Some Final Notes on “Theatre,” David Mamet’s Mouthy Manifesto

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By Thomas Garvey
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

In Part I of this series, I mused that David Mamet had compromised his own Broadway production of Race by stripping everything theatrical away but the text. And that he’d written a treatise — Theatre — to justify his mistake.

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This critique, of course, is open to its own critique — that, in a word, Mamet is merely calling for a stripped-down aesthetic to match his stripped-down script.

And there’s some truth in that: Mamet clearly imagines his plays rise at dawn, thwack themselves with birch branches, bathe together in a clear mountain stream and then wrestle with themselves naked in an arena packed with gladiators. This may be self-dramatizing and maybe ambiguously gay, but then, he’s a dramatist, isn’t he, so we expect him to be self-dramatizing. And Mamet’s ego doesn’t make him necessarily wrong.

But such an argument has to fight hard to explain the weird grandiosity of the claims of Theatre. For in his book, Mamet isn’t just fighting for a production style. He’s battling Stalinism, vandalism, nihilism and the whole dark tide of the liberal academy, too, with its “moral and intellectual savagery” and its taste for performance art. His one hope is the “free market,” which is the great achievement of our “free society” — in which, it must be admitted, his work has earned him pride of place (Race is still going strong at the box office).

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Or wait: Is Mamet actually in a temple instead, serving the holiest of holies? Because the theater isn’t just a commodity sold over a countertop to Mamet, it’s “a communion between the audience and God, moderated through a play or liturgy constructed by the dramatist.” And theater folk “are essentially the descendants of the priests and Levites of the ancient Temple.” (Obviously the Palestinians need not apply — and who knew that Aeschylus and Sophocles were Jewish?)

Or wait just one more minute! It turns out that the theater isn’t actually a “religion,” either. Mamet declares it merely another “profession” — “something of a racket,” at that.

You see the problem. If a book can be bipolar, then this one is in desperate need of meds. What’s most striking about Theatre, however, is the way in which it reveals how deeply Mamet misunderstands himself and his own writing.

He insists, for instance, that audiences go to plays for the suspense of the plot, to wonder “what’s going to happen next.” He sniffs at the virtues of dialogue and even snorts at the question of poetry in the drama. It’s all about what’s going to happen next! he drones over and over, and even declares that the writer who can generate such suspense is the “real” theatrical artist.

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But does anyone go to a David Mamet play for the plot?

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I certainly don’t. He often writes three- or four-handers, for chrissakes, and there are only one or two plots possible within such strict limits (either A will betray B or B will betray A, etc.) In fact, just a single scene into Race, I had sketched out its trajectory quite accurately. Which I didn’t mind, because so many of the jokes were so good and Mamet knew just how to pace his little narrative shocks, such as the inevitable “f-bombs” and the inevitable “n” and “c” words.

The truth is, you go to Mamet not for the plot but for the dialogue, the famous “Mamet-speak,” that distillation of the call of the American male that made the playwright’s name more than 30 years ago and still has a little kick left in its “fuck-you.” Because — dare I say it? — Mamet-speak has its own kind of poetry.

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And I do think it’s worth saying that, whatever the virtues of the free market (and there are many), it often rewards melodrama rather than drama. And melodrama, mixed with a little rude standup, is what Race really is, with rich, white good-‘ol boys standing in for Little Nell and a virtual-mustache-twirling villain springing out of the liberal academy at the last minute.

Did Mamet himself somehow miss all that? It would seem so. And so we’re left, in end, with the cluelessly orbiting dark stars of Theatre and Race, which together comprise something like a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Of course, maybe this particular playwright is simply devolving into a crank, as even the best artists sometimes do. But why is he such an internally contradictory crank? I even wonder whether the book is a sort of self-exculpatory stunt, of the kind that a buddy of mine used to call a “Sarah,” after a clumsy little girl he once knew (named “Sarah”) who, whenever she took a tumble, would explain to onlookers, “I meant to do that.”

Perhaps Theatre is designed for the same function — an attempt to stare down those who can perceive the mediocrity of Mamet’s Race with the pronouncement, “I meant to do that!”

I know that sounds highly unlikely.

But at the same time, no other explanation really makes any more sense.

Thomas Garvey has at various points in his checkered career impersonated a director, screenwriter, architect, strategic analyst, and Boston Globe theater critic. He’s still impersonating a critic at www.hubreview.blogspot.com, where you can read his “cantankerous, but brilliant” reviews of theater, music, art, film and dance.

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Hub Hubbub does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.