Criticism: Author Commentary

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SOURCE: Mamet, David, and Charlie Rose. “On Theater, Politics and Tragedy.” In David Mamet in Conversation, edited by Leslie Kane, pp. 163-81. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

[In the following interview, which was originally broadcast on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS in November 1994, Mamet discusses his career, elaborates on his reasons for writing Oleanna, and evaluates reactions to the play.]

Mamet's first live televised interview on the “Charlie Rose Show,” hosted by the New York-based cultural commentator, was a rare television appearance and the first of many interviews with Rose. Their wide-ranging discussion of Mamet's life in the theater and his provocative plays, Oleanna in particular, was conducted shortly after work on the film version of Oleanna was completed and the playwright's first novel, The Village, was released.

[Rose]: Why did you write Oleanna?

[Mamet]: I don't know. … I was living in Cambridge and, and Boston, and I used to hear these stories about sexual harassment. This was five years ago. So and so had a brother who got fired because he said, “blah, blah, blah”; or So and so had a niece and the professor came on to her, and she had to “blah, blah, blah.” And I began to hear a lot of these stories and—

So, I sat down and started making up a fantasy about an interchange between a young woman who wants her grade changed and a professor who wants to get her out of the office so he can go home to see his wife, and one thing led to another, and the story kind of evolved and became this story about the power struggle between the two.

And did it offend you when people … I assume the controversy and how men and women reacted to it pleased you because you had written a play that produced a reaction.

Yeah. It first frightened me because I'd never imagined that kind of reaction to this play. People used to get into literally fist-fights with each other in, in the lobby, and screaming matches and going home …

Primarily couples?

Primarily couples, that's right. Yeah.

And it also … they began to label you, or it somehow reinforced this notion of David Mamet as misogynist.

Well, perhaps some people did.

But, I mean, I would assume—and everybody that knows you says that's simply not—that's an unfair labeling—but it seemed to, for some, to cause them to strike out again.

I don't know if the label—labeling's unfair. I mean, I'm fairly sure it's inaccurate …

Yeah. Well, inaccurate is a better word.

The, there are two characters. There's a man and a woman in the play, and each of them has a very firm point of view, both of which I believe in. And I think the way—the, the reason that the movie succeeds, if it does, and I think it does, is because each person, the man and the woman, is saying something absolutely true at every moment and absolutely constructive at most moments in the play, and yet at the end of the play they're tearing each other's throats out.

But you know what they said. I mean, they felt like that, that this was clearly a cir—, a circumstance in which it wasn't. I think the argument has been made by many people when they, when they began to criticize it or to be so—it became so controversial, is that they thought that, that the debate was one-sided because of the way you'd structured the relationship between the two of them.

No, that's...

(This entire section contains 6739 words.)

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not what I heard. What, what I …

Well, tell me what you heard.

Well, I heard from most people, many people thought that the, the balance of power or the balance of rectitude, if you will—


—between the two protagonists was lopsided. But they didn't always think that the same person was on top. A lot of people thought that the, the man was right and the woman was wrong and that I'd slanted it that way, and a lot of people thought the opposite. And that's why the people were slapping each other around in the lobby because they each, the audience each thought, or the members of the audience vehemently believed, that their hero in the play was correct and that the person's hero was wrong.

… This is a clip, and you know what we're going to see. Maybe you can set it up for me. This is “Should All Kids Go to College?”

The, the young woman, a young student, Carol, played by Debra Eisenstadt, has been trying to get the professor to change her grade, and he's been trying to deal with her problems, at the same time he is trying to get out of the office so he can go home and have a private life. It's at the end of the interview, and he's trying to get her out of the office—


—trying to give her a few thoughts to live by, and, and please go home, now we've had our nice little chat. And … she's not ready to go home.

[Extract of Oleanna]

And so that becomes the incident?

Well, yeah, that becomes the first incident.

You wanted to say what in Oleanna?

I didn't want to say anything. I wanted to write the, I wanted to write the play. I know lots of people find it hard to think that it's that, that because something seems to contain a message that it's not the, that it's not the playwright's intention to send out—


—to send that message. But I'm trying to write a, write a story, to try to follow a provocative grouping of individuals to its logical conclusion to see where that goes.

