David Mamet

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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. (See also CLC, Vol. 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Edith Oliver

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David Mamet's funny, haunting "A Life in the Theatre" … is entirely a matter of conversations between two actors—a young one, John …, and an older one, Robert…. They meet when they are rehearsing together for a show, and over the course of the evening we follow the growth of their friendship…. [Collaterally, we follow their careers through] fingernail parodies of various hack scenes from every conceivable kind of hack play the two actors have appeared in…. Mr. Mamet has exposed the character of Robert—a sympathetic exposure, to be sure—and under all the pomposities and nonsense we see the nervous, touchy, tentative, and very lonely older man who must rely on the conventions and the lore of "the boards" to give him some inner dignity and confidence. (pp. 115-16)

Mr. Mamet has written—in gentle ridicule; in jokes, broad and tiny; and in comedy, high and low—a love letter to the theatre. It is quite a feat, and he has pulled it off. (p. 116)

Edith Oliver, "Actor Variations," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 37, October 31, 1977, pp. 115-16.∗

Harold Clurman

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I disliked [A Life in the Theatre]. But I soon realized that my annoyance was not induced by the fact that it was a trifle (talented artists are permitted their piffle) but by the gush with which it has been received by most of the press—celebrated as if it were the best of Mamet.

It is composed of glimpses of two actors, preparing back-stage for performances and, on stage, acting bits from plays they appear in at various times. The "life in the theatre" consists of the display of such gags as an actor "going up" on (forgetting) his lines or trying to hide the accident of a missing zipper. We also hear the older actor talking inspired nonsense (except when his momentary embarrassment makes him honestly profane), while the younger one is either duly respectful or justifiably exasperated by the arty homilies. (p. 504)

What we see is not a life in the theatre (not even a reasonable caricature of it) but a cliché that exists for the most part in the minds of those "out front" who know the theatre chiefly through anecdotal hearsay. "Ephemera, ephemera," the veteran actor murmurs wistfully. Ephemera indeed. Very little of this has anything to do with the pain, the pleasure, the glamour, the fun or follies of theatrical life. It is all an inside joke of which the real absurdity is the sophomoric response it has produced. But that is not Mamet's fault. I look forward eagerly to his future work…. (pp. 504-05)

Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'A Life in the Theatre'," in The Nation (copyright 1977 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 225, No. 16, November 12, 1977, pp. 504-06.∗

Edith Oliver

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David Mamet's disappointing comedy "The Water Engine" … is a sendup of radio drama in the thirties and at the same time an attempt to recapture the spirit and mood of the period…. Mr. Mamet has supplied any number of shrewd atmospheric touches to the broadcast: a sound-effects man works busily in a booth upstage left, the actors casually double and triple their roles, and there are commercial breaks and organ "stings." And the broadcast episode itself is carefully set in its time and place….

Yet Mr. Mamet's play is a synthetic that doesn't work. Its ponderous irony … and its foolishness...

(This entire section contains 183 words.)

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are poor substitutes for his usual original humor or his usual subtle tension. Or, indeed, for authenticity. These radio actors pantomime stage business and play to one another; real radio actors play only to the microphone, and they rarely raise their eyes from the script or change their expressions (I speak as a veteran of radio)—it is all done with voices. (p. 69)

Edith Oliver, "Watered Down," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 48, January 19, 1978, pp. 69-70.

Martin Duberman

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[A Life in the Theatre is Mamet's] least characteristic play. Ordinarily he works from an oblique angle of vision, in flat tones. Life is all surface flamboyance, sight gags and gimmickry, lush language and posturing—in short, closer to a Feydeau farce than to the Beckett-like minimalism to which Mamet more typically aspires…. At its best, Life is a mildly amusing diversion; at its more frequent worst, it is a tedious, offensively banal caricature of what daily life in the theater is actually like.

