Tag Archives: Essays

An Interview with David Mamet, Paris Review 2013

David Mamet

The inimitable playwright, screenwriter, director and essayist speaks to The Paris Review. Here’s Alec Baldwin’s “Coffee’s for closers” speech from Mamet’s towering film adaptation of his own award-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross to whet your appetite…

“David Alan Mamet grew up in a Jewish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. His father was a labor lawyer, his mother a schoolteacher; both sides of the family came to Chicago in the 1920s, part of the city’s last wave of central European immigrants. Mamet was a child actor who attended public schools on the South Side until his parents’ divorce; later, as a teenager, he would spend several unhappy years living with his mother in Olympia Fields, a Chicago suburb on the edge of the prairie.

Like many Chicago writers, he claims to have been shaped by the city’s peculiar duality, “the admixture of the populist and the intellectual.” He would write later of perceiving the city “not as an adversary . . .[but] as an extension of our dreamlife.”

In 1964 he went off to Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, where he was graduated with “no skills, nor demonstrable talents.” Over the next several years he pursued a series of odd jobs, including a stint in the merchant marines. With the expectation of becoming an actor, he joined a theater company at McGill University, before returning to Vermont for an instructor’s position at Marlboro College.

His first play was staged in 1970, almost by accident. He had won the job at Marlboro by advertising himself as the author of a play, though in fact there was nothing to which he could truthfully lay claim. Upon his arrival he learned that his “play” was scheduled to be performed, so he hastily set about writing Lakeboat, a one-act drama taken from his experiences in the merchant marines. Lakeboat was staged before the year ended; it would set the tone for his later work and eventually become a full-length feature, one that is still performed today.

He spent only one year at Marlboro before returning to Chicago, where he worked variously as a waiter, a cabdriver and a real-estate salesman. The following autumn, having abandoned acting, he went back to Goddard, which had offered to make him its artist-in-residence. There he formed an ensemble, the St. Nicholas Theater Company, which performed the plays he had written since Lakeboat. In 1973 he moved back to Chicago, bringing with him a batch of new plays and the means to have them performed.

He spent the next four years in Chicago, writing, directing, and teaching (at Pontiac State Prison and the University of Chicago). After a rough start his plays won the admiration of both critics and audiences. In 1974 he received the Joseph Jefferson Award (given each year to the best new local play) for Sexual Perversity in Chicago. More prizes followed—two Obies in 1976, and in the same year a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for American Buffalo, which had its Broadway debut in 1977 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. In all, nine of his plays—including A Life in the Theatre, The Water Engine, Prairie du Chien, and Lone Canoe—were produced between 1975 and 1978.

In the eighties, Mamet turned part of his attention to the movies, a genre that had attracted him since childhood. He wrote screenplays for six movies (two of which he directed himself) and received an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Verdict. He also published Writing in Restaurants and Some Freaks, both essay collections. New plays continued to appear almost annually, including the revised version of Lakeboat,Speed-the-Plow, Edmond, and Glengarry Glen Ross, which received both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

Since 1991 Mamet has lived in New England. At forty-nine he is the author of twenty-two plays, twelve scripts and four collections of essays. His recent work includes the screenplay for Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, the novel The Village, and three plays: Oleanna,The Cryptogram, and Death Defying Acts.



How was it that you were drawn to the theater?  


Freud believed that our dreams sometimes recapitulate a speech, a comment we’ve heard or something that we’ve read. I always had compositions in my dreams. They would be a joke, a piece of a novel, a witticism or a piece of dialogue from a play, and I would dream them. I would actually express them line by line in the dream. Sometimes after waking up I would remember a snatch or two and write them down. There’s something in me that just wants to create dialogue.  


Can you put a date to this?  


It’s always been going on. It’s something my mother used to say when I was just a little kid: David, why must you dramatize everything? She said it to me as a criticism—why must you dramatize everything?  


And did you have an answer for her?  


No, but I found out (it took me forty years) that all rhetorical questions are accusations. They’re very sneaky accusations because they masquerade as a request for information. If one is not aware of the anger they provoke, one can feel not only accused but inadequate for being unable to respond to the question.  


That happens in your plays a lot. There are a lot of rhetorical challenges.  


Why must you always . . .  


