David Mamet’s Overstated ‘Theatre’

'Theatre' by David Mamet (Faber & Faber)

“You can’t live your life believing every ten-penny self-proclaimed teacher, critic, agent, etc.,” writes David Mamet in “True and False,” his 1997 treatise on acting, “Your first and most important tool is common sense.” Mamet’s words of advice for the young actor are wise. A veteran playwright and director, he knows as well as anyone else that there is a lot of pabulum passed off as legitimate acting technique or theory. More importantly, he knows that even some rudimentary logic can deflate the argument of a charlatan.

In light of this fact, it is difficult to account for the deep-seated argumentative flaws in his most recent book—the simply and aptly titled “Theatre.” A collection of 27 brief chapters, Mamet’s book is an exposition of his opinions on everything from Constantin Stanislavsky’s method to the Great American Play and a host of other subjects relating to theatre.

These are lofty topics, to be sure, and he makes quite a number of lofty claims about them. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a book taking on such a grand scope, Mamet does so without any sense of rigor. In “Theatre,” he makes a number of fascinating and provocative claims, but they are ultimately founded on flimsy arguments that are more reductive than revelatory. The end result is a read that is mostly frustrating with its self-important tone and baseless claims.

Ever the iconoclast, Mamet takes on the role of the heretic in “Theatre.” Much of the book is spent attempting to dismantle ideas that have been the foundation of theatre-making for over a century. Mamet seems to have no problem unabashedly denouncing his predecessors, but Stanislavsky unequivocally bears most of the criticism in Mamet’s book. “Stanislavsky’s trilogy is a bunch of useless gack,” he writes, “Brecht’s gibberish about the alienation effect is, as proved by a lot of Joe Papp’s oeuvre in the seventies, unimplementable.”

His actual critique of Stanislavsky, however, is mostly based on an uncharitable, oversimplified reading of the director’s prolific work: “Stanislavsky’s famed (if essentially hypothetical) system, then, was and is the dissection of the motives and emotions of the character. One hundred years of actors have wasted their time in this pointless pursuit.” He proceeds to expound on why the emphasis on character over plot is a flawed method of theater making, but he never successfully validates his vitriolic reading of Stanislavski. To take on a figure so influential, one must do more than simply excoriate his work, but Mamet has an unfortunate tendency to make overstated claims without enough substantive proof or analysis.

Even when he praises other artists, the compliments seem oddly back-handed. In a chapter about Great American Plays, he lauds many authors, but gives special credit to Thornton Wilder for “Our Town.” Mamet has some intriguing thoughts about how the play utilizes language with verisimilitude to American dialect. The problem is that he insists that “the vulgate, the actual language of the people can be found only in the cultural anathemas known as popular entertainment.” This argument is tenuously developed to a frustrating conclusion: “The job of the dramatist is to get, and that of the actors and directors to keep, the asses in the seats. Period. This is what pays the rent.... The purpose of theatre is not to instruct, to better, to expiate. It is to entertain.” Mamet’s perspective on drama is simply reductive. To say writers such as Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee are worthwhile simply because they put “asses in seats” is to grossly undermine the impact they have had on dramatic literature. Beyond that, it is incredibly restrictive to ascribe entertainment as the sole purpose of drama.

One of the underlying problems of “Theatre” is that Mamet’s style of writing does not lend itself to sophisticated argumentation. His dramatic dialogue is iconic—often referred to as “Mametspeak”—and his plays are full of terse and crude language. The effect translates to his nonfiction as well, and much of language in “Theatre” has the colloquial feel of dialogue, which does little to lend credibility to his opinions. Rhetorical questions abound—many of which he subsequently answers himself. The phrase “blah blah blah” even makes an appearance.

Brevity is another key factor to Mamet’s writing—chapters are rarely longer than four or five pages, and paragraphs are often only a sentence or two. The trouble is that this concise style renders his arguments insufficient. To dismiss Stanislavski’s entire body of work in seven pages without even quoting the man is more than just a stylistic gaffe—it creates a tone of self-importance and haughtiness that is a aggravating as is it unconvincing.

It is lamentable that Mamet’s actual writing doesn’t do a better job of motivating his arguments, because he does occasionally make truly insightful observations. In a chapter titled “Hunting Instincts” he compares the theatrical experience to that of a hunt, insofar as the audience experiences a primal drive to follow the plot along. He uses this metaphor to account for the suspension of disbelief: “We suspend the rational process of intellectualization, which is to say, of the comparison of phenomenon to idea, which is a process too slow for the hunt.” The connection he draws between the theater and the primal rings true, even if the analogy he uses to explicate his point is a bit overwrought.

While such moments of enlightenment appear sporadically throughout, Mamet’s arguments lack any sense of nuance and his writing style does not help him support his opinions. If anything, his trademark style comes off as supercilious in the context of nonfiction. There is some value to the incendiary nature of the questions he poses—his opposition to canonical theater artists is almost admirable in its total conviction—but the failure to effectively substantiate his claims renders this book an exercise in futility. However, to call Mamet a charlatan would be to commit the same error he does in “Theatre.” As one of the seminal theatre artists of our age, his ideas are certainly important—hopefully Mamet will heed his own advice and employ a little more “common sense” while penning his next book.

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