Morality and Characterization in Mamet's Play

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1978

There is no doubt that David Mamet is a major writer and perhaps the preeminent American playwright of his generation. As Dennis Carroll pointed out in David Mamet, Mamet is the only American playwright to emerge from the 1970s who has managed to establish a significant international reputation. His plays have appealed to a large and wide range of audience.

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Glengarry Glen Ross met with success not only in London and New York, but had a long United States national tour and quickly received major productions in Tel Aviv, Israel; Johannesburg, South Africa; Dublin, Ireland; Marseilles, France; Genoa, Italy; Sydney, Australia; Helsinki, Finland; and Tokyo, Japan. Moreover, Mamet had had major successes before Glengarry Glen Ross and has continued to write excitingly and successfully for the theatre in addition to his steady output of scripts for movies and his career as a film director. Furthermore, as Carroll pointed out, Mamet has created a body of work rich in complex variations on his themes rather than merely repeating himself obsessively.

He has written plays focusing on relationships between men and women, parents and children, sexual politics, communion, redemption, the power of language and the debasement of language, the passing on of knowledge and tradition, to mention only some major themes. He has also written books of essays, childrens' plays, radio plays, and television scripts. While Glengarry Glen Ross contains many layers of thematic concern, it is usually grouped with American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow as major plays that focus primarily on business and capitalism. In American Buffalo the characters are small-time thieves who consider themselves to be businessmen. Speed-the-Plow focuses on Hollywood , where the product is films and the focus is on raw power and making money.

There is no doubt that Mamet is a moral writer who seeks to make the audience aware of what he sees as the spiritual vacuum in present-day America (and, judging from the broad range of productions, in other countries as well). We are pressured to succeed, to make more money, to buy more things that we don't need. We don't take the time to regenerate our spirit. We do not accept responsibility for what happens to ourselves but rather operate on received values without questioning whether they are good or even aimed at making us happy. People full of energy and talent spend themselves seeking empty rewards. Mamet says in his book of essays Writing in Restaurants, "Our civilization is convulsed and dying, and it has not yet gotten the message. It is sinking, but it has not sunk into complete barbarity, and I often think that nuclear war exists for no other reason than to spare us that indignity."

In another essay, Mamet says that "the essential task of the drama (as of the fairy tale) is to offer a solution to a problem which in non-susceptible to reason. To be effective, the drama must induce us to suspend our rational judgment, and to follow the internal logic of the piece so that our pleasure (our "cure") is the release at the end of the story." We suspend reason in order to gain deep insights. The purpose of theatre is not to teach a lesson or to provide a neat "moral;'' the purpose of theatre is to provide us with a communal experience which we then ponder, as we do all forceful experiences in our lives. Mamet does not preach his themes at us; his themes are played out. He does not describe his characters; he puts them into action. Mamet has said that the job of the dramatist is to translate the imperfectly formed desire of the characters into clear action that is capable of communicating itself to the audience.

In drama, just as in life, we judge people by what they do, by their actions. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, rightly said that character...

(The entire section contains 3629 words.)

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