Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678

From the play’s first productions in Chicago and New York City, most critics either found much to praise in A Life in the Theatre or dismissed it entirely. Mel Gussow of the New York Times wrote of the Chicago production, ‘‘It is slight, but it does not lack consequence. It has bite and it also has a heart.’’ His opinion of the play improved when A Life in the Theatre was produced off-Broadway. He wrote, ‘‘Though the work has serious undertones, it is, first of all, a comedy—and Mr. Mamet’s language glistens. His writing is a cross between the elegant and the vernacular, an ironic combination that is uniquely his own.’’ Many critics who liked A Life in the Theatre praised the content of the playlets. T. E. Kalem of Time wrote, ‘‘With marvelous mimicry, Mamet conjures up parodistic echoes of past play-writing titans together with melodramatic fustian [pompous] talk.’’

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John Simon of The Hudson Review complimented certain aspects of A Life in the Theatre but wrote

[U]ltimately, two problems weigh down A Life in the Theatre. One is that these are all anecdotes, quips, rivalries that can be hung on any theatrical stick figures, which is, in fact, what John and Robert are. Under the all too typical mockery, there are no human beings.

The New York Times’ Walter Kerr did not like the play at all, sharing Simon’s concerns. He argued,

Mr. Mamet has not listened well himself; the loosely linked entertainment, intended as a charm bracelet, is skimpy, imprecise, too easy, and more than a little bit borrowed. Nonetheless, expectation continues to sit in the air. Mr. Mamet, attacking his trade as often and as assiduously as he does, will come along.’’

Harold Clurman of The Nation was one critic who could find no redeeming value in A Life in the Theatre. In addition to deriding the playlets as unreal, Clurman wrote, ‘‘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.’’

After its initial runs, A Life in the Theatre was regularly produced in the United States and abroad. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mamet’s reputation as a playwright had skyrocketed, with the success of Glengarry Glen Ross (1982) and other plays. Because A Life in the Theatre was written toward the beginning of Mamet’s career, it was sometimes seen by later critics as a throwaway. Others saw it as a early indication of what was to come, especially in terms of his use of language. Of a 1989 production in London, Douglas Kennedy of New Statesman & Society wrote, ‘‘It has its moments; especially in its spot-on observations of backstage paranoia—but it’s ultimately too lightweight to be anything more than a series of interlinking sketches which don’t amount to much.’’ In contrast, Michael Billington of the Manchester Guardian Weekly declared, ‘‘Mamet simultaneously satirises the fragility of theatre and celebrates its almost masonic rituals. But what motors the play (even in an early piece like this) is the dazzling economy of language.’’

The way A Life in the Theatre was perceived by critics continued to evolve in the United States as well. Of a 1990 New York production, Alvin Klein of the New York Times wrote, ‘‘[I]t now seems naïve to perceive the play as pure homage, since it isn’t a particularly effective one. And many colored interpretations could be tantalizing in the view of Mr. Mamet’s considerable later work.’’ Yet Klein’s colleague, Wilborn Hampton of the New York Times, believed the play retained its power. Writing about a 1992 production by the Jewish Repertory Company, Wilborn argued

A Life in the Theatre stands up extremely well. It is infused with the playwright’s obvious affection for the theater and the people who populate it. And like Mr. Mamet’s other works, the play has hidden depths of real poignancy.

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