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About this book

David Mamet is arguably the most important living American playwright. This Guide provides an up-to-date study of the key criticism on the full range of Mamet's work. It engages with his work in film as well as in the theatre, offering a synoptic overview of, and critical commentary on, the scholarly criticism of each play, screenplay or film.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
David Mamet (born 1947) is a unique figure in American culture. Arguably the finest living American playwright, whose distinctively profane dialogue is so widely recognised that the term‘Mametspeak’ has entered common usage, he is also by general consent the only major American dramatist to have achieved significant success as a Hollywood screenwriter. In addition, he has directed, to date, nine feature films, and in so doing has developed an equally unmistakable cinematic style.
Steven Price

Chapter One. Early Plays: Lakeboat (1970), The Duck Variations (1972), Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974)

Abstract
David Mamet has always been a prolific writer; he was also a precocious one. Between 1965 and 1969 he was a student at Goddard College in Vermont, spending his junior year of 1968–69 studying acting under the tutelage of Sanford Meisner (1905–97) at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. Goddard staged the first production of a Mamet play, a satirical revue called Camel, written by the 20-year-old undergraduate in 1968 to fulfil the requirements of his senior thesis. After taking up a post the following year to teach drama at Marlboro College, also in Vermont, Mamet wrote another play, Lakeboat (1970), for his students to perform. He returned to Goddard in 1971 as artist in residence, and formed the St. Nicholas Theater Company with students William H. Macy (born 1950) and Steven Schachter, staging the first productions of The Duck Variations and Reunion; the St. Nicholas would continue to perform Mamet’s work after he returned to Chicago in 1972.
Steven Price

Chapter Two. American Buffalo (1975)

Abstract
American Buffalo is now generally acknowledged as Mamet’s first dramatic masterpiece. Formally, it broke new ground for him in being a relatively lengthy, two-act play, and with only three cast members it implied a more complex, and perhaps a more realistic, notion of ‘character’ than its predecessors. Like Lakeboat, however, whatever plot it has seems to vanish like the mist: Teach and Don, two underclass hoodlums preparing to rob a coin collector who has purchased an apparently valuable nickel from Don’s resale store, eventually call off the job on discovering that the third character, Bob, has lied about their proposed victim’s whereabouts. Although several reviewers seemed to feel almost cheated by this turn of events, the play was the first to bring Mamet’s name to national attention when it transferred to New York in 1977.
Steven Price

Chapter Three. A Life in the Theatre (1977), The Water Engine (1977), Mr. Happiness (1977)

Abstract
First performed in 1977, and revived many times thereafter, this has been one of Mamet’s most durable plays. One obvious reason is that it is highly theatrical, with the relationship between a younger and an older actor being explored, in part, via a series of pastiches and parodies of familiar genres. Crucial to the effect of the play, in the first production at least, is that during these ‘onstage’ scenes the characters are positioned upstage with their backs turned towards the audience, which witnesses them from behind as they perform to a second, imaginary audience in an imaginary theatre, while during the ‘backstage’ scenes they are positioned conventionally downstage, facing us.
Steven Price

Chapter Four. Other 1970s Plays: The Woods (1977), Reunion (1976), Dark Pony (1977), Children’s Plays, Squirrels (1974), Marranos (1975), Lone Canoe (1979)

Abstract
Mamet’s early reputation as a realist was largely based on a certain reading of Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo, but he was equally renowned as a remarkably prolific writer in a varied range of styles. Although his 1970s output is best represented by the plays considered in the first three chapters of this Guide, many others remain of interest, although none has achieved comparable critical recognition.
Steven Price

Chapter Five. The Screenplays, 1981–9: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), The Verdict (1982), The Untouchables (1987), We’re No Angels (1989)

Abstract
Mamet has a lifelong fascination with cinema, and in the late 1970s wrote at least two unproduced screenplays, versions of The Water Engine and Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The stage version of the latter had caught the attention of Bob Rafelson, one of the directors who had brought about the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ in the early 1970s. Rafelson hired Mamet to write the script for The Postman Always Rings Twice, kick-starting a parallel career as a screenwriter that would produce some of his most widely admired work.
Steven Price

Chapter Six. Edmond (1982)

Abstract
In the course of 23 rapid scenes, Edmond’s eponymous (anti)hero leaves the marriage that bores him and embarks on a rapid down-ward progress through the underside of urban America that will lead to murder, incarceration and rape. The play is set in New York, a city the playwright has compared to hell; the protagonist’s surname is Burke, inviting ironic comparison to Edmund Burke (1729–97), the Irish-born British statesman renowned for his opposition to the French Revolution. Henry I. Schvey neatly summarises the implication: Edmond dramatises the breakdown of ‘the partnership between the individual and the social order’1 and the consequences of the untrammelled individualism graphically expressed by Teach in American Buffalo.
Steven Price

Chapter Seven. Glengarry Glen Ross (1983)

