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Playwright David Mamet Fashions a Life in the Theatre Out of Scavenged Speech

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A husband and wife on the verge of divorce reminisce delicately in the living room; a father recounts an old Indian tale to his young daughter for the umpteenth time as they drive home together in a car. These two short, conversational plays by David Mamet have zipped past the audience at New York’s Circle Repertory theater. Bewildered, one woman harangues the curtain master at intermission. “Would you please ask Mr. Mamet to come out afterward and explain those two plays?” she asks. A few others grumble their approval of her sarcasm.

But by the end of the third piece of the evening—a wonderfully awkward reunion between an ex-alcoholic drifter and his daughter—the woman in the audience has come around. “I guess I spoke too soon,” she apologizes. “Maybe I wasn’t listening close enough before.” David Mamet acknowledges that the reaction is typical. “Almost everyone begins by saying, ‘I don’t understand. This doesn’t make sense. It sounds like the garbage I hear on the bus every night.’ But playwriting is simply showing how words influence actions and vice versa. All my plays attempt to bring out the poetry in the plain, everyday language people use. That’s the only way to put art back into the theater.”

Language. David Mamet luxuriates in it. Not elocution perhaps, or social rhetoric, or even furious puns—but the words lurking within earshot around pool halls, park benches and singles bars. At 31, Mamet has scribbled down thousands of disjointed phrases and stuffed them into filing cabinets. Then he gives them a lyrical rebirth onstage.

Ever since Duck Variations, his first important production, opened in Chicago in 1971, Mamet has been as much a curiosity as an object of praise. Welcomed by some as “the Great White Hope of the American stage” for his searing realism, he has also been chastised for staging drama-school doodlings. In 1976 he won a coveted Obie award as Best New Playwright and then topped that the following year with a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for American Buffalo. It is a turbulent, often funny story of three minor Chicago hoods who hang around a junk shop and botch a petty robbery. Wall Street Journal critic Edwin Wilson marveled at this rare playwright who “is able to make these inarticulate men speak.” But at the Broadway box office American Buffalo was a wooden nickel. Diagnosis: Too short. Too sparse. Not enough real action or meaning.

Still the plays kept coming. At one point in 1977 Mamet had 10 works in production around the country. Few other dramatists of his generation can match him for that kind of exposure. He was also given an $8,500 Rockefeller grant, along with invitations to teach at Yale, the University of Chicago and elsewhere. Yet in spite of so much activity and recognition, doubts persist. When will David Mamet put it all together and write a major play?

Like the North Side punks in American Buffalo, Mamet says little about the whys of his work, but does not hesitate a cocky defense. “Some of my plays may be slighter than others, but none is trivial,” he snaps. In fact, he is relatively unperturbed by the fate of Buffalo or subsequently of The Water Engine, which closed in two weeks. Such experiences simply reinforce his opinion of Broadway as the opiate of the theater. “The best plays start in a garage—where your principal investment is love and imagination, not dollars,” he says. “As soon as you start making choices based on dollars, you aren’t making artistic choices.” The theaters he fills are slightly larger than garages, but still a far cry from the palaces around Times Square. His works have premiered at the 683-seat Goodman Theatre in Chicago and usually play at even more modest venues such as the Yale Repertory in New Haven, Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York or Circle Repertory. For his Rockefeller playwriting grant he chose the cozy St. Nicholas Theatre Company in Chicago, which he co-founded.

Smaller theaters suit the human scale of Mamet’s productions. His plays work best with a minimum of pomp, just like the glimpses of life he re-creates. In Duck Variations two old Jewish immigrants sit by a park lagoon watching the waterfowl and musing about their lives. A Life in the Theatre follows two actors at opposite ends of their careers through a turnabout series of confrontations on-and offstage. In The Woods two tentative lovers go to pieces during a secluded weekend in a wilderness cabin.

People don’t get killed in Mamet’s plays. They don’t find Oz or make meat pies from human flesh. But they do, in their brief time together onstage, discover failings in themselves and tap sensitive chords in the audience.

Mamet rewrites his scripts over and over in longhand on yellow legal pads, honing down the uneducated profanity, the dialects, the overheard rejoinders. The result is as elegant as it is colloquial, swelling with pauses. He explains, “I heard rhythms and expressions in steel mills [where he once worked] that dealt with experience not covered in anything I’d ever read.” He believes his plays should never be criticized for wordiness—any more than life itself.

“I’ve never gone out of my way to collect material,” Mamet insists. Even so, he is forever vigilant to the details around him. While he converses, his piercing brown eyes dart and squint, his head cocks sharply and his mouth purses in concentration. Indeed, his powers of absorption are so high that his sister, Lynn, recalls—only half jokingly—”At times we wouldn’t talk to him because he wrote down all our good lines.”

