Barbican Centre, London, 15 July 1998. Royal Court Downstairs, Duke of York's,
London. 16 July 1998
These two platform appearances in London, on successive evenings, functioned in part as promotional exercises for The Old Religion, True and False, and The Spanish Prisoner, which was receiving its first, preview screening in the U.K. At the Barbican event, moderated by the actor Colin Stinton, it was announced that Mamet, who was working on The Winslow Boy, had flown in at 6 o'clock that morning and might be a little tired. Sure enough, he was wearing slippers. He was certainly livelier at the Royal Court, where he read an extract from True and False before taking questions, moderated on this occasion by Ian Rickman, the theatre's Artistic Director. Rickman noted the irony of a director who was filming a play by Terence Rattigan appearing at the Royal Court. 'I love Rattigan,' said Mamet.
Questions at the Barbican tended to be about film, and those at the Court about drama. There was some repetition, and much that was familiar or inconsequential, as is the nature of these things; and, as usual, the information Mamet provided was often hard to sift from multiple layers of performance and irony. Repeated questions about the supposedly autobiographical content of The Old Neighborhood and The Old Religion, for example, were met with a stock response: 'Whose autobiography?' And yet, humorously sidestepping questions about assimilation by looking down at his stomach, he suggested that failure to address racial hatred and one's own relation to one's race carries great psychic cost, and recalled Bruno Bettelheim's observation that the great feat of the Nazis was to make people give the salute while forgetting what it signified. Questions about assimilation, he concluded, are questions about courage and inertia.
Similarly, while his description of The Old Neighborhood as 'the kitchen play' may have been a ploy to disarm the autobiography-hunters, it was consistent with his repudiation of a naively romantic notion of drama as personal expression ('anything I say as a dramatist which is deeply felt is trash'), and with his respect for genre. He characterised The Spanish Prisoner, for example, as a 'light thriller,' whereas The Water Engine, thematically similar, more closely resembles film noir. Stinton asked if Mamet agreed with Charlie Fox in Speed-the-Plow: 'You can't tell it to me in one sentence, they can't put it in TV Guide.' Mamet was prepared to extend this to about ten sentences: any longer and you don't have a film, except perhaps (witheringly) a French film.
He traced his enjoyment of directing to that same preference for the overview which made him 'terrible' as an actor. The director must tell actors to do something very specific instead of filling in gaps. 'Let me see if I can make that less clear,' he continued. 'You can only receive what you want if you're capable of asking for it.' He stated that he rehearses less than he used to, partly because the cast will play what they rehearse and one must therefore retain spontaneity by such methods as rehearsing passages at random. He was looking forward to seeing how English actors coped with the Jewish Americanisms in Neighborhood, since it is important 'to decide at what point you stop being true to the text and start being true to the audience.'
Someone queried Mamet's claim that there is no such thing as character. 'I'm going to guess that you're a teacher of English,' said Mamet. 'Right?' 'Right!' said David Sauer (for it was he). Mamet stated that piecing together the character from the text is not only acceptable but laudable in an English teacher, whose job is to apply the intellect, unlike the actor, who should be spontaneous. The teachers of English breathed a sigh of relief.
Prompted by Stinton, Mamet also expounded the theory of director-as-confidence-man. The confidence game is the paradigm of drama, which is about a lie, about revealing something concealed, and therefore about the subconscious. More technically, the director must misdirect the audience, imparting information without seeming to do so by making the misleading movement interesting in itself. He illustrated this by referring to the process by which Jimmy Dell deceives Ross in The Spanish Prisoner.
It would have been equally illuminating to hear his thoughts on the interviewee-as-con-man. They say you should always leave the audience wanting more; and on each night Mamet, alternately prickly and charming, evasive and direct, and a master of the one-line put-down ('Patty Hearst didn't disappear, she just signed with the William Morris Agency'), brought the curtain down just early enough to leave the auditors feeling that if they'd been had, they would have liked to have been had a little more.
University of Wales, Bangor