Abstract
Glengarry Glen Ross premiered at the National Theatre in London in 1983, and within two years was the subject of a critical analysis by C. W. E. Bigsby that established the main lines followed by most subsequent commentators.1 Bigsby places Glengarry within a history of American plays and novels about salesmen and confidence men, but in a major departure from Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946), and from Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller (1915–2005), Mamet shows the salesmen only at work: the putative distinction between their private lives and their occupations disappears, and the focus shifts to the language of selling. Bigsby captures the ambivalence whereby the apparent denunciation of American capitalism is balanced by admiration for the exuberance of the salesmen’s dialogue and the creativity of their deceptions, so that there is potentially something even transcendent about the salesman’s world that is analogous to artistic creation itself. Finally, Bigsby notes that the play is formally a hybrid, with an episodic first act but a second that has many of the qualities of the well-made play. He is puzzled by Mamet’s interest in conventional forms, since the demand for plot proposes what Bigsby elsewhere in his study of the playwright sees as a false distinction between character and environment, while offering at the level of dramatic action the very illusions that the characters present to themselves in desperate attempts to evade the realities of their existence.
Steven Price

Chapter Eight. Prairie du Chien (1978), The Shawl (1985)

Abstract
Prairie du Chien and The Shawl are short plays which were paired when Gregory Mosher (born 1949), Mamet’s friend and collaborator at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, decided to stage them for his first production on taking up the highly prestigious post of Director at the Lincoln Center in New York in 1985. The Shawl was a new piece, but Prairie du Chien had initially aired several years previously on National Public Radio.
Steven Price

Chapter Nine. House of Games (1987)

Abstract
Mamet’s experiences in Hollywood had brought frustrations as well as success, and by 1986 he had the opportunity cherished by many a screenwriter when the producer Michael Hausman gave him the chance to write and direct a low-budget film. Thereafter he would continue to write screenplays for other directors, but in doing so he would either retain substantial control over his scripts or work as a writer for hire on projects that carried, perhaps, lesser personal significance.
Steven Price

Chapter Ten. Speed-the-Plow (1988)

Abstract
Mamet’s new play was a send-up of both Hollywood producers and scriptwriters. The drama revolves around which of two competing scripts the newly promoted executive, Bobby Gould, will decide to film: the unabashedly commercial ‘Doug Brown’ screenplay promoted by his friend and associate Charlie Fox, or The Bridge, the obscurely ‘authentic’ novel about radiation championed by the temporary secretary, Karen, whom Gould is trying to get into bed. Speed-the-Plow is often compared to other works about Hollywood, and no fewer than five of the 18 essays in a 1997 collection about Hollywood on Stage discuss Mamet’s play at some length. It was a runaway success, not only because it is a riot of brilliant one-liners and a satire on the Hollywood that had just provided Mamet with such acclaim, but also because it starred Madonna as Karen. Her performance received almost universally negative reviews, but later criticism implies that she may deliberately have been dealt an unwinnable hand.
Steven Price

Chapter Eleven. Things Change (1988)

Abstract
Just as The Shawl stands out as a more quietly reflective piece than the other major plays of the 1980s, so Mamet’s second film was a much simpler and more conventional affair than its predecessor, House of Games, or his third film, Homicide. In Things Change a gang of well-connected Chicago mobsters make an offer to an elderly and impoverished shoeshine man, Gino (Don Ameche): if he will take the rap for a murder one of the gang has committed, he will be financially rewarded on his release from jail. When he accepts, ‘Mr Green’ (Mike Nussbaum), the local Mafia boss, hands him a Sicilian coin as a symbol of their shared heritage, and he is entrusted for the three days preceding the trial to a minder, Jerry (Joe Mantegna), who is ‘on probation’ for poor performance. Jerry decides Gino deserves a more immediate reward, and he takes him to Lake Tahoe in Nevada, where he passes him off as ‘Mr Johnson’, supposedly a mobster VIP travelling incognito. The subterfuge threatens to unravel when Don Joseph Vincent (Robert Prosky) invites the mysterious Mr Johnson to his estate, where he is hosting a meeting of Godfathers. Gino convinces Don Vincent that he is genuine by showing him Green’s Sicilian coin, and Don Vincent reciprocates by giving him a quarter that he can use to telephone should he ever need help. On returning to Chicago Jerry, who has tried and failed to persuade Gino to escape altogether, discovers that his real task is to kill him. Instead he assaults Frankie (J. J. Johnston), the mobster who has given him the order; Gino saves the day by calling Don Vincent, and the final shots reveal that it is now Frankie and not Gino who is to be the fall guy in court, while Jerry joins Gino at work in the shoeshine store.
Steven Price

Chapter Twelve. The ‘Bobby Gould’ Plays (c.1989)