The sheer awkwardness of the play surprised me, since Mamet is the most technically proficient of the new writers. In The Water Engine he manages skillfully to juxtapose a 1930s radio play about an idealistic young inventor pursued by the evil forces of corporate greed with the inane chatter of a "Century of Progress" tour guide—and, in addition, intercuts ominous injunctions from a chain letter, which the actors take turns in reading out. Where the transitions in Life are amateurishly abrupt or nonexistent, in The Water Engine Mamet … interweaves his triangulated tale with such dexterity that we're absorbed into the intricate shifts of time, place, and mood. Initially, that is. Once we catch on to the alternations in rhythm, the play's fascination rapidly evaporates…. Eventually anger takes over instead—that so much is being put at the service of so little. Mamet has subtitled the play An American Fable. Well, yes—if you believe our culture (like our theater) is best seen as an allegory of emptiness.

Something more is going on in American Buffalo. Something to do with people…. Mamet is attracted to the lumpen underside of contemporary life…. [He] finds no lyrical profundities in it…. [He also] finds no resources for humor in it, grotesque or otherwise. He finds robots. And invents for them a suitable robot language. (pp. 86-7)

[His characters] also, now and then, languorously collide. We're never sure about what. And we soon cease to care. Perhaps Mamet had yet another fabulistic moral in mind. I refuse to guess at it. Two can play at his game.

It should be noted, however, that the game is a highly mannered one, full of falsity. If Mamet believes that by flattening his tone to a deadbeat monotony he has captured the authentic lowlife rhythm, he should be encouraged to spend more time on the streets. If, as seems more likely, he believes that by emptying language of content and flair he will automatically uncover deeper subtexts, he ought to reread—it is clear he has read them once—the true masters of unspoken resonance, Beckett and Pinter. Silence can be eloquent speech, banal words can transmute into subtle metaphor—but only when the surrounding context has been properly prepared. When it has not been, we have self-consciousness and boredom. In both, American Buffalo abounds. (p. 87)

Martin Duberman, "The Great Gray Way," in Harper's (copyright © 1978 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; excerpted from the May, 1978 issue by special permission), Vol. 256, No. 1536, May, 1978, pp. 79-80, 83-87.∗

John Simon

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David Mamet strikes me as one of the more curious figures in the American theater. Two works by the young playwright, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Duck Variations, I thought very promising. But everything else of his—and he has been sedulously turning out new stuff as well as ransacking old drawers—I found slightly or vastly disappointing. Now, The Woods hits the nadir. Two youthful lovers have set up housekeeping in the young man's family's summer house at the onset of a symbolic autumn; they are babes in the woods all right, but less lost than the playwright himself in the underbrush of literary trendiness….

Mamet's writing is so sketchy and aimless that one cannot be quite sure how [his two characters] were intended….

As usual, Mamet seems to mean his play to be about language—language that under its banalities or eccentricities conceals desperate urgencies. This is the sort of thing that almost every contemporary playwright has toyed with, and that Mamet often lumberingly toils over. Yet his words stubbornly refuse to reverberate or hint at disturbed depths, whether he flattens them out to echolalia or tries to heighten them into quasi-poetry, or even kicks them sideways into a weirdness that is supposed to tease us with its mystery. None of these strategies works…. (p. 75)

John Simon, "Permanents and Transients," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 20, May 14, 1979, pp. 75-6.

Harold Clurman

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In several of his plays, most notably in American Buffalo, Mamet has demonstrated genuine dramatic gifts. He possesses a tender sensibility and a keen sense of the stage. His plays shift in focus and in aim, as if they were meant not so much to interest or entertain us as to discover who he is: Mamet appears to be seeking his theme, his artistic identity. It is a quest which inspires sympathy. (p. 581)

[The Woods] is all literally "true to life"—which is exactly what troubles me. Innumerable love affairs everywhere may be similarly graphed, even to the point of the nervously inconsequential fragments of speech with which the lovers communicate. The play implies that, especially in the matter of love, we are all in the "woods." The phenomena of nature itself surround and wrap us in an impenetrable dark mystery, unresponsive to reasoned explanation.

