David Mamet Mamet, David (Vol. 166) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lakeboat (play) 1970

Duck Variations (play) 1972

*Sexual Perversity in Chicago (play) 1974

American Buffalo (play) 1975

A Life in the Theater (play) 1977

The Water Engine (play) 1977

The Woods (play) 1977

A Life in the Theater (television screenplay) 1979

The Postman Always Rings Twice (screenplay) 1981

Edmond (play) 1982

The Verdict (screenplay) 1982

Glengarry Glen Ross (play) 1983

House of Games [director and...

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Leo Sauvage (review date 13 June 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sauvage, Leo. “Mamet's Unreal Hollywood.” New Leader 121, no. 10 (13 June 1988): 20-1.

[In the following review, Sauvage contends that Speed-the-Plow displays good acting and directorship, but is a stagnant commentary on the Hollywood film industry.]

The new David Mamet play that opened recently at the Royale Theater is called Speed-the-Plow, apparently after an old form of farewell once used among farmers. This seems apt, given the author's fondness for spreading stercoreaceous metaphors around like manure. Yet we are probably meant to understand the title as applying to the field of sex rather than agriculture.


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David Van Leer (review date 29 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Van Leer, David. “Speed-the-Brow.” New Republic 28, no. 1 (29 October 1990): 32-6.

[In the following review, Van Leer discusses many of Mamet's works that were produced from the mid-1970s to 1988.]

In the past fifteen years David Mamet has established himself as one of our most powerful playwrights best known for Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed-the-Plow, he is praised for the contemporaneity of his deadbeat settings and characters, for the honesty of his gritty dialogue, for the intensity of his moral vision. Not simply a chronicler of modern life, Mamet is a prophet decrying the...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 28 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Crimes and Various Criminals.” New Republic 205, no. 18 (28 October 1991): 26-7.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann negatively assesses the film Homicide.]

Up to now David Mamet has usually been very sure about where he stood in relation to realism. In plays like American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, he intensified realism past naturalism to the point of abstraction. In a play like The Water Engine or a screenplay like House of Games, he began with a species of abstraction and used realism as underpinning. But his second screenplay, Things Change, seemed less secure vis-à-vis realism. His third...

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Richard Combs (review date November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Combs, Richard. “Framing Mamet.” Sight and Sound 1, no. 7 (November 1991): 16-17.

[In the following review, Combs examines Homicide and House of Games, focusing particularly on Mamet's theater background and its influence on his cinematic approach.]

The plot of Homicide hinges on a word. But between the beginning and the end of the film the word changes. ‘GROFAZ’ is a clue that police officer Bobby Gold finds on a strip of paper while prowling a rooftop in search of a sniper. Or at least there might have been a sniper, and he might have been taking shots at a Jewish family, one of whom, an old woman who ran a corner store in a poor...

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J. Hoberman (review date November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoberman, J. Review of Homicide, by David Mamet. Sight and Sound 1, no. 7 (November 1991): 15-16.

[In the following review, Hoberman focuses on the portrayal of tensions between Jews and African Americans in Homicide.]

With the unselfconscious absorption of someone working something out for himself, David Mamet has concocted an urban policier that has a deracinated Jewish detective searching for his identity in a grim world of tribal violence. Homicide ostensibly pits Jews against blacks and Jews against neo-Nazis, but its underlying vision is that of Jews against the world. Mamet is a master of unpleasantness, but his latest is awful in a...

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Gay Brewer (review date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brewer, Gay. “Studied Simplicity: David Mamet's On Directing Film.Literature Film Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1992): 167-68.

[In the following review, Brewer favorably assesses On Directing Film, contending that it provides insights on Mamet's filmmaking approach.]

David Mamet has never wanted for confidence. With workmanlike application of his talent, he has succeeded as playwright, but also as poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker. On Directing Film consists of revised lectures from a course Mamet taught at Columbia University. The preface apologizes for his scant experience behind the camera, only two films: “… I was the most dangerous...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 26 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Deaths of Salesmen.” New Republic 207, no. 18 (26 October 1992): 30-1.

[In the following review of Glengarry Glen Ross, Kauffmann studies the structural differences between the film version and the original play.]

David Mamet wrote the screenplay of Glengarry Glen Ross, and the difference from his original play underscores one of his attributes: his sensitivity to form. It clearly wasn't enough for him to do the usual rotisserie slicing of a play for film serving, cutting it up and rearranging it differently on the platter, with a garnish of material that was only described in the play and can now be shown. Mamet obviously...

