An overview of the Second International Conference in London, June 10-12, 2004
The Second International David Mamet Conference was a great success with about fifty scholars giving papers on all different dimensions of Mamet’s work. Leslie did a great job organizing everything.
While I wasn’t able to hear as many of the papers as I’d like, what excited me about them is indicated from my own session. William Boles’s paper “Sexual Perversity in London: David Mamet and In-Yer-Face Theatre.” Boles unearthed a new dimension to Mamet from his influence on later playwrights, arguing that London theatre of the 1990s was related to Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1975) in a number of ways. The talk was revealing on how the drug Ecstasy lessened male sexual activity and consequently created a much safer and more equal environment in clubs for women as a result. This was, at least, news to the faculty of a certain age like me, and a most revealing paper on the changing sexual mores of our time. My own paper I thought quite earth shaking, but was nothing compared to Boles’. I sought to show how Mamet’s earliest success was formulated on principles he later attributed to Eisenstein when he moved into making film. Analyzing juxtaposition of the 43 scenes of Sexual Perversity I examined how Mamet put a burden on an audience as when a rant by Bernie against the E.R.A. followed by the first fight of Dan and Deb. The connection between them demonstrates that the issue in the relationship was also equal rights, but nowhere is that asserted. It is an implication an audience must discover in a different way from traditional realism which feeds the audience criteria for judgment directly. The third paper in our group was Paul McDonald’s “Don’t Ever Lose Your Sense of Humor: Joking Relationships in the Work of David Mamet.” I was surprised by this because Chris Hudgins had, I thought, definitively done work on humor in Mamet in Kane’s first anthology of criticism. But McDonald (Univ. of Wolverhampton) had a much more elaborate framework for both uses of humor, as well as a critique of Hudgins’ overview. He saw places in Sexual Perversity where the audience and playwright get the joke, while characters don’t, as well as moments in the play where characters attempt jokes that others don’t get—as self-defense mechanisms. The session illustrates what fascinated me—three very different starting points, each in a short time establishing a totally new framework for analysis, and yet all three concentrating on Sexual Perversity in Chicago and revealing multiple layers of meaning in the play.
Similarly in the session on The Cryptogram the three presenters conflicted clearly, without knowing this would happen in advance, in their views of the mother and son in the play. Anna C. Hutcheson. “The Myth of the Father in David Mamet’s Cryptogram.” Thea Howey. “Attitudes toward Children and Childhood in David Mamet’s Oeuvre” and Lisa Cole Denman. “‘Almost Home’: Fathers and Father-figures in the Plays of David Mamet.”
Howey was the most outspoken using Alice Miller’s approach to the “gifted” (=abused) child to sympathize with John, the 11 year old son. Hutcheson took quite the opposite point of view, arguing that Donny, having just been left by her husband, is shattered and can’t look after John’s needs as she might otherwise do. Denman took a more middle ground position. What fascinated me was that his play, like Oleanna (which received the majority of attention at the conference), is open to so many conflicting and yet deeply held responses. The point I would make is that Mamet constructs his plays with gaps, which readers and audiences seem to fill in on their own without being aware of the process, and then hold their conflicting positions quite tenuously because that is what they see in the text. (This was my point about Sexual Perversity’s 43 scenes). I am intrigued more by the meta-dramatics of this, and the techniques Mamet uses to dupe the audience into entering into his fictional world so completely without recognizing that is their psyche, and not his or his characters, that are often projected in papers like this. Also exciting was seeing young scholars exploring new approaches to decode The Cryptogram.
Unfortunately, I had to miss most sessions to do back stage arrangements. I did get to hear Johann Callens give a most exciting exploration of Remediation (a term from a New Media book from MIT) and The Water Engine. It is a play which deliberately falls into the gap between media, a play taking place in a radio studio, but is half acted out, half radio drama. It was later made into a film with Mamet’s script for TNT with original director Steven Schachter and star Macy (I’d seen their revival at the Goodman in 1986), making three media in one. In a sense it is the gaps between the media which the audience must somehow bridge, and again it opens whole new avenues of approaches to Mamet’s works. And Michael Earlygave the funniest paper of all time. Drama editor for Methuen which published Mamet’s four volumes of plays, he received the manuscript of True and False and reported to us that it was worse than a first draft. Full of gaps and incoherence, he rejected it immediately. Yet it was then published in that form by Faber. All he said was quite true of some of Mamet’s prose—yet in his plays the language works spectacularly. The prose can, at times, put an even greater strain on the reader than the plays do.
The best paper I heard was Bob Vorlicky’s Plenary Session address. He forcefully argued that Mamet’s view of corruption and deception was a clear forbearer of the U.S. strategies in invading Iraq. When Oleanna was first produced there was great fuss about its relationship to Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill, which Mamet obliquely encouraged. I have also heard one paper which mentioned a view that American Buffalo, about the small time crooks who never successfully pull off their heist, is an reflection upon the Watergate Burglars and break-in. But Vorlicky’s paper went further to show how filling in blanks in Mamet’s plays is just like assuming there are weapons of mass destruction. And in Mamet manipulative larger players deceive and con the lower players, as in Glengarry Glen Ross. Several publications have noted how in that play there is no real money, and even the real estate they sell is a dream, with no reality, Scottish highland names for Florida lowlands are sold to Chicago nurses and working people who dream of making money in real estate, or owning property in Florida. It is all bait and switch. But Vorlicky made a persuasive case for the same techniques now being applied in politics are those first illuminated by Mamet. His own Wag the Dog makes the case for itself, but I have never heard or seen such a direct attempt to link Mamet to the contemporary political outlook. While the talk had some of Michael Moore’s enthusiastic outrage, it made excellent points in putting Mamet into the contemporary political and social context.
Though I was only able to attend a few of the sessions, I was certainly stimulated and excited by the state of Mamet scholarship. I think Vorlicky points a new direction for historicizing Mamet’s work—and Callens similarly took a whole new approach which already bears considerable fruit (he will extend the topic with a session at the American Literature conference in May 2005). And I clearly think the study of gaps in the narrative, particularly as it applies to live interaction with the audience, is another promising new direction of study.
A parallel fascinating debate was illustrated by the two directors. Lindsay Posner took the traditional realist’s approach to Oleanna, filling in back story for his actors. Julia Stiles’ Carol was made more sympathetic by inventing an abused childhood to account for her hostility to John. Here there are no gaps in the narrative at all. Tom Cornford, currently assistant director of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe, spoke of his quite different approach to Mamet’s The Shawl leaving the questions open for actor and audience. Jack Shepard also showed us the fruit of real practitioner’s experience, illustrating brilliantly the difference between a Pinter “pause” and Mamet’s ellipses, and then how the key to grasping Mamet is trusting his language by finding its rhythm.
I only wish I’d been able to hear all of the presentations! Thanks to all who made this conference such a success—especially to organizer Leslie Kane.
David K. Sauer
Altmayer Chair of Literature
Spring Hill College