"The Water Engine" and "Mr. Happiness"

by David Mamet
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"The Water Engine" and "Mr. Happiness"

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684

The Water Engine was first written to be performed on radio; the stage version was first produced in May, 1977, in Chicago. Generally, plays that evolve out of another form do not fare well on the stage; many times the differences between being seen and being read are in direct conflict. But Mamet is a playwright first and foremost, and he has adapted the various elements of The Water Engine with such skill and thought that no awkwardness is perceptible.

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Long before modern man worried about the present energy shortage, he attempted to build “the better mousetrap.” This invention provides the basic inciting incident in The Water Engine. Charles Lang, inventor and “common” guy, has invented the dream most of us share: he has developed an engine that runs on water. One would think that such an invention in a modern technological society like America (even in 1934) would be a historical event. As the play opens, we find our protagonist on his way to a lawyer to get a patent. The trouble for Charles, his wife Rita, and his friends is just beginning.

Mamet’s approach to the story line would be no better than that of the average hack if it were not for his outstanding use of language and style. The entire play is done as a radio show. Actors move to and from microphones. Unlike the theater, the scene can change swiftly, and the reader or observer can be transported from one locale to another. Certainly it is an unorthodox theater structure, but it works well. The playwright is very skilled as he manipulates the readers from office to telephone to Bughouse Square in Chicago.

In an almost classical struggle, Charles Lang is pitted against all the basic evils of the world. A patent lawyer has interests coinciding with big industry rather than the “little man.” A thoughtless and advanced technology would be completely ruined by an engine capable of developing eight horsepower and using plain water as its only fuel. Mamet paints a grim picture of how big business will stop at nothing to maintain the status quo.

But even more than an indictment of the business community, the play presents the all-too-familiar reality that man is not truly interested in his fellow man. One example is seen in the mundane discussion between the woman and her companion in the elevator at the opening of Act Two; the companion asks the same question twice within a few lines of dialogue as if to say, “I’m not really interested in what you are saying—only that you are talking.”

The end of the play is noteworthy. Throughout the play one wonders if the “little guy” really has a chance in our society. Mamet handles this dilemma well. When Charles Lang sends the plans for the water engine to young Bernie, there is at least a glimmer of hope for the “little guy” pitted against the industrial giants.

Mamet is a bright new addition to American theater; he has something to say, he says it with great skill and subtlety. This is an accomplishment difficult to find in today’s American theater experience.

Mr. Happiness, written as a companion piece for the Broadway production of The Water Engine, was also originally written in a format for radio. The play has only one character: Mr. Happiness, as he is called, the host of a radio program that answers letters written by listeners.

As is often the problem with such plays, the action is too static to really qualify the piece as anything more than an interesting exercise in radio dialogue. A sort of mass radio audience appeal can be felt in Mr. Happiness, which is undoubtedly a good example of effective monologue. Mr. Happiness lacks the movement of action, crisis, climax, and denouement that a good play simply must have. Certainly it is full of humor and reads easily, but it is not theater. One wishes that the publishers had seen fit to begin this paperback with Mr. Happiness; readers would then have been ready for the real Mamet in The Water Engine.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8

Booklist. LXXV, September 1, 1978, p. 16.

Choice. XV, October, 1978, p. 1052.

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