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Three Uses of the Knife

David Mamet Society: Three Uses of the Knife

The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1998 • Volume 5 • ISSN 1095-9629




David Mamet. Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 88 pp. Cloth $19.95


As its subtitle suggests, David Mamet's fifth collection of essays, Three Uses of the Knife, addresses more directly than the previous four the nature of drama. Yet, as the first sentence indicates, the collection's subtext is the nature of human perception since "It is in our nature to dramatize" (3). Though the book's three chapters beget Mamet's characteristic mÈlange, his passion for drama nonetheless unifies the work's diverse essays. From "The Wind-Chill Factor" through "Second Act Problems" to "Three Uses of the Knife," the playwright rescues dramatic art from threatened obsolescence in this Information Age by insistence on its intrinsic relation to survival--a salutary gestus for theater practitioners and scholars alike.

The book's title and organization reflect Mamet's tripartite impulse: "Our understanding . . . resolves itself into thirds" (42), and, he observes, "We wish, in effect, for a three-act structure" (9), superimposing it on phenomena like the weather or "The Perfect Ball Game." Neither arbitrary nor conscious, dramatic structure is "an organic codification" (43): "Our survival mechanism orders the world into cause-effect-conclusion." In short, "[T]o create or witness drama [is] to order the universe into a comprehensible form" (8). Each of us thus survives as an "ur-dramatist" (4), cast as a hero on a quest for meaning--a necessarily generic goal as signalled in the subheading "Letters of Transit." Whether the stage is a political campaign or a used-car lot, we heroes require the drama to validate "the most essential element of our being, our prized adaptive mechanism" (31). At the midpoint of the journey and of our lives, dramatist, protagonist, and audience face despair over unforeseen "Second Act Problems"; but "The true drama . . . calls for the hero to exercise will, to create, in front of us, on the stage his or her own character" (43). Presumably, Mamet regards his own drama as true and his unlikely questers as heroic.

Mamet elaborates on the crucial distinction between "true drama" and "pseudoart" (48) under the subheadings "Violence" and "Self-Censorship." Both stress the function of repression in bolstering individual or national identity in terms which illuminate a familiar Mamet trope: "In our devotion to the ideas of our own superiority, we are like compulsive gamblers who destroy themselves by enacting a drama of their own worthlessness" (45). Stifling our unconscious, we endorse a strife-bound foreign policy and promote "arts" which "inform us that everything--understanding, world domination, happiness--is within us, and within our grasp" (48). As in the "fantasy of power" (15) of the problem play, the compulsion to repress, often violently, an externalized villain is reenacted but unsatisfied by romance films, action painting, performance "art," or electronic media. Equally impassioned, if excessive, is Mamet's scorn for the totalitarianism of a Western-American culture analogous to Nazi Germany and fed on "Information": "We are in the grip of this phenomena, entering a new dark age" (59).

Only the "nonrational synthesis" (50) of true art can bring peace, Mamet argues. His final chapter returns to drama as a "naturally occurring need to structure the world as thesis/antithesis/ synthesis" (66) and finally reveals the knife's three uses as enunciated by Huddie Ledbetter: "You take a knife, you use it to cut the bread, so you'll have strength to work; you use it to shave so you'll look nice for your lover; on discovering her with another, you use it to cut out her lying heart" (66). Typically Mametian and undeniably problematic is the deployment of this violent and sexist metaphor to counter the violence and totalitarianism of pseudoart and pseudo-superiority.

Yet Mamet's exaltation of drama resonates as both poetic and convincing. The explanation that "The appearance of the knife is the attempt of the orderly, affronted mind to confront the universe" (69) elucidates such works as The Cryptogram and The Spanish Prisoner while underscoring the credo that social change is better left to that "very effective tool. . . . a gun" (25) than to a play. Mamet sanctions the theatrical experience instead as a communal laying down of rage at our own worthlessness: "The purpose of the theatre, like magic, like religion--those three harness mates--is to inspire cleansing awe" (69). Though the playwright's cryptography belies the assertion that drama's end is "THE TRUTH" (79), we heroes of our own dramas and admirers of Mamet's find the peace prophesied in the final act: "And then we can go home" (81). That home for Mamet remains the theater rather than Hollywood is but one of the offerings of this book for those who seek with him to redeem drama and thereby to be redeemed.

Northeast Louisiana University