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Elaine Showalter (review date 6 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “Acts of Violence.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4675 (6 November 1992): 16-17.

[In the following review, Showalter contends that Mamet fails to objectively address harassment in Oleanna.]

By all counts, this should be a championship season for the playwright David Mamet. The movie version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross, opened to rave reviews and a prediction of an Oscar for Jack Lemmon; there's great anticipation of another movie, Hoffa, for which he wrote the screenplay, and which is expected to garner more Oscar nominations for its star, Jack Nicholson; his latest book of essays, The...

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Stefan Kanfer (review date 14-18 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Problems of Craft.” New Leader 125, no. 16 (14-18 December 1992): 26-7.

[In the following review, Kanfer asserts that Oleanna is “inconsistent” and possesses a “confused purpose.”]

Hero is the surprising word that men employ when they speak of Jack the Ripper.

Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will

Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.

Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

Decently married bedrooms across America are the...

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Eva Resnikova (review date 18 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Resnikova, Eva. “Fool's Paradox.” National Review 95, no. 1 (18 January 1993): 54-6.

[In the following review, Resnikova writes that Mamet has merely presented “his theory of sexual anger” in Oleanna.]

David Mamet's latest play, Oleanna (the infelicitous title refers to a fool's paradise), now at the Orpheum Theater, has been touted in several quarters as a response to the issues raised in last year's Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. But the connection turns out to be spurious: not only did the real-life hearings make for more gripping theater than Mamet's gerrymandered play, but Oleanna is not even primarily about sexual harassment....

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Murray Kempton (review date 11 February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kempton, Murray. “The Jumper.” New York Review of Books 90, no. 4 (11 February 1993): 31.

[In the following review, Kempton criticizes Hoffa's portrayal of Teamsters' union leader Jimmy Hoffa.]

Danny De Vito's Hoffa is artfully constructed, masterfully played, and travels at speeds beyond the prescriptive norm. It weaves back and forth across the dividing line between truth and myth with the controlled recklessness of an over-the-road trucker making up time by breaching the peace of mind of drivers slower than himself. Jack Nicholson's Jimmy Hoffa is magnificent, but it is not Jimmy Hoffa. Nicholson has caught and occasionally even come close...

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David Skeele (essay date December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Skeele, David. “The Devil and David Mamet: Sexual Perversity in Chicago as Homiletic Tragedy.” Modern Drama 36, no. 4 (December 1993): 512-18.

[In the following essay, Skeele discusses how Mamet's early works mimic medieval morality plays, especially Sexual Perversity in Chicago.]

It has frequently been noted that David Mamet is a moralist, a keen social critic who uses the groping inarticulations and dizzying verbal constructions of his characters to form a chorus of complaint against the spiritual emptiness at the core of America. What has less frequently been noted is that Mamet is sometimes very nearly a medieval moralist, using themes,...

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Jim McCue (review date 15 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McCue, Jim. “Will Somebody Please Tell Him?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4763 (15 July 1994): 21.

[In the following review of A Whore's Profession, McCue summarizes several key points of the collection and then pans The Cryptogram for what he judges to be wandering, fragmentary dialogue.]

David Mamet is forthright with opinions, so it is fair to use his collected “Notes and essays” as a bundle of sticks with which to beat his new play at the Ambassadors Theatre. A Whore's Profession, recently published by Faber, includes many prescriptions for drama on the stage and in film, emphasizing always advancement of the action. But any...

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David Worster (essay date fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Worster, David. “How to Do Things with Salesmen: David Mamet's Speech-Act Play.” Modern Drama 37, no. 3 (fall 1994): 375-90.

[In the following essay, Worster examines the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross, their discussions about speech, and what their conversations reveal about their respective social status.]

Stanley Fish once called Coriolanus Shakespeare's speech-act play, because it is “about speech acts [and] the rules of their performance. … It is also about what the theory is about, language and its power.”1 If Coriolanus is Shakespeare's speech-act play, then Glengarry Glen Ross is David Mamet's, for...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 21 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Office Hours.” New Republic 211, no. 21 (21 November 1994): 24-5.

[In the following review, Kauffmann assesses Oleanna, arguing that the film version is only slightly better than the play.]

David Mamet dazzles. Here are a few selections from his crowded career (and he's not yet 50). Film: House of Games, which he wrote and directed; the screenplays of The Verdict and of Hoffa. Theater: The Water Engine, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Shawl, Speed the Plow, a version of Uncle Vanya (now filmed, reviewed here two weeks ago). He has published books of essays,...