… but you're laying it on the groundwork of one of the hottest sort of social issues of our, of, of the time. You wrote this, what 1980? 19-? What?


Yeah. Oh, in 1990, 1989?

Somewhere around there—1990.

Okay … 1980s, early 1990s. You laid it on the groundwork, on the, on the basis, on the foundation of the subject matter of intense—sort of a time sexual harassment was under great discussion and debate—


—on campus, in the country.


Second, it was a time of political correctness and all of those issues.


You didn't want to say something about those issues in terms of how you had your characters engage in the kind of dialogue they engage in?

Well, the thing—I mean, those issues terrify me. They, I was rather frightened to even take up my, my pen about them.


Well, bec—well, I think because even a fish wouldn't get in trouble if he kept his mouth shut, you know, as us, as us fishermen.

Yes, that's what they say. Yes.

But I think for that, perhaps for that reason, among others, I thought that I'd, it might be a good idea to, to, write to open that can of worms. But basically what I wanted to do and I, I think mainly what I usually want to do is just to simply tell a story. That something is an important topic in our daily newspaper or in our breakfast table discussion does not necessarily mean it's going to make a, make a good play.

What makes a good play is the creation of interesting—well, what does make a … you're the best person to tell me that. What makes a good play?

Well, I think what makes a good play is a protagonist who wants something vehemently and is going to set out to get it, whether that's Hamlet finding out who killed his father or Oedipus finding out what, what's the cause of the plague on Thebes, you know, or, or, or Nora in A Doll's House finding how she can live as an oppressed woman in a man's world, or Anna Christie finding out what she can do to get her father to take her back. That's what makes us want to come out, see the next, hear the next line on stage, or see the next cut in the movie: What happens next? When we really understand what the character wants, and we understand what they're going through to get it, that's what keeps us in our seat.

Let me take you back in your life. The thing that people notice best about you from the beginning, I think, was dialogue—


—and was the, the silence, that you were able to use silence well, and it was the clipped dialogue that you captured among the subjects and how you drew on your own experiences. Did that come from home? Did that come from a family where there was an emphasis on semantics and dialogue and expression?

Oh yeah, yeah. My, my family have, have been Jewish for about four thousand years, I mean, fi—fifty-seven hundred years, and my people tend to place a great deal of emphasis on the ability to express oneself well and to, and to parse a book or a sentence or a thought or interchange into oblivion. So that's, that's the tradition that I'm very happy to have grown up in.

Well, your sister—I think Lynn—says that at, at your home, your father was very strict about semantics. He was a labor lawyer.


In Chicago?


And very strict about it and would insist that all of you kids spoke with clear expression and dramati—and, and grammatically correct.

Yeah. He was pretty great.

Yeah. He was great?


When you look at what, what you have become, I mean, can you trace it back? Do you see some linkage to your father?

Every day.

In what way?

Well, I wrote that movie, Hoffa


—for Danny DeVito and—


Jack Nicholson. My dad was a, a labor lawyer, a one-man labor lawyer, and it was really a movie about him. I didn't know Hoffa, but it was about my dad and the way he spoke and the way he comported himself. And he always, he always believed in working harder. You know, he would come home from work at eight o'clock at night and wolf down his dinner and be at the dining room table still working at one, one o'clock in the morning. And he believed that, he believed there was no problem to which he couldn't surmount in the interest of his client by working harder, thinking harder, and being more inventive. And he used to say, for example, any time something terrible would happen, he would say, “Okay, let's, let's stand this on our—on its head—and see how it's really to our advantage.”

But that's what they say about you, too, that you view writing as a craft—


—that you view writing as something you do in the morning. If you're in Vermont, I guess you go out to a cabin—


—and you write in longhand in a cold cabin, that you see it as going to work, and you see it almost in a blue-collar way.


Do you?

Well, I, I hope that that's true, and, if it is, I think it's true because of my, my home life, and also because that's, that's the Chicago tradition that, at least in the theater, which is the only art I know anything about, the only world I know anything about. We had the, the blue-collar tradition. It was something that you did. You know, you got together. You had your theater company—the Organic or the St. Nicholas or the—

Yeah. St. Nicholas, which—


—you created.

