Friday, Nov. 7, 2008

The Author's Intent: David Mamet

By Russ Bickerstaff
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In just a couple of weeks, the Boulevard Theatre opens its production of a pair of David Mamet shorts. I’ll be talking to the show’s director Jaime Jastrab at some point in the next few days. I’ve seen a few pieces of Mamet in production since I first started covering the theatre scene here in Milwaukee. My personal history with the playwright is a bit uneven.

I have mixed feelings about the scruffy-looking self-described “former brain-dead liberal,” who carelessly considers conservative thinker Thomas Sowell “our greatest contemporary philosopher,” without any consideration for true 20th century visionaries like Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and a dozen others I could mention who aren’t dead.

I was first introduced to Mamet’s work in junior high school. My father had mentioned meeting him when he was interning at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago ages ago. (I would later find out that he had done his Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago on the debut production of American Buffalo—as I recall, the book was a pretty exhaustive look behind the scenes, which never got published commercially entitled Artifacts of Creation.)

In junior high school, I read a number of scripts by Mamet. The one that really hit me was Edmond. I read the script without any preconceptions about it and ended up getting this profound sense that it was a brilliant story about how, in modern society, even the most seemingly well-adjusted person can slip into the dark and shadowy side of human nature. It can all fall apart in an instant without warning. The title character—a perfectly normal guy at the beginning of the play, suddenly decides his life with his perfectly normal wife is wrong. He leaves with no explanation saying that he won’t be back and ends killing someone. Chilling stuff.

Over a decade after reading the script to Edmond, I happened across the DVD of the recent indie film adaptation of the play starring William H. Macy. Deciding that I was familiar enough with it that simply watching it wouldn’t be as intersting as I originally thought, I checked the DVD extra. Sure enough there was an alternative running commentary track by the playwright/screenwriter. Having never heard his voice before, listening to Mamet speak was a bit of a jolt. His voice is like sandpaper. He seemed to be fumbling along with the film without having any real idea of what he was going to say, which felt a bit disconcertingly like listening to some guy entrely unrelated to the production talk about semi-related things as the movie moved through the plot on its own. Mamet in conversation doesn't sound as conversationally precise as his characters do onstage.

Having watched enough of the film to get used to Mamet’s strange and distinctly un-Mamet like mode of speech, I heard his impression of what the play was all about. It was completely incongruous with the concept I’d had of the play that I’d read in junior high school. According to the author’s original intention, Edmond was NOT a play about the fragility of the human psyche. According to Mamet (the author) Edmond is a play about how men are afraid of sex. (?) Evidently, the theory goes something like this: while perfectly okay with the idea of sex, we men aren’t comfortable with the actual act. Mamet spoke of being impressed with Playboy when it first came out and praised publisher Hugh Heffner for having found a commercial package which caters to men’s love of sex without confronting them with the actual act. (Weird.) Suffice it to say, this took me a bit off guard.

I had to pause the film. I went into the DVD options, turned off the light abrasive sound of Mamet’s voice and watched the rest of the story unfold with Mamet’s perspective in mind. I see where he’s coming from, but I still feel as though my impression of the script is perfectly valid. Having read numerous reviews of different productions of the play since then, it occurs to me that there really hasn’t been a production that has approached the script centered around the perspective of it being a story about the fragile nature of human stability. It’d be really interesting to see one performed. In any case, it was interesting to find out with such startling clarity that an author’s intent isn’t always the best way to go when producing a script.

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