The Washington Post
Theatreby David Mamet
If theatre were a religion, explains David Mamet in his opening chapter, "many of the observations and suggestions in this book might be heretical." As always, Mamet delivers on his promise: in Theatre, the acclaimed author of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow calls for nothing less than the death of the director and the end of acting/i>/i>/i>
If theatre were a religion, explains David Mamet in his opening chapter, "many of the observations and suggestions in this book might be heretical." As always, Mamet delivers on his promise: in Theatre, the acclaimed author of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow calls for nothing less than the death of the director and the end of acting theory. For Mamet, either actors are good or they are non-actors, and good actors generally work best without the interference of a director, however well-intentioned. Issue plays, political correctness, method actors, impossible directions, Stanislavksy, and elitists all fall under Mamet's critical gaze. To students, teachers, and directors who crave a blast of fresh air in a world that can be insular and fearful of change, Theatre throws down a gauntlet that challenges everyone to do better, including Mamet himself.
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By David Mamet
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2010 David Mamet
All rights reserved.
The greenroom is that common room between the street and the stage. In coming backstage, one enters the greenroom first. I've heard, over the years, several derivations of the term: The original room was painted green, or was constructed by a man named Green. None are convincing.
Early nineteenth-century British novels refer to the greenroom in a country house. They mean by this that transitional space known in New England as the mudroom. This mudroom in old farmhouses (including my own) allowed the farmer, hunter, outdoorsman to divest himself of those accoutrements that were needed on the land but inappropriate in the house. Mine, in Vermont, was filled, according to the seasons, with fishing rods, snowshoes, muddy boots, firearms, longbows, skis, skates, a snow shovel, a maul, the walls covered with hooks bearing all sorts of coats and caps, and on the floor a wooden drying rack covered with gloves, gaiters, sweaters.
In Vermont, the mudroom; in England, the greenroom, where one knocked off the grass, grain, and green of the field. On the farm, the greenroom was the space between the farm and the home; in the theatre, it rests between the sacred and the profane.
Many of the observations and suggestions in this book might be considered heretical.
That is, if the theatre were a religion. But, though its origins are linked with religion, the theatre as an art is a profession, and, in its appearance as show business, is something of a racket.
This book is a compilation and a distillation of those thoughts and attendant practices I have used in my forty years in the professional theatre. They are the rules by which I function as an artist and by which I have been able to make a living.
Faced with a difficult medical decision, we are most comforted to hear the physician endorse one of the choices by saying, "This is what I would do if it were my own child."
The ideas herein, similarly, are what I would (and do) tell my own children and my students. I will gladly test their practicality and practicability against anyone willing to put his particular philosophy to a practical test.
Of what might such a test consist? The ability to motivate an actor to perform an action simply and unself-consciously; to involve an audience; and, at a somewhat more abstract level, to communicate a directorial or literary vision to a designer such that his designs will serve the show.
Finally, I am suggesting and describing a way of thinking about the drama (analysis) and of communicating the subsequent conclusions using language and vocabulary (direction).
Impracticable theory is an impediment to both art and sustenance, and benefits no one save the intellectual to whom theatrical thought is an abstract and enjoyable exercise. But the point of the theatre is to give the audience enjoyment, and it is my experience that to do so, the practitioner is going to have to learn discipline.
This is primarily a discipline of thought and speech. Its overriding principle is never to consider or to suggest that which is impossible to accomplish.
As a young student I abhorred direction and instruction that was incapable of being done. I still do. It called for a collusion between the student and the teacher-director: "I will pretend to an approximation of what I think you want if you will refrain from criticizing me."
The theatre does not need more teachers or more directors; it needs more writers and actors, and both come from the same applicant pool: those who are affronted, bemused, fascinated, or saddened by the infinite variety of human interaction, which always bodes so promising and usually ends so ill.
This applicant pool is interested in the truth, and they love to act and write.
Here follow certain thoughts about these people and the audience that craves their productions.
