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Mamet's Interview on South Bank Show

The viewer sees David Mamet as instructor, lecturer, director;taking over the show. Clips of works are shown more often, but no longer clearly connected to questions posed. What one really gets in the second half of the interview is David Mamet reflecting on a variety of aspects of the American scene as he views it.

A David Mamet Interview: the South Bank Show.

"I think something is provocative because it is artistic, not because it is realistic."—David Mamet, Oct. 1994

Melvyn Bragg interviewed David Mamet on the South Bank Show in early October of 1994. The session focused on Oleanna, Cryptogram, and Mamet's novel, The Village , and included brief scenes from each. Much of the information elicited was general in nature and all too often designed to reveal the "genius" of the interviewer. Bragg's questions ranged from inquiries about the controversy over Oleanna to the difficulties of film direction to acting styles to the Jewish boy who became an author of plays. When Mamet did offer an idea which seemed to be revelatory and worthy of further development ("memory is a message in code..."), what exactly he meant and why Mamet held that view were not pursued. Still, Mamet commented revealingly about dramatic theory, film, acting, and the interrelationship of these media, particularly in the first half of the program.

The more subtle value in the interview lay in the performance of David Mamet as interviewee. When the program began Mamet seemed to be a bit uncomfortable, almost as if in search of the character he wanted to play. The interviewer, by allowing the subject to drift where it would with little or no control, did nothing to help the situation. Bragg did make some attempt to explore Mamet's personal life, especially in connection with his Jewish heritage. Mamet ended that line of inquiry with "...I don't know if it's a question which has an answer, but, on the other hand, I don't know if it's a question which is entitled to an answer."

About halfway through the presentation, however, Mamet seems to find a character he is comfortable with and begins to dominate the scene. In effect, Bragg becomes audience to a one-man presentation. The viewer sees David Mamet as instructor, lecturer, director;taking over the show. Clips of works are shown more often, but no longer clearly connected to questions posed. What one really gets in the second half of the interview is David Mamet reflecting on a variety of aspects of the American scene as he views it. While the first half consisted primarily of theoretical comments, the second is full of thoughtful considerations leading to discovery. Now Bragg merely makes comments and Mamet assumes the stage, offering opinions and views on life, death, city, country, writing, etc.

Once Mamet finds this character, the audience is witness to a much more "provocative" presentation. Take, for instance, his statement on American culture: "...if I look at American culture...the idea of the moment— where are you going to find it if you spend half your life punching a computer, looking at a television screen, and then go home and spend the other half of your life not punching a computer and looking at the television screen. There's not anything very interesting going on. The idea that you or humankind is creating everything that you watch, everything that you see during the day, there isn't a lot of rest in that." Whether or not one agrees with the observation, it offers another point of view from which to consider David Mamet's works.

In the final segments, Mamet allows himself to be less the subject of an interview and more an individual who is chasing ideas to see where they will lead. When asked to reflect on how he writes, he responds, "My experience has been that one always starts like a complete idiot, at least I always did, saying that 'I have no idea what this means. It's garbage. Doesn't go anywhere, doesn't sound like a play to me. Oh hell, I've wasted one sheet of paper. Might as well waste another." He then expounds: "I was talking to somebody last year and I said I always knew that a good writer was one who threw out what most other people kept, and that's true. But then it occurred to me that a good writer is also one who keeps what most other people throw out, and that to overcome the nausea and self-disgust attendant upon writing—'This is garbage. I'm a fraud. What can this mean?'—can sometimes have very important fruits." As a result the audience has more to work with, and the immediately preceding comment is enriched. The viewer may agree or disagree, but not without giving what has been said considerable thought.

In a later reply to a question about what benefits there might be in writing while moving from section to section as he did in The Village, Mamet says, "I don't think there are any. I just wrote it the best way I know how. I wrote one scene one day, and I took it back, as I took all of them, to show my wife, and I said 'What do you think?' and she said 'I like it very much.' And I said 'I'm worried that it's too blatant,' and she said 'Oh, darling, no, no, don't worry. It's impenetrable."'

The second half of the show is rife with such comments on a myriad of topics apparently close to Mamet. For instance, in his responses to questions about the dichotomy between country life and city life, Mamet demonstrates an almost pioneer desire to return to the country, the pastoral. His dialogue reflects an attraction to the independent yet interconnected life that he himself experiences in the rural northeast, and he contrasts that view to his understanding of the city, which he sees as very compartmentalized.

In the final moments of the program, Bragg returns to Mamet as writer: "Behind that, again, is another theory of yours, isn't there, that actually the more work the reader does, or the viewer does, or the audience does, the better it is for the work. Is that right?" Mamet replies, 'Well, I would put it differently. It's not my task to make the reader work hard. On the contrary, I always felt it's my job to make everything as clear as possible. What I find in the dramatic form is the best way to make things as clear as possible is to leave out the unessential."

And closing, Bragg asks "Do writers have influence? Do writers have importance?" to which Mamet replies, "It's very easy to get, for me anyway, to get seduced by extraordinarily flattering interchanges, much like this one, into thinking that my work and the work of the profession has a, has some sort of an importance. Um, beats me."

Mamet appears to have shed his adopted character, and the viewer again sees the charmingly adolescent awkwardness of a very private writer. Is this David Mamet or is it the character he has adopted? In either case, this entertaining broadcast leaves the viewer with something to think about.

MICHAEL G. DEARMIN
University of Nevada, Las Vegas