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Book Review

Mamet’s anti-direct approach to theater

By Ed Siegel
May 13, 2010

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You could say that David Mamet’s “Theatre’’ is about a theatrical master laying down his theses about what’s wrong with the profession. Or, you could say that Mamet’s collection of essays is about a theatrical child throwing a tantrum about what he doesn’t like. I would lean strongly in the latter direction, as these pieces are among the most scattershot, poorly reasoned, demonstrably dopey pieces about theater you’re likely to read.

Mamet, always one of late to demonstrate how American he is, uses the British spelling of “theatre,’’ but let’s not sweat the small stuff when there are so many larger issues, such as the idea that the director of a play contributes almost nothing of value so should, basically, tell the actors where to stand and then let them take over.

The irony is that there may never have been a playwright more dependent on directors than Mamet. A well-directed version of one of his plays — the film or Lyric Stage production of “Glengarry Glen Ross’’ — might lead you to think he’s one of the most gifted American writers working today. A poorly directed version — either the film version or the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “American Buffalo’’ — might make you conclude that he’s more dated than daring.

Mamet, of course, could say that proves his point — directors get in the way. But the failings of those “American Buffalo’’ productions derive from the fact that the directors in both cases did too little rather than too much.

Besides directors, other things that rile Mamet include Method actors, European stage theories, academicians and critics — anyone, in short, who tries to explain what’s happening onstage instead of letting the subconscious mysteries be.

Method actors are bad because they’re so intent on channeling their life experiences that the playwright’s intentions aren’t realized. So who, in Mamet’s mind, was a great thespian? Marlon Brando, Method actor supremo. How can that be? Because “the quiddity of Brando came not from his deep examination of his own feelings but from his odd, essential nature as a human being.’’

Now I know this is the kind of psychological theorizing that Mamet hates but, and this is just a hunch: Could there be some connection between Brando’s oddness and the tapping into his life experiences?

Mamet says that we’ve all seen rehearsal rooms where a director has dampened the talent of an actor, a questionable thesis in itself. But I have been in rehearsal rooms where directors have raised the acting level about 500 percent.

He also suggests that the best way a playwright can hone his or her craft is to stand in the back of a theater and watch what works and what doesn’t. This would have made Tony Kushner a better playwright if he had seen more early Neil Simon plays or Stephen Sondheim a better composer if he had gone to “Cats’’ more often?

“Theatre’’ is not without its insights, particularly in discussing a play’s appeal to something primal, ineffable, or emotional rather than to the purely rational.

But Mamet’s one-size-fits-all condemnations of directors or university support of the arts, along with his ideological attack on ideologies, make “Theatre’’ one of the sillier books you’ll read about theater. No matter how you spell it.

Freelance writer Ed Siegel was formerly the Globe’s chief theater critic. He can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

THEATRE By David Mamet

Faber & Faber, 158 pp., $22