Historical Context

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The 1970s were known as the ‘‘me’’ decade in the United States. Americans were generally passive and self-absorbed. There was much apathy about, if not backlash against, government and social issues (save the burgeoning environmental movement). The federal government was seen as untrustworthy because of the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, which led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. Nixon and his senior aides had abused the powers of their offices for their political gain. Nixon was succeeded by his vice president, Gerald Ford, who could not win the presidency on his own in the 1976 general election. Instead, Jimmy Carter, a Democrat from Georgia, won, taking of- fice with his vice president, Walter Mondale, in early 1977. Like Ford, Carter was seen as a weak president.

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The United States was troubled in other ways as well. The country had not fully recovered from the energy crisis of 1973–74. At that time, the nations of OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the United States because of its support of Israel. In 1977, a Department of Energy was created. The end of the Vietnam War still affected Americans. The so-called living room war (so-called because it was televised) did not make the country look good. In 1977, ten thousand Indochinese boat people were admitted into the United States on an emergency basis. The American economy was not strong. Perhaps these problems explain why nostalgia was so popular in television (Happy Days) and movies (American Graffiti), among other entertainment and artistic genres.

The Theater
Like other aspects of American life, commercial theater struggled in the early 1970s. Fewer real taboos were left after the freewheeling 1960s. Few plays of quality were produced on Broadway, and much money was lost. Fringe theater and off-Broadway were places where dramatic innovation was taking place. Off-Broadway was where many new and developing writers were nurtured, including Mamet, Sam Shepard, and David Rabe. Many of their plays were introspective, trying to make sense of life in a broken society. Mamet was but one playwright encouraged by Joseph Papp and his Public Theater and New York Shakespeare Festival. Papp was a producer who developed the plays of Mamet and other playwrights off-Broadway, before bringing them to Broadway. By the late 1970s, these playwrights and their work were reaching Broadway. Mamet’s American Buffalo was produced on Broadway in 1977. Broadway was very profitable in 1977, setting new revenue records.

Another reason for Broadway’s newfound profitability was musicals like A Chorus Line. In the 1970s, there were several behind-the-scenes plays, but the dance musical A Chorus Line was arguably the biggest. The story focused on struggling dancers trying to make it. A Chorus Line was created in rehearsal based on stories from real dancers, and opened in 1975. The dance musical won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 and played on Broadway for more than a decade. The biggest musical in 1977 was another long-running hit, Annie. At the end of the 1970s, theater was on an upswing both creatively and financially because of these successes.

Literary Style

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A Life in the Theatre is a comedic drama set in a nonspecific, though contemporary, time. The action of the play is confined to places within a theater. While the scenes from ‘‘real’’ plays are set onstage, Robert and John’s relationship develops in the backstage areas. These include the wardrobe area, the dance room, the makeup table, the wings, and other undefined backstage areas. By setting this play only in such places in the theater, Mamet constructs a version of the theater world for the audience. Most theatergoing audiences never see what goes into the making of actors and plays. By limiting the settings to the theater, Mamet gives A Life in the Theatre a concentrated authenticity. Yet because a majority of the scenes take place backstage, parallels to everyday life, people, and relationships also can be drawn.

Vignettes, Plotting, and Time
Because A Life in the Theatre comprises twenty- six scenes, it is not constructed in the same way as a two- or three-act play. Each scene is a vignette. A few are no more than a handful of lines, while the longest is about twelve and one-half pages. The latter is scene 1, which sets up the play and its tensions. The majority of scenes are only two to three pages. The brevity of the scenes affects their content and the way the plot is drawn. Action is limited. The evolution of Robert and John’s relationship— the heart of the play—is constructed through their changing attitudes toward each other. Often this can be found in the nuances of the short scenes. Though it is obvious that over the course of the play a significant amount of time has passed, it is not specifically delineated. Time is measured by these spoken and sometimes unspoken changes in the characters.

Plays within a Play
The scenes where Robert and John perform scenes from other plays serve several purposes. Mamet parodies several types of plays, providing some humor. Additionally, the playlets show how John and Robert do their job as actors in the theater. Over the course of the play, John becomes a more confident actor, while Robert’s decline is highlighted by his flubbed lines. This aspect comes to head in scene 24, the surgery scene. Robert loses his place in the playlet and will not listen to John’s cues about where they are. John finally walks offstage in frustration. Thus, the playlets also provide another forum that highlights the development of John and Robert’s relationship.