THE HUNTER AND THE GAME
Game does not disappear because of overhunting but because of destruction of habitat. It takes one hundred square miles to support a grizzly bear and hundreds of acres to support a herd of deer.
In the theatre, the habitat in which the artist must flourish is the audience.
In 1967, when I was in acting school in New York, there were seventy-two new Broadway plays produced. In 2009 there were forty -three, of which half were revivals.
Why the diminution? The habitat has disappeared — the audience, which is to say, the middle class, is gone.
They were the arbiters of American theatre, for American theatre would reach the hinterlands only via Broadway, and the Broadway play would fail or succeed upon its ability to appeal to the middle class. One might say that the true arbiters were the critics, but this only places the correct answer at one remove, for the critics, then as now, served, whether they knew it or not, at the pleasure of the paper's advertisers, which is to say, at the pleasure of the consumers, which is to say, the audience.
This Broadway audience, which supported the plays of O'Neill, Odets, Saroyan, Wilder, Miller, and Williams, was educated or, in any case, literate, middle-class, largely Jewish. They enjoyed discussion and those plays that fostered discussion, for most in their community saw the plays.
No more. Today's Broadway audience is predominantly tourists and the wealthy vacationers who, in the main, are the only ones who can afford life in New York. These may be tourists full stop, or that genus the rural Vermonters of my youth referred to as "the year-round summer people," that is to say, those who cannot fully participate in the community, as they need not rely upon one another.
These current New Yorkers do not participate in the day-to-day life of the world in which they are domiciled, or do so at a much lower level than those middle-class New Yorkers of old; as they do not participate, that communal interaction that gives rise both to the audience and to the playwrights does not occur. I wrote a new play last year and asked my New York producer if he didn't think that it would, perhaps, fare better off rather than on Broadway, and he gave me a rueful smile and explained, "There is no off-Broadway," and further, that there had not been for twenty years.
There is only Broadway. There are fewer theatres. More than 25 percent of off-off-Broadway theatres have closed in the last five years alone, mostly in Midtown and the West Village.
The worth of Midtown real estate has raised the rents of the Broadway theatres, and, for an average play to recoup its investment, it must run fifteen weeks at near capacity. Which is to say, it must fill 1,200 seats, at an average ticket price of $77.
To whom, then, must this play appeal? To risk $11 million, the play, to the rational investor, must be odds-on to appeal to the tourist.
The tourist has no memory of last year's play and actors, he does not come to see the new work of a director, of a playwright, or of a designer. He comes to see a spectacle, which will neither provoke nor disturb, whose worth cannot be questioned. He does not come with the theatrical curiosity of the native theatregoer but with the desire for amusement, and he comes as to an amusement park, for the thrill first of experiencing, and next, and perhaps more important, of being able to relate having experienced that particular thrill deprived to the stay-at-homes. He wants to brag of having seen star X or star Y. The tourist goes to the theatre much as I went, in London, to see the Crown Jewels.
No adult Londoner would go to see the Crown Jewels, and no adult New Yorker went to see Mamma Mia! for to do so would have been culturally repugnant, branding him as a tourist or dufus.
New York, with the rise in real estate prices and the disappearance of manufacture, business, and, thus, of the middle class, has become New York Land.
What of the critics?
The readership of The New York Times is the wealthy, in effect, the rentier, which is to say, he who has got to where he was going, and our paper of record, absent a constituency of the theatrically savvy, has become a champion of the moot, appealing to the intellectual pretensions of its readership.
The paper, de facto cultural censor, writes (I will not say "panders") to the intellectually pretentious — "You must experience the meaning of this play" — while it also pushes the transient — "Thrills, chills, and an exploding set. KILL to get a ticket!!!"
The currency of any new play depends on its reception in New York. If it is not staged in New York, it will not be printed or awake the interest of the stock and amateur theatres from which a playwright might derive continued income. If it is not well received in New York, it will fare similarly. And that is the news from Lake Wobegon: The habitat has disappeared.
