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David Mamet is a prominent playwright and screenplay writer who is highly praised for his careful attention to language and its relationship to behavior. In much of his work, which reflects the rhythms of fellow dramatist Harold Pinter, he concentrates on creating characters and atmosphere with sparse, cadenced dialogue—sometimes, say some critics, at the expense of plot and action. Nevertheless, whether working for the theater or the screen, Mamet has the reputation of being an extraordinary craftsman.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
David Alan Mamet was born in Chicago, Illinois, on November 30,1947, the only son of Bernard and Leonore Mamet. As a lawyer, Bernard valued semantics, the branch of linguistics concerned with the nature, structure, and contextual meaning of words. Accordingly, he taught Mamet and his younger sister how to listen, question, and express themselves as precisely as possible. In fact, Bernard would often stop conversation at the dinner table until his children found more precise words for what they were trying to say. Even as a child, Mamet spent many afternoons in his father’s office, com-posing dialogue at a typewriter. After his parents’ divorce in the late 1950s, Mamet lived with his mother and attended a private school in Chicago. At the age of fifteen, he began working backstage at the Hull House Theatre, where he discovered his life’s direction. In high school, he worked as a busboy at an improvisational-comedy cabaret, an experience he says helped him understand the rhythms of action and speech.
An Ear for Language
Mamet studied literature and drama at Goddard College in Plainfeld, Vermont. He received a BA in 1969 after writing his first play, a revue called Camel, to fulfill his thesis requirement in English literature. Though he studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City, he quickly decided he was better suited to writing and directing for the theater. In 1970, he taught drama at Marlboro College in Vermont, and then returned to Chicago, where he worked a variety of odd jobs, including cabdriver, short-order cook, factory worker, and telephone salesman. Many critics attribute Mamet’s astute ear for American idiom and cadence to this apprenticeship among the working class.
In 1971, Mamet returned to Goddard College as a drama instructor and artist-in-residence. In the process of teaching his classes, Mamet discovered that writing his own material for student performances was better than searching for appropriate material by other dramatists. In 1972, Mamet again went back to Chicago, where he saw several of his plays staged at experimental theaters. His play Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974) garnered him the Joseph Jefferson Award, a prize given annually to the best new Chicago play. In 1975, a double bill featuring Duck Variations (1972) and Sexual Perversity in Chicago was produced in an Off-Broadway theater in New York.
The Broadway production of American Buffalo (1975) solidified Mamet’s place in contemporary drama. The play ran for 135 performances and was voted the best American play of19761977 by the New York Drama Critics Circle. More important, however, Mamet’s first Broadway production showed he was capable of creating a unique American language for the theater. Indeed, clipped, rapid-fire dialogue is known throughout the world of theater as “Mametspeak.” In 1976, Mamet received an Obie award for distinguished playwriting. A prolific dramatist, he followed American Buffalo with numerous plays, the most successful of which was Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), which earned both the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best American play and the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1984.
Screenplay Writing and Other Genres
In 1979, Mamet turned to writing screenplays and made an impressive debut with his work for the 1981 film version of the 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain. For Mamet, whose dramas for the stage do not rely on external plot or movement, screenplay writing was a learning experience because he had to focus on plot as well as dialogue. Despite a professed disdain of Hollywood, he has followed The Postman Always Rings Twice with a number of critically acclaimed screenplays, including The Verdict (1982), which was nominated for an Academy Award, and the gangster epic The Untouchables (1987).
A man with numerous creative talents, Mamet has written stage adaptations for several fictional works by Anton Chekov. In 1988, he made his first appearance as a director with the film House of Games. At the same time, he wrote Speed-the-Plow (1988), in which pop star Madonna made her Broadway debut. In 1994, Mamet published his first novel, The Village, and he has published several collections of essays filled with his thoughts, opinions, recollections, musings, and reports on a variety of topics, such as friendship, religion, politics, morals, society, and of course, the American theater.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Mamet has continued to write and direct for both the stage and the screen, working on the movie Hannibal (2001), the sequel to the Oscar-winning thriller Silence of the Lambs (1991). He ventured into television when he directed an episode of The Shield (2001), which he followed in 2006 with the creation of The Unit, a CBS action-adventure series featuring a special forces team based on Eric Haney’s nonfiction work Inside Delta Force (2002). Mamet’s most recent work includes directing the martial arts movie Redbelt (2008).
Works in Literary Context
Mamet’s contributions to the worlds of film and stage are numerous and impressive. One of the movie industry’s finest writers and directors, his work has remained in demand, and he established his place in the lexicon of theater with Mametspeak.