In several cases, the playlets also implicitly reflect on the nature of that relationship as well as the characters themselves. In the first playlet, scene 3, Robert plays the experienced soldier trying to calm the younger, very distraught soldier. John’s character charges the enemy from the trenches and is shot. In scene 9, the playlet in the lawyer’s office, Robert plays a lawyer while John plays a wronged man. In the previous scene, one set backstage, Robert has insulted John by asking him to do less on stage. Then, in scene 9, John’s character confronts Robert’s lawyer character because he has impregnated John’s character’s wife. There is confrontation brewing: John could beat him up or they could talk about it. Robert also flubs one line, showing his decline as an actor. These playlets underscore much about A Life in the Theatre.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Billington, Michael, ‘‘Life in the Final Stages,’’ in Manchester Guardian Weekly, November 12, 1989, p. 26.

Clurman, Harold, Review in The Nation, November 12, 1977, p. 504–05.

Gussow, Mel, ‘‘Illusion within an Illusion,’’ in New York Times, October 21, 1977, p. 12.

———, ‘‘Mamet Wins with Life in Theater,’’ in New York Times, February 5, 1977, p. 10.

Hampton, Wilborn, ‘‘Looking At Life As a Play,’’ in New York Times, February 29, 1992, sec. 1, p. 18.

Hughes, Catharine, ‘‘Great Expectations,’’ in America, December 10, 1977, p. 423.

Kalem, T. E., ‘‘Curtain Call,’’ in Time, October 31, 1977, p. 94.

Kennedy, Douglas, ‘‘Hey, Big Spender,’’ in New Statesman & Society, December 8, 1989, pp. 44–5.

Kerr, Walter, ‘‘Parody In and Out of Focus,’’ in New York Times, October 30, 1977, p. D5.

Klein, Alvin, ‘‘An Early Tribute to Performers from Mamet,’’ in New York Times, November 4, 1990, sec. 12, p. 21.

Mamet, David, A Life in the Theatre, Grove Press, 1977.

Oliver, Edith, ‘‘Actor Variations,’’ in New Yorker, October 31, 1977, pp. 115–18.

Simon, John, Review in The Hudson Review, Spring 1978, pp, 154–55,

Further Reading
Dean, Anne, David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, pp. 119–47. This chapter offers interpretation of and covers topics critical to A Life in the Theatre.

Kane, Leslie, ed., David Mamet: A Casebook, Garland Publishing, 1992. This collection of critical essays includes several that comment on aspects of A Life in the Theatre.

Lahr, John, ‘‘Profile: Fortress Mamet,’’ in the New Yorker, November 17, 1997, pp. 70–82. This biographical article covers the whole of Mamet’s life and work.

Mamet, David, ‘‘A ‘Sad Comedy’ About Actors,’’ in the New York Times, October 16, 1977, p. D7. In this article, Mamet discusses the inspiration for and writing of A Life in the Theatre.

Compare and Contrast

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1977: Studio 54, the first celebrity disco, opens in New York City. It attracts those luminaries and aspiring celebrities who want to see and be seen.

Today: Somewhat nostalgic movies about places like Studio 54 and about the people who went there are made. The emptiness of the lifestyle is often highlighted.

1977: Annie opens on Broadway, where it runs for 2,377 performances.

Today: Though it no longer plays on Broadway, Annie is still regularly performed in repertory and has been made into a feature film and television movie.

1977: In music, the burgeoning punk movement challenges the dominant rock bands, dismissing them as dinosaurs.

Today: Many musical styles, like punk and classic rock, exist side by side.

1977: There is general distrust of the American government because of the recent Watergate scandal involving President Richard M. Nixon.

Today: There is a sense of distrust of the American government because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal involving President Bill Clinton.

Media Adaptations

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A Life in the Theatre was filmed for television in 1979. Recreating the roles they created off- Broadway, Ellis Rabb plays Robert and Peter Evans plays John. The film was directed by Gerald Gutierrez and Kirk Browning, and produced by Peter Weinburg.

Another made-for-television version was adapted by Mamet in 1993. It featured Jack Lemmon as Robert and Matthew Broderick as John. Produced by Patricia Wolff and Thomas A. Bliss, directed by Gregory Mosher.

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