Book Review: Cambridge Companion to David Mamet
If any doubts still lingered as to the security of David Mamet’s place in the American literary and theatrical canon, the playwright’s inclusion in this highly respected series should put those doubts to rest. This smart and comprehensive study of Mamet’s work to date is an indispensable starting point for the newcomer to Mamet, and a useful, readable, and thought-provoking survey for the rest of us.
The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet.
Ed. Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge, 2004.
This year Cambridge University Press added an important volume to the ever-growing body of Mamet criticism with its Cambridge Companion to David Mamet, edited by Christopher Bigsby. Like other critical anthologies in this highly respected series, the new collection of specially commissioned essays sets for itself the difficult task of appealing to Mamet neophytes and seasoned Mamet scholars alike, and succeeds.
The volume’s editor needs no introduction to readers of this journal, and the work benefits greatly from the breadth and depth of Mr. Bigby’s familiarity with both Mamet’s career to date and American dramatic and literary history in general.
The survey of Mamet’s work that opens the volume is evenhanded and comprehensive as it scans the evolving themes of Mamet’s oeuvre, from the frenetic energy of his early episodic plays to his more mature investigations of language and power and his recent didacticism. The through-line Bigsby identifies in Mamet’s restless machinations in several genres is an overwhelming concern with the need for a sense of community. Along the way, Bigsby works to contextualize Mamet’s work through a discussion of his literary influences, including the obvious (Pinter, Chekhov, the “Northern” American writers Cather and Norris) and the not-so-obvious (Melville and Ralph Ellison). Mamet’s love of Vermont, weaponry, and collecting are discussed in terms of a nostalgia for a vanishing idea of America and a concern for self-reliance.
The remaining eleven chapters that make up the Cambridge Companion look more closely at the themes scanned in Bigsby’s essay. Three decade-focused surveys look at the evolving themes of Mamet’s work: “The 1970s” by Johan Callens, “The 1980s” by Alain Piette, and “The 1990s” by Heather Braun. Each of these precedes a closer analysis of one work from that period: Matthew Roudané looks at American Buffalo; Benedict Nightingale discusses Glengarry Glen Ross; and Brenda Murphy analyzes Oleanna. Following all this are four chapters that focus on performance: Don B. Wilmeth’s “Mamet and the Actor,” Steven Price’s “On Directing Mamet,” Philip French’s “David Mamet on Film,” and Bigsby’s “David Mamet’s Fiction.” Then David and Janice Sauer’s analysis of Mamet criticism and performance reviews closes the volume.
All of the essays meet a high standard of scholarship and are extremely readable. Space permits only a selective discussion here. Don B. Wilmeth’s essay on Mamet and acting does an admirable job of teasing a coherent philosophy out of Mamet’s many and frequently contradictory statements on the actor’s craft, and finds the playwright more influenced by Sanford Meisner and Stanislavski than he likes to let on. The pragmatic approach to acting Wilmeth identifies in Mamet is certainly “anti-Method” and “anti-emotional,” but not quite as opposed to formal training as True and False would make it seem. Likewise, Philip French’s survey of Mamet’s mixed film oeuvre is refreshingly clear-eyed. Amid the films Mamet wrote, co-wrote, directed, and/or disavowed, French finds much to praise and some that is “little short of disastrous.” Bigsby’s appraisal of Mamet’s three novels, while it may seem a bit generous to some readers, nevertheless offers a useful starting place for critics of the playwright less familiar with his work in this genre. Finally David and Janice Sauer’s review of scholarship and reviews is both comprehensive and, occasionally, provocative, as it contends that many Mamet critics still refuse or fail to judge the playwright against any standard other than a strict realism.
If any doubts still lingered as to the security of David Mamet’s place in the American literary and theatrical canon, the playwright’s inclusion in this highly respected series should put those doubts to rest. Thankfully, the new Cambridge Companion to David Mamet is not only a feather in the bard of Cabot’s cap, but a smart and comprehensive study of Mamet’s work to date: an indispensable starting point for the newcomer to Mamet, and a useful, readable, and thought-provoking survey for the rest of us.
Fulton-Montgomery Community College