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 . . .