Yeah. I was one of the people who did—


—or Joey Mantegna was with the Organic, and you know, Meshach Taylor and—

Greg Mosher and others.

—Greg Mosher at the Goodman Theatre. And you had your company and you went to work, and it was your job to please the audience. That was your job. If it was a drama, the drama had to be interesting, and, if it was a comedy, it had to be funny, period.

Take you back a little before that, though. So you, you were—your parents were divorced.


Impact on you.

You'll have to ask me when I get over it.

You still …

Well, I, yeah, it still affects me. It was a very traumatic time. You know, it was the, they got divorced in the 1950s, and I didn't know anybody who knew anybody who'd been divorced, you know, let alone have it happen to my family. So, there was a lot of trauma in my childhood.

You went to live with your mother.

Yeah, I went to live with my ma. I lived with my dad later on for a couple of years.

Yeah. And then went to college thinking you would do what?

I went to college thinking I'd get out of the house, and that was, that was enough for me.

Yes, why did you want to get out of the house?

Well, it was, well, it wasn't a very happy house.

Because of the divorce or—

I think. And also, I really wanted to … I didn't know anything about the middle-class life, except that I'd had enough of it. And so I went to college, and a lot of the, the verbiage in the play in both characters—


—is my working out of the idea of what, what constitutes worth. The student says, “I've been told all my life I'm stupid, I'm stupid, I can't learn, I'm stupid, I'm stupid.” And the professor says, “No, you aren't. You're rather smart, as a matter of fact. You're just angry. I think if I can get you past that point, you'll see there's a lot of enjoyment in life that you've heretofore missed.” Now—so it—I'm—to a certain extent, I'm being the professor comforting myself as the student. And the other thing is, is true, too. I'm being the student saying to the professor, “You can be clearer. You have a responsibility to me. I'm lost. I need your help. Paternalism's not going to help. Charisma is not going to help. Telling me to go and do my homework is not going to help. I need someone to explain to me what's required of me.” So, there, again, I'm casting myself, the writer, as the student demanding that of figures in authority. … It was, I always said nobody with a happy childhood ever went into show business—


—and I think that's pretty true. That's the nice thing about being a, a writer is you get to work a lot of things out.

When you went to college, though, you wanted to be an actor.

Yeah, I'd spent some time as a, a kid actor, in Chicago and doing a little bit of television and a little bit of radio and a little bit of stage work. And it seemed like a lot of fun. It didn't seem like work.

What happened?

I found that I couldn't act.

That'll do it every time, won't it?

Yeah. I was going to say that.

Well, no. It doesn't always do it. Some people never learn.

Yeah. I was going to say that I'd, I'd be the first one to tell you I couldn't act, but Billy Macy would actually be the first one to tell you I couldn't act.

Billy Macy is the star in Oleanna. He knew you at Goddard, did he?

I was his teacher. I went back, I went to Goddard College as a student, and I came back a couple of years later and taught. And he was my student in the, I guess, the late 1960s and early 1970s.

How did the playwriting begin?

I started a little theater company among my students at Goddard College and eventually moved to Chicago with them. And we didn't have any money to pay royalties. We just, we had no money.


And there were, there were some plays written, which were suitable for a small, young company, but you had to pay royalties on them, and there were many plays written that were suitable that you didn't have to pay royalties on but that were suitable for a twenty-four-character company of middle-aged people. We couldn't do those, so there was nothing to do. So, in our ignorance we started writing plays for each other. Billy used to write plays, and I, I wrote plays, and we would direct each other and act them. We all did everything.

… you said, I think, at some point earlier when you went back to Chicago, “We discovered that we were, I discovered that I was a mediocre actor and a part-time playwright.”

Yeah. That's right. So, I became a director of the company and, and a playwright, and—

And at twenty-seven you wrote American Buffalo.


And you thought it was going to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Well, hey.

But the story is that you told, you bet, what, five thousand? You put five thousand dollars in the bank, or was it five hundred dollars? Which was it? I've read two accounts.

Oh, I can't remember.

You know, it was either five hundred or five—and you said to Greg Mosher, “I'm go—, I'm going to put this here, and, and I'll give it to you if I don't win the Pulitzer Prize.”

I think, I think—


—I probably did. You know, five hundred or five thousand, looking back was equally—an equally fantastical amount to me at that—



But did he get the money or not?

