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A CurtainUp Feature
An Overview of David Mamet's Career
by Elyse Sommer

Check out our Playwright's Album for more famous playwright profiles

October 2008 Update. With two major revivals of his plays (Speed-the-Plow, which last season also had a high profile production in London, and American Buffalo) on Broadway and another (Oleana) likely to be next, David Mamet is more than ever a superstar. Revivals of his plays, which in their original permutations were a ticket to fame for many an actor, are now magnets for box office drawing actors. But the name above the marquee that pulls in the theater going public is Mamet. A new Mamet play like last season's November , even if bottom rather than top drawer, can open on Broadway and stay afloat for a reasonably successful stay.

I can't think of a living playwright who's as prolific and in so many areas of the cultural spectrum, except perhaps Harold Pinter. Being younger than Pinter, the sixty-year-old Mamet's creative biological clock is still ticking so that this page is sure to require updates for new work as well as noteworthy revivals.

Plays like Speed-the-Plow and the Pulitzer Prize winning Glen Garry Glen Ross fit the present as much, if not more, than when written. Not unimportantly, they are structured to fit the economic realities of today's theater (small casts, one-unit sets) which makes them viable for regional as well as Broadway and London productions. And, like the ever-popular G.B. Shaw, his ouevre can be divide Shaw divided some of his work into Plays Pleasant and Plays Unpleasant. Mamet's unpleasant ones - "Cryptogram," "The Old Neighborhood" - are close-to-the-bone, dead serious and shattering. Even without the wit, they could not have been written by anyone else.

Mamet's influence on other playwrights is inestimable, so much so that the famous Mamet-speak has become enough of a cliche to somewhat entrap d him in his self-created linguistic maze. Could his style be done in by too much imitation? I think not, as no Mamet-like playwright has yet created as instantly recognizable and uniquely memorable characters.

Topics Covered
Personal Statistics
Chronology of Produced Plays
Trademarks Of Mamet's Plays
Mamet and the Silver Screen
Links To Plays We've Reviewed and Books you Might Want to Read
Quotes From Mamet's Plays

Personal Statistics

David Mamet wears many hats: Actor, director, novelist, poet, essayist, playwright and screenwriter. He writes for children as well as adults and has taught at his alma mater, Goddard, at the Yale Drama School and New York University and at the Atlantic Theater's school which he helped to found.

He was born in Chicago on November 30, 1947 into a troubled family, with the parents divorcing when Mamet and his sisters were children. The residues of bitterness and anger from this difficult childhood later found their way into his plays, in which aggressive impulses were transformed into art.

After attending Goddard College in Vermont Mamet got his theatrical feet wet with the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater in New York. He was an actor and director first. As a playwright he achieved his first success with The Duck Variations, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and American Buffalo -- all opening in Off-Broadway venues and aptly part of the 1999-2000 season honoring his work at the Atlantic Theater.

His many honors include: The Joseph Jefferson Award (1974), Obie Award (1976, 1983), New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1977, 1984), Outer Circle Award (1978), Society of West End Theatre Award (1983), Pulitzer Prize (1984), Dramatists Guild Hall-Warriner Award (1984), American Academy Award, (1986). On June 6, 2005 the revival of the Pulitzer Prize winning Glen Garry Glen Ross collected a Tony Award for Best Revival of a play.

The prolific and versatile Mamet (more than 20 plays, over a dozen film scripts, six collections of essays, two novels, a children's book)currently divides his time between homes in Vermont and Cambridge Massachussets where he lives with his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon who has appeared in his plays and films. He has three daughters -- Willa and Zosia from his marriage to another actress, Lindsay Crouse, and Clara from his current marriage.
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Chronology of Produced Plays
The Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1976--usually paired on one bill)
Reunion (1977
American Buffalo (1976)
The Woods (1977)
The Water Engine(1977)
Mr. Happiness (1977)
Reunion (1977)
A Life In the Theater (1978)
Lakeboat (1981)
Edmond (1982) D. (1982, now part of The Old Neighborhood)
The Disappearance of the Jews (1982, now part of The Old Neighborhood)
Glengarry Glen Ross (1984 -- Pulitzer Prize)
Vermont Sketches (1984)
Prarie DuChien (1985)
The Shawl (1985)
The Frog Prince (1985)
Speed-the-Plow (1988)
Sketches of War (1988)
Bobby Gould in Hell (1989)
Adaptation of Uncle Vanya (1991)
Where Were You When It Went Down (1991)
Oleana (1992 -- one of the playwright's most controversial plays, with it theme of politicial correctness and sexual harassment)
The Cryptogram (1995--the playwright's autobiographical return to his troubled boyhood -- Obie Award)
The Old Neighborhood (1997)
Boston Marriage (1999)
November (2007)
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Trademarks Of Mamet's Style
Mamet is credited with reinventing American theatrical language Mamet's terse, cryptic dialogue is marked by a staccato rhythm and tough, often profane language. As he told John Lahr in a 1997 interview "In my family, in the days prior to television, we like to wile away theevenings by making ourselves miserable, solely based on our ability to speak the language viciously. That's probably where my ability was honed." At any rate, the style and rhythm of his dialogue has seeded an addition to the theatrical lexicon: Mametspeak which entails the same sort of condensation found in poetry. The lack of stage directions is yet another aspect of Mametspeak's minimalism.