Abstract
Bobby Gould is not a recurrent character so much as a name given to different characters in different plays around whom similar concerns coalesce. Toby Silverman Zinman, who shrewdly observes that the apparent realism of much of Mamet’s work in fact ‘requires the elaborate parallel and simultaneous reading allegory demands’, valuably if somewhat playfully attempts to pin Gould down more precisely. She rearranges the chronology of the plays to trace ‘a gaudy and deeply outraged parody’ of the Divine Comedy by the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321); she argues that they provide a king of Diabolical Comedy for our times, with Los Angeles, the City of Angels, as Inferno on earth, and follows what is perhaps a Gould figure through no fewer than six works in which he moves progressively towards a ‘damnation [that] turns out to look a lot like earthly success’. She proposes that the young Bobby (no second name supplied) of American Buffalo (1975) matures into Robert, ‘the unseen but motivating evil force’ in The Cryptogram (1994, but dating from the late 1970s); Robert abandons his son and his wife, Donny, who again shares the name of a character in American Buffalo.1 The first Bobby to be generally accepted as Bobby Gould emerges in The Disappearance of the Jews (1983), fantasising about what life must have been like for Jews in the Hollywood of the 1920s. Near the end of the play he casually says ‘God damn me’, and sure enough, in Zinman’s story, Mamet writes Bobby Gould in Hell (1989), from which Gould is sent back to Hollywood to reappear in Speedthe-Plow (1988). Again he repeatedly if ironically prays to God, and Zinman takes his opening speech about being ‘in the midst of the wilderness’ as a clear invocation of Dante. In his final manifestation, as Bobby Gold in Homicide, ‘Mamet seems to have created his most obvious surrogate’.2 Zinman’s piece was written prior to the staging of The Old Neighborhood trilogy in 1997, which places The Disappearance of the Jews alongside Jolly and Deeny, both written in 1989, and clearly identifies Bobby Gould as the same character in all three.
Steven Price

Chapter Thirteen. Homicide (1991)

Abstract
In the film Homicide, Bobby Gould re-emerges as ‘Bobby Gold’, a secular Jewish detective who is reluctantly taken off the pursuit of a black fugitive, Randolph, to investigate the murder of an elderly Jewish shopkeeper, Mrs Klein. After her granddaughter overhears Gold deliver a shocking anti-Semitic tirade he is suddenly shamed into acknowledging his self-hatred, and thereafter he commits himself disastrously to helping a mysterious group of Jewish freedom fighters, for whom he commits an act of terrorism only for them to blackmail him as a result. Meanwhile his dereliction of duty leads to the death at Randolph’s hands of his colleague and greatest friend, Sullivan.
Steven Price

Chapter Fourteen. Oleanna (1992)

Abstract
Oleanna is undoubtedly the most widely discussed American play of the 1990s, with only Angels in America (1990–3), by Tony Kushner (born 1956), attracting a remotely similar degree of attention. There the comparisons end; critics have occasionally been led to propose that there must be something wrong with Kushner’s play because everybody seemed to like it, but Oleanna was socially and critically divisive from the outset. The explosive drama about a female student who visits the office of her male professor for advice in Act 1, accuses him of making sexual advances in Act 2, and is physically assaulted by him at the end of the play, provoked correspondingly ferocious responses from its audiences and critics.
Steven Price

Chapter Fifteen. The Cryptogram (1994)

Abstract
Leslie Kane records that Mamet had been working since the late 1970s on a play called Donny March, which would become The Cryp-togram. Like The Old Neighborhood, it details an unhappy family not unlike that of the playwright’s childhood. Set in 1959, the ten-year-old John, plagued by sleeplessness, is about two years younger than Mamet would have been in that year, and Kane sees similarities between John’s mother, Donny, and Mamet’s own mother, Lenore. The father, Robert, is absent, and we discover at the end of the first act that he is leaving Donny; Mamet has occasionally discussed the traumatic effect of his parents’ divorce. The third character, a homosexual man called Del, knew about Robert’s infidelity without telling Donny; thus the play details multiple betrayals, among which, in most readings of the play, is Donny’s failure to provide emotional security for her troubled son.
Steven Price

Chapter Sixteen. The Spanish Prisoner (1997), The Edge (1997), Wag the Dog (1997)

Abstract
Although it is generally held that in the 1990s Mamet largely sacrificed his theatrical work for the lures of Hollywood, in fact he produced several important plays, while the only Mamet-directed film to emerge between 1991 and 1997 was the very low-key adaptation of Oleanna. He was certainly in demand as a screenwriter and ‘script doctor’, however, and 1997 was to be a triumphant year both in the theatre, with The Old Neighborhood, and in the cinema, where The Spanish Prisoner proved to be one of the most accessible and satisfying of his movies, while two additional films confirmed his status as the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood.
Steven Price

Chapter Seventeen. The Winslow Boy (1999) and after: State and Main (2000), Heist (2001), Spartan (2004), Boston Marriage (1999)

Abstract
Mamet followed the successes of 1997 with another superb film, The Winslow Boy, in 1999. Much of the work thereafter, however, has been characterised by looser structures and a seemingly wilful obscurity or controversial subject matter, possibly in keeping with the new roles he adopted as columnist for the Guardian and blogger for the online Huffington Post. Only with the television series The Unit (2006-present), devised and sometimes written and directed by Mamet, and currently in its third season, has he returned to popular acclaim.
Steven Price

Conclusion

Abstract
The work in theatre and film by no means exhausts Mamet’s achievements; as long ago as 1993, Ilkka Joki noted that he ‘has worked with all the dramatic media’.1 One of these, television, has recently become much more significant in his career, and since Joki’s book appeared Mamet has also published three novels.
Steven Price
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