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David Radavich (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Radavich, David. “Man among Men: David Mamet's Homosocial Order.” In Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy, pp. 123-36. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Radavich examines Mamet's male characters in works such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, and others. Radavich asserts that many of Mamet's male characters portray a fear of both homosexuality and women.]

Apart from C. W. E. Bigsby's booklength study (1985), curiously little scholarly attention has been paid to the insistent masculinity of David Mamet's plays. Published in...

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Leon Wieseltier (review date 24 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wieseltier, Leon. “Machoball Soup.” New Republic 212, no. 17 (24 April 1995): 46.

[In the following review, Wieseltier compares Mamet's short novel Passover with his film Homicide.]

As a boy, I was pretty good with a knife. I carved wood, I cut line, I cleaned fish, I hurled my finely weighted, mother-of-pearl-handled pocketknife with cool accuracy, blade-first, usually in competition with the other nice Jewish boys who summered in the same hills and woods, and once with deadly accuracy, right between the eyes of a copperhead snake that threatened a friend who was trapped on a rock in a brackish corner of Swan Lake. I was a local hero after that...

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Ronald C. Wendling (review date 23 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wendling, Ronald C. Review of The Village, by David Mamet. America 173, no. 8 (23 September 1995): 26-7.

[In the following review, Wendling comments favorably on The Village.]

One impulse of our postmodern culture has been to place the grandest triumphs of spirit on a level with the banalities of everyday life (for instance, a Michelangelo T-shirt). The effect is to defy modernist urges to glorify the past or to give art an ideality and separateness that somehow debases the lives we live now. This first novel by dramatist and screenwriter David Mamet, already a Pulitzer Prize-winner for Glengarry Glen Ross, avoids such simple iconoclasm.


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Roger Bechtel (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bechtel, Roger. “P.C. Power Play: Language and Representation in David Mamet's Oleanna.Theatre Studies 41 (1996): 29-48.

[In the following essay, Bechtel interprets Oleanna through the ideas of literary theorist Stanley Fish.]


I don't … lots of the language …
… please …
The language, the “things” that you say …
I'm sorry. No. I don't think that that's true.(1)

David Mamet is nothing if not provocative. Critics and scholars have long held...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 16 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Shop Talk.” New Republic 215, nos. 12-13 (16 September 1996): 28-9.

[In the following review, Kauffmann criticizes the casting choices for the film version of American Buffalo, but provides a positive assessment of the work overall.]

Obviously the one-set play with very few characters is not suitable for filming—except that, like so many obvious wisdoms, it's untrue. Precepts bend to talent. Stevie and The Caretaker and My Dinner with André, all made from small-scale theater works, are valuable films. American Buffalo is another.

David Mamet made the screen adaptation of his play...

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Stevan Ryan (essay date fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ryan, Stevan. “Oleanna: David Mamet's Power Play.” Modern Drama 39, no. 3 (fall 1996): 392-403.

[In the following essay, Ryan examines Mamet's intended messages about power relations, especially those found in academic settings as portrayed in Oleanna.]

Although playwright David Mamet has stated that he began working on Oleanna before Anita Hill's testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas made sexual harassment in the workplace a topic of conversation in the early 1990s, there is no doubt that the play's timeliness was used to boost ticket sales. The play's promotional mailout, for example, announced that ticket buyers could...

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Thomas H. Goggans (essay date winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goggans, Thomas H. “Laying Blame: Gender and Subtext in David Mamet's Oleanna.Modern Drama 40, no. 4 (winter 1997): 433-41.

[In the following essay, Goggans asserts that protagonist Carol reveals consistent signs of child sexual abuse in Oleanna.]

“The Bitch Set Him Up”—that's what Daniel Mufson thought the working title of Oleanna could have been, after he appraised the critical responses to the play's 1992 New York production, adding that “one can expect few other reactions when Carol is such a viper.”1 Mamet's presentation of the conflict between a professor and his female student is marked by ambiguous...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 27 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Wait a While.” New Republic 217, no. 17 (27 October 1997): 26-7.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann comments on the predictability of The Edge.]

This, as it turns out, is National Forbearance Week—anyway, I hope so. Three important artists have produced wavering work, and without blinking the present facts, it's the moment for those of us who value those artists to remember what they have done and to await what may come from them.

David Mamet, a premier American dramatist, is essentially an urban writer. Most of his best plays—The Water Engine, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, for...

