David Mamet 1947-
(Full name David Alan Mamet) American playwright, screenwriter, director, essayist, novelist, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Mamet's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 9, 15, 34, 46, and 91.
Best known for his plays and screenplays, particularly for efforts such as American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), and the film The Untouchables (1987), Mamet's works typically address power struggles and issues of dominance involving characters who use language to protect themselves and to advance their personal agendas. In addition to his many award-winning plays, screenplays, and essays, Mamet has also written novels, children's books, television scripts, and poetry, and has developed a reputation as an accomplished stage and film director. His creations for the stage and screen are noted for their unique use of dialogue which appropriates the vernacular and mimics the jargon of specific occupations and social groups.
Mamet was born in Chicago and raised in a Jewish community on the city's south side. After his parents divorced, he lived with his mother in Olympia Fields, a Chicago suburb. He attended a private school and worked at the Hull House Theatre. At Goddard College in Vermont, Mamet studied literature and drama. He also studied acting in New York City, where he worked with noted dramatist Sanford Meisner. Meisner exposed Mamet to the ideas of Konstantin Stanislavsky, a Russian producer and dramatist, who remains a major influence on Mamet's work. Mamet taught for one year at Marlboro College in Vermont, where he wrote his first play, Lakeboat (1970), which his students eventually staged. After working at a variety of jobs, Mamet returned to Goddard as a drama instructor, where he wrote an early version of Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974). In 1972 Mamet returned to Chicago and formed the St. Nicholas Company with actor William H. Macy. During the 1970s, several of Mamet's plays—including Duck Variations (1972), Sexual Perversity, and American Buffalo—enjoyed successful and critically acclaimed productions in New York City. American Buffalo and Sexual Perversity each won an Obie award for distinguished playwriting. In 1977 Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse married, divorcing later in 1991. That same year Mamet married Scottish actress Rebecca Pidgeon. Mamet wrote his first screenplay in 1979, a film adaptation of the James Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Throughout the 1980s, Mamet wrote and directed numerous films and plays. He won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1984 for Glengarry Glen Ross, which was originally produced in London in 1983. Mamet has lectured and taught at several universities and colleges, including the University of Chicago, Yale University, New York University, and Columbia University. Mamet's work is often compared to that of English playwright Harold Pinter and Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. One of the few major American playwrights to also find success as a screenwriter, Mamet was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994.
Lakeboat revolves around an Ivy League college student, Dale, who spends his summer working on a freighter in the Great Lakes. Expecting a thrilling experience filled with adventures, Dale is initially disappointed at the mundanity of daily life on the ship. However, as Dale befriends the various crew members—who each wrestle with their own issues of identity, regret, and sorrow—he learns more about himself and the world than he expected. The one-act Sexual Perversity in Chicago focuses on two young characters, Danny and Debbie, who are both involved in same-sex relationships. The two meet and begin to forge a relationship of their own, but Danny's loud-mouthed misogynist friend Bernie, and Debbie's former partner Joan, manage to destroy the burgeoning relationship through emotional manipulation and meddling. The two-act play American Buffalo takes place in a secondhand junk store and revolves around three characters. The store's owner Donny and his employee Bobby conspire to rob one of the shop's customers with the unwelcomed assistance of one of Donny's friends, Teach. Teach immediately questions Bobby's competence, which increases Donny's suspicion of Teach. The struggle for dominance and the distrust that occurs between the characters, coupled with a key misunderstanding, eventually erupts into physical violence. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mamet's first effort as screenwriter, concerns a wayward drifter's romance with the wife of a café owner. His next screenplay—for the 1982 film The Verdict—was based on a Barry Reed novel and centers on a downtrodden, alcoholic lawyer who battles injustice within the judicial system to win a malpractice lawsuit for a woman who suffered brain damage during childbirth. Glengarry Glen Ross, one of Mamet's most acclaimed works, is a satirical portrayal of four Florida real estate agents in competition to become their company's top salesperson while they victimize their unsuspecting customers along the way. Although Mamet portrays the agents as unethical and amoral, he shows respect for their finesse and sympathizes with their overly competitive way of life. Mamet's trademark dialogue—including staccato, interrupted utterances and a wealth of profanity—effectively conveys hidden meanings and is a constant presence throughout the drama. For the 1987 film The Untouchables, Mamet borrowed from the popular radio and television series about famed U.S. Treasury agent Eliot Ness, to create a storyline that follows Ness's fight to uphold Prohibition law and his legal battles with gangster Al Capone. House of Games (1987), Mamet's debut as a film director, explores the character of Margaret Ford, a psychiatrist, who becomes involved and later obsessed with a group of poker-playing con men operating out of a bar called the House of Games. Things Change, a 1988 film that Mamet co-wrote with Shel Silverstein, portrays an elderly man named Gino who is charged with murder when he is mistaken for a powerful gangster. A satire of the Hollywood film industry, the play Speed-the-Plow (1988) centers on a Hollywood producer, Bobby Gould, and his secretary, Karen. Karen is having an affair with Bobby and persuades him to produce a film adaptation of a literary work instead of a big-budget, crowd-pleasing Hollywood movie.