Now, the desire for drama has not disappeared, and one may find it gratified through various new venues, electronic and, as always, local and jury-rigged. Though there is much less chance of these local efforts migrating to Gotham and thence to the world, there is increased possibility of them finding a wider audience on the Internet. And so it goes.CHAPTER 2
Man is never happier than when he is going hunting.
— José Ortega y Gasset
Man is a predator. We know this because our eyes are in the front of our heads. The same conclusion may be reached by reading the newspapers.
As predators we close out the day around the campfire with stories of the hunt.
These stories, like the chase itself, engage our most primal instinct of pursuit: The story's hero is in pursuit of his goal — the hiding place of the stag or the cause of the plague on Thebes or the question of Desdemona's chastity or the location of Godot.
In the hunt story, the audience is placed in the same position as the protagonist: The viewer is told what the goal is and, like the hero, works to determine what is the best thing to do next — he wonders what happens next. How may he determine what is the best course toward the goal? Through observation. He, the viewer, watches the behavior of the hero and his antagonists, and guesses what will happen next. This is the essence of the story around the campfire: "And you'll never guess what happened next ..."
In this prognostication we engage the same portion of the brain that we use in the hunt: the ability to spontaneously process and act upon information without subjecting the process to verbal (conscious) review.
This is the apparent paradox of dramatic writing. It is not, though it may appear to be, the communication of ideas but rather the inculcation in the audience of the instincts of the hunt. These instincts precede and, in times of stress, supersede the verbal; they are spontaneous and more powerful than the assimilation of an idea.
The mere presentation of an idea is called a lecture. A lecture induces in the listener that ruminative state necessary for comparison and evaluation of ideas. This is the usual state of the civilized being — a dampening of the predatory instincts in order to allow communal cooperation.
This is all well and good, but it is not the stuff of drama, which, by fulfilling a more basic need — to exercise our most primal instincts — has the power not only to please but also, curiously, to unite. For the audience, when moved, is moved on a preverbal level. It is not involved in sharing the ideas of the drama, but rather experiences the thrill of the communal hunt. This suspension of the analytical faculty is also experienced in the falling-in-love portion of mating, in gambling, in combat, in sport.
When we rise from the drama we resume our intellectual pretensions and ascribe our enjoyment to our ability to appreciate its engaging themes and ideas. This (like the societal election of the newspaper critic as censor) is an attempt to regain autonomy.
But we are not actually moved by the ideas in plays, nor, primarily, even by the presence of poetry. We appreciate plays in translation, and what do we know of the Russian of Chekhov? And we have argued for four hundred years about the "meaning" of Hamlet.
Certainly a play, being not only a celebration of the hunt but a hunt itself, will benefit from an author's genius as a poet — Shakespeare was the greatest poet in the English language. But the second greatest was Yeats, and he couldn't write a play to save his soul. Poetry is insufficient; beauty in language itself (see again, Chekhov in translation) is nonessential. What is essential? The plot.
The critical and academic love of issue plays reveals a misunderstanding of drama. It is the civilized man's misunderstanding, which is to say, a misappreciation of the power of his own reason. "We are all here together in this theatre; therefore, let's use our time wisely and listen to a lecture whose meaning may be encapsulated and so taken home with us."
But this lecture has no power to unite. For as much as we hail the correct proclamation of the apparent truth, we, the audience, have had no experience together. We, the audience, were merely stuck at a lecture.
But the drama is, essentially, people stuck in an elevator.
Those of us who have been in similar extremity cherish the experience the rest of our lives, for as trying and inconvenient as it was at the time, we remember the unity of communal endeavor and value this cessation of our mundane worries. It was cleansing to experience that we could put aside the so pressing activities of the day and find that the world went on in any case, while our new, small tribe searched for a solution to its communal problem.
The hours in the elevator, the hours in the theatre, are the communal hunt for a solution. As such, the experiences are indelible, for they engage not the consciousness but a different order and more effective part of the brain.