One of the things that interests me is how uncompromising you are, both with yourself and the audience. The Cryptogram, for example, forces the audience to solve this puzzle that also happens to be troubling the kid in the play. You, as the author, have put the audience and the kid in essentially the same place.  


Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.  


Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?  


Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective. Well, well, if it isn’t my younger brother just returned from Australia . . . have a good break? The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play.

Now, there’s a certain amount of essential information, without which the play does not make sense . . .  

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Why Do Today What You Can Put Off Until A Week On Tuesday?

Forget about that thing you have to do by tomorrow and read these two articles about procrastination instead. It’s only human nature. And, depending on who you believe, it’s either not all bad – “a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time”; Or, it’s a “weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking…a childish primal human predilection for pleasure and novelty which can never be excised from the soul.”

You decide. Later. After you’ve checked Facebook. Or maybe at the weekend…

Here is James Surowiecki’s review of Procrastination: The Thief of Time, in The New Yorker.

And here is the excellent You Are Not So Smart’s essay.

If you can’t summon the will to click on those links, here they are in full.

The New Yorker:

Some years ago, the economist George Akerlof found himself faced with a simple task: mailing a box of clothes from India, where he was living, to the United States. The clothes belonged to his friend and colleague Joseph Stiglitz, who had left them behind when visiting, so Akerlof was eager to send the box off. But there was a problem. The combination of Indian bureaucracy and what Akerlof called “my own ineptitude in such matters” meant that doing so was going to be a hassle—indeed, he estimated that it would take an entire workday. So he put off dealing with it, week after week. This went on for more than eight months, and it was only shortly before Akerlof himself returned home that he managed to solve his problem: another friend happened to be sending some things back to the U.S., and Akerlof was able to add Stiglitz’s clothes to the shipment. Given the vagaries of intercontinental mail, it’s possible that Akerlof made it back to the States before Stiglitz’s shirts did.

There’s something comforting about this story: even Nobel-winning economists procrastinate! Many of us go through life with an array of undone tasks, large and small, nibbling at our conscience. But Akerlof saw the experience, for all its familiarity, as mysterious. He genuinely intended to send the box to his friend, yet, as he wrote, in a paper called “Procrastination and Obedience” (1991), “each morning for over eight months I woke up and decided that the next morning would be the day to send the Stiglitz box.” He was always about to send the box, but the moment to act never arrived. Akerlof, who became one of the central figures in behavioral economics, came to the realization that procrastination might be more than just a bad habit. He argued that it revealed something important about the limits of rational thinking and that it could teach useful lessons about phenomena as diverse as substance abuse and savings habits. Since his essay was published, the study of procrastination has become a significant field in academia, with philosophers, psychologists, and economists all weighing in.

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Play Ping Pong. Read Tolstoy. Daydream….and Get Smarter.

The Virtues of Daydreaming by Jonah Lehrer (via)

Humans are a daydreaming species. According to a recent study led by the Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth, people let their minds wander forty-seven per cent of the time they are awake. (The scientists demonstrated this by developing an iPhone app that contacted twenty-two hundred and fifty volunteers at random intervals during the day.) In fact, the only activity during which we report that our minds are not constantly wandering is “love making.” We’re able to focus for that.

At first glance, such data seems like a confirmation of our inherent laziness. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, mind-wandering is often derided as useless—the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. Freud, for instance, described daydreams as “infantile” and a means of escaping from the necessary chores of the world into fantasies of “wish-fulfillment.”

In recent years, however, psychologists and neuroscientists have redeemed this mental state, revealing the ways in which mind-wandering is an essential cognitive tool. It turns out that whenever we are slightly bored—when reality isn’t quite enough for us—we begin exploring our own associations, contemplating counterfactuals and fictive scenarios that only exist within the head.

Virginia Woolf, in her novel “To The Lighthouse,” eloquently describes this form of thinking as it unfolds inside the mind of a character named Lily:

Certainly she was losing consciousness of the outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, her mind kept throwing things up from its depths, scenes and names, sayings, memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting.

A daydream is that fountain spurting, spilling strange new thoughts into the stream of consciousness. And these spurts turn out to be surprisingly useful. A forthcoming paper in Psychological Science led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara helps explain why. The experiment itself was simple: a hundred and forty-five undergraduate students were given a standard test of creativity known as an “unusual use” task, in which they had two minutes to list as many uses as possible for mundane objects such as toothpicks, bricks, and clothes hangers.

