Prickly Ideals

encountering David Mamet's new book

Anyone who has witnessed the work of David Mamet knows he likes to be controversial. Just look at the title of his most recently published play, Race, which first premiered on Broadway last December. Indeed, Mamet’s affinity for the provocative is clearly at work in his new book, published earlier this year with the ambitious title Theatre, as he begins by asserting that many of his ideas about the art form could be considered “heretical.” As an actor, director, and longtime scholar of theatre, I approached it with a somewhat wary curiosity. Knowing his penchant for shock, I wondered what bold new ideas he would propose to shake up the current state of American theatre. Unfortunately, I found after reading this brief but wearily repetitive book that Mamet’s ideas are not so much boldly unorthodox as confused and argumentative.

Mamet touts the primacy of the actor and the playwright. He asserts the uselessness of directors and teachers, and even more harshly scorns the work of intellectuals and critics, who are, he declares, merely “the talentless.” All of these people are there to hinder the work of putting on a play, and ultimately detract from it. His assertions are inflammatory to be sure, though mainly due to an aggressive tone. What Mamet wants for the theatre, ultimately, is much less new and original than he implies. Rather, it seems quite conservative, even safe. Instead of reaching for new and better ways, he sticks staunchly to the hands-off tradition of good old realistic drama.

According to Mamet, it is the sole job of the actors, and any other theatre artists involved, to make the play enjoyable for the audience. The “audience” is a massive, collective entity, and is the supreme judge of any piece of theatre. And the play, having been created only for their enjoyment, is at the mercy of their reaction. It is troubling that his characterization of the audience does not care for individual opinion but only group mentality, for if this were all that mattered, surely much challenging and unique work would lose out to crowd-pleasing shows with less artistic merit. More troubling still, for Mamet, the only true audience is a paying audience. The exchange of money, he explains, is the only thing that renders an audience free to form an honest opinion, which is problematic because it takes theatre away from artists and puts it in the hands of those mostly interested in capital gain. To make money by entertaining, one must cater to the masses, who want spectacle and celebrity, and may be less interested in the unfamiliar or unorthodox.

Mamet says in his opening chapter that he dislikes “impracticable” theories of acting, which in itself is not an inflammatory statement. Acting is about doing, and no actor wants to be bogged down by theoretical musings that cannot translate to work onstage. However, Mamet’s opinion encompasses the teachings of such famous individuals as Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof, and Stella Adler, all of whom are artistic descendants of the work of Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), whose system, also known as “the method,” sparked the birth of modern acting, and to reject it completely (as “a bunch of useless gack”) is to reject the majority of the way acting is and has been taught throughout the last century. Mamet supports his claim by insisting (over and over again) that acting cannot be taught. You are either an actor or you’re not, and if you are then the process is entirely intuitive. Anyone who tries to work with you is merely in the way. However, in his discussion of the actor’s process, he consistently uses the words “beat,” “action,” and “objective,” undermining his own argument by utilizing the terminology of Stanislavski’s system, which he has so vehemently rejected.

It is troubling that his characterization of the audience does not care for individual opinion but only group mentality, for if this were all that mattered, surely much challenging and unique work would lose out to crowd-pleasing shows with less artistic merit.

For Stanislavski, the key to successful acting is the breaking down of a script into smaller “bits” or “beats” that mark the changes in a character’s motivation. Within each beat the character has an “objective,” and he pursues his objective through a series of different tactics or “actions.” The actor performs the scene with this map in mind, and is thus allowed to focus on achieving his objective rather than worrying about playing the emotion or state of mind of his character—both rather vague and difficult things to do. The goal of Stanislavski’s system is to control the actor’s train of thought, and thereby free him from the self-consciousness that trying to play an emotion brings. In effect, it is a system that uses structure to allow the freedom for spontaneity, and ultimately, for truth.

David Mamet is also concerned with finding truth onstage, but he is uninterested in text analysis. He writes, “Stanislavski’s famed (if essentially hypothetical) system then, was and is the dissection of the motives and emotions of the character,” and rebuts, “there is no inner life of the character, as there is no character.” He goes so far as to call character analysis (and indeed, any kind of psychoanalysis) self-indulgent, and refers to the analytical rehearsal process as “an addictive form of group therapy.” The playwright, he claims, does all the work for the actor, so that the actor simply has to get onstage and say the lines. “There is, in truth, no ’emotional’ work or ‘preparation’ done by any actor that can be better than his spontaneity.” But spontaneity onstage is, of course, exactly what Stanislavski’s method is ultimately meant to achieve. Mamet seems oblivious to that fact. And in complete contradiction to his just-do-it philosophy, he goes on to express the conviction that the actor must always know what his motivation is: “What do I actually want, and what am I prepared to do to get it?” In other words, what is my objective in this scene, and what are my actions?

As much as Mamet glorifies the roles of the actor and playwright, he disdains the role of the director, labeling it useless, even harmful to the successful production of a play. He looks to historical conventions of theatre, when, in lieu of directors, the star of the show would direct the rest of the company to “take up secondary places on stage and to speak and move in that fashion and to that place which would not distract from [himself].” Mamet is pulling for this type of do-it-yourself attitude in today’s theatre. The selfishness of the actor, he implies, who desires nothing more than to be seen and heard by the audience, is all that is needed to successfully stage a play. An interesting thought, if somewhat offensive to the generosity and intelligence of actors, who may actually be motivated by more than just vanity. And while it may have worked well enough prior to the 19th Century, it neglects to consider the needs of newer forms of theatre, specifically ensemble-based plays. What does one do if there is no “star”?