This sentiment in itself may be banal, but that does not preclude its serving as material, even the essence, of sound drama. How many vital truths about life are there anyway? But the "realism" here dispels the larger dimension sought for. In language and behavior the characters are too concrete and superficially recognizable to take wing. We fail to learn anything beyond their immediate and unexceptional situation. They are not transfigured by any special insight, psychological or intuitive. The obvious symbolism—the maze of the lonely wooded landscape in which we find them—evokes nothing, and the realism is so commonplace that it makes the symbolism appear terribly "young." (p. 582)

Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'The Woods'," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 228, No. 19, May 19, 1979, pp. 581-82.

Colin Ludlow

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David Mamet's A Life in the Theatre offers a decidedly unglamorous view of the show business world. It emphasises not the ecstatic moments of applause, nor the passionate relationships of those caught up in that world, but the mundane routine of the acting profession. The play's title is surprisingly literal. It is a way of life that the drama seeks to evoke, and it concentrates exclusively upon the theatre, showing almost no concern for anything that takes place beyond the stage door.

The play is written as a series of extremely short, separate scenes linked only by the two characters, both actors, who appear in them all….

There is no storyline to join the different incidents and conversations together, but what the play lacks in plot it partly makes up for in atmosphere….

The image of theatre that the play projects is inevitably limited and distorted by the fact that it is written as a two-character drama. The final result, though a valuable corrective to the 'no business like show business' idea, is no more wholly satisfying or complete, and ironically the concentration upon stage mishaps tends ultimately to reinforce the mythological glamour of theatre, not destroy it. The impression of flawless perfection and feted achievement may be undermined, but it is only replaced with an impression of delightful gaiety and exhilarating unpredictability.

Nevertheless, the play still has a good deal to recommend it since in addition to its analysis of theatre, it also offers a touching study of youth and age. (p. 25)

The play is not an explosive piece of theatre, but after the mechanical explosions and statutory violence of other plays by some of the younger American dramatists …, its contained emotion and understated substance come as a welcome and refreshing change. (p. 27)

Colin Ludlow, "Reviews: 'A Life in the Theatre'" (© copyright Colin Ludlow 1979; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 26, No. 11, August, 1979, pp. 25, 27.

Robert Storey

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The making of Mamet's America is founded upon a verbal busyness, glib, deft, quick; the parenthetical asides that lace his dialogue (destined, undoubtedly, to become as celebrated as Pinter's pauses) suggest minds that abhor verbal vacuums, that operate, at all levels, on the energy of language itself…. Because so much of the activity of his characters is prescribed by their speech, it is often fruitless to analyze their "psychology": like the victors of Dos Passos' U.S.A., like Jay Gatsby, like the unenlightened of a Hemingway novel, they behave as their language directs them to behave, with unquestioning faith in its values. (pp. 2-3)

The similarities are striking … between Mamet and the early Pinter. Both are what we might call magic realists. Both are drawn to situations of uneasy, sometimes claustrophobic intimacy between two or three characters, among whom there is an unacknowledged sparring for power. In both, speech has an air of phonographic accuracy, with all its repetitions, ellipses, and illogicalities intact, acquiring both on the page and in performance an often comically surreal intensity. But the drama enacted by the characters of, say, The Caretaker, is enacted behind the refuge of speech: they venture out nakedly before each other at the cost, as they realize, of their safety and freedom. Mamet's characters, on the other hand, are their language; they exist insofar as—and to the extent that—their language allows them to exist. Their speech is not a smokescreen but a modus vivendi…. [For example, in The Duck Variations], language does not conceal but rather fabricates emotion, drawing upon the basest of materials. A "very simple" play in which two old men, George and Emil, sit and talk in the park, The Duck Variations dramatizes the comic aspiration of attitudes from the melting-pot of speech. Reader's Digest turgidity ("The Land that Time Forgot"), B-grade adventure-story cliché ("It's you and him. You and the duck on the marsh"), Wild Kingdom platitude ("The never-ending struggle between heredity and environment"), travel-brochure wit ("Nature's playground"), hobbled Biblical eloquence ("… to find a mate and cleave into her until death does him part")—all of this is mixed in with hazy yet reverentially "scientific" exposition, half-remembered newspaper reportage, stupefyingly inapropos catch-phrases, slangy obscenities, and sentimental pieties to concoct attitudes that founder magnificently in the froth of their own self-exclusions. (p. 3)