Sparse and cryptic at times, Mametspeak is precisely crafted dialogue characterized bya clipped, staccato rhythm unlike natural speech patterns. In many works, Mamet attempts to condense speech into a single line or even a single word, much like the compression found in poetry. Such manipulation of language proves pointed and effective. The power of Mamet’s characters lies within their dialogue, and Mamet often emphasizes certain words to draw attention to characters who exploit language in deceitful ways. Characters who engage in Mametspeak are lost in an absurdist society, and they are unable to formulate a complete thought to describe their distress. They interrupt each other, leave sentences unfinished, and are often profane in their expression of frustration.
Because Mametspeak itself creates much of the drama in a play, Mamet’s minimalist scripts lack detailed stage directions. In lieu of plot development, he uses italics, parentheses, and quotation marks, all of which tend to become obtrusive for the reader. In the script notation to American Buffalo, for example, Mamet explains: ”Some portions of the dialogue appear in parentheses, which serve to mark a slight change of outlook on the part of the speaker—perhaps a momentary change to a more introspective regard.” For readers of the play, these parentheses set apart the lines they enclose and make the reader wonder whether he is missing some hidden meaning. Not surprisingly, Mametspeak makes large demands upon actors and directors.
Mamet’s cadences have frequently been compared to those of Harold Pinter—whom Mamet recognizes as an early influence and who also divided his time between stage and screen. Although Mamet often borrows Pinter’s style of pauses, they seem to have a different function in Mamet’s plays. In Pinter’s plays, for instance, the pauses reflect reality, while the dialogue verbalizes the characters’ subconscious thoughts. In Mamet’s plays, however, the pauses serve to heighten the realism of the language itself.
Works in Critical Context
David Mamet has acquired a great deal of critical recognition for his plays, each of which is a microcosmic view of the American experience. ”He’s that rarity, a pure writer,” noted reviewer Jack Kroll, ”and the synthesis he appears to be making, with echoes from voices as diverse as Beckett, Pinter, and Hemingway, is unique and exciting.” Negative criticism of Mamet’s work has been aimed at his general focus on the rhythm and form of language rather than on its function and content, resulting in a lack of plot and dramatic conflict. Although some critics have faulted Mamet for failing to control seemingly meaningless repetitions in such plays as The Woods (1977) and for his excessive use of profanity, they generally agree he possesses a unique ear for American idiom.
Glengarry Glen Ross
The Pulitzer Prize Mamet received for Glengarry Glen Ross not only increased his critical standing, but also helped to make the play a commercial success. Observed reviewer Richard Christiansen, ”Craftily constructed, so that there is laughter, as well as rage, in its dialogue, the play has a payoff in each scene and a cleverly plotted mystery that kicks in with a surprise hook at its ending.” As in Mamet’s earlier plays, the characters and their language are very important to Glengarry Glen Ross. As critic Stephen Harvey noted, ”The pungency of Glengarry’s language comes from economy: if these characters have fifty-word vocabularies, Mamet makes sure that every monosyllable counts.”
For the real estate agents in Glengarry Glen Ross, the bottom line is sales. According to critic Robert Brustein, the play is ”so precise in its realism that it… takes on reverberant ethical meanings. It is biting . . . showing life stripped of all idealistic pretenses and liberal pieties.” He continues: ”Without a single tendentious line, without any polemical intention, without a trace of pity or sentiment, Mamet has launched an assault on the American way of making a living.” Commenting on Mamet’s criticism of capitalism and society, reviewer Benedict Nightingale called the play ”as scathing a study of unscrupulous dealing as the American theater has ever produced.”
- Bigsby, C. W. E. David Mamet. London: Methuen, 1985.
- Carroll, Dennis. David Mamet. New York: St. Martin’s, 1987.
- Heilpern, John. How Good Is David Mamet, Anyway? New York: Routledge, 2000.
- King, Kimball. Ten Modern American Playwrights. New York: Garland, 1982.
- Brustein, Robert. ”Review of Glengarry Glen Ross.” New Republic (July 12, 1982): 23-24.
- Christiansen, Richard. ”Review of Glengarry Glen Ross.” Chicago Tribune (January 18, 1987): 7.
- Harvey, Stephen. ”Review of Glengarry Glen Ross.” Nation (April 28, 1984): 522-523.
- Kroll, Jack. ”Review of Glengarry Glen Ross.” Newsweek (April 9, 1984): 109.
- Nightingale, Benedict. ”Review of Glengarry Glen Ross. New York Times (March 26, 1984): C17.
- David Mamet. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from http://www.fancast.com/people/David-Mamet/7158/biography.
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