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Program Notes for 2004 Spring Hill College Production

The program supplies background to the play, the director's approach, and bibliographic citations of reviews and scholarly works on the play.

Program Notes for Sexual Perversity in Chicago

In an interview in the New York Times for the premier Mamet observed: “Voltaire said words were invented to hide feelings. That’s what the play is about, how what we say influences what we think. The words that the old [character] Bernie Litko says to Danny influences his behavior, you know, that women are broads, that they’re there to exploit. And the words that Joan says to her friend Deborah: men are problematical creatures which are necessary to have a relationship with because that’s what society says, but it never really works out. It is nothing but a schlep, a misery constantly” (Gerald C. Fraser. “Mamet’s Plays Shed Masculinity Myth,” 5 July 1976: 7).

The purpose of this production is not to valorize Bernie’s perspective, but to examine it. As Mamet rightly observes, “The function of drama, as Stanislavsky said, is to bring to the stage the life of the human soul so that the community can participate therein” (New Theatre Quarterly 4.13 (1988); rpt. Mamet in Conversation, 62). We hope that you have come to this production in order to participate in the life of the human soul, and to share your perceptions with us. We have divided the audience by gender as an experiment, to see if there is some polarization in response to this play. To be more than a guinea pig, therefore, we ask you to stay after the show to share your perceptions with us about the play, this production, and the world in which we live.

Sexual Perversity in Chicago was begun by David Mamet while he was teaching at Goddard College in 1972-73. He and student William Macy moved to Chicago and a finished Sexual Perversity debuted at the Organic Theater in summer 1974 where it received a Joe Jefferson as best new play of the year. A New York production at St. Clements Theater in Dec. 1975 moved Off-Broadway to the Cherry Lane starring F. Murray Abraham and Peter Riegert. It won an Obie in 1976.

Recently, the play had a major revival last summer in London with Minnie Driver, Hank Azaria, and Matthew Perry. I saw the Prague premier this summer (in Czech), a New Orleans production last year at the Southern Repertory Theatre (Canal Place) and the year before in Paris. Last year there were productions at Worcester Polytechnic, Oxford University, University of Tübingen, Amsterdam’s Bitterzoet Theater, Sheffield University, and 6th @Penn Theatre San Diego.

Critics and others like to say that Mamet is a realistic playwright, especially in his early plays, and particularly in his language. Mamet toys with realistic conventions rather than taking them literally. In his works, language is as often used for effect, both by speaker and playwright, rather than for the literal meaning of the words. The plays are profoundly rhetorical. They invite literal interpretation, and yet the plays’ fragmentary sets makes it clear something quite different is required.

Sometimes Spring Hill, for all its virtues, can seem too insular, too idyllic, too much the ideal world and not enough of the real. Indeed, some of its virtue is this very idealism, which can only exist through a denial of the real and gritty.

Into such an environment, I think, we need at times to bring failed relationships, and realistic language—to examine them, to analyze and to understand. For the repressed only has power when it is denied, or ignored. It loses its potency when it is admitted, included, and understood.

Often we want theatre to take us into the ideal world, the Green World as Shakespeare’s critics sometimes call his comedies. For going into that realm, those plays imply, makes it possible to return to the real world with a clarified vision, ideals reaffirmed, ready to put love to work in the real world to transform it and bring it closer to the ideal. Later this semester we will go there with Much Ado About Nothing.

But in a similar way, those of us who live inside the Green World of the College need, at times, to bring the real into our own to see if we can determine, in this safe environment, what has gone wrong when things indeed do go wrong in the real world. Sexual Perversity in Chicago provides such a test case.

Ten minutes after the performance, there will be coffee, cookies, and discussion of the production with faculty, guests, and students who would like to stay.

Critics on Mamet:

