The American Theatre in early 1970s seemed to be in one of its periodic crises. The promise of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway had largely debauched. Its leading companies had closed, and the social and political pressures which had given it a special significance for the best part of a decade had relaxed. It was no longer possible to pretend that the theatre was at the centre of a debate about moral issues or was transmitting a radical revision of artistic form. The major figures of the American theatre, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, who had dominated the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, seemed to disappear from periodic view. Miller’s The Price was well received in 1968, but appeared at the final phase of his career. Tennessee Williams, who was in deep personal crisis throughout much of the sixties, produced a chain of disappointing works. Albee opted for mysterious experiments which separated him from his audience. With rapidly increasing costs, Broadway was not willing to present the work of new American playwrights, preferring only musicals, comedies and British plays which are already tested out in London’s West End. One young writer bemoaned as:
said about the Russian army— when a general had achieved the highest
rank he could as a Russian, they promoted him to a German. It’s almost like
that in this country. The highest you could achieve was to be thought an
honorary Englishman, because we don’t feel that our actual life is a fit subject
That writer was David Mamet, born in the city state of Chicago and living in Vermont, whose work has not only addressed the actual life of Americans but also the fantasies with which they choose to wrap that life and also the language with which they express and also what he finds as its growing anxiety. Behind all these flighty comments, there is a serious point to discover: Mamet seems to claim an ironic detachment from the business and the busyness of America which is related to the tone and viewpoint of his drama. Though he had his work successfully produced on Broadway in 1970s and 1980s, he remains in many respects at odds with its values, as he does with those of a society which he regards as ‘very, very nuts’. Apart from his central concern with the craft of theatre and its power to shape experience, language and thought, whose deep lack of cooperation he finds disturbing.
While describing the difference between writing for film and writing for the stage, Mamet has said: “In a movie you’re trying to show what the characters did and in a play you’re trying to convey what they want. The only tool they have in a play is what they’re trying to say.” 2 The prominence is really interesting. In talking of film, he suggests that the struggle is that of the writer attempting to create a convincing plot and a series of dramatic actions and events; in speaking of theatre, his emphasis is on the characters’ efforts to communicate, efforts which fall flat on an imperfect language and the disapproving nature of experience. The theatre itself becomes an image of that disarray which has been the subject of so many of his plays. As Mamet has reminded us, “Camus says that the actor is a prime example of the Sisyphean nature of life… a life in the theatre need not be an analogue to ‘life’; it is life.”3 To act is to survive, to create meaning and if that serves to underline the absence of logic and sense in the structure of experience itself, it simultaneously places on the imagination the burden of inventing purpose and direction. That process is necessarily debatable one. On the one hand, it is predicated on the manifest absurdity of the human situation- born, as Beckett has Pozzo, whose performing self becomes a generator of whatever meaning is available and the power to invent, as what Nietzsche said, becomes definitional. Hence, to him, A Life in the Theatre is “a play about the attempt to communicate experience and love in the face of and informed by a knowledge of mortality, the attempt being made by individuals engaged in the art of acting, which is the avowal and the celebration of mortality.4 It is necessarily a doomed venture, but it is also the only game in town. That indecisive attitude to the elaboration of fictions is apparent in many of his plays; for the fact is that, while all fictions are equal, some are more equal than others. Acknowledging a unpredictable world, he none the less wants to smuggle in a moral necessity. The effort sometimes brings him close to sentimentality when the slightest of gestures has to carry undue weight, to imply the existence of shared values whose necessity he feels, but for whose survival he cannot entirely account. A result of this uncertainity is that he tends simultaneously to indict his characters for their delusions and admire them for sustaining them in the face of experience. There is something reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald in the way he is drawn to the very things he wishes to prefer.
Mamet has described the origin of A Life in the Theatre: “I would sit around my father’s office in Chicago [and] … write scenes on his electric typewriter. I would write them as brief sketches. Over the course of several months I accumulated 15 or 20 scenes about life in the theatre. The scenes were based on anecdote, or composites of anecdotes or observations, and most of them were built around two representative types.”5 The two representative types are an older actor, secure and willing to introduce his partner into the mysteries of the profession and a brash young man, just launched on his career. Yet each of them is profoundly insecure. They are working in a company which is scarcely at the cutting edge of the American theatre.
The play begins with a comment on the decline of Robert, the older actor, but it could stand as an ironic commentary not only on the declining significance of theatre in the national imagination, but also on the degree to which, actors all, we find ourselves increasingly performing to an empty auditorium:
“We counterfeited once for your disport
Men’s joy and sorrow; but our day has passed.
We pray you pardon all where we fell short-
Seeing we were your servants to this last.”6
Robert’s life play is nearing its end; John’s is only just beginning. Like the players in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they begin to doubt their function and meaning. When they rehearse on an empty stage they try to perfect their technique and realize their fantasies, but there is a potential irony in the action which is not entirely harmed by its naturalistic authenticity.
