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Monday, July 19, 2010

The ‘Theatre’ World According to David Mamet

Playwright lashes out in slender, muscular book

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David Mamet is almost as blunt-spoken as the gritty, street-bound characters he introduced in Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo. One of the great playwrights to emerge in the closing decades of the 20th century, Mamet has also been prolific in other fields, writing and directing for film and television, publishing novels and poetry, contributing a blog to the Huffington Post and penning commentaries on anti-Semitism, the movie business and the Torah.

In his newest book, a slender but muscular essay simply called Theatre (Faber & Faber), Mamet reflects on the profession that has been the through-line of his diverse career as he lashes out at a raft of annoyances. He is not impressed with Stanislavsky and his Method; doesn’t care much for theater directors in general, holding that good actors are usually better off without them; dismisses contemporary Broadway as a pricey tourist trap in the theme park that New York City has become; and despises academic culture studies as the province of tenured vandals bent on destroying art and replacing it with P.C. position papers dressed up as performance.

What’s frustrating about Mamet is his implication that there is no good fight worth fighting. He has invested into the dogma of Milton Friedman, the philosopher of “self-interest” and deregulation whose notions have charged a heavy toll on the welfare of the world. Having written so vividly about swindlers and their marks, perhaps Mamet suspects anyone trying to better the world of being a crook or a fool?

None of this invalidates his core ideas on the art of theater or art in general. Like the great East German-born poet Durs Grnbein, whose recent essay collection The Bars of Atlantis contains some trenchant thoughts on the war between the creative mystery of poetry and the cerebral prison of the philosophers, Mamet presents theater as the enemy of one of the repressive mechanisms cited by Freud, “the intellect and its pretensions.” For Mamet, theater in its pure modes of drama and comedy, shorn of sermonizing, creates a forum in which we can free ourselves from repression through identification with the protagonist’s quest. “The job of theatre is to investigate the human condition,” he writes, adding that our condition is essentially tragic, though not without hope.

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