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Stefan Kanfer (review date 29 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Diverting Sorrows.” New Leader 80, no. 19 (29 December 1997): 35.

[In the following review, Kanfer provides a negative judgment of the three plays in The Old Neighborhood.]

David Mamet has made a considerable reputation out of staccato and scatology. When his characters are not strafing each other with threats, they saturate the air with the language of the barracks and the gutter. Often this has the effect of candid, vigorous expression—capturing the way people actually talk under pressure. Such was the case in full-length works like Speed the Plow and Glengarry Glen Ross. It is not the case in his latest effort.


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Juliet Fleming (review date 10 April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fleming, Juliet. “Now You're Talkin' Sense.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 1958 (10 April 1998): 19.

[In the following review, Fleming evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Wag the Dog and The Edge.]

David Mamet's voluminous work exists in a variety of forms and relations. Since 1970, he has written more than thirty full-length stage plays, from Duck Variations (1972), Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), American Buffalo (1975), to Glengarry Glen Ross (for which he won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize), Speed-the-Plow (1988) and Oleanna (1992). Other publications include three collections of dramatic sketches,...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 27 April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Trickery and Tradition.” New Republic 218, no. 17 (27 April 1998): 26-7.

[In the following review, Kauffmann comments on the role of trickery and deceit in The Spanish Prisoner, and bemoans the film's transformation from business drama to crime thriller.]

Deception is a key theme in David Mamet. House of Games, for instance, moves through a series of seeming truths to revelations that expose those truths as mere tricks. Life, Mamet frequently reminds us, may possibly not be worse than it seems, but certainly is different from what we think it at first.

In the new film that Mamet has written and directed,...

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Raphael Shargel (review date 4-18 May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shargel, Raphael. “Fallen Innocents.” New Leader 131, no. 6 (4-18 May 1998): 20-1.

[In the following excerpt, Shargel praises the complex plot and enthralling nature of The Spanish Prisoner, lauding Mamet's use of suspense and surprise.]

David Mamet's favorite game is the high stakes con. In his best movies, a team of conspirators fleeces a privileged and gullible individual. But while most examples of this generally lighthearted genre focus on the machinations of the sharpers, Mamet's much darker works put the sucker at the center. His protagonists risk everything they hold dear—their financial resources, their integrity, their honor, even their...

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Bharat Tandon (review date 8 May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tandon, Bharat. “An Important Topic for a Novel.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4962 (8 May 1998): 22.

[In the following review, Tandon asserts that The Old Religion is a departure for Mamet and comments on the novel's focus on meditative introspection, whereas he believes many other of Mamet's works rely heavily on external action and dialogue.]

In David Mamet's 1991 film Homicide, Bobby Gold (played by Joe Mantegna, a Mamet regular), an assimilated Jewish detective, visits a Jewish library to seek the meaning of what may be a murder clue: the word “GROFAZ” scrawled on a scrap of paper. And as he waits, he encounters another seeker after...

(The entire section is 1992 words.)

Kate Kellaway (review date 26 June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kellaway, Kate. “Thanks for the Memories.” New Statesman (26 June 1998): 49.

[In the following review, Kellaway praises the cast performances, the sets, and the writing in The Old Neighborhood, lauding the subtle, dark nature of the three plays.]

A little light shines on a brown case, which casts a shadow. The Old Neighborhood, a trio of plays by David Mamet now at the Royal Court, is about a man cut through at the roots. Bobby's relationships—even with family and old friends—are so insecure they cannot hold him for long. His case waits on the stage like a warning. Bobby is played by Colin Stinton. It is impossible to believe that he is...

(The entire section is 763 words.)

David Mamet and Nick James (review date October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mamet, David, and Nick James. “Suspicion.” Sight and Sound 8, no. 10 (October 1998): 23-4.

[In the following interview, Mamet and James discuss the details of writing and shooting a script, and in particular the adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Winslow Boy for the screen.]

In his 1991 book On Directing Film, David Mamet says that, “the work of the director is the work of constructing the shot list from the script. The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on the set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humour.” Sitting on a crate outside an Edwardian townhouse of imposing...

(The entire section is 2550 words.)

John A. Price (review date winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Price, John A. Review of True and False, by David Mamet. Journal of Popular Culture 33, no. 3 (winter 1999): 147-48.

[In the following review, Price outlines Mamet's main messages about acting in True and False.]