The power of the playwright's characters stems from the way they reveal themselves through language that conveys its meaning as much from what is being withheld as from the words actually spoken.

The Mamet cadences have often been compared to those of Harold Pinter -- whom Mamet greatly admires and who also divides his time between stage and screen. Those who have had conversations with Mamet have noted that his own conversations tends like that of his characters to be terse and highly stylized.

Another eponymous coinage, Mametesque, is often used in relation to his demand that actors not "act;" in other words, that they speak their lines without analyzing and referring to other plays or films. It is an approach that tends to disorient audiences as well as actors.

As for the content, many Mamet plays deal with declining morality reflecting his view of society as a spiritual wasteland His best kown plays explore these themes through tough male macho characters -- for example the Pulitzer Prize winning Glengarry Glen Ross was set in a grungy which Chicago real estate office; Speed-the-Plow, written four years later (1988) focused on the underbelly of show business. Con artists and their games in life predominate both plays and movies -- an interest, Mamet has said dates back to when he was growing up on the north side of Chicago and was himself "a bit of a gambler."
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Mamet and the Silver Screen
Mamet has been a successful screen writer since 1981 when he adapted James Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Other notable screenplays include The Verdict (1982), About Last Night (1986 -- a forgettable screen version of his play Sexual Perversity in Chicago ),The Untouchables (a hit update of the TV series of the same name) (1987), his adaptation of his own Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Wag the Dog (1998).

The 1999 film The Winslow Boy marked a departure, venturing as it did into the more genteel world of Terrence Rattigan's 1948 drama -- a departure also evident in Boston Marriages which premiered in Boston in 1999 and is scheduled to go to New York.

Adding to his bag of tricks, the playwright turned writer director with what has become a video rental favorite, House of Games (1987). It starred Joe Mantegna and his then wife Lindsay Crouse. Mantegna who also played a leading role in Glengarry Glen Rose, appeared again in Homicide (1991 and the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Another play which the playwright wrote and adaptated for the screen was Oleanna (1994). He has directed five of his own film scripts. The Spanish Prisoner (1998) was, like House of Games a confidence thriller, but lighter and less doomed to end violently. The playwright-director sees the light thrillers as closer to the tradition of comedy and the film noir closer to tragedy

In 1994, Louis Malle's acclaimed Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), used Mamet's translation of Uncle Vanya ( he also translated Chekhov's Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard)
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Links To Reviews of Plays By David Mamet and Books you Might Want to Read
Play Reviews
American Buffalo(New Jersey McCarter Theater 2010)
American Buffalo (Broadway 2008) American Buffalo (Atlantic Theater 2000)
American Buffalo (Berkshire Theater Festival 2005)
Boston Marriage (London)
Boston Marriage (New York)
Boston Marriage (Los Angeles)
The Cryptogram (London)
Edmond (London)
Glen Garry Glen Ross (Broadway Revival -- 2004-05 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play)
Lakeboat and Prairie du Chien (London 2011)
A Life In the Theatre (London)
A Life In the Theatre (Los Angeles)
A Life in the Theatre( Broadway2010)
November (Broadway 2008)
The Old Neighborhood
Oleana (Los Angeles Mark Taper and Broadway Golden Theater, 2009)
Oleana (London revival)
Race/ David Mamet(2009)
Romance (Off Broadway 2005)
Romance at ART Mamet Festival (Boston 2009)
Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Duck Variations
Sexual Perversity in Chicago & The Duck Variations (Boston Mamet Festival 2009)
Speed-the-Plow (Broadway 2008
Speed-the-Plow (London Old Vic 2008) Speed-the-Plow(London 2000)
Speed the Plow/Mamet, David (Los Angeles, 2007)
Two Unrelated plays by David Mamet: Keep Your Pantheon and School (Atlantic Theater 2009)
The Water Engine/Mamet, David

American Buffalo
The Cryptogram
Goldberg Street: Short Plays and Monologues
The Frog Prince (children's) Glengarry Glen Ross
Goldberg Street: Short Plays and Monologues A Life in the Theatre The Old Neighborhood: The Disappearance of the Jews, Jolly, Deeny 1998 Oleana Reunion and Dark Pony, 1990 Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Duck Variations
Speed-The-Plow Uncle Vanya (Translation of Chekhov)
The Woods, Lakeboat, Edmond

