Review of Mamet's New Book of Essays
Review of Make-Believe Town
David Mamet. Make Believe Town: Essays and Remembrances. New York and Boston: Little, Brown, 1996 207 pp. Paper $11.95.
David Mamet's newest collection of essays, Make-Believe Town, contains twenty-four short pieces on topics ranging from gambling to working in early off-Broadway theater, from deer hunting to screenwriting. Some of his subjects—such as a paean to coffee shops, or a depiction of his love/hate relationship with Hollywood—will be familiar to readers of Mamet's massive oeuvre—but even the most recognizable topics feel different here. The curmudgeon and iconoclast remains but seems wittier, defter, less willing to settle for the hit-'em-over-the-head pronouncement or the bitter laugh.
While it is of course risky to try to "decode" Mamet's plays through his first-person essays, one of the pleasures of this collection comes from juxtaposing some of his prose moments with his theatrical ones: for instance, when he writes in the opening essay, "Eight Kings," about his love for the "make-believe" (p. 4) of jargon (and the essay itself is maddeningly cryptic), one thinks of the unique language of "leads" and "the board" deployed by the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet's problematic take on academia in Oleanna is enriched by the revelation in "Sex Camp" of his own ambivalence about higher education after attending a college that he claims taught nothing but sex and drugs: "As an undergraduate, I developed a contempt for institutions of Higher Learning that much experience as a teacher has done little to dispel; and [paradoxically] a nostalgia for the red brick covered with ivy" (p. 27). And in "Gems from a Gambler's Bookshelf," his quotation of Herbert Yardley's Education of a Poker Player reads like a gloss on the predicament of any number of Mamet characters (and sometimes his audience): "Yardley says, Look around the Table. Find out who's the Victim. If you can't tell, it's you" (p. 18).
Some of the strongest pieces in the collection are, surprisingly, not the polemical ones but those that pay tribute to people, places, and events in Mamet's past. His "Memories of Off-Broadway" concludes with a great Joe Papp story; "Girl Copy," an essay about working for a pinup magazine, has (in addition to its somewhat self-congratulatory tone) some wonderful behindthe-scenes anecdotes; "Greg Mosher," a tribute to one of Mamet's longtime collaborators, is moving and generous in its assessments of Mosher's work: and "Delsomma's" is an evocative portrait of a sadly-departed theater district restaurant in New York. This last piece includes Mamet's self-mocking reminiscences of the time he spent there with directors, actors, and producers of his plays: "I sat there, impassioned and outraged and silent for whole moments during those many meetings, before I gave the table the benefit of my wisdom" (p. 72).
The essays in the second half or so of Make-Believe Town are more like mini op-ed columns; the reader may find them alternately exhilarating and enraging, but almost all of them are hugely entertaining—sometimes all the more so when Mamet takes an idiosyncratic stand. In "It's Necessary for the Scene," for example, he argues that simulated sex scenes in recent movies degrade the actors and cheapen the films' artistic merit: "When you have to put the Plastic Frogman in the box of breakfast cereal, it means one of two things: either the cereal is no good, or it's indistinguishable from its competitors" (p. 131).
This opposition to what Mamet calls the "reversion to entertainment as pure titillation" ("The Screenplay," p. 125) is a repeated theme in these essays. In an especially strong example, "The Jew for Export" (originally published in The Guardian), Mamet criticizes Schindler's List for its "emotional pornography" (p.141). Similarly, the title piece of the collection, "Make Believe Town," is not about Hollywood as one might suspect but, rather, about how as audience members we "enjoyed" the television coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing because "we know ourselves to be perfectly safe" (p. 185); we maintain, Mamet claims, a longing to be returned to the "make-believe state" (p. 189) of innocence and childishness. In "Demagoguery," Mamet directs his anger at the way mass media "immobilize the viewer so that he or she can be sold something" (p. 160).
On the subject of transformations in the arts in the same essay, though, Mamet seems to be on shakier ground; one won
ders why he seems so unwilling to concede that there is room for innovation and freedom as the result of postmodern technology. His contempt for video art, performance, and installations as (he claims) "ersatz endeavors" (p. 150) that have "replace[d]," respectively, filmmaking, theater, and sculpture is difficult to buy as an argument in 1997 when the newer categories have themselves developed a rich creative history.
Despite this apparent shortsightedness, and despite the occasional piece that misfires because it is too general ("Between Men and Women") or too self-absorbed ("Homespun Fop"), Mamet's gift in these essays is an unflinching honesty, a willingness to argue passionately (as when he excoriates those who attempted to resuscitate Nixon's image after his death)—but not without respect (or at least, a playful disrespect) for his imagined listeners.
DEBORAH R. GEIS
Queens College, CUNY