Book Review: Mamet’s Minimal-Minded ‘Theatre’

Theatre by David Mamet. Faber and Faber, 157 pages, $22

Reviewed By Joann Green Breuer

theatreDavid Mamet’s concise and consistently frustrating book, Theatre, informs even while it infuriates, arguing for throwing out babes with the bath water as if theatre could, or should, make a splash without them. Get your towels out.

But as you are sopping up the mess keep in mind that, to the proverbial shoemaker, everything is a nail. To this playwright, the text is everything. For the record, Mamet is a creator of texts. Sine qua non is not necessarily omnia vincit verbum.

The Mamet-speak of his many and oft produced plays (American Buffalo, Oleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross) is recognizable by its hesitations, interruptions, and deep-down-raw earthiness. Would that a reader could break into the sometimes, sad to say, sensible screed of this personal and passionate monologue.

For Mamet, a pox on teachers of acting, designers, directors, and, good grief, audiences. I’ll accept arguments for dismissing most of the first (they are manipulative), although Mamet offers his own acting lessons. All his caveats are reasonable; few (especially his dislike for Stanislavski and Method acting) are new. My one quibble: the curtain call is a chance for the audience to say thank you, even if the cast wishes also to extend theirs.

I also would agree to avoid some of the second (distracting), many of the third (self indulgent), yet call for more of the fourth. They are not all “tourists,” or, horror of horrors, Mamet’s disdained “subscribers.”

I question whether an audience comes solely to “judge” a performance. Money passes hands; Mamet insists that it must. It is quite nice if the experience is worth the price, but for the most part value is priceless. I admit I have worn all these aprons, and their strings remain attached.

Any theatrical input can be inappropriate, but that does not necessarily mean it is always in the way of the play. Mamet conflates the work with the worker. For good reason, conventionally, theatre is perceived as collaboration among all production chores save, perhaps, the job of those distracting acting teachers.

Mamet calls theatre a “contest between good and evil.” Is theatre not an hour or two of conflicting impulses on stage, an effort to sense the difference and with luck and time make a choice one can live with? His calling this process a mystery is fair enough, but one may have to believe in some kind of god to accept his rhetorical flourishing, tilts to God, Nuremberg, and love, with which Mamet sticks his lance.

Of performance art, pre-text character, and propaganda, Mamet will have none. Performance art is to him the equivalent of nihilism. I trust that hard-working street sweepers, stage hands, and bewildered passers by would agree.

Mamet tosses Stanislavski to the wings. Stanislavski chose Chekhov, which Mamet credits, but it is useful to keep in mind that Chekhov also chose Stanislavski.

A dramatist dear to Mamet’s creative heart, Chekhov asserts: “All I can do is show a man what he is— then let him figure out what he is watching.” For Mamet, totalitarianism is the inevitable consequence of any dramatic political message. Yes, we humans are not omniscient, but I prefer to think that we, well, some of us, are not know nothings either. Is intellect really the antithesis of entertainment? If “drama is about finding previously unsuspected meaning in chaos,” as Mamet claims, then the mind is definitely in play. Human beings, and they are the audience, seem incapable of not finding meaning in just about everything.

For example, it is hard not to read Theatre and, amid its good sense, note head-whirling contradictions. After political messages are cast aside as worthless, there follows Manet’s stagestruck anthem to theatre as an inspiring artistic exercise in American democracy. Nothing like one chapter to flip the previous one on its not mindless head, with truth an acrobatic equilibrist.

Mamet’s Theatre offers us some biographical experiences, a bit of what he learned through them, and, more importantly to him, did not learn from them. In the end, he is a playwright. His notion that to see “what happens next” is at the core of audience attention feels intriguingly incomplete. “Write a plot” he cries to the would-be playwright, wrapping himself in Aristotle’s toga, but tossing away catharsis and reason.

As for penning a script, Mamet demands revisions, but disses the rehearsal process. I don’t know to what rehearsal halls he has been invited, but rehearsal is in fact revision(ing) or better be. Else, Mamet is right. Open the darn show now.

Mamet extols the primacy of “blocking” as the revelatory directorial task. Yet he acknowledges the validity of a radio play. He celebrates the centuries of performances sans directors, but I wonder how he would squirm witnessing those stars holding center stage scene after scene or surrounding themselves with lesser talent.

Directors, like many Equity rules, may have come to being as a result of abuse. But here they are. My guess is that a few of them have abused playwright Mamet’s work, and he is still suffering from those subverting hands. Who can blame him? But that’s biographical assumption, which Mamet disparages and discards. The question is: what happens next? Why, of course, Mamet directs his own play, Race.


Joann Green Breuer was formerly founder/Artistic Director of the Cambridge Ensemble, instructor in acting at Harvard University, directing fellow at the American Repertory Theatre, author of The Small Theatre Handbook, and recipient of the Boston Critics’s Circle Continuous Excellence in Directing citation. She is presently Artistic Associate at the Vineyard Playhouse.

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