No, but Greg did the play. I mean, he's—you know, those instances of, of intercession are, are so precious. You know, you're a young struggling kid, and everybody reads your stuff and says, “No, it's no good,” or “Yes, it's good, but I don't want to do it.”


And Greg was then the second in command at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and I brought him the play, and I, I said something like that, or else, “Please do my play. I, I think it's not without merit.” And he read it and said, “Okay.” And he did it, and that's been his attitude ever since for my work, both in Chicago at the Goodman and then when he was running Lincoln Center.

Yeah. Did that give you some stability to know that there was someone there that, who you'd worked … ?

Oh, yeah. I mean, for an artist, it's, it's marvelous. It's the best thing in the world, someone to say, “I believe in you,” and back it up by staking his reputation on your own.

And then seven or eight years later you came with Glengarry Glen Ross, which won a Pulitzer Prize.


Yeah. You were, what? So, you were not more than, what, thirty-four or thirty-five when you did that.

I think so. Yeah.

What was your persona at the time? How did you see yourself?

Oh, I don't know.

You know why I ask that? Because—


—so many people write, well, you do know. Come on. So many people write about you. Every time I read something about you, you know, they talk about the Mamet persona and the, this sense of the, the … in the beginning they talked about no female characters. Clearly, you later wrote female characters and …

Yeah. No, that's not true, by the way. I always wrote for female characters.

But they wrote about that. They said that. Now, come on.



Many people did, yeah.

Yeah. And they said that, and they also made comparisons between you and Hemingway—


—in terms of the kinds of male things that you love to do and, and some sense of gun col—, knife collecting and loving guns and loving poker, and a kind of—do you reject that? Or, when you read those things, do you think that they have no meaning or are irrelevant or off-base or none of the above?

Well, I don't know. I always loved Hemingway. I mean, he came from Oak Park, which is—

Yeah, right.

—al—, almost Chicago. And I loved, to say it again, I loved escaping from the middle class. Of course, I wasn't escaping from the middle class because we all, you know, we all have to be what—

Yeah, I know. I know.

—we are.

I know.

I turned out to be a, a nice Jewish boy, that's what, which I always was. But, I hope, but it pleased me to think that I was putting something over in myself, you know, and living in Vermont and doing things that it seemed were not acceptable behavior for a nice Jewish boy whose family has always had the gene for liberalism—spending a lot of time gambling, hunting, fishing, etc. And, I spent a lot of time in pool rooms, and I enjoyed the life there.

Someone said to me, even today, they said that, that you, that they believed that recently you have, in a sense, rediscovered your Jewishness. Do you think that's …

Oh, I think that's absolutely true.

Yeah. What happened?

Sure. Well, I went to my niece's bat mitzvah and I realized that I hadn't been inside a, a synagogue in 30 years, and I started wondering why; and that I was chagrined and shocked to find that it had something to do with a sense of, not only assimilationism, but perhaps self-hatred that was nobody's fault but my own. And that I thought perhaps I could remedy that.

You don't do a lot of television …, I don't think; I haven't seen you on a lot.

No, I don't.

And, and everybody, when they knew that you were going to come here, was curious and had ideas, and they wanted to talk to you, and one of the things they said is, “Ask him why he continues to write for the theater,” because … they thought, you know, a lot of people who write for the theater go on to write screenplays and leave the theater, but you, they have a sense, will always come back to the theater and will continue to write for the theater.

Because, because I love it. I mean, it's the …

Because that's what you …

Yeah, that's what I do best, and I just adore it. I mean, it's—. It's very hard to be happier than, than, than sitting, you know, working with my friends, working with my family, working on a play.

Let me talk about friends and people that you have a relationship with. Harold Pinter.


What's the relationship? What's the sort of friendship?

Well, Harold Pinter was very close at one time, and I think is close again with Sir Peter Hall, and Sir Peter Hall wrote a diary in which he—

I know. I read that.

—mentioned Harold Pinter.

Yeah, right.

In fact, very favorably. And Harold Pinter didn't talk to him for five or six years. So if you think I'm going to say anything about Harold Pinter, you're crazy.

Is that right? Peter Hall didn't, he didn't talk to Peter Hall after?