Much of the humor—and this is a wonderfully funny play—is [based on] the balance of power between the two characters shifting with their shifts in verbal perspective, each of those perspectives entertained with the solemnity of a naïvely incompetent rhetorician…. For the reader, and to an extent for the viewer, who can intuit the shape of each scene, there is also humor of a different sort. Those titles that announce the "variations" on the conversational theme suggest a Mamet in ironic complicity with his characters, an arranger of aesthetic effects unconcerned with the substance of his materials. Reminding us of the equivocal line between rhetoric and art, between (in Stanislavskian terms) sentiment skillfully rehearsed and truth known and felt, they are a device to keep us, and the playwright, honest.

This same mocking complicity emerges through the opening notes of Mamet's second play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago….

A play about the perversion of instincts among all its characters, Sexual Perversity records the progress of Dan's affair with Debbie Soloman, both Bernie and Debbie's roommate, Joan, working to keep them apart. A plot for a TV soap; but, like The Duck Variations, Sexual Perversity exploits its dramatic situation in few of the obvious ways. We may be tempted to attribute Bernie's "education" and manipulation of Dan, for example, to conventional psychological motives…. But it is not so much Bernie as it is his language that forbids all real intimacy with women. (p. 4)

[American Buffalo is] arguably Mamet's best play to date. Perhaps because he is working within a continuous two-act structure, perhaps also because he is not insisting self-consciously upon the comedy in his material …, he makes his characters here behave with a consistency and economy of function that the looser episodic form did not exact of his others.

The play explores loyalties and their corruption; it is also an analysis, à la Brecht, of Business. (p. 5)

Almost all of the humor of the play finds its source in a peculiarly American simplicity—in, for example, Teach's application, both conscientious and mindless, to the problem of distinguishing valuable coins from "junk" ("… fuck the [coin] book. What am I going to do, leaf through the book for hours on end? The important thing is to have the idea …"); or in his triumphant proof that the combination to the mark's safe will be effortlessly easy to find ("Look, Don: You want to remember something (you write it down). Where do you put it?" "In my wallet." "Exactly!"); or in his attempts to assure himself that Don is not "mad" at him after he has attacked Bobby and wrecked the shop. Such a mind invites language to fill its great shallows of ignorance with the rhythms of omniscience and authority: and so language is functioning here. It offers, moreover, neat categories of thought for the marks of this world and their girlfriends ("Fuckin' fruits") and prescribes its own bizarrely compelling lines of behavior in response to a casual insult ("The only way to teach these people is to kill them"). It asserts with the ethic it propagates that "You don't have friends this life," yet offers an elaborate system of bland courtesy to hide the viciousness it constantly encourages. Of two faces, it harks back to two American Enlightenments, one conferred by Reason, the other by the frontier….

[These] characters clearly have instincts that transcend both the values and imperatives of their language…. Only Teach, running out into the rain in a paper hat, a vain naïf, seems unable to enter their inarticulate world of emotion, to share the loyalty between Bobby and Don that is all but unmediated by speech. But even he is not impervious to the demands of such a world, as his irrational devotion to the little society of the play suggests. It may be only that his instincts have been buried deeper, have been more radically betrayed, than those of Bobby or Don. In any case, the instincts are there; and in several of the characters in Mamet's later plays, they will surface with greater frequency and insistence….

[The Water Engine, Mr. Happiness, and A Life in the Theatre are all] concerned with the ways by which life is given shape by public media—the radio, the stage—they transpose Mamet's preoccupations with language into a higher, symbolic key. (p. 7)

[It] would be wrong to call The Water Engine merely an exercise in parody. Mamet is not only exposing the inadequacies and evasions of his form: he is suggesting why it found—and still finds—its hold. The representatives of the business interests in the play act and talk as Business acts and talks ("Quite simply, Mr. Lang, my people want the engine. Will you entertain an offer for the right to patent the machine?"). The Forces for Evil are, in short, real. Real, too, is the source of their strength: a rhetoric that shamelessly legitimizes chicanery. Such legitimization breeds, as in American Buffalo, corruption at the heart of things, both verbal and political; it spawns a system in which business is mere thievery methodized…. The corruption meets genuine ideological resistance in the play neither from Bernie nor from Lang—their technological-utopian idealism is itself the bad fruit of rhetoric—but from the reporter Dave Murray, contemptuous of the official pieties he deploys in filling up his daily column. Of course, as resistance, contempt is feeble. And we leave the play less impressed with the attitude than with the pervasiveness of the opposition.

