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Review of Ilkka Joki's book

IMTIAZ HABIB on Ilkka Joki's Mamet, Bakhtin, and the Dramatic: The Demotic as a Variable of Addressivity (Abo (Finland): Abo Akademi University Press, 1993. 233 pp.)

Ilkka Joki. Mamet, Bakhtin, and the Dramatic: The Demotic as a Variable of Addressivity. Abo (Finland): Abo Akademi University Press, 1993. 233 pp.

It is a tribute to the intellectual strength of David Mamet’s works that serious new studies of him are now frequently theoretical. The recent book by the Finnish scholar, Ilkka Joki, is an impressive example of this trend.

This work positions Mamet’s oeuvre within the framework of the sociolinguistic theories of the twentieth century Russian semiotician, Mikhail Bakhtin, and aims at studying Mamet’s writings as instances of the heteroglossic operation of demotic or popular speech genres, within and among themselves, and against the impress of institutionally mandated norms of public speech, as in censorship and broadcasting regulations in America. In aspiring to do this the book hopes to contribute both to Bakhtin and to Mamet studies: it proposes to fill a lacuna in Bakhtinian theory by extending the application/relevance of his ideas to drama, and it hopes to establish, through the application of Bakhtinian theory to Mamet, a new perspective for Mamet’s place in twentieth century American literary history.

Initially, the book describes the “problem” of Mamet’s position in this history by cataloguing the varied critical responses that the marked use of coarse or vulgar colloquial American speech in his plays has aroused, a phenomenon whose cultural and sociological significance Joki contends has been insufficiently examined. To demonstrate that Bakhtin’s ideas can help in this task, Joki goes into a detailed exposition over two chapters of some of the key concepts of Bakhtin’s sociolinguistic theories (his “poetics”), culled systematically from Bakhtin’s 1930s dissertation on Rabelais. Difficult but important Bakhtinian terms such as heteroglossia, dialogicality, demotic, and addressivity are carefully examined.

Having laid out Bakhtin’s basic positions, Joki then faults Bakhtin’s exclusion of drama from polyphonic or heteroglossic genres as contradictory (since he praises Shakespeare and accepts the contemporary naturalistic drama of Ibsen and Hauptman as heteroglot), and narrowly based (on rigidly structured classical Greek and neo-classical French drama, and possibly on his own negative experience in once staging Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus). It is here that Joki extends Bakhtin’s ideas to the phenomenon of popular speech genres in Mamet operating against the constraints of officially controlled American dramatic media and censorship (pp. 57-61).

What follows, over three chapter-long studies, are explorations of popular speech genres in Mamet’s radio, television, and stage plays, and his film scripts, on three levels—against each other, against centralized institutional norms of public speech, and on the level of a variable addressivity over the spiral of time between initial text, critical/institutional reaction, and enriched-modified text. Mametian texts thus examined include Cross Patch, Goldberg Street, Prairie du Chien, The Water Engine, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed-the-Plow; the film scripts House of Games, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Verdict; and television scripts for Hill Street Blues. With the radio plays Joki shows Mamet’s skillful exploitation of the potentialities of the medium to represent different elements of demotic imagination and speech, while with the television scripts he shows how shifting addressivity explains the difference in the demotic content. In Mamet’s stage plays Joki analyzes popular male-male speech genres to show how complete male-male familiarity is always tense, distracted, and in the end, unachieved because of societal inequities, material competition, and, most important, the presence of women (pp. 176, 188-89, 212). The idea of the demotic helps us understand, Joki argues, Mamet’s use of male-female speech genres in his film scripts (pp. 154-55).

Overall, Joki provides us with studies from a highly specialized angle of two central Mamet plays, American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, as well comments on Sexual Perversity in Chicago, The Duck Variations, Lakeboat, and The Disappearance of the Jews. His analyses of Mamet’s television, film, and radio scripts are particularly useful because they are ignored in most critical monographs. He offers useful general observations as well, for instance about the demotic content of the very titles of Mamet’s plays (p. 205), about the startling affinities of Brecht and Mamet, and about Mamet’s admiration for Russian drama theory (p. 32). He also provides the fullest and most systematic survey of critical commentary on Mamet that I have seen in any single volume to date. The book comes with a voluminous bibliography.

Moreover, Joki’s discussions of Bakhtin are so detailed as to be almost a primer on Bakhtinian theory, which is an excellent thing given both the difficulty of Bakhtin for the lay reader as well as the indisputable importance of his ideas for contemporary studies of struggling marginalized voices in literary texts. In his more-or-less successful application of Bakhtin to Mamet, Joki succeeds in establishing Bakhtin in a line of important twentieth century drama theorists.

But the very strength of Joki’s use of Bakhtin may be a possible drawback for the book, as its sheer volume and detail may distract the reader from the discussions of Mamet. The book is somewhat betrayed by its divided interests between Bakhtinian theory and Mamet. Five to six chapters are devoted to theoretical contextualization while only three are used for actual discussions of Mamet’s plays. Given its complex rhetorical ambitions, and the forbidding critical terminology it chooses to work with, this book is not an easy read (although the complaint about the difficult and unfriendly language of theoretical work is glibly leveled these days). Its physical quality is also disappointing given the number of typos it contains.

On balance, this is a formidable piece of scholarship that offers new theoretical tools with which to study Mamet’s plays and it does enrich our understanding of the sociology of the playwright’s craft.

Old Dominion University