He wrote that diary for five years?


But there is something about, I would think, about Harold Pinter that appeals to you. He's your kind of character.

Well, he's Harold.

Other than being a brilliant playwright and, and also a, a director.

Harold Pinter. Well, when I was just a kid, Harold Pinter and, and Samuel Beckett were the playwrights of the …


I, I, I still think so. He was always a, a hero of mine and really was responsible to a large extent for me starting to write. And then he was very, was very helpful and, and generous to me—and still is—at many points in my career, in promoting my work and directing my work.

Did he direct? What's he directed in London of yours?

He directed Oleanna, the play.

When it was in London.

In London, yeah.

… Alan Dershowitz.


You live in Cambridge. He's a friend.

Yeah. He's great. I mean, he's, he's, and he was so very helpful with the, again, with the play Oleanna, because there is a lot of legalism involved in the play.


And I asked him to come over from the law school [Harvard Law School] over to where we were rehearsing about a block away, and he would sit in on rehearsals and give us ideas about the legality of what the woman was saying and the legality of the man's position. He was very very supportive. In fact, we put him in the trailer for the movie.

When you, when you look at where you are now and all that you have accomplished, is there satisfaction? Is there a sense of … how do you sort of sum up where you are at, say, midlife? I mean, you're about, you're approaching fifty, yes? In about three years. You're forty-seven.

I'm supposed to be forty-seven, God willing, in about five more shopping weeks.



So you're—how do you feel about, about where you are and, and the body of work that you … is it what you set out to do? Does it surprise you that you've been able to do so much and that, that you've been able to express yourself in so many different ways?

Yeah. It, it kind of shocks me. I didn't set out to do so much. You know, I set out to get one play done, and then, and then do another one. And I think I was always frightened of failure and always, always frightened by the specter of poverty. And I think I got that very much from my dad, who grew up very very poor and had to get out, and he just had his wits to earn a living for himself and his family. And the same was true of me. You know, I got out of college, I didn't have …

Then if somebody came to you and said—you go to some faraway land, and someone says—“Mr. Mamet, I hear you're a famous writer,” or “I hear that you're a very good writer. Send me something you've written.” What would you send them?

I would send them nothing! Are you kidding me?

Why? Because you wouldn't want to, wouldn't want to lower their expectations, or you'd be afraid they …

Well listen. Have they paid for it first?

No, they haven't paid for it.

Oh, no, no, no, no. I would—

No, no. They'd have—

—I would dir—

—to pay.

—I would direct them to a bookstore.

The other thing that's interesting about what you write is so much of it is, is taken from your own experiences. I mean, you worked in a real estate firm.


Sexual Perversity in Chicago—you had been there.


You know. I mean, Oleanna, you were a college professor. And in fact, you said that almost every young professor you knew at the time that you were there—you were quoted, at least as saying—was having a relationship with some young student.

Yeah, that's right.

And that's why it was explosive or frightening for you to deal with the, the subject matter?

No, no. Not at all. It just seemed, there seemed to be such vehemence—

The change of attitude.

—surrounding the, the issue of, of, of sexual harassment that I—part of me really didn't want to raise my head up above the foxhole and say, “What's going on here?”

But just, I, to come back to this point. Are you surpri—, were you surprised by the controversy it ignited and at the conflicts that erupted over it?

Oh, yeah. I, I was, I was shocked. As I say, I had never seen reactions like that in a theater before.

And why do you think it was true?

Because, night after night and couple by couple, the people would split down the middle, and it wouldn't always be by sex, and it wouldn't always be by age. But one or the other would say, “I think he's right,” “I think she's right.”

You see, my impression is that most men thought he was right, and most women thought the men didn't understand it. And that's not, in your judgment, the way—

It wasn't; no, it wasn't.

—it was.

That wasn't my experience.

Yeah. Your experience was it varied from night to night.

That's right.

Sex to sex.

That's right. That's right. Because I think, I, I, think that the play got un—, and I think that the movie, too, gets under a lot of people's skins.


Because it's well, it's like, like Shakespeare said, you know, “the play's the thing in which we'll catch the conscience of the king.” People suspend their disbelief for a second. They say, “Okay, I'm going to watch a, a funny little story, and everything will be under my control.”