Mamet goes so far as to call character analysis self-indulgent, and refers to the analytical rehearsal process as “an addictive form of group therapy.”

Mamet, a director himself, ultimately seems confused on what he believes the role of the director is. On one hand, the director must be completely hands-off in the rehearsal process. If he tries to assist with more than just blocking (telling the actors where to go onstage), he ends up being too analytical and therefore detrimental to the acting process. Worse, if he tries to interpret or overlay meaning onto the text, he “glops up” the play and undoes the work of the playwright. The text, he says again and again, is the only thing that matters. What of directorial concepts? What about the famous writings of Brecht on the alienation effect, Artaud and the Theater of Cruelty, and Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre? “Blah, blah, blah,” says Mamet. It’s all an imposition of meaning that shouldn’t be there, interfering with the task of bringing the play to the audience as clearly as possible. In this estimation, there is no art involved in the director’s job at all. He is simply a traffic cop, directing actors across the stage.

However, David Mamet also asserts that directing is “telling a story”—which is certainly an artistic endeavor—and further, that the director’s tool for telling the story is blocking, which “is the essence of the whole thing.” The implication here is that directors create their art visually, in stage pictures. Indeed, the good director, he explains, “has the ability to recognize and improve spatial relationships between the actors so as to maximize, beat by beat, the play’s potential for the audience.” (Note again the use of Stanislavski’s term!) Here, Mamet seems to be describing the director as one who visually communicates the play’s meaning to the audience. But wouldn’t the type of analysis this requires be “self-indulgent”? And wouldn’t such a hands-on approach “glop up” the play? This is where his argument gets the most confused. While he expresses disdain for directors who use “visual trickery” and “pictoriality,” he goes on to acknowledge that the positioning of bodies in space is a powerful, compelling tool of communication. Contradictorily, Mamet is inching towards the truth that movement can create meaning, and that it is the art of directors that brings this meaning to life onstage.

Perhaps the most off-putting part of this book is its discussion of politics in the theatre. For a playwright who enjoys shocking his audiences with foul language and endless use of offensive stereotypes, it is perhaps not surprising that Mamet shows disdain for political correctness. But the degree of his hatred for the concept is surprisingly strong. He writes, “political correctness can exist only in (as it is the particular tool of) totalitarian oppression.” The theatre, moreover, should inherently be democratic. The audience should always be free to choose what they think. Therefore, there is no such thing as a politically correct drama. Our “good ideas” should not be inflicted upon other human beings. That, Mamet believes, is equal to dictatorship.

Mamet argues that the job of the theatre is to investigate the human condition, not to be political. Though apparently it is acceptable to politicize his own ideas about the theatre.

Does this imply that a play should be absent of ideology? Is this even possible? I would argue: of course not. Everything has an ideology, whether consciously intended or not. Mamet disagrees: “The talentless” (professors, critics, intellectuals) want to “deconstruct the play to weaken its language.” In other words, only those intending to ruin the play will try to find meaning in it. He argues that the job of the theatre is to investigate the human condition, not to be political. Though apparently it is acceptable to politicize his own ideas about the theatre. “Champions of so-called theory,” Mamet explains, “whether feminist, Marxist, multiculturalist, or other, in an attempt (supposedly) to cleanse expression of bias, are involved in a postmodern rendition of book burning,” when they should only be about serving the audience. And he continues, calling performances that are not conventional realism imitators of “Soviet-bloc directors,” that offer “meaningless, essentially constructivist spectacles” which are meant to convey a whole host of liberal ideas like feminism and the struggle against oppression. Most offensively, he implies, this leaves the audience without the freedom to interpret. As if audiences, when faced with a political message, cannot choose for themselves what to think.

And then there is Mamet’s most recent play, Race, which is about several lawyers representing a white client who has been accused of raping a black woman. How could a play so pointedly titled not be political? When questioned about the division between politics and theatre in a recent interview on The Colbert Report, he replied, “my plays might have to do with politics, but they aren’t about a political message.” But of course the play does carry an ideology, no matter what Mamet’s stated intent, and critics have viewed it as such. It is “unafraid to raise painful questions while dispensing prickly ideas” (John Simon, Bloomberg News). It is “a play that examines the self-consciousness that descends on American white people when they talk about, or to, black people” (Ben Brantley, The New York Times). And its message seems “nominally about race, but the elephant in the room is gender… If Hillary Clinton had been elected [president], would we be watching Sex instead?” (Elisabeth Vincentelli, The New York Post). Whether he wants to or not, David Mamet cannot escape political messages in his theatre.

On The Colbert Report, Mamet said, “the theatre is always dying, and it’s always reinventing itself.” It is an odd thing to say for a man who sticks so stubbornly to convention, deplores intellectualism, and rejects the worthiness of new theatrical forms. From the start of his book, he freely acknowledges that people will disagree with his arguments about theatre. He even welcomes contrary opinions, saying he “will gladly test their practicality and practicability against anyone willing to put my particular philosophy to a practical test.” Ultimately the theatre survives on the willingness of the audience to come back for more. But perhaps it is only the vague desire for shock that keeps audiences coming back to see what he does next. And we may soon tire of hearing him yelling about the same old things.