While acting they live for the moment. They explore the text for hidden meaning. Once the moment has passed, that meaning threatens to dissolve, the careful structures of art being purely dependent. It is a comedy, but there is a pathos that is not purely the product of Robert’s declining power. The play places its own defence against critical analysis. At the start of the play Robert presents himself as the accomplished actor, offering advice and patronizing the younger man, who in turn is anxious not to offend. He adopts a declaiming tone, at times elevating the theatre into a kind of arena of moral values and at times collapsing into the pure bathos of professional jealousy, the two levels of discourse becoming despairingly confused. Thus he remarks of an actress that she has “No Soul… no humanism…No formal training…No sense of right and wrong”6, an accusation somewhat undermined by his own response to her lack of ‘fellow feeling’. He wishes, “to kill the cunt”6, since she should not “be allowed to live (not just to live…but to parade around a stage…)”6. Similarly, when he insists that “You learn control. Character. A sense of right from wrong,” this is not the statement of moral necessities which it appears but a description of the skills that enable him to “tune her out” 6. Not only are morality and manners despairingly confused, but the line between performance and reality is dissolved.
The play consists of a string of episodes through which Mamet creates a kind of portrait of the two men. Robert is prim, arrogant and self-confident, but deeply insecure and lonely. The younger man is casual, aware at first of his subordinate position, but also anxious for contact. Despite the fact that their roles are eventually reversed, Robert’s age making him increasingly vulnerable, there is a closer relationship between the two men than between most of Mamet’s characters. When John leaves a trace of greasepaint on his face, Robert removes it with a tissue moistened with saliva, much as a parent would do, and this level of mutuality is never quite destroyed by the professional jealousies that affect their relationship. But just as the disproportion between their discussions of technique and theory and the reality of the clichéd plays they perform is the source of irony, is the laboured parallel which they strive to make between the theatre and human life. When Robert speaks of his own life in terms of drama, his words imply progress, his tone a fear of degeneration:
“You start from the beginning and go through the middle and wind up at the end… A little like a play… We must not be afraid of process… We must not be clowns whose sole desire is to please… We must not afraid to grow. We must support each other, John. This is the wondrous thing about the theatre… Our history goes as far back as Man’s. Our aspirations in the Theatre are much the same as man’s. (Pause) (Don’t you think?) … We are society … What have we to fear, John, from phenomena? (Pause) We are explorers of the soul.”6
Behind the confident analysis is a nervous appeal; for he is plainly afraid of process. Not merely has he accustomed himself to an at times humiliating dependency, but the logic of narrative – beginning, middle, and end – carries its own fear. And if we are to accept a parallel between life and the theatre then the performance which we notice in A Life in the Theatre, and which ends with the performer in an empty auditorium, drained equally of function and of meaning, suggests an hopeless remark, and an habitual reductiveness to that life which is not redeemed either by sheer performance or by the interdependence which is a precondition of theatre.
Robert and John find themselves muddling through ill-written scripts, hampered by the wilful uncooperativeness of their fellow actors, and speaking words that are not their own. If the governing metaphor has any force, human life evidently consists of just such roles, trite language, mismanaged climaxes and low farce. The gap between aspiration and fulfilment, which seems to epitomize the theatre is evidently to be taken as applying with equal force to the life which it sets out to mimic, but for which Robert, influenced by sixties assumptions, sees it acting as model. The need for mutual dependency is clear enough in both worlds, but Robert’s ideal of co-operative individuals working together for mutual satisfaction and towards a common goal is no more a reality in the theatre than it is in his life. Egotism and jealousy operate in both. Contact is momentary, alliance a fact of shared situation rather than genuine sharing.
Through Robert, Mamet seems to be contesting his own mode of representation, challenging the justification of his own policies as a playwright and even the dominance of his central image. For the fact is that performance can be an ambiguous strategy, and the logic of the theatrical metaphor is no less intransigent than that of the life for which it stands or with which it is proximate.
Under the seeming assurance Robert is insecure. He forgets his lines and cuts his wrist with a razor in what seems like an attempted suicide. He talks to himself with an air of distress reinforced by the younger man’s evident success. His rhetoric collapses into barely coherent remarks as he laments that “A life spent in the theatre … goes so fast.”6 The metaphor which was to have offered a structure of meaning implies its own rigorous and unabating logic, so that the play ends with an absurdist gesture: the actor deprived of audience and hence of purpose offers a blessing to an imagined audience. Scarcely the sentimental gesture which it seems, this marks not only the approaching end of Robert’s personal life performance but also the completion of a logic from which the actual audience is barely secured: “The lights dim. Each to his own home. Goodnight. Goodnight. Goodnight.”6 When the audience is dismissed, it is speculated to continue lives characterized by the emotional, sexual or social life so effectively lampooned in the various scenes enacted by the two actors. A Life in the Theatre, on the other words, emphasizes the disappearance both of theatre and of life. Robert’s experience of the theatre is equalled with his life, a series of performed moments more or less competently performed which add up to a completed process. And in the persons of John and Robert the beginning and end of that process are brought together, the younger man’s forthcoming success being undetermined by the co-presence of his own future in the form of his fellow actor. Far from creating a sense of order, or giving a sense of structure to psychological, social and metaphysical experience, the metaphor becomes a reminder of the capricious shape and unforeseeable meaning of a life performed with ever-decreasing confidence and competence. The metaphor developed by Robert is out of his own timidity. Robert says that the theatre is part of life but life turns out into a dreadful art. It is very difficult to make differences, as theatrical and performed self coexist. Nevertheless, in removing the margin between actor and self, there is an appeal for its overhaul.
1. C.W.E.Bigsby, David Mamet, London and New York, 1985.
2. National Theatre Study Notes.
3. David Mamet, ‘Concerning A Life in the Theatre’, a typescript.
5. David Mamet, New York Times, 16 October 1977.
6. David Mamet, A Life in the Theatre. New York 1978.