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David Alan Mamet

David Alan Mamet

Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet (born 1947) is highly praised for his accurate rendering of American vernacular, through which he explores the relationship between language and behavior.

David Alan Mamet was born in Chicago, Illinois, on November 30, 1947. He studied at Goddard College in Vermont and at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater in New York.

Mamet's first play to receive attention, The Duck Variations (1972), displays features common to much of his work: a fixed setting, few characters, a sparse plot, and dialogue that captures the rhythms and syntax of everyday speech. In this play, two elderly Jewish men sit on a park bench discussing a plethora of unrelated subjects. Mamet's next play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), examines confusion and misconceptions surrounding relationships between men and women. While some reviewers found this work offensive and misogynistic, Julius Novick contended that the play "is a compassionate, rueful comedy about how difficult it i…. for men to give themselves to women, and for women to give themselves to men. It suggests that the only thing to fear, sexually, is fear itself." This play was adapted for film as About Last Nigh….

In American Buffalo (1975) and The Water Engine: An American Fable (1977), Mamet explores contradictions and myths prevalent in the business world. American Buffalo, for which Mamet received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, is set in a junk shop where three men plot to steal a valuable coin. A lack of communication and understanding causes the men to abandon their efforts. The protagonist of The Water Engine creates an innovative engine but is murdered when he refuses to sell his invention to corporate lawyers.

A Life in the Theatre (1977) offers a stark and wryly humorous view of the theatrical world through the performances and backstage conversations between a veteran actor and a novice. Edith Oliver remarked: "Mamet has written—in gentle ridicule; in jokes, broad and tiny; and in comedy, high and low—a love letter to the theater." The Woods (1977) involves a young couple who discover the darker realities of their relationship while vacationing in an isolated woodland cabin. Mamet followed The Woods with three short domestic dramas in which he places considerable emphasis on dialogue. In Reunion (1977), a woman and her alcoholic father come to terms with their twenty-year separation; in Dark Pony (1977), a father relates a story to his young daughter as they drive home late at night; and The Sanctity of Marriage (1979) concerns the separation of a married couple.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1982), Mamet's most acclaimed work, is an expose of American business. In this play, four Florida real estate agents in competition to become their company's top salesperson victimize unsuspecting customers. Although Mamet portrays the agents as unethical and amoral, he shows respect for their finesse and sympathizes with their overly competitive way of life. Glengarry Glen Ross was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize in drama and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Mamet's next play, Edmond (1982), involves an unhappy businessman who leaves his wife and ventures into the seamier districts of New York City. After being beaten and robbed, the man turns to violence and is imprisoned for murdering a waitress. Gerald Weales viewed this play as a chilling example of how "we become part of our destructive surroundings." Prairie du chien (1985) and The Shawl (1985) are companion pieces in which Mamet employs supernatural elements. The first play centers on a bizarre, unsolvable murder, while the second concerns a psychic's fraudulent efforts to obtain a client's inheritance.

In addition to his work for the theater, Mamet has written several screenplays. The first, an adaptation of James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, is generally considered Mamet's least successful effort. In The Verdict, based on Barry Reed's novel Verdict, a downtrodden, alcoholic lawyer battles injustice within the judicial system to win a malpractice suit for a woman who suffered brain damage during childbirth. Reviewers extolled Mamet's terse dialogue, citing the lawyer's jury summation as a particularly powerful sequence of the film. In his screenplay The Untouchables, Mamet incorporates elements from federal agent Eliot Ness's memoirs and from the popular radio and television series. Set in Chicago, the film focuses on Ness's struggle to uphold the Prohibition law and bring mobster Al Capone to justice. Although David Denby found the script substandard for a writer of Mamet's talent, he called The Untouchables "a celebration of law enforcement as American spectacle—a straightforward, broadly entertaining movie."

Mamet has also taught at Goddard College, The Yale Drama School, and New York University. Further, he often lectures to classes at the Atlantic Theater Company and was one of the company's founding members.

Further Reading

Bigsby, C. W. E., David Mamet, Metheun, 1985.

Bock, Hedwig, and Albert Wertheim, editors, Essays on Contemporary American Drama, 1981, Max Hueber, pp. 207-23.

Carroll, Dennis, David Mamet, St. Martin's, 1987.

Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Volume 3, Gale, 1986.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 9, 1978, pp. 360-61; Volume 15, 1980, pp. 355-58; Volume 34, 1985, pp. 217-24; Volume 46, 1988, pp. 245-56.

King, Kimball, Ten Modern American Playwrights, Garland, 1982.

America, May 15, 1993, p. 16. □

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