And then it, because the, because, because of the structure of the piece, because it, it moved so fast—


—and it's so clear what each one wants next, and you get two-thirds of the way through the play, and you think you know what's going on. And all of the sudden it takes a turn that you don't want, and you find you've identified with one of the two—or the other protagonist—and you start feeling like, “Wait, wait a second.”


“Ah, ah, ah, ah.” It gets under people's skins not because of the issues, I think, but because of the drama involved in the two protagonists.

—You once said an interesting thing that, that the, that you could sum up what you knew about male-female relationships, at least in the following, that this was the key for a man: Be direct, was first; second was the men had to realize that women were smarter and that they therefore valued courtesy and kindness.


Third was—do you remember any of this?

No, I like it—

You don't.


You like it so far?

I, I believe it so far, too.

Third was … I don't remember what third was; and fourth was, when it came to the question of who got out of the elevator first, you were on your own. You had no idea—


—what the rules were. This leads to this question. Where do you think, because you have in one way or another dealt with relationships, and whether it's between men in a competition in Glengarry Glen Ross or among men for a Cadillac and in Sexual Perversity, you were dealing with some of these kinds of dynamics. … There has always been the element of, of, of the Mamet image, which I talked about earlier, that you don't reflect on. … You don't seem to have any sense of when you say, “Mamet,” what that means to people in terms of image, other than just a very skilled playwright, essayist, now novelist.

Well, I try not to think about it. You know, I, I think it's—

Don't you really think about it? I mean, you have no sense of self, of, of, who you are in terms of how you are perceived by others?

I, I suppose I might at any given moment.


You know, like anybody I know, the guy's in the elevator. One time he's going to think of himself as Galahad, the other he's going to think of himself as Jean Valjean.

Here is what's interesting about it because a lot of your friends have commented on it.


And that's why I'm trying to bring it out of you, and, and I am generally not doing so well—

Well, I'm sure Harold—


Harold Pinter's not going to talk to them either.

But there is some sense of, of this notion of this maleness and how you see that and, and all of that. Now, maybe that's because people read what you write, and they want to somehow look, look at a persona and say, “Well, therefore I understand it.” It's the Hemingway comparison. It is, in a sense, the fact that for a while people did not see female characters that they thought were very strong female characters. Now you tend to want to debunk all of that, yes?

I guess. I mean, you know, see, it's …

Mr. Mamet, do you plead guilty or not guilty?

See, finally, it's the worst idea in the world for me to be doing—for any, as Virginia Woolf says …

To be doing what?



Because, as Virginia Woolf and many other writers—


—because the last thing in the world that a writer wants—

Should ever—

—wants to do—


—is to get involved in his or her own self, self-promotion.

Okay. Fair enough. You're right. Okay. Then I leave it.

Is it easy for you, writing?

To write? Sometimes it is; sometimes it's, it's—

What's easiest? I mean, plays, essays, screenplays, now a novel?

It's …

It's all part of the same.

Well, you know, some, some aspects. It's like what's easier: to build a skiff or to build a boat in a bottle? Certain aspects are similar.

To build a skiff, I think. I can't imagine it would be easy to build a boat in a bottle.

Yeah. Well, on the other hand, you don't got to put, you don't got to put the skiff in, into the glass thing and pull up the mast.

How do you see this relationship between men and women today? You've talked about it in Sexual Perversity in, in Oleanna. You've just made a film that has to do with the dynamics of the time.

I think men and women need each other. I think men and women love each other. And I think these are very frustrating times. I think that … again, a mention of Virginia Woolf. As she tells us, women have been oppressed for a great deal of history, and for them to, to claim rights rather than to live in a society where they're being awarded rights is very upsetting to the society as a whole, as it should be. And it's a period that we're all going to have to live through, and we will.

Do you believe feminism went too far in, in …

Well, it depends on what you mean by feminism. You know, I'm not a woman. It's not for me to say that any woman has gone, has gone too far in the struggle for, for women's rights.

But, but clearly, you have thought about these issues because they are reflected in what you write.

Well, Sidney Kingsley wrote a play called Detective Story.


Great play.


Because that happens to be a great play about cops and robbers doesn't mean you're going to go to Sidney Kingsley and ask him what he thinks about crime control.