Begley, Varun. "On Adaptation: David Mamet and Hollywood." Essays in Theatre/Etudes Theatrales 16.2 (1998): 165-76.
This is an original approach to Mamet that plays off the idea of film vs. theatre in comparing and contrasting About Last Night with Sexual Perversity: "The play is much more explicitly concerned with the pathology of urban life, the violent pulse of its libidinal energy, the phantasmagoric mythologies of sexual and social identity that structure the experience of its alienated citizens. The film, by contrast, is more quiescent in its representation of the fully reified, monumental environment which, whatever the individual psychological travails of the population, is still fundamentally conceived as a place of benevolent opportunity" (167-68).
Bigsby, C.W.E. “Sexual Perversity in Chicago, The Woods.” David Mamet. Contemporary Writers. London: Methuen, 1985. 46-62.
“Sexual anxiety all but incapacitates those who feel impelled to enter into relationships which terrify them; the result is a world in which there is no meeting of minds, and sexual hostility crackles through every scene. This, in part, is generated by a denatured language, by the pragmatics of commerce and the myths of a culture which confuses crude sexuality with intimacy; in part it seems to imply an unbridgeable gap between desire and fulfillment, as the American dream is displaced from an economic into a sexual realm. The sexual transaction, indeed, scarcely differs from any other in a culture which places a high value on style, fashion, and the fulfillment of personal needs” (51). “No experience can be prolonged beyond the moment, no relationship be anything but a temporary convenience. The wit—and the play is one of Mamet’s funniest—is generated partly by characters who wish to avoid serious commitment and partly by the discrepancy between the claims they stake and the goals they achieve. If his earlier plays were static, with the characters frozen into near immobility, Sexual Perversity in Chicago is the reverse. The sheer exuberance is compelling. But the point remains much the same, at least with respect to pace. The vitality is illusory, the energy is largely neurotic. His characters end the play as they began it—baffled, insecure, essentially solitary” (52).
Callens, Johann. "The 1970s." Cambridge Companion to David Mamet. Ed. Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge, 2004. 41-56.
"At its center are two men and two women who approach one another with a mixture of lust and disdain. Indeed, this admixture generates much of the comedy in a play in which men and women consistently sabotage their own strategies as they consistently fail to achieve what they believe they desire. Both sexes seem to lack a usable language, a shared understanding, or even a rudimentary social etiquette."
Cardullo, Bert. “Comedy and Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 12.1 (1982): 6.
Argues that the relationships fall apart because couples “have so much freedom to choose in these modern times, they have trouble choosing. So they naturally resort to the security and safeness of friendship with a member of the same sex” (6). “Naturally”? The unique point of the article is his reading of the final scene which he says is “widely misunderstood” (6). It is funny not because they “degrade women” but rather “because what we see happening to them is noticeably different from what they think is happening to them [. . .] because we know that finally they have each other. Not in the homosexual sense, as some have suggested, but in the best sense of friendship, of male bonding” (6).
Carroll, Dennis. “Sex.” David Mamet. Modern Dramatists Series. New York: St. Martin’s, 1987. 51-69.
Very perceptive sense of the play in production, especially the effect of the minimalist set and the direct address to the audience. “What saves this ‘plot’ from being familiar soap opera is that there is no clear causality for the failure. Again, a perverse dialectic is in operation. Through carefully controlled structural organisation, dialogue and character interaction, Mamet implies that a whole complex of forces—both within Dan and Deb, and without—negates whatever ability they have to open up to each other, even though they desperately want to. The phalanx of inhibiting influences on the lovers is conveyed by the montage pattern of the thirty-four scenes. Their general length and patterning, some with as few as five lines, suggest the debilitating effects of day-to-day urban routine. [. . .] the settings are necessarily spare and minimal—and in Takazaukas’ production this very spareness made it possible for one scene to succeed another with the utmost speed. The montage thus underlines the environmental absence of significant, definitional objects to give the characters and audience the reassurance of place” (53-54).
Dean, Anne. “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action. Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1990. 51-84.
In regard to Sexual Perversity Dean is adamant that “the school of opinion which brands him [Mamet] as sexist is completely wrongheaded” (65) because she feels the male characters are critiqued as much as the female. She does very interesting work interviewing actors for confirmation of her view—here especially Colin Stinton and Miranda Richardson. She also notes the parallel with Feiffer’s film Carnal Knowledge (1971). Her view of the play is that the language makes the characters see the opposite sex in a skewed way. “Partly because of the pressures of language exerted by their companions and partly through cultural fiats, any relationship formed between Mamet’s male and female characters is doomed to failure. The men are unwilling —or unable—to view women as anything other than sex slaves and receptacles for their pleasure and, not surprisingly, the women regard men as natural enemies and emotional cripples” (54). But curiously she takes a uniquely sympathetic view of Bernie: “What is so tragic about a man like Bernie is that he is, at base, painfully aware of his own inadequacy and fear, and that is why he must behave in the overtly masculine fashion that has become his trademark.”
Piette, Alain. "The 1980s." Cambridge Companion to David Mamet. Ed. Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge, 2004. 74-88.
"Nearly all Mamet critics today, with the notable exception of the feminists, agree that this much decried language should be read at another level than simply the semantic one. For Mamet, indeed, the devaluation of language merely reflects that of the universe in which his characters evolve."
Skeele, David. “The Devil and David Mamet: Sexual Perversity in Chicago as Homiletic Tragedy.” Modern Drama 36 (1993): 512-18.
Skeele likens Sexual Perversity in Chicago to late 16th century Calvinist allegorical sermonizing tragedy, with Danny as the Mankind figure, Bernie as the Vice figure who leads Mankind astray, “delivering a veritable sermon on the necessity of ‘[giving thanks to a just creator]’ every time one is able to ‘moisten the old wick’ (24). Again, this parodic pseudo-religious commentary is engaging and funny, and through his Vice-like antics Bernie is able to seduce both audience and protagonist, drawing us towards him just as he does Danny” (516). He then universalizes audience response. Deborah “takes on some of the characteristics of virtue,” (516) so women are not simply reduced to temptations in this construction.