FEATURE DAVID MAMET
Best known for his hard hitting dialogue and uncompromising characters for stage and screen, DAVID MAMET has developed his own rules for writing based on the principles of K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple, Stupid. Simon Cherry spoke to him about his debut novel The Village.
f life were run by central casting, David
Mamet would forever be Second Heavy
From The Right. Built like a former
middleweight, his speech delivered in the
blunt, clipped tones of a native ofChicago,
you would guess that he is not a man to be trifled with.
That impression is conﬁrmed by public reaction to his best-known work. His play Oleanna caused a storm when it opened in New York a couple of years ago. In it, a smug college professor gets royally turned over by a female student who accuses him of sexual harrassment. She becomes more powerful, his career is ruined, the charges escalate to rape. His violent retaliation notoriously prompted cheering and heckling from the off-Broadway audiences, who often carried on the fight on the sidewalk outside. It became widely known as the play to avoid if you wanted to sleep with your date afterwards. One critic labelled it ‘Vagina Dentata Goes To College’.
New York was where I met Mamet for a South Bank Show interview. He was there to ﬁnish the movie of the play, his fourth as director. No doubt the studios are anticipating another outcry when it is released this autumn. No doubt Mamet will once again be lumped in with the neurotic male backlash currently manifesting itself in America in such unlovely activities as ultra-butch male bonding weekends, group therapy by mutual armpit sniffing and feral howling.
If the city’s a jungle, then Mamet’s individual brand of high-octane, expletive-saturated, laser’s street-talk is its natural dialogue.
But what else would Mamet’s work lead you to expect? Drawing-room manners? Well, hardly. If the city’s a jungle. then Mamet’s individual brand of high-octane, expletive- saturated. loser’s street-talk is its natural dialogue. The dodgy real estate agent of Glengarry Glen Ross used it. The would-be studs of Sexual Perversity in Chicago used it. The movie sharks of Speed-the-Plow used it. And when Mamet took his stall to Hollywood, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, The Untouchables and Hoffa all barked out Mamet’s inspired invective.
With that body ofpast work. Mamet’s status in the theatre and movie business is high. In New York a waiter — who turned out, like every New York waiter, to be a resting actor — labelled him ‘America’s greatest living playwright’. Which is maybe a bit rough on Arthur Miller. but conveys the general idea. So why should he now be
venturing into the novel. with The Village published this month?
‘I always wanted to be a writer. and to me a writer was somebody who wrote novels. So I figured well. hell. if you want to be one. why don’t you try it?’
The form is a new departure for Mamet. but anyone familiar with his plays will recognise the style. Set in rural Vermont, where Mamet has lived for much of the last 30 years. it uses a mixture of terse dialogue. interior monologues and sparse description in a series of vignettes which add up to a tragic portrait of small-town America. Its author describes it as a ‘laconic. stoic, Northern novel’, in the tradition of such American literary landmarks as Willa Carther’s stories of Western pioneers. or Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio. a play usually reviled in the States as a staple of high school drama societies. but one which Mamet rates as ‘a masterpiece’.
The prose invites
Hemingway; tough and unadorned. it ignores
such flabby staples as character description (Mamet follows Aristotle’s idea that there is no such thing as character, only action). The reader will look in vain for details like age. hair colour. and often even the names of the featured charac- ters. There are whole pages where you can play hunt-the-adjective. The story is stripped back to its essentials. in a way which often demands intense concentration (and which has already evidently confounded several reviewers. habitu- ally lazy readers).
‘I wrote one scene one day and took it back, as I took all of them. to show to my wife. And I said. “What do you think?” She said, “I like it very much.” I said. “I’m worried that it’s too blatant.” And she said. “Oh, darling. no, don’t worry, it’s impenetrable.” Then I could rest easy?
Impenetrable is too strong. but, like its author in conversation. it certainly doesn’t offer itself very freely. But the peristent reader will find that Mamet has written what is in many ways his most positive work. extolling what he refers to
David Mamet on the set of HomocldeJ
10 The List 21 October—3 November I994