Now, it's a very, it's a very, very equal exchange, by the way, and I'm very grateful for you for having me here. It's absolutely an equal exchange. I'm, I get the opportunity to indulge in self-promotion, and you get the absolute right to ask me these questions.


But it's, it's a terrible idea for me.

But, but you, it's a terrible idea for you because what? … Tell me why it's a terrible idea—

Well, somebody said …

—to, to, to elaborate on the question, because it's done in print about you all the time. So it's a natural thing for me to do, but you think—I'll grant you that, but it's not for me, as David Mamet, natural to answer these questions.

Well, I don't know the answers to a lot of them.


But, also, somebody once said another very important thing to me about writing. They said—


—steal from anybody but yourself. So if the, if I start stealing from myself or imitating myself or thinking about what does that mean, rather than looking at the problems on the page, then I, I feel …

And, and if we—


And if we look at the whole list of things that you wrote—that whole list. I mean, it's an extraordinary body of work. I mean, you write constantly, don't you?


I mean, you, why do you feel the urge to write all the time? Because you have some … ?

Because it beats thinking.

Beats thinking.

Yeah. It's so, it's so much, it's so much gentler than thinking.

That's true.

You know, he's just telling a story. And the same thing with me and this … and Oleanna.


I'm just telling a story.

Are you a dreamer?

Oh, sure. You?

You bet. Yeah. Wouldn't, wouldn't have it any other way, I don't think. I mean, if you can't, if you lose dreams, then, don't you?

Oh, yeah.

I mean, that's sort of the beginning of the end, when you lose the capacity or, or you no longer dream. What do you think of this obsession with O. J. Simpson?

Well, it's, it's terrifying. You know, gossip, I always felt, is the, is the need to define social norms. We need to discover what's correct for the community, and so we gossip. And, also, we need to identify ourselves as the good people. I think we all, we all—Jewish tradition calls it leshon harad, evil tongue, and says it's a great, great, great crime. And, in fact, the Orthodox Jews won't talk, won't say anything about anyone else. They just won't talk about third parties for fear of engaging in, in leshon harad, evil tongue. It's probably a very good idea. Each—the idea that anybody could be a, a victim, and the idea that anybody could be a murderer is a, it's a terrifying idea. You know, people whom we have elected to have a mythic status, the heroes, that they, that they might be either one of those things is, is very upsetting, don't you think?

I do think that, but I—and, and that's why we're obsessed by it. … You know, it, it is the incomprehensibility of thinking that our, our mythic heroes could be—

Could be human, which of course, they are.

—could be human.

Because if they're human, what that means is that we're human. Don't you think?

I do, but don—Do you think that's a play here? I mean.

Oh, yeah. Sure.

I mean, we have had so much come out about this particular case, and, and at first, the first reaction—not among friends of Mrs. Simpson, the deceased Mrs. Simpson—but the first reaction of friends, fellow players, was that it's incomprehensible—


—that this man could have done that crime.


Yet, on the other hand, I also think that … God, I mean, there is a part of me also that believes that, I mean, when we have seen so much evil in this world that, that nothing would surprise us in terms of the capacity of evil. You?

Well, I think that's what tragedy is about. That's the, that's why tragedy is cleansing because it confronts us with, with our humanity, with our capacity for evil. And, having been confronted by that capacity to have bad done to us and to do bad ourselves, we leave feeling chastened and, and cleansed, as Aristotle would say, rather than incorrectly buoyed by being reassured, as melodrama does, or as … that we, that we are not the bad guy. Melodrama completely differentiates between the good guy and the bad guy and says, “You have a choice: the, the evil guy in the black hat, who is a swine or the angel in the white hat, who, who's a saint. Which would you rather choose?” We say, “I think I'll identify with the angel in the white hat,” and then you leave at the end of the melodrama and say, “Well, boy, I'm so glad that the angel in the white hat won. I feel great!”


But that feeling lasts until you get out of the door of the theater, whereas tragedy says, “Choose which one you want to be. Whichever one you choose, you're going to be wrong, and, p.s., you never had a choice to begin with. You're just human.” And we leave shaken and perhaps better for the experience.


Principal Works


Criticism: Oleanna (1992)