Mamet's 1991 film Homicide features a Jewish detective named Bobby Gold who becomes involved in a drug arrest where friction develops between the city police force and federal authorities. During the course of the film, Bobby strives to accept his Jewish heritage, becoming part of an underground Jewish organization that uses terrorism to root out society's racist elements. Oleanna (1992) explores a female student's sexual harassment suit against her male professor and analyzes relationships of power and gender in the world of academia. The balance of power—both real and perceived—shifts from character to character, culminating in a shockingly violent physical act. Mamet's screenplay for Hoffa (1992) focuses on the life of teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa. The film provides an overview of Hoffa's career and offers an alternative explanation for Hoffa's unsolved disappearance in 1975. Set in the 1950s, the Obie award-winning The Cryptogram (1994) depicts a month in the lives of a precocious ten-year-old name John, his mother Donny, his father Robert, and a family friend named Del. The play opens with John unable to fall asleep, too excited about an impending camping trip with his father. It is soon revealed that Robert, who never appears onstage, has abandoned his wife and child, and that Del has assisted in his deceptions. Struggling with the emotional consequences of Robert's departure and the nature of their own friendship, Del and Donny are unable or unwilling to meet John's most basic needs. In the 1997 screenplay The Edge, Charles Morse, an accomplished billionaire, finds himself stranded in the Alaskan wilderness with Robert Green, a fashion photographer who may be having an affair with Charles's wife. Despite their suspicions about each other, the two men are forced to rely on each other when they are attacked by a large grizzly bear. Another 1997 work, Wag the Dog, is based on Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero, which follows a presidential adviser and a Hollywood producer who join forces to manufacture a cover-up for a presidential scandal. Mamet's script was noted for its timely exploration of the power of the media, particularly because the film was released just before several political scandals were exposed within the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton. Mamet returned to directing with The Spanish Prisoner (1997), a film that revolves around a man named Joe who develops a mysterious formula that promises to make his company millions. Fretful about gaining adequate compensation for the formula, Joe befriends a mysterious comrade, Jimmy, who takes advantage of Joe's gullibility. In 1999 Mamet wrote and directed The Winslow Boy, a pre-World War I period drama based on Terence Rattigan's 1946 play. The plot centers around a deceitful boy who is expelled from military school for stealing and his father's unrelenting attempts to clear the boy's name. In 2002 Mamet wrote and directed State and Main (2000), a satire about Hollywood, film crews, and movie industry insiders. The film focuses on a temperamental producer who attempts to make a film in a small town and is forced to cope with a variety of problems—his leading actor has a penchant for teenage girls, his leading actress objects to the nude scenes she earlier agreed to do, and his talented new screenwriter has difficulties adjusting to Hollywood's version of the creative process. Heist (2001) portrays Joe Moore, an aging master thief who is reluctantly drawn into one final, masterful robbery involving large amounts of gold bars. Mamet has also written several essay collections which address a variety of topics including Mamet's Jewish heritage, the future of film, and the Information Age. He has also published a number of nonfiction works in which he includes lectures on filmmaking techniques and his opinions about the Stanislavsky method of acting. In addition, Mamet has written several novels, children's books, and a collection of poetry.
Critical response to Mamet's unique use of dialogue, vernacular, and jargon has widely varied. Many critics, notably C. W. E. Bigsby and Anne Dean, have drawn attention to Mamet's use of language to create dramatic conflict and his skill at reproducing the speech patterns of various social groups. Other critics have strenuously objected to this technique, stating that such vernacular lends a stilted, unrealistic quality to his works. Some commentators have argued that Mamet's severely fragmented and interrupted dialogue is too formal and unnatural, becoming almost incomprehensible at times. However, supporters of Mamet's language devices have described his characters and their dialogue as eloquent and believable. A number of reviewers have additionally bemoaned Mamet's overabundance of characters who are con men, hustlers, criminals, and connivers operating in competitive and male-dominated environments. These critics have commented that Mamet's focus on complex games, aggressive and selfish characters, duplicitous relationships, and male camaraderie and machismo causes his work to rely too heavily on generalizations about gender and class. Feminist critics have argued that Mamet's male characters display blatant chauvinism and homophobia, and have lamented the strange absence of female characters in his works, citing these as evidence of his questionable perceptions about men and women. The critical reaction to Oleanna has epitomized this debate—with one faction of critics censuring Mamet for what they perceive to be a gross simplification of gender relations and harassment suits, while the other faction defends the play as an important and complex statement about the abuse of power in academic circles. In general, most critics have agreed that Mamet writes engaging and complex narratives, praising his ability to successfully write for a variety of genres. Many reviewers have asserted that Mamet is a worthy successor to such noted American playwrights as Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill.