tradition of the Second City, Nichols and May, and early Feiffer…. In a series of beautifully spare and controlled—and funny—short scenes, Mr. Mamet addresses himself to a question that was also of interest to his satiric predecessors: what do young (and youngish) middle-class urban single Americans do about sex? Mr. Mamet's answer is that mostly they talk about it, because each sex is scared out of its mind by the other. In Chicago, he suggests, by far the most common sexual perversity is fear. And Chicago is clearly not alone in this respect. Mr. Mamet knows that all the mouthwash in the world will not take the worry out of being close….
Mr. Mamet doesn't know as much about how women are afraid of men, as he does about how men are afraid of women. Bernie is his triumph: a leisure-suited swinger … who regards all women with avid crudity as sexual material to be discussed, evaluated, fantasized about—from a safe distance. Mr. Mamet's stylistic virtuosity is not just a matter of snappy patterns; inside Bernie's rhetoric of lubricious appreciation, he shows us this man's terrible rage at female sexuality, that mysterious force that is so much more than he can deal with. Bernie's macho attitudinizing is a mask, made transparent for us by the playwright's art, for horrified repugnance.
The point about Bernie is not, I think, that he is a "latent homosexual" (whatever that means), but that—like Joan—he is scared, scared, scared. Bernie is not such a freak—his name is legion in every singles bar in the country—and elsewhere….
Some people have been offended by the misogyny and sexism in "Sexual Perversity," but it seems to me highly insensitive—or, in another sense, highly oversensitive—to take Bernie's fantastic crudities as the play's statement. On the contrary, this is a compassionate, rueful comedy about how difficult it is … for men to give themselves to women, and for women to give themselves to men. It suggests that the only thing we have to fear, sexually, is fear itself—our own, and other people's—but fear itself is plenty.
Julius Novick, "The Real Perversity Is Fear," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), August 16, 1976, p. 95.
Mamet is someone to watch. More specifically, Mamet is someone to listen to. He's that rare bird, an American playwright who's a language playwright. In the country of incessant obbligatos accompanying all activity—music in offices and elevators, tapes in cars, radios in restaurants—Mamet has heard the ultimate Muzak, the dissonant din of people yammering at one another and not connecting. He is a cosmic eavesdropper who's caught the American aphasia.
Not that he's the proverbial tape recorder, picking up speech like lint. Mamet is an abstract artist; his characters speak in a kind of verbal cubism, they address one another with the forked tongues of paranoia, insecurity, hostility, desperation. "American Buffalo" … has three lumpen-crooks … in a junk shop plotting to rip off a coin collection. They are brutes who need each other, but their words are like punches that almost casually build to real violence. "Sexual Perversity" is like a sleazy sonata of seduction involving two couples. These plays are relentlessly profane; Mamet is the first playwright to create a formal and moral shape out of the undeleted expletives of our foulmouthed time.
"A Life in the Theatre" is the most accessible and engaging of these plays. It deals with two actors, [Robert and John]…. [We] see these dim thespians playing snippets from hilariously bad plays, changing their costumes, putting on their makeup, until the banal plays and the banal life become interchangeable. In one play Robert is a revolutionary, waving a flag and shouting inanely: "The people cry for truth, the people cry for freedom from the vicious lies and slanders of the age …" During the next scene at the make-up table, Robert mulls over greasepaint: "What is it?… texture, smell, color … Meaningless component parts (though one could likely say the same for anything) … But mix and package it, affix a label …" John: "Would you please shut up?" This touching, pointedly ironic little play says a lot about the relationship between reality and theatre….
Mamet's ear is tuned to an American frequency, transmitting the calls for help, at once funny and frightening, which much of our speech barely disguises behind its bravado.
Jack Kroll, "The Muzak Man," in Newsweek (copyright 1977 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), February 28, 1977, p. 79.
I was in an especially optimistic frame of mind as I made my way, one evening last week, to the première … of David Mamet's new play, "American Buffalo." I had been delighted by Mr. Mamet's earlier work, "Sexual Perversity in Chicago."… Here, thought I, is a young man … fresh from the fabled Second City and bringing to us its authentic voice of coarsely uttered hope and satiric protest. I assumed that once Mr. Mamet had mastered the art of making his skits accumulate into a true play, we would be in for an exceptional treat….
Alas, "American Buffalo" is so far from being a treat that my disappointment may have led me to dislike it more than it deserves…. It is a curiously offensive piece of writing, less because of the language of which it is composed—every third word is either scatological or obscene: street language attempting in vain to perform the office of eloquence …—than because it is presumptuous. The playwright, having dared to ask for our attention, provides only the most meagre crumbs of nourishment for our minds. Three characters of low intelligence and alley-cat morals exchange tiresome small talk for a couple of hours, and the play stumbles to a halt in a monosyllabic colloquy intended to convey the message that life, rotten as it is, is all we have. Well, yes; no news there. And no news even on the level of information, for the characters onstage appear to know no more about their squalid means of survival—burglary, cheating at cards, and the like—than we in the audience have long since learned from reading the papers and watching TV. (p. 54)
Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1977 by the New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 28, 1977.
David Mamet is apparently listening to America's lower class. The news he brings back in his new play, American Buffalo …, is that Americans living on the dark underside of small business and petty crookery speak of macho frustrations almost entirely in four-letter words….
Mamet is imitating a hundred Bogart, Cagney, Robinson, and Brando movies, and he's not bad at the job. His dialogue has some of the vivacity missing from those movies. They were better at plot, however….
Mamet has seen too many lowbrow movies. With friends like [him] words don't need enemies. (p. 37)
Gordon Rogoff, in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), April 2, 1977.