Authors: David Mamet

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Author

November 30, 1947

Chicago, Illinois

Biography

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

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By The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC from WNYC Studios, NY (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

David Mamet at the premiere of Red Belt at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.

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By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Drama: Camel, pr. 1968 Lakeboat, pr. 1970, revised pr. 1980 Duck Variations, pr. 1972 Sexual Perversity in Chicago, pr. 1974 Squirrels, pr. 1974 American Buffalo, pr. 1975 Reunion, pr. 1976 A Life in the Theatre, pr., pb. 1977 The Revenge of the Space Pandas, pr. 1977 (one act; children’s play) The Water Engine, pr. 1977 Dark Pony, pr. 1977 The Woods, pr. 1977 Mr. Happiness, pr., pb. 1978 Lone Canoe, pr. 1979 (music and lyrics by Alaric Jans) The Sanctity of Marriage, pr. 1979 Donny March, pr. 1981 The Poet and the Rent, pr., pb. 1981 (children’s play) A Sermon, pr., pb. 1981 Short Plays and Monologues, pb. 1981 Edmond, pr. 1982 Glengarry Glen Ross, pr., pb. 1983 The Disappearance of the Jews, pr. 1983 (one act) Red River, pr. 1983 (adaptation of Pierre Laville’s play) Goldberg Street: Short Plays and Monologues, pb. 1985 The Shawl, pr., pb. 1985 A Collection of Dramatic Sketches and Monologues, pb. 1985 Vint, pr. 1985 (adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story) The Cherry Orchard, pr., pb. 1986 (adaptation of Chekhov’s play) Three Children’s Plays, pb. 1986 Three Jewish Plays, pb. 1987 Speed-the-Plow, pr., pb. 1988 Uncle Vanya, pr., pb. 1988 (adaptation of Chekhov’s play) Bobby Gould in Hell, pr. 1989 (one act) Three Sisters, pr., pb. 1990 (adaptation of Chekhov’s play) Oh Hell: Two One-Act Plays, pb. 1991 Oleanna, pr. 1992 The Cryptogram, pr., pb. 1994 No One Will Be Immune, and Other Plays and Pieces, pb. 1994 Plays: One, pb. 1994 An Interview, pr., pb. 1995 (one act) Plays: Two, pb. 1996 Plays: Three, pb. 1996 The Old Neighborhood, pr. 1997 (includes The Disappearance of the Jews, Jolly, and D.) Boston Marriage, pr. 1999 Plays: Four, pb. 2002 Faustus, pr. 2004 Romance, pr. 2005 The Voysey Inheritance, pr. 2006 (adaptation of Harley Granville-Baker's play) Keep Your Pantheon, pr. 2007 November, pr. 2007 The Vikings and Darwin, pr. 2008 Race, pr. 2009 School, pr. 2009 The Anarchist, pr. 2012 China Doll, pr. 2015 Long Fiction: The Village, 1994 The Old Religion, 1997 Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources, 2000 The Trials of Roderick Spode "The Human Ant", 2010 (graphic novel) Three War Stories, 2011 Screenplays: The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1981 (adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel) The Verdict, 1982 (adaptation of Barry Reed’s novel) The Untouchables, 1985 House of Games, 1987 Things Change, 1988 We’re No Angels, 1989 Homicide, 1991 Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992 (adaptation of his play) Hoffa, 1992 Oleanna, 1994 (adaptation of his play) Vanya on 42nd Street, 1994 American Buffalo, 1996 (adaptation of his play) The Edge, 1997 The Spanish Prisoner, 1997 Wag the Dog, 1997 (with Hilary Henkin; adaptation of Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero) The Winslow Boy, 1999 (adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s play) State and Main, 2000 Lakeboat, 2000 (adaptation of his play) The Heist, 2001 Hannibal, 2001 (with Steven Zaillian; adaptation of Thomas Harris's novel) Spartan, 2004 Edmond, 2005 (adaptation of his play) Redbelt, 2008 Phil Spector, 2013 Teleplays: Five Television Plays, 1990 A Life in the Theatre, 1993 (adaptation of his play) Radio Plays: Prairie du Chien, 1978 Cross Patch, 1985 Goldberg Street, 1985 Poetry: The Hero Pony, 1990 The Chinaman, 1999 Nonfiction: Writing in Restaurants, 1986 Some Freaks, 1989 On Directing Film, 1991 The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions, 1992 A Whore’s Profession: Notes and Essays, 1994 Make-Believe Town: Essays