When David Mamet came out with his first book of essays, Writing in Restaurants, in the 1980’s, I considered him to be the latest in a long line of philosopher-artists including Goethe, Tolstoi and Shaw. But as Mamet has persisted in holding himself to be a contemporary Hemingway, with all the accompanying toughguy swagger, and as his ideas have become sillier, my enthusiasm has waned.
Mamet’s latest book, simply called Theatre, has a number of silly ideas. In this lengthy essay, the playwright-screenwriter attacks the major theorists on acting, including Stanislavski and Brecht. He also suggests that theatre directors are only marginally necessary, saying that actors could do their work well without them.
Mamet can write excellent dialogue. And in more lucid times, he could craft a compelling screenplay. But he often goes into areas where his talents are at best limited, including movie directing and cartoon drawing. And in his new book, he even attempts to make theories based on his artistic limitations.
Mamet’s plays and films, for example, have never had much in the way of characterization. He now says that there is no such thing in drama as character: there are only words on a page. This theory contradicts one of the basic elements of literature. It also rides roughshod over the work of such authors as Tolstoi and Ibsen, who both devoted considerable time and attention to characterization.
Mamet does make some good observations. He notes the problem, for example, with theatre organizations having two heads: an artistic director and an executor director. This dual directorship has wreaked havoc with many recent theatres.
But, more often than not, Mamet’s ideas are absurd. He now tends to speak on matters of which he apparently knows little. In the Socratic process, he asserts, it is the student who asks the questions. This assertion, of course, would raise the eyebrows of Socrates, who was notorious for questioning his students.
With regard to Mamet’s main thesis, he is reacting to an imbalance in the theatre. The role of the playwright has been minimized. Many directors have ignored the visions of playwrights, and have considered plays to be works to be shaped by directorial hands.
As a playwright, I insist with Mamet and Edward Albee that the vision behind a play is ultimately the playwright’s. But Mamet’s main thesis is itself imbalanced. Mamet all but ignores the huge role directors have played in the modern theatre. He bypasses the inspiration Ibsen received from the productions of the Duke of Saxe Meiningen. He says nothing of the considerable reliance placed by both Tennesee Williams and Arthur Miller on the brilliant directing of Elia Kazan.
As a friend of mine (a director) has told me, the theatre is not about playwrights or directors, but about playwrights, directors, actors, designers and audiences working together. So it is.
Yet while I have been disappointed, I continue to buy and read Mamet’s books. His works, however quirky, are always well written and often entertaining. And he stands in distinguished company with Plato and Tolstoi, two philosopher-artists who also followed their ideas to absurd conclusions.