Mamet’s life in the theater started well before his first scripts. As a toddler he was a bumptious ham, dumping glasses of milk over his head with punch lines like “Oops, didn’t know it was loaded.” David’s father, Bernard—a demanding labor lawyer in Chicago—saw to it that his son’s creative urges were well disciplined. Piano lessons were supplemented by Bernie’s lectures on harmonic theory. While at the dinner table, the children’s banter would frequently be held up until David or his sister could find more precise vocabulary. Even nursery rhymes were instructive, drilled as the children were by a record from an international society for semantics.

Some of his friends think Mamet’s childhood was not particularly happy and point to the frequently troubled relationships in his plays, especially between young men and father figures. “It’s all too easy to infer,” Mamet says. He spent his youth like most kids—goofing off and killing Saturdays “at 25-cent matinees watching two double features and 50 cartoons.”

His parents were divorced when he was 10, splitting David between “boring suburban cornfields” outside Chicago where his mother lived and later a private school where his father enrolled him. David recalls his first dramatic role in “a wretched melodrama at Camp Kawaga.” High school acting followed, as did running around as a backstage gofer for the illustrious Second City troupe. Then it was off to freewheeling Goddard College in Vermont and his first serious attempt at playwriting.

After graduation, Mamet studied at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse, but soured at seeing “all the dilettantes there—I didn’t want to swell their ranks.” He returned to Goddard to form the St. Nicholas Company and eventually to transplant it to Chicago. The next few years were lean but very romantic—”just for his biographers,” teases sister Lynn. He took a room at the decrepit Hotel Lincoln, described by Lynn as “downwind from the zoo.” David remembers it as “famous for knife fights, mariachi music and hookers.” After the Lincoln, he tried living in an old people’s complex. “My father said it was best to get it out of the way while I was young,” he cracks.

To eat, not to eavesdrop, he took a number of unlikely jobs—laboring in steel mills, driving a cab, washing windows, even selling real estate. “The only materials I gathered were groceries,” he claims.

In 1971 Duck Variations premiered and the critics began murmuring. Three years later, when Sexual Perversity in Chicago opened, the potential was clear. “We really knew we had a playwright in our midst,” recalls Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen. Granted the play contained “probably the worst gutter language you can hear, but it was pure poetry.” Mamet endures savagery along with the compliments. “My only concern is that those who judge truly love the theater,” he has often said.

His own bond with it is all the stronger because of a two-year marriage to actress Lindsay Ann Crouse, classic child of the theater. Even her name is a double billing: Her playwright father, Russel Crouse, and his longtime partner Howard Lindsay collaborated on such Broadway hits as Life with Father, State of the Union and the book for The Sound of Music.

A onetime dancer with Merce Cunningham, Lindsay once thought that actresses were “bizarre creatures with strange hair, always matted down from wigs.” She eventually discovered that “everything came together for me on a dramatic stage.” Before meeting David at the Yale Rep in 1977 (she was rehearsing for one of his plays), she gravitated more toward performers (like Robert Duvall) than playwrights. “There weren’t that many around,” she says. The Mamets were married after a two-month courtship that Lindsay calls “a long, complicated story we’re saving for our grandchildren.”

Lindsay knows that movies offer “the biggest spot on the map” and already has appeared in Slap Shot, All the President’s Men and Between the Lines. But like David, she hankers for the basics of intimate theater—”even the part about starting in the garage,” she adds. It is she who plays the three disparate females in Circle Repertory’s current five-week run.

Her husband’s reputation changes with every production, and Mamet clearly is anxious to prove himself once and for all with a large-scale work. Earlier this year he tried with a strange heroic allegory at the Goodman in Chicago titled Lone Canoe. A difficult play, with a wilderness setting, stiff Victorian speech and quasi-existential themes, it drew embarrassing reviews from dozens of critics who had gathered for meetings in Chicago.

The disappointment has not slowed him down. He has just completed a television program for Camera Three (with Lindsay) and has been putting in 10-hour days writing his first screenplay, a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (Jack Nicholson will star). His agent, Howard Rosenstone, says, “I know he wants to take a break and really devote the time for a major play.”

Constantly in transit, David and Lindsay gypsy back and forth between a residential hotel on Chicago’s North Side and a Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park. Their circle of friends includes stars like Jose Ferrer and Colleen Dewhurst, but they are closest to the peers they’ve come to know around the smaller theaters.

The pair longs to retreat, if not to that dream garage, then at least as far away as “a pig farm, with lots of kiddies,” suggests Lindsay. “No, a goat farm,” David retorts, “so we can have a goat named Goethe.” But no one expects David Mamet to pack until he’s had his say. “Twenty years from now,” he wishes aloud, “maybe they’ll be reading my plays. Not the reviews.”