Subjects were then given a twelve-minute break. During this time, they were randomly assigned to three different conditions: resting in a quiet room, performing a difficult short-term memory task, or doing something so boring that it would elicit mind-wandering. Following this interlude, the subjects were given another round of creative tests, including the unusual-use tasks they had worked on only a few minutes before.

Here’s where things get interesting: those students assigned to the boring task performed far better when asked to come up with additional uses for everyday items to which they had already been exposed. Given new items, all the groups did the same. Given repeated items, the daydreamers came up with forty-one per cent more possibilities than students in the other conditions.

What does this mean? Schooler argues that it’s clear evidence that those twelve minutes of daydreaming allowed the subjects to invent additional possibilities, as their unconscious minds pondered new ways to make use of toothpicks. This is why the effect was limited to those items that the subjects had previously been asked about—the question needed to marinate in the mind, “incubating” in those subterranean parts of the brain we can barely control.

On a more practical note, the scientists argue that their data show why “creative solutions may be facilitated specifically by simple external tasks that maximize mind-wandering.” The benefit of these simple tasks is that they consume just enough attention to keep us occupied, while leaving plenty of mental resources left over for errant daydreams. (When people are left alone, such as those subjects forced to sit by themselves, they tend to perseverate on their problems. Unfortunately, all this focus backfires.) Consider the ping-pong tables that now seem to exist in the lobby of every Silicon Valley startup. While it’s easy to dismiss such interior decorations as mere whimsy, the game turns out to be an ideal mind-wandering activity, at least when played casually. Another task that consistently leads to extended bouts of daydreaming is reading Tolstoy. In Schooler’s earlier work on mind-wandering, he gave subjects a boring passage from “War and Peace.” The undergraduates began zoning out within seconds.

Although Schooler has previously demonstrated a correlation between daydreaming and creativity—those who are more prone to mind-wandering tend to be better at generating new ideas, at least in the lab—this new paper shows that our daydreams seem to serve a similar function as night dreams, facilitating bursts of creative insight. Take a 2004 paper published in Nature by the neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born. The researchers gave a group of students a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. Wagner and Born designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, but it could only be uncovered if the subject had an insight about the problem. When people were left to their own devices, less than twenty per cent of them found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. The act of dreaming, however, changed everything: after people were allowed to lapse into R.E.M. sleep, nearly sixty per cent of them discovered the secret pattern. Kierkegaard was right: sleeping is the height of genius.

If this all sounds like scientific justification for afternoon naps, long showers, and Russian literature, you’re right. “We always assume that you get more done when you’re consciously paying attention to a problem,” Schooler told me. “That’s what it means, after all, to be ‘working on something.’ But this is often a mistake. If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself. We shouldn’t be so afraid to actually take some time off.”

Schooler has tried to apply this hypothesis to his own life. Although he used to take piles of work with him on vacation—he’d read papers and grant proposals on the beach—he now finds that he has better ideas when he lets himself really get away. “The good news is that there’s no reason to feel guilty when taking a break or not checking your e-mail,” he says. “Because it turns out that even when you’re on vacation, the unconscious is probably still working on the problem.”

A daydream, in this sense, is just a means of eavesdropping on those novel thoughts generated by the unconscious. We think we’re wasting time, but, actually, an intellectual fountain really is spurting.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex/2012/06/the-virtues-of-daydreaming.html#ixzz1xf7SyrtG

Sandwiches by Bob Peck

(via McSweeney’s)

AC/DC: Beer-battered kangaroo sausage, sliced hard-boiled egg, low-calorie port cheese, Dutch crunch.

Black Sabbath: Ham, stilton, LSD mustard, milled wheat bread.

Thin Lizzy: Chopped sausage, mincemeat, Jameson-shiitake reduction, soda bread.

The Beatles: Beef, ham, chicken, lamb, fondue sauce, dinner roll.

Wings: Sliced vegan haggis, wilted arugula, aged soy cheddar, rice bread.

Led Zeppelin: Arum sandwich with hummus, lettuce, 22 thin-sliced deli meats; side of Colman’s mustard.

Bob Dylan: Scrapple, melted pepper jack, hemp-seed garlic bread.

The Pogues: Gin-fed lamb, whiskey-marinated turkey, beer-braised pork shoulder, mustard, soda bread.

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