Last reviewed: June 2017
November 30, 1947
The entrance of David Alan Mamet into American theater marked a new generation of dramatic output from what might be called the postmodernists. He was born to Lenore Silver, a teacher, and Bernard Mamet, a lawyer, and was reared in Chicago’s predominantly Jewish South Side. After undergraduate work at Goddard College, Vermont, where he studied literature and ventured into playwriting with a comical revue, Camel, Mamet studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and worked as house manager for Harvey Schmidt’s The Fantasticks (pr. 1960) Off-Broadway. Several odd jobs later (including high-pressure telephone solicitation for worthless Florida swampland, the subject of Glengarry Glen Ross), Mamet returned to his hometown of Chicago in 1972 with several short plays in hand, including Duck Variations, which was produced by The Body Politic. Receiving the Joseph Jefferson Award for the best new Chicago play of 1974 for Sexual Perversity in Chicago encouraged Mamet to join with three young friends to re-form the St. Nicholas Theater Company, later called the St. Nicholas Players. There, Mamet added the missing ingredient, a live audience, for his unorthodox and uncommercial plays; by 1975, several of his works had found their way to the Off-Off-Broadway St. Clements Theatre and the Off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre. The success of American Buffalo, which was voted the best American play of the 1976-1977 season by the New York Drama Critics Circle, brought him national coverage, and as a result of the publicity, Sexual Perversity in Chicago was made into the successful film About Last Night . . . (1986).
Once Mamet’s reputation spread past its Chicago origins with Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo, his work became more innovative with each play. A Life in the Theater is different in locale from his other plays and features the metalinguistic, self-examining device of a play within a play, but its critical reception was mixed. His Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, first produced in London in 1983, continues his attack on the questionable ethical base of the American free enterprise system, a subject first examined in American Buffalo with characters further down on the economic scale from the real estate shysters but harboring the same nearsighted view of economic rules of conduct. David Mamet
David Mamet at the premiere of Red Belt at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.
As Mamet’s dramatic accomplishments expanded, so did his foray into other genres. Mamet had already written several screenplays—The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, The Untouchables, House of Games, Things Change, and Homicide—when he adapted Glengarry Glen Ross, a riveting film starring Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino. Subsequently, Mamet wrote scripts for Hollywood productions of Hoffa and Vanya on 42nd Street, a minimalist production of the 1899 play Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, a playwright Mamet admires immensely.
Edmond differs from other Mamet works in the isolation of the title character as he explores the alleys of American life without family; in other plays, the characters have one another’s company to fill the void of an American economic landscape without moral guideposts. The hand-to-hand combat of the business world continues as the subject of Speed-the-Plow, a three-person study of the Hollywood producing game. The play itself was overshadowed in the press by the prominence of its three stars, Ron Silver, Joe Mantegna, and Madonna in her first professional live stage performance.
Oleanna was inspired in part by the controversy aroused by Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment that emerged during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. The play shows an interaction between a female student and a male professor in his office; the student later accuses the professor of sexual harassment, and the balance of power, formerly favoring the professor, rapidly shifts to the student. Mamet raises many questions about censorship, political correctness, battles of the sexes, representations of women in theater, and more.
Taken together, Mamet’s plays have both unnerved and enriched the English-speaking theater world. Their popularity is in large part a result of Mamet’s uncanny ability to reproduce the patterns of everyday working-class spoken English in his dialogue. Condemned by some critics as foulmouthed gutter talk, praised by others as poetry in the American iambic, Mamet’s dialogue rambles, breaks off, disappears, and reappears unexpectedly like a subterranean stream answering to a gravity all its own. Never primarily a “plot” playwright, Mamet nevertheless manages to establish the characters’ needs early in the play, taking their conversation to its grotesquely arbitrary limits, while the subtext emerges clearly but undefinably among the detritus of words. Lost men, losers, and misfits, all angry and bitter at the discovery of their personal dustbin to which the ruthless world of business has consigned them, spit out their lines between clenched teeth, using language, as François Voltaire warned, to disguise their feelings.
The characters, themes, plots, dialogue, and structure of Mamet’s plays have been subjected to psychological, sociological, mythic, linguistic, and even economic analysis, in a way that inflates Mamet’s essential motives from pure theater to philosophical treatise. In a public way, Mamet’s dramatic obscenities are the song of the inner city alienated and dispossessed, anguishing over the lack of warmth and kindness. Mamet’s stage and film versions of Oleanna searingly depict both alienation and manipulation between genders in an academic setting. More privately, Mamet depicts the pain of his own dysfunctional childhood in the play The Cryptogram and his book of collected essays, The Cabin.