Recently I had the unmitigated pleasure of discovering Beginnings, playwright/screenwriter Horton Foote’s memoir of his years as a young man in the theater. It started me on a little run of books about American theatrical thought, such as an immense collection of Lee Strasberg lectures, and made me eager to see a live theatrical performance, something I haven’t done in a while. Then I came across David Mamet’s recent book Theatre. I may never go see a play again.
Mamet, like Foote, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) and a successful screenwriter (The Untouchables, Hoffa). But there the similarities end. Beginnings was a warm, kind tale of people devoted to their art; Theatre, supposedly the culmination of Mamet’s forty years in the trade, feels like the extended whine of an entitled old man who thinks that not enough people listen to him. In it, Mamet comes across as a combination of South Park’s Eric Cartman and Patrick Swayze’s “My way or the highway” speech from Road House.
I’ve never been a theatrical person, so my first-hand knowledge is limited. Still, the contempt Mamet shows for anyone who thinks differently than he does shoots way beyond arrogance into a kind of pathological egotism that must originate from some childhood humiliation. It’s not just, “This is my way, and it works for me,” it’s “This is my way, and it’s the only way that works, so shut the fuck up and listen.”
Here’s is a typical passage:
“But there is no inner life of the character, as there is no character. The character is only a few words of speech delineated on the page, and that’s all there is–and the Method’s concern with the character differs not at all from the daydreams of a twelve-year-old girl, e.g., ‘I wonder what Rhett Butler would do if he lived now?'”
As a writer, I can understand the wariness with which he approaches those involved in producing his plays (actors, directors, designers, etc.). I sometimes feel the same way about editors, marketing departments, and so forth. The difference is, I recognize the value of their jobs. Mamet never does. For him theater begins and ends with the play’s text; directors are next to useless, and I suspect if he could get rid of actors somehow, he would. He certainly doesn’t want their input: “The actor’s true talent and job is…to stand still and say the words–in order to accomplish something like the purpose indicated by the author.”
And the fear behind this minimizing of actors? Rejection. “The persistence of an interest in the inner life of the character is a form of deconstructionism, which is to say a rejection of the text.” His text.
The pragmatist in me wants to agree with many of his tenets, but they come laced with such vitriol that I instinctively side with those he chastises. Even a bully who’s right is still a bully. The contempt laced through Theatre must come from a place of supreme, intractable unhappiness that no amount of success will ever ameliorate. I feel sorry for the guy, because I doubt he’s ever enjoyed any of his success the way Horton Foote clearly did (and God only knows what Mamet thinks of Foote). Still, none of this is surprising for a man bitter and misanthropic enough to write Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna.
In the commentary for the Hoffa DVD, director Danny DeVito relates the following joke (paraphrased by me):
An English professor comes out of a Broadway show and is approached by a bum asking for change. The professor haughtily says, “‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’ William Shakespeare.” The bum replies, “Yeah? ‘Fuck you.’ David Mamet.”
Yep. Fuck you, indeed. That’s the core statement at the heart of Mamet’s theatre, and Mamet’s Theatre.