The soldier, the gambler, the fighter need to be shown something only once. They do not need to be convinced by explanation. Shown something that will cost or save their lives, they will remember it. Their actual brain waves have been changed, because their life depends on it. They, here, are the predator animal.
But the passivity during the lecture and issue play is the reaction of the prey animal: Sit still and listen while you are told something you already know and are charged for it. Do not fear, for nothing will excite you.
But we use a different part of our brain to actually appreciate drama. We civilized folk use it seldom and we love to exercise it. Go into a theatre and feel the audience enthralled in a play. One can feel it backstage, and with one's eyes closed — a physiologic change is taking place through communal absorption in the hunt.
It is the excitation of the hunting instinct that accounts for the special pleasure we take in drama. (The storyteller around the campfire excites our vicarious participation in the near miss with the bear, but the viewer is in no actual danger of mauling.)
Let us note that suspension of disbelief does not mean we accept the implausible but rather we suspend the rational process of intellectualization, which is to say, of the comparison of phenomenon to idea, which is a process too slow to be of use in the hunt.
The suspension of disbelief is better characterized as a suspension of reason and, as such, can be seen as an essentially religious action — a surrender in the face of the gods or Fates, and a confession that our prized reason, and so our humanity, is fundamentally flawed and that we are sinners, torn between evil and good, between consciousness and passion, and deluded in our assessment of our own powers.
In this hunt, our self-confidence is at last revealed as arrogance, our reason as folly, and, by being brought low, we are cleansed — just as in the confessional, or on Yom Kippur, or in any true apology.
This is the story of the hunt, the war story, the story around the campfire. It is always a confession of the powerlessness of man over the intentions of the gods — in these we fail the easiest of tasks and succeed in the most impossible of endeavors, as the Fates will.
As predators we understand our entire life, and each discrete section of it (the day, the week, youth, maturity, age, the new job) as a hunt.
We hunt for security, fame, happiness, compensation, et cetera. Psychiatry is an attempt to bring to the conscious mind the nature of the hunt and, so, reason backward to the underlying needs of the sufferer — to bring to consciousness the unconscious assumptions and goals whose incompatibility with possibility are making the analysand unhappy.
Drama is not an attempt on the part of the dramatist to clarify but rather to present, in its unfiltered, disturbing form, the hunt of the individual (the protagonist) such that, in its perfect form (tragedy), the end of the play reveals the folly of the hero's (and so the audience's) assumptions about the world and himself.
Excerpted from Theatre by David Mamet. Copyright © 2010 David Mamet. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
DAVID MAMET is a director as well as the author of numerous acclaimed plays, books, and screenplays. His play Glengarry Glen Ross won a Pulitzer Prize, and his screenplays for The Verdict and Wag the Dog were nominated for Academy Awards. He lives in Santa Monica, California.
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With his trademark concision, David Mamet once again challenges professional theatre practitioners to simplify their (otherwise deleterious) methods of organization, production and education. And while he is correct on almost every point he makes, please note that Mr. Mamet hasn't always practiced what he has so rigorously preached. In "Theatre," Mamet rails against mixing politics and entertainment. One of his best works, however, "Oleanna," is (among other things) a demonstration in censorship and an indictment of political correctness. Regarding his zeal for the Aristotelian Unities, one might enquire as to which dramatic principles he implemented in bringing "The Old Neighborhood" (a plotless character study) to the stage. "Cut away all embellishment and make the audience wonder what happens next," Mamet demands of us time and again. He posits that a theatrical experience "is essentially the performance of a plot..." But what, then, would be left of Shakespeare's plays if we stripped from them every line that failed to advance the plot? Bottom line: Mamet's writings on The Theatre often take on an absolutist or reductionist quality. They are all necessary reads for the serious dramatist and thespian nonetheless. Why? Because in "Theatre," as with his other works, Mamet points out the difference between a charlatan and an artisan.
Music right here.
I am here
Ok music and pranks are taken. The party has to be moved to what is currently res three cuz the result it was on has dissapeared.