and Remembrances, 1996 True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, 1997 Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, 1998 Jafsie and John Henry: Essays on Hollywood, Bad Boys, and Six Hours of Perfect Poker, 1999 On Acting, 1999 South of the Northeast Kingdom, 2002 The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Jewish Self-Hatred, and the Jews, 2006 Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business, 2007 Theatre, 2010 The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, 2011 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: The Owl, 1987 Warm and Cold, 1988 (with Donald Sultan) Passover, 1995 The Duck and the Goat, 1996 Bar Mitzvah, 1999 (with Sulton) Henrietta, 1999 Bibliography Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama: Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Bigsby devotes about forty pages to Mamet, whom he considers “a poet of loss.” His analyses are as sensitive as they are challenging, and they are compulsory reading for anyone interested in Mamet. Includes a bibliography. Bigsby, C. W. E. David Mamet. London: Methuen, 1985. This first book-length study of Mamet is essential reading. Bigsby examines twelve plays and sees Mamet as “a moralist lamenting the collapse of public forum and private purpose, exposing a desiccated world in which the cadences of despair predominate.” Contains a brief bibliography. Carroll, Dennis. David Mamet. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Carroll’s discussions of Mamet’s language are excellent, and he considers the plays in terms of business, sex, learning, and communion. This slender volume also contains a useful bibliography and chronology. Dean, Anne. David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. In this perceptive study, Dean suggests that language describes, prescribes, defines, and confines Mamet’s characters. Hudgins, Christopher C., and Leslie Kane, eds. Gender and Genre: Essays on David Mamet. New York: Palgrave, 2001. This significant essay collection contains chapters on mothers in American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow, gender and desire in House of Games and Speed-the-Plow, the women in Edmond, teaching in Oleanna, language and violence in Oleanna, and several other chapters. The book is very useful considering that the essays are very good and gender is a prevalent theme in Mamet’s drama. Kane, Leslie. Weasels and Wisemen: Ethics and Ethnicity in the Work of David Mamet. New York: Palgrave, 1999. This book by a major authority on Mamet covers issues such as morality and vice, as well as the influence of Jewish culture in his drama. Kane’s book analyzes the theme of power in Mamet’s drama, such as the relationship between power and ethics in his plays. Kane, Leslie, ed. David Mamet: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1992. The volume contains Kane’s introduction, her two interviews, and her bibliography in addition to twelve essays by Ruby Cohn, Dennis Carroll, Steven H. Gale, Deborah R. Geis, Ann C. Hall, Christopher C. Hudgins, Michael Hinden, Pascale Hubert-Leiber, Matthew C. Roudané, Henry I. Schvey, and Hersh Zeifman. Contains a detailed annotated bibliography, an excellent chronology, and a thorough index. Kane, Leslie, ed. David Mamet in Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. This book consists of interviews that Mamet has given, including some that have never appeared before in print. In these interviews, Mamet discusses his plays and films, as well as various themes such as sex, theater, and dialogue. The interviews with Jim Lehrer and Charlie Rose are among the best in the book. Kane, Leslie, ed. David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”: Text and Performance. New York: Garland, 1996. This essay collection is essential for scholars and students who study this play. The essays concern the play as a detective story, the film version, anxiety, money, nostalgia, Levene’s daughter, identity, morality (this chapter also covers Edmond), and other themes. The book concludes with a very useful bibliography.

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