Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dammit, Mamet! A Review of Mr. Crankypants' New Book "Theatre"

Is David Mamet, one of the greatest playwrights of the American stage, now its crankiest commentator?

I've just been finished his new book, modestly entitled Theatre. The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

That doesn't mean that Theatre is not occasionally a fun read. When his earlier book True and False came out in 1999, I discussed it with Freehold’s director (and UW Professor) Mark Jenkins. That book was a radical and thorough attack on the Stanislavski-inspired system of acting training, with Mamet lambasting just about every central tenant of “the Method,” from “sense memory” to textual analysis. His objections were vituperative but seemed informed; Mamet had studied with Meisner and was a friend of Harold Clurman, among other original pioneers of The Group Theatre. He certainly sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

When I asked Jenkins, himself a graduate of The Actor’s Studio, what he thought, he said he strenuously disagreed with almost everything in the book. “But look at where Mamet is: he’s won the Pulitzer and has come close to an Oscar. He’s got a hit film out (at that time it was The Spanish Prisoner) and is married to a beautiful actress. He’s on top of the world and he knows it. Of course he’s going to write a book like this!”

But having railed from the top of Success Mountain against Theatre’s “false prophets,” a decade later Mamet’s provocative thoughts have calcified into list-making curmudgeonliness.

In Theatre, it’s not just theatrical training that gets bludgeoned. Practically every element of the art is savaged, including actors, directors, the rehearsal process, the cost of theatre tickets, subscribers, arts funding, political theatre, poetic theatre, and “victim theatre.”

Mamet’s value as an essayist is his pugilistic prose which declares, in short powerful sentences, his positions. But when you start to pull them apart in search of the meaning of the maxims, what’s there is at best bewildering and at worst fraudulent.

Take this paragraph, from the chapter provocatively entitled (but what isn't in this book?) “On the General Uselessness of the Rehearsal Process:”

“The better the play, the easier it is to stage. Why? A good play is clear. It is clear who wants what from whom. Knowing this, the director can merely stage the actors such that, scene by scene, their intentions are clear to the audience. Let the actor learn his lines and open the damn thing.”

Let's leave alone the grumblings about ease of staging, which sound like the exasperated yowl of a playwright who’s become convinced that the real problem with his wonderful scripts is that his stupid directors keep overproducing them.

Instead, let's examine this contention: “a good play is clear. It is clear who wants what from whom.” Since Mamet evokes Aristotle, Oedipus, and Shakespeare, I'll evoke Hamlet. Now, Hamlet's fundamental "want" is obvious: avenge his father, and kill his Uncle. Then why doesn't he do it? In the original history that Shakespeare used as his source, the Prince learns about the murder, hunts down his uncle, kills him, and then reigns happily in Elsinore to a ripe old age. Now that's clear. So why does Shakespeare’s Hamlet spend five acts assuming an “antic disposition,” breaking up with Ophelia, bewildering his friends, and even staging a play in court just to see Claudius’s reaction? The only thing that’s “clear” is that he's conflicted--he wants to kill his Uncle at the same time he doesn't want to, for reasons that he can't articulate and we can't fully understand. That's what makes Hamlet not just a good but a great play.

Theatre’s short chapters are filled with a laundry list of the dislikes of Mamet. Actors need to understand the “fact” that no one wants to see people crying on a stage. (Hey Electra! Get a room!) Plays about “victims,” and here Mamet means "social message" dramas about the dilemmas of gays, women, and people of color, are reminiscent (for reasons that aren't entirely clear) of Stalinist show trials. Subsidized theatres insulate artists from the healthy tonic of the marketplace. Subscribers feel conned because they've been sold on a season, not a play’s individual merits. Directors are simply unnecessary, an obstacle between the actor and the play.

After laying waste to so much of the theatrical landscape, what’s left? A paying audience; a few actors who can speak clearly, look up from the floor, and pick up their cues; and a good script—preferably, one infers, one written by David Mamet.

Whatever truth is here, these brisk unsubstantiated opinions sound like a crotchety old-timer less interested in sharing wisdom than on sounding off.

But just when his crankiness gets to be too much, he’ll come out with something like this: “Who are the correct teachers of writing? There are two….The speaking one is the audience.” Here he suggests that the greatest classroom for the playwright is sitting in on a performance and watching not just the show but how it goes over—the jokes that fall flat, the endings that don’t end, the scenes where an audience collectively rustles. From personal experience, I affirm: he couldn't be more right.

And the second great teacher? “…the silent teacher is the empty page.” I’m not even entirely sure I understand what Mamet’s saying here, but as a playwright, I feel it. And it’s beautiful.

There are two other things I unequivocally enjoy about this book. The first is that it’s not Mamet’s last word on Theatre. Thankfully, he’s still writing plays, not just sour essays, and I believe that there might be another masterpiece or two in that graying bespectacled head. The second? The spelling of the book’s title. In the great “Theater” versus “Theatre” debate, I've always been a “re” man. And like Mamet, while I have no solid basis in fact for this position, I am willing to argue passionately for it.


  1. I was looking for your blog and I found this one instead... ;)

  2. Well, you can say a lot of things about me, but unlike the author of THAT longeblog, you probably couldn't say that:

    "I am a sinner saved by grace, wife to my best friend, and homeschooling mother of four children."