David Mamet On Playwriting III

December 28, 2011

Adapted from: Paris Review, The Art of Theater, No. 11

Interviewed by John Lahr

Drama has to do with circumstance, tragedy has to do with individual choice. The precipitating element of a drama can be a person’s sexuality, their wealth, their disease . . . A tragedy can’t be about any of those things. That’s why we identify with a tragic hero more than with a dramatic hero—we understand the tragic hero to be ourselves. That’s why it’s easier for the audiences initially to form an affection for the drama rather than the tragedy.

Glengarry . . .  falls into a very specific American genre—the gang drama or the gang comedy . . . . These are slice-of-life plays investigating a milieu of society. A good example is Lower Depths, where the protagonist is elaborated into many parts. In a comedy of manners like Don Quixote, for example, we understand that the sidekick is just another aspect of the protagonist, just like everybody in our dreams is an aspect of us. A tragedy has to be the attempt of one specific person to obtain one specific goal, and when he either gets it or doesn’t get it, then we know the play is over, and we can go home and put out the baby-sitter.

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 . . . . 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.

You know, also being a very proud son of a bitch, I always thought that the trick was to be able to do it on a bare stage, with nothing but one or two actors. If one could do it like that, then one has done something to keep the audience’s attention, make it pay off over an hour and a half, on a bare stage with nothing but two people talking.

I knew I wanted to be in the theater, but I also knew I was a terrible actor. So I started, by dribs and drabs, forming a theater company that I could direct, because I figured it was something I could do . . . I didn’t really start writing till I was in my twenties. And I started because the company, the St. Nicholas Theatre, couldn’t pay any royalties—we didn’t have any money. I was very fortunate, coming from Chicago, because we had that tradition there of writing as a legitimate day-to-day skill, like bricklaying. You know, you need to build a house but you can’t afford it, or you need to build a garage but you can’t afford a bricklayer. Well, hell, figure out how to lay bricks. You need a script, well, hell, figure out how to write one. There was a great tradition flourishing in Chicago in the early seventies of the theater as an organic unit . . . . Everybody did everything. There was no mystery about it. One week one guy would be the director, the next week the woman would be the director and the guy would be acting, etcetera. So that was the community and the tradition that I came back to in the seventies in Chicago.

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people such as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (This is the last installment of a three-part post adapted from the David Mamet interview in Paris Review.)


Blind John at the Movies

November 10, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

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The 20th Century Fox remake of the classic 1951 science fiction movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, opens December 12, 2008. When I was growing up in the early 1950s, the original film was a must-see for boys my age (12 at the time)—and now, nearly 60 years later, I expect the new version will have the same power for kids of this generation. My love for the movie inspired a scene in an unpublished novel. In my tale the protagonist and first-person narrator, on the recommendation of a fellow newsboy, takes a blind schoolmate to “see” the movie. Here is an edited version of that scene:

Wilson said I had to see it, so when Blind John asked me to go, I went. Wilson claimed that The Day the Earth Stood Still was a bombshell movie to hit Baltimore. He said after I saw it I’d understand why we had to duck under our school desks once a month for atomic bomb practice. “Also,” he said, “Billy Gray is your twin brother, right down to the freckles and messy red hair.”

In the movie a flying saucer from space lands in Washington across from the Capitol Building. It comes down with crazy music and gets surrounded by Army guys with guns. I put my mouth close to Blind John’s ear and whispered, “It’s night. Beautiful shadows. The flying saucer is silver and—” Blind John cut me off with a little grunt. Next thing in the movie a nervous soldier shoots the alien guy in the shoulder, and the alien’s robot, Gort, disintegrates their rifles. The tall alien tells a government man, “We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” His name is “Klaatu” and he sounds like a radio news guy from England. “I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake.” He also says, kind of snotty, “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”

Later—Klaatu escapes from the hospital and goes to live in a rooming house with Patricia Neal and Billy Gray so he can learn humans better. Klaatu tells her his name is Mr. Carpenter and she believes it. I whispered to Blind John, “You can tell she likes him.”

“It’s that background music,” Blind John said, “plus the music in his voice—she lets him seduce her with it.”

“Seduce her?”

“She’s unhappy—a widow—she’s lonely.”

“But he’s an alien from outer space!”

“So what?”

Pretty soon Klaatu—Mr. Carpenter—he stops the electricity in the whole world for thirty minutes to teach us a lesson. The crazy music comes back. I told Blind John how the pictures showed everything on the planet screeched to a halt, but he just sighed. “Patricia Neal looks worried,” I whispered. Blind John squirmed in his seat. We both stayed quiet until the part where Klaatu gets shot again. “Patricia Neal looks sad,” I said. And then, all of a sudden, Blind John threw a handful of popcorn in my face, popcorn I had paid for out of my newspaper money. “Why’d you do that?”

“I ain’t deaf! I know from her voice and the music how she looks.”

Klaatu tells Patricia Neal to run to the space ship and say to the robot, “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!” She asks Mr. Carpenter what it means but he says never mind and dies. Later Gort brings Mr. Carpenter back to life on the spaceship. At the end Klaatu makes a big speech to warn us to be good before it’s too late. The movie had real good shadows but didn’t make sense. If we were about to blow ourselves up with atomic bombs, why would Klaatu want to burn us up to save us? But at the end Blind John was on the edge of his seat and had a tight grip on my arm, one fist at his mouth. “Beautiful!” he said. “Patricia Neal was transformed!”

“Big deal,” I said. “Her guy gets back on his spaceship and leaves.”

“Yeah, but now she feels loved.”

I shrugged. “Didn’t get that part.”

As a huge fan of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, I can only hope that the remake at least comes close to measuring up thrill-wise, but realistically I know that Hollywood doesn’t have much of a positive record in that department (think Psycho, etc.). We shall see. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.