In David Mamet's True and False, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter reveals the unique perspective of how a playwright views the rehearsal and performance aspects of a text. In this book, Mamet offers an alternative to the standard “Method” acting approach.

Without specifically addressing his own plays, Mamet's scalding criticism of Stanislavski and the American “Method” can...

(The entire section is 659 words.)

Howard Pearce (essay date June 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pearce, Howard. “Plato in Hollywood: David Mamet and the Power of Illusions.” Mosaic 32, no. 2 (June 1999): 141-56.

[In the following essay, Pearce examines two female characters—one in House of Games and another in Speed-the-Plow—analyzing their identities as artists and how other characters and audience members relate to them.]

As Aristotle long ago observed, mimesis is a two-way street: as much as humans take pleasure in seeing representations of themselves, so much are they disposed to imitate what they see. As Plato's dialogues suggest, however, dramatic characters can take different forms, just as there are different ways of...

(The entire section is 6777 words.)

M. S. Mason (review date 18 June 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mason, M. S. “‘Boston Marriage’: Barbs beneath Victorian Propriety.” Christian Science Monitor (18 June 1999): 20.

[In the following review, Mason comments favorably on the characters and dialogue in Boston Marriage.]

Every new David Mamet play is a significant event. Boston Marriage is no different. Its world première last week at the American Repertory Theatre here was often amusing and certainly sharp. The play does for hard-edged female characters what many of his others have done for hard-edged males—expose the cruelty, venality, and predatory impulses in them.

But unlike the men of Mr. Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross...

(The entire section is 678 words.)

Martin Schaub (essay date fall 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schaub, Martin. “Magic Meanings in Mamet's Cryptogram.Modern Drama 42, no. 3 (fall 1999): 326-37.

[In the following essay, Schaub examines the setting, the autobiographical elements, and the structure of The Cryptogram.]

My premise is that things do mean things; that there is a way things are irrespective of the way we say things are, and if there isn't, we might as well act as if there were. “And that's how it is on this bitch of an earth.”1

In one of his earlier essays, Mamet recalls what he thinks was a “magic moment” in theatre: “I thought: isn't it the truth: people are...

(The entire section is 4901 words.)

Juliet Fleming (review date 18 February 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fleming, Juliet. “Footnotes on Mars.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5055 (18 February 2000): 22.

[In the following review, Fleming summarizes the stylistic elements of Wilson.]

The most arresting thing about David Mamet's new novel [Wilson] is its dust jacket. The front cover (reproduced here) displays the trompe l'oeil effect, complete with coffee stains, of a pile of comics—all without year-dates, but each in the unlocatably “dated” style of comic art. The magazine on top, Bongazine, shows its price (“Still only 4c. Slightly higher on Mars”) and features, against a background of spinning planets and imploding stars, an...

(The entire section is 1885 words.)

Jack Gibson (review date 17 March 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibson, Jack. “Deerhunter in Search of a New Model.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5059 (17 March 2000): 19.

[In the following review, Gibson writes favorably of Jafsie and John Henry praising the collection for its wit, trademark terseness, and dramatic style.]

Essayists come in three varieties: the self-revealer (Montaigne, Lamb, Woolf, etc), the whistleblower (Bacon, Orwell, Vidal, etc) and, more recently, the audacious villain who dresses up a hotch-potch of slight, repetitive and inelegant magazine-fillers to look like a book (no names). David Mamet as essayist, however, is characteristically awkward to classify. In fact, this new collection...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

Richard W. Mitchell (review date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Richard W. Review of Three Uses of the Knife, by David Mamet. Comparative Drama 34, no. 1 (spring 2000): 115-18.

[In the following review, Mitchell criticizes many of the views presented in Three Uses of the Knife, but allows that the book may have some validity in its advice concerning commercial playwriting.]

As one might expect from a book written by popular playwright and occasional agent provocateur of theater, David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama is, at various times, thought-provoking, irreverent, contentious, and conventional. Like many of Mamet's plays, this book offers some innovative...

(The entire section is 1515 words.)

Myles Weber (essay date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weber, Myles. “David Mamet in Theory and Practice.” New England Review 21, no. 2 (spring 2000): 136-41.

[In the following essay, Weber discusses Mamet's ideas about the role of theater in contemporary society, focusing on writings in which Mamet addresses the structure of tragedies versus melodramas.]

David Mamet's publication record challenges the widely accepted falsehood that the value of a playwright's professional stock plummets if he is perceived as prolific. Over the past three decades, Mamet has written more than twenty original full-length plays. In addition, he has published numerous adaptations, two volumes of prose fiction, two poetry...