House of Games
The Spanish Prisoner and the Winslow Boy
We're No Angels
Five Television Plays,1990

Essays, Novels, Poems, Children's
Bar Mitzvah
The Chinaman: Poems,
The Duck and the Goat
Henrietta (children's fable)
The Hero Pony: Poems
Jafsie and John Henry
The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions
Make-Believe Town: Essays and Remembrances
Oh Hell
The Old Religion ( novel about Leo Frank, the Jewish factory manager who was falsely convicted of raping and murdering a white girl in Georgia -- also subject of the 1999 musical parade>)
On Directing Film
The Shawl and Prairie Du Chien
Things Change (Shel Silverstein, contributor)
Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, paper 2000
True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor
Writing in Restaurants
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Quotes From Plays and by Mamet
From American Buffalo
Donny: Well Bob, I'm sorry, but this isn't good enough. If you want to do business. . .if we got a business deal it isn't good enough. I want you to remember this.
Bobby: I do.
Donny: Yeah, now. . .but later, what? (Pause.) Just one thing, Bob. Action counts. (Pause.) Action talks and bullshit walks

From Duck Variations and Sexual Perversity In Chicago
George in Duck Variations: I don't know. So what?

Deborah n Sexual Perversity in Chicago: You are trying to understand women and I am confusing you with information.

Danny: So how'd you do last night?
Bernard: Are you kidding me?
Danny: Yeah?
Bernard: Are you fucking kidding me?
Danny: Yeah?

From The Water Engine
Oberman: Who said that if every man just acted in his own best interests, this would be paradise on Earth?
Rita: They 're going to get him now. The whole thing will go down. It all goes down when we have given up the things we own.
Announcer: Another chapter, yes, of Century of Progress!/!

From Various Interviews
On trimming his work: I'm always trying to keep it spare. For me the real division between a serious writer and an unserious one is whether they're willing to cut. -- interview with Richard Corliss Time, April 6, 1998

On why he works so hard: First, a quote from Noel Coward -- "Work is more fun than fun" -- with this addition from the con artist in his House of Games, "What's more fun than human nature?" — interview with Richard Corliss Time, April 6, 1998

About the relationship between life and the art of theatre: It is in our nature to dramatize, — opening sentence of Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama

On his trademark crewcut: The crewcut is an honest haircut . . . It is the haircut of an honest, two-pair-of-jeans working man -- a man from Chicago — quoted in a New Yorker profile, Fortress Mamet, by John Lahr, November 17, 1997

On technique: The purpose of technique is to break down the barriers between the conscious and the unconscious mind.The purpose of any technique, the purpose of any skill which is learned through cognition and repetition in the arts, or in sports for that matter, is to break down the barriers between the conscious and the unconscious mind so that you don't have to think about what you're doing. You can only be free if your unconscious is unfettered. There are a lot of people who don't have technique but whose unconscious is unfettered: children, psychotics, some artists. But for most of us, we need a technique to enable us to get out of our own — from a discussion of The Old Neighborhood with acting literary Director Arthur Holmberg

On mass entertainment: I like mass entertainment. I've written mass entertainment. But it's the opposite of art because the job of mass entertainment is to cajole, seduce and flatter consumers to let them know that what they thought was right is right, and that their tastes and their immediate gratification are of the utmost concern of the purveyor. The job of the artist, on the other hand, is to say, wait a second, to the contrary, everything that we have thought is wrong. Let's reexamine it. — Richard Covington, Salon 1997

On film acting: Actors don't need to put on some extraneous character. Their character exists in the action and the words. The best actors, people like Jimmy Stewart and Anna Magnani, are not pretending to be a character; they're saying the words and letting the story tell itself. On the other hand, that's why Laurence Olivier is terrible in films. He eats up the scenery. The audience ends up paying more attention to the actor's technique than to the story. Looking for a "character" to imitate may be fun for the actor, but it's less fun for the audience. When you listen to Glenn Gould playing Bach, you don't say what great technique he has. You say how great Bach's music sounds. It's the same thing with film acting. — Richard Covington, Salon 1997

On stage acting: It's not the actor's job to embellish the play, but to do something more worthwhile and difficult: to resist embellishing it. It's when one resists the impulse to help that the truth emerges. The great actors I've seen in movies or on stage are capable of being quite still, and letting their uncertainty, fear and conficting desires emerge rather than trying to cover them up with their ideas. -- interview with David Gritten London Daily Telegraph, 1998.

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Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide


©Copyright 2008, Elyse Sommer.
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