Such a frame of mind prepares us for … Mr. Happiness. For here the opposition is unrelieved. The curtain rises on a serene and sincere "Mr. Happiness," beaming over his microphone and dispensing advice to the helpless and abject. Their problems are hopelessly terrible…. The solutions supplied with comic assurance and efficiency are platitudinous in the extreme. But notwithstanding their triteness and predictability, they seem, somehow, disquietingly apt. For within the cliché-ridden world of Mr. Happiness' listeners, where people are "no stranger[s] to the ways of Love" and declare with conviction that they "can't live a lie," the truth in all its intractable ambiguity really has little place. What those listeners want, and are given, are certainty, guiltlessness, grace: and these the truth can never provide. The mean power of the play resides in its ability to evoke the unnerving self-sufficiency of this world, circumscribed and sustained by the stable values of homily. (pp. 8-9)

Robert Storey, "The Making of David Mamet," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1979 by Hollins College), Vol. XVI, No. 4, October, 1979, pp. 1-11.

Edith Oliver

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["Reunion"] is about the reunion, after twenty-one years, of a father and his daughter in his apartment in Boston…. Needless to say (for this is Mamet), the humor—and there is plenty of it—is as true as the emotion. By the time the play is over, two lives have been laid bare before us…. Time after time, the conversation plunges into depths, and time after time the father brings it back to the surface, realizing, after another reminiscent anecdote that comes to nothing, that all they have is the present and that they must go on from there. The ending is moving and right for this most moving play…. Mr. Mamet's ear for the small rhythms and patterns of the speech of working people and his sense of the subtle inflections of emotion in his characters is unerring. In its spare language and in the pressure of silence between the words, "Reunion," like "Duck Variations," is a poem for two voices—and a distinguished and remarkable one….

["The Sanctity of Marriage"] eluded me, and it was not a matter of its not quite working, either; with Mamet, it's all or nothing. In "Dark Pony"—just as brief, and a charmer—a father …, [driving his little girl] home in the middle of the night, tells her a familiar, scary, comforting story about an Indian brave and his pony, which is ultimately so reassuring that she has almost drowsed off by the time they turn in to their own road. Mood is all, and mood is maintained.

Edith Oliver, "The Theatre: 'Reunion'," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 39, October 29, 1979, p. 81.

John Simon

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[Reunion] consists of two wretched curtain raisers of about 10 minutes apiece, which finally raise the (figurative) curtain on a 45-minute play that, though appreciably better, is still nothing on which a curtain especially needs to rise. In The Sanctity of Marriage, a few feeble comments on the evanescence of conjugal love are implied; it is all rather as if a couple of pages from a mediocre but full-length play were ripped out and served up as an autonomous and astonishing whole. The only astonishing thing here is the impudence.

Dark Pony is a children's play…. The eponymous pony turns out otherwise than expected. That might be enough for a postprandial joke, but it is lean fare for a play, particularly given the flavorless language.

Finally, Reunion concerns an unhappily married daughter's seeking out her feckless and lonely father…. They have little to give beyond frequently disconcerting platitudes, but keep staggering toward a relationship. This could be touching—if only Mamet had more insight into heads and hearts instead of merely gluing his ears in arrested development to people's mouths.

Mamet, moreover, instead of building on [his] aptitude [for capturing speech patterns accurately], has pared away at it. He began by at least placing his characters in somewhat unusual or piquant situations before all that leveling literalness set in; now he surrounds them with an ordinariness they drown in among cries for help that are no more pungent, idiosyncratic, or perceptive than "Help!" (pp. 87-8)

John Simon, "Queasy Quartet," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 43, November 5, 1979, pp. 87-9.∗

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