(The entire section is 2942 words.)

Bella Merlin (essay date August 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Merlin, Bella. “Mamet's Heresy and Common Sense: What's True and False in True and False.New Theater Quarterly 14, no. 3 (August 2000): 249-54.

[In the following essay, Merlin dissects Mamet's advice to actors in True and False, contending that Mamet misunderstands or misinterprets the Stanislavsky Method of Physical Actions.]

Although it's over two years now since the appearance of David Mamet's book, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, recent experience spurs me to offer a riposte to the provocative way in which Mamet assaults contemporary acting practice, taking a few hefty swipes at Stanislavsky as he does so....

(The entire section is 3940 words.)

Geoffrey Macnab (review date February 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Macnab, Geoffrey. Review of State and Main, by David Mamet. Sight and Sound 11, no. 2 (February 2001): 52-3.

[In the following review, Macnab pans State and Main for a loosely formed plot, laborious visual gags, and a lack of deftness usually displayed in Mamet's work.]

A movie crew arrives in Waterford, Vermont to shoot a feature [in Mamet's film, State and Main]. Director Walt Price needs an old mill for the film, which is set in the 19th century, but discovers the town doesn't have one—although its tourist brochure claims otherwise. Writer Joe White is assigned to revise his screenplay to make the most of Waterford as it stands. When...

(The entire section is 948 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 30 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Stages of Mastery.” New Republic 25, no. 4502 (30 April 2001): 30-1.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann provides a lukewarm assessment of the film version of Lakeboat, bemoaning the choices for director and cast but praising the naturalism he sees in the plot and dialogue.]

Political thrillers come in two kinds. (To speak only of well-made ones: the others don't signify.) In the first kind, the intrigues are clear in every detail. In the second, the intrigues are in the main just as clear, but some of the details are too compacted and brisk to be understood; the viewer is aware only that heavy doings are in progress. The odd,...

(The entire section is 675 words.)

Kevin Thomas (review date 9 November 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Mamet Scores Big with an Expert Heist.Los Angeles Times (9 November 2001): F14.

[In the following review, Thomas lauds Heist for a tight plot, twisting suspense, and dark wit.]

David Mamet's Heist is the thinking person's caper flick, with its endlessly clever plotting revealing character under the utmost pressure. Mamet explores the limits of trust and loyalty and also the limits of strength and ability in the face of advancing age, and he does so with dark wit and humor while moving like lightning. Full of action and suspense, Heist is above all a gratifyingly adult entertainment.

“It's not...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

John Wrathall (review date December 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wrathall, John. Review of Heist, by David Mamet. Sight and Sound 11, no. 12 (December 2001): 53.

[In the following excerpt, Wrathall comments on what he considers Mamet's directorial shortcomings, specifically in Heist.]

Boston, the present. Joe Moore and his gang—girlfriend Fran, Bobby Blane and Don Pincus—carry out a brilliant jewel heist [in Heist]. But Moore's face is caught on surveillance camera. He decides to retire. His fence Bergman, however, refuses to give him his cut unless he carries out “the Swiss job,” which Bergman has already invested money in setting up.

Needing money to fund his retirement, Moore...

(The entire section is 1071 words.)

Jonathan Levi (review date 6 January 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Following in His Footnotes.” Los Angeles Times (6 January 2002): R4.

[In the following review, Levi finds Wilson obtuse.]

It was Alfred North Whitehead who said “all philosophy is merely footnotes to Plato.” But it has taken David Mamet to write a footnote positing Aristotle as the true author of “Dink Stover at Yale.” This observation is only one of the many instances of serendipity in Mamet's latest work of fiction, a curio titled Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources.

Presumably written several hundred years from now, Wilson is a super-academic commentary on the ur-historical text of future...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Badenhausen, Richard. “The Modern Academy Raging in the Dark: Misreading Mamet's Political Incorrectness in Oleanna.College Literature 25, no. 3 (fall 1998): 1-19.

Badenhausen examines Mamet's study of language and power issues in academia in Oleanna.

French, Philip. Review of Heist, by David Mamet. London Observer (25 November 2001): 9.

French critiques the mixing of elements from the heist-genre film and the con man movie, but lauds what he perceives as wit and thrilling elements in Heist.

Hubert-Leibler, Pascale. “Dominance and Anguish: The Teacher-Student...

(The entire section is 443 words.)