David Mamet's latest book about the theatre may be amusing (if you're in the right mood) or annoying (if not), but it's a little difficult to take seriously as a guide to theatre. For one thing, Mamet is an intellectual whose book amounts to an attack on the intellect's (or reason's) importance in art. He wants to be both a philosopher (which he calls himself) and an instinct-revering noble savage at one and the same time. So, we get sentences like "Hell of a joke." or "James Dean, however, was just a bad actor with a lot of nerve" bouncing up against sentences like "[T]e operation of God or of the fates must resolve perfectly, like a mathematical equation - there can be no uncathected remainder."
At the heart of the collisions and absurdities in Theatre is a right-wing agenda. Mamet, a recent convert to all things conservative, is, evidently, eager to prove his bona fides. He has been reading the work of Thomas Sowell, Paul Johnson and Milton Friedman. From Sowell and Johnson, he has taken the dislike of left-wing "intellectuals." From Friedman and Sowell, he has adopted a free-market absolutism. And with this book, Mamet tries to adopt both stances in a discussion of what theatre is or, rather, should be.
The book mostly reads like the jottings of a true believer. (Substitute left-wing ideas for right-wing ideas and this book could have been written by a politburo functionary responsible for the people's theatrical culture.) The theories of Stanislavski and Meyerhold, influential directors both, are all, as far as Mamet is concerned, leftist thinking that takes us away from the crucial things in theatre: good commercial writing, plain acting, plain stage design and un-fussy lighting. In his view, a director, except insofar as he or she efficiently directs traffic, is a useless popinjay. Actors are either talented or not, so it's ridiculous to delve into ideas like "sense memory" or "psychological motivation." Actors should speak their lines clearly, so the audience can hear, and that's about it. A bare stage with the lights up is usually best. Really, it's all about the play and the actors. Everything else is frippery.
For Mamet, it's mostly about the writer
Actually, for Mamet, it's mostly about the writer. In a too brief - but nicely provocative - moment, Mamet asserts that Chekhov, not Stanislavski, is responsible for the change in acting technique that began at the Moscow Art Theatre and turned into what we know as "the method." According to Mamet, Chekhov's innovative way of looking at the world forced actors to change how they delivered text, how they approached a play. It's an interesting position. It's obviously true that playwrights influence acting. Good Beckettian actors are not necessarily good Chekhovian actors, who do not necessarily make good Shakespearean actors etc.
But it was Stanislavski, the director, who first recognized what was great in Chekhov and taught his actors to successfully work with Chekhov's text. Moreover, Chekhov had been set to abandon playwriting after the failure of The Seagull. Stanislavski's successful remount of the play led to Chekhov's continuing as a playwright. It led to Chekhov writing as he wished to write, because he had a company that understood how to get the best out of his work. It was a symbiotic relationship that created Chekhov's plays and the (influential) acting style needed to pull them off. Giving all the credit to Chekhov makes no more sense than giving it all to Stanislavski.
As Mamet knows very well, theatre is symbiosis. But in order to assert that theatre is a simple market transaction, he has to get rid of as many "middle men" as possible. He denigrates directors, designers, even producers in order to bring everything down to "play + actors + a paying audience = theatrical transaction." Naturally, he has things to say about the audience as well. It must be a paying audience at an institution that has not been subsidized by government spending. He doesn't even like subscription audiences. His reason? The subscriber having already paid to see the production will not bring with him the necessary attitude (an attitude best described as "entertain me or I'll walk"). The subscriber will, in Mamet's world, always be disappointed, uninvolved, not a full or entirely willing partner in the transaction because he or she has not actually had to line up for the ticket. This entirely nonsensical bit of hard blowing ignores the idea that an artistic director (Brecht at the Schaubuhne, say, or Max Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court) can have a theatrical vision that an audience wants (fervently) to experience. If theatre is not a marketplace in which a tangible product (a play) is sold to buyers (an audience), Mamet thinks it beneath contempt.
As I said at the beginning, Mamet will amuse or annoy - or both - depending on one's mood. But Theatre is a strange book, withal. If you've read Sowell and Friedman, you'll already be familiar with the ideas Mamet parades here. He brings nothing new to them. And when Mamet speaks of things beyond his field of expertise - as Sowell suggests intellectuals ought not to do - he sounds ridiculous. But he manages to sound ridiculous when discussing things he should know about, as well. For instance, his pronouncement that it is impossible to keep lines of modern poetry in one's mind leaves you wondering if he's read, say, Mark Strand's Keeping Things Whole or Robert Hass's Meditations at Lagunitas, two of many memorable poems one could name, neither of them obscure. And then, less forgivably, when he speaks of Meyerhold's communist theories and their noxious influence on theatre, he demeans the man along with the ideas, managing in his sheer arrogance to forget that Meyerhold actually died for his aesthetic beliefs: tortured and imprisoned by the Soviets because his aesthetic ideas did not properly serve "the people." Whatever the influence of his ideas, for good or ill, Meyerhold paid for them with his life.
From his no doubt lovely home in Santa Monica, David Mamet will not have to pay for his ideas. (None of them his, in any case.) It is the mark either of his lack of imagination or the depths of his stupidity that he seems, in this book anyway, unable to conceive what ideas actually cost. Theatre is a valuable book, for those who have forgotten - or who do not yet know - what writers sound like when they elevate ideology above humanity.
Contributing reviewer André Alexis's collection of essays, Beauty & Sadness, will be published in September.