A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

David Mamet

David Mamet was born on November 30, 1947, in Flossmore, Illinois, received his B.A. at Goddard College in Vermont in 1969, and became interested in theater while working as a busboy at the Second City in Chicago.  In that city he founded the St. Nicholas Theater Company, which staged his early one-acts recently revived off-Broadway by the Atlantic Theater Company.  "American Buffalo," which brought Mamet to prominence as a major American dramatist, was first staged at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, moved to St. Clements in New York in 1976, and from there to Broadway in 1977. 

Mamet is one of the few important American dramatists who regularly writes for Hollywood, his latest films being “The Heist,” "The Spanish Prisoner" and an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play, "The Winslow Boy."  His first film, "House of Games," is one of his best, treating a favorite Mamet theme, that nothing is as it seems, that every endeavor is a deceptive game, or as Mr. Mamet says in one of his numerous books of essays, "the subject of drama is the Lie." (Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama).  

In “House of Games,” Mamet’s former wife Lindsay Crouse plays a psychiatrist who is drawn into the deceptive practices of a group of con men, led by Joe Mantegna, with one trick leading to another and finally to betrayal.  Mantegna, like William H. Macy, is a Mamet actor who started with Mamet in Chicago and then became famous in films.  Mantegna originated the role of Richard Roma, the fast-talking real estate salesman in "Glengarry Glen Ross" when it first appeared on Broadway in 1983 and won the Pulitzer Prize.

"American Buffalo" is Mamet’s first major success, and it is frequently revived.  As the curtain rises, we are greeted with the chaotic contents of Danny Dubrow's junk shop, where Danny and his "gofor," young Bobby who runs the errands, mostly going for food and coffee, are discussing the poker game of the preceding evening, where Fletcher won all the money (through cheating, we later discover.)  Bobby impresses one as being a bit dim, as when he reports the failure of his assignment to watch and report on a man's leaving a building.  Danny is obliquely paternal towards Bobby and looks out for his welfare -- suggesting he follow Fletcher's example: "That's what business is."  Bobby: What?  Dan: "People taking care of themselves."

Teach enters, Bobby goes to fetch food, and Dan outlines to Teach the "job" he and Bobby are planning, involving "coins."  Teach talks Dan out of using Bobby as too unreliable, and in Bobby's place he and Fletcher will join the scheme to steal a collection of American Buffalo nickels and other valuable coins.  How does Dan know there is such a collection?  A man paid Dan $90 for one buffalo nickel, after which Dan followed him home, reasoning that that he must have more valuable coins.  When the men gather that night for their caper, Bobby reveals that he actually lied earlier when he reported that the man left the building, and Teach, enraged, "hits Bobby viciously," and ravages the junk shop. 

What audiences responded to in this Mamet premiere, with Robert Duvall as Dan, was the characterization, the dialogue, and the wider implication that the rough, inept trio and their failed plan constituted a microcosm of big business, with its schemes, deceptions,  and betrayals.  The language was realistic in the sense that it sounded just as the speech of these rough types should sound.    But it is not realism.  Mamet creates here and in his other dramas a staccato, rhythmic, obscenity-ridden dialogue that is artistic and arresting, an instantly-recognizable Mamet trademark.    When Teach, at the end of "American Buffalo" goes on a rampage in the junk shop at the end, he shouts, "The Whole Entire World.  There Is No Law.  There is No Right And Wrong.  The World is Lies.  There is No Friendship.  Every Fucking Thing.  The World.  The Whole Thing.  Every God Forsaken Thing.  The World."           

In his play "A Life in the Theater" one of the actors remarks, "Our aspirations in the Theater are much the same as man's. . . . We are society."  That all the characters, whatever the situation, are role-playing can be seen in his first film, "House of Games," where a woman psychiatrist joins a group of con men who let her in on their game and then trick her.  When Mantegna, pretending to be a goodhearted former Marine but is really conning a young serviceman out of his money, utters the Marine motto semper fidelis, he translates it as "don't trust nobody."

"Speed the Plow" is set in Hollywood, where  Mamet encountered, as described in his book of essays, Some Freaks,  "brashness, and discourtesy, and inevitable cruelty of a world without friendship."  In the play, movie executives and even a secretary-reader attempt to outmaneuver and out-trick each other. "Hollywood is the city of the modern gold rush, and money calls the turn.  That is the first and last rule, as we know, of Hollywood -- we permit ourselves to be treated like commodities in the hope that we may, one day, be treated like valuable commodities,” says Mamet in his essay.

Probably Mamet's best play so far is "Glengarry Glen Ross," set in a sleazy real-estate office, where the salesmen lie, trick, and cheat not only their customers but also each other.  Like "American Buffalo," it revolves around a robbery; this one materializes.  An older salesman, Moss, talks his contemporary, Aaranow, into stealing the "leads," lists of good prospective customers, which tough-guy manager Williamson will not share with them because he favors hot-shot younger salesman Roma.  Roma's dextrous manipulation of his client and his lies to prevent the client from reclaiming his deposit are a feat of deception that impresses with its ability to role-play while at the same time one pities his victim.  The excellent film based on the play stars Jack Lemmon as the desperate Levene "the machine," Al Pacino as Roma, Ed Harris and Alec Baldwin as fellow salesmen, and Alan Arkin as Aaronow, who unwittingly finds himself an accomplice in theft.  Kevin Spacey is impressive as the unrelenting Williamson.  

In "Oleanna" Mamet dramatizes sexual harassment -- with a difference.  In act one, college professor John (William H. Macy in the original production) is visited by a student, Carol, (Rebecca Pidgeon) confused by his lectures and his textbook.  John tries to help Carol by patiently explaining his approach, but his academic jargon confuses her even more.  He offers to give her special help.  Playgoers leaving after act one on opening night missed the turnabout in act two.  Now Carol is in command, reviewing their earlier meeting in terms of sexual harassment and bringing up charges against John with the administration and threatening the loss of his house and his job.

The film, with Macy repeating his performance, is less successful, probably because the audience's gender-based response was so much a part of the theater experience, both at the off-Broadway Orpheum, where the play opened, and in its London production, where David Suchet and Lia Williams brought new fireworks to the two roles.

In 2001 Mamet’s “Boston Marriage” opened at the Donmar Warehouse in London to excellent reviews and audience demand that brought it back to the West End in 2002.  A ‘Boston marriage’ is a genteel euphemism for ladies who live together as lesbians.  Zoe Wanamaker was Anna and Anna Chancellor played Claire, the middle-aged Victorian ladies who fall out over the favors of a young woman Claire brings home with seduction in mind.  Instead of Mamet’s usual staccato dialogue, the women speak like characters from Henry James who wandered through a Joe Orton play on the way to the living room, all roses and chintz, where the action takes place a century ago.  Mamet spoofs Victorian melodrama when the young woman’s heritage is revealed, and he provides a hilarious last-minute plot twist at the end.

One of the playwrights most produced by major theaters in the past two years, Mamet saw New York's Atlantic Theater Company devoted its entire 2000-01 season to his works.  Productions included his 1976 one-act comedies  "Sexual Perversion in Chicago" and "Duck Variations," after which the Atlantic transferred “American Buffalo” from London’s Donmar Warehouse. "Speed the Plow" was seen at both the Atlantic and London's New Ambassadors, while Mamet's recent works, "The Shawl" and "No One Will be Immune" concluded the Atlantic season.