Thursday, June 17, 2010

Theatre By David Mamet

The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc. are all in form and function play-grounds, ie:, forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart. Johan Huizinga Homo Ludens.


I read a lot of technical material about the theatre when I was young.

The Neighbourhood Playhouse distributed a reading list to its students in 1967, and we were supposed to have read the forty or fifty titles before the first day of class.

The books, as I recall, were predominantly Russian-Stanislavsky's trilogy ( An Actor Prepares, Building A character, and Creating A Role) and My Life In Art; Nemirovich-Danchenko (his partner in the Moscow Art theatre) writing about Stanislavsky; Niolai Gorchakov's stanislavsky directs and his The Vakhtangov School Of Stage Art.

Books by and about the Moscow Art Theatre's second generation, the studios, filled out the list. In addition to the thought of Vakhtangov, we were exposed to that of Meyerhold (his rival, the pretender to the throne).

After the generation of the studios (Meyerhold and Vakhtangov), the locus of succession shifted to their Muscovite disciples in New York and their work. We read Stella Adlr, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis (Method or Madness), and so on.

I gobbled this stuff up. I was a rotten actor and a hopeless acting student, but I loved the theatre and I loved the theoretical, and I delighted in tracing the vein of Muscovite thought through the apostolic succession.

For that succession extended down to me.

The head of my school, my teacher, was Sanford Meisner, baby of the Group Theatre. He came of age with the Adlers, Morris Carnovsky, Lee Strausberg, Harold Clurman, and the host of technophiles.

(Clurman and Adler made a pilgrimage to Paris to meet with Stanislavsky in the thirties and had received the laying on of hands. Was I not a student of their collegue? Yes, I was. And I am proud to have known and studied with Mr. Meisner, to have socialized with harold clurman, Stella Adler, and bobby lewis.

I admired their accomplishments and pored over their books, but on reflection, i had (and have) little idea what they were talking about.

I exempt Harold Clurman, who age eighty or so took my wife to the theatre. Halfway through the first act she felt his hand on her knee and gliding up her skirt. "Harold, please, she said. "What are you doing? And he replied, "I come to the theatre to enjoy myself."

Well, so do I, and so do we all; and that's the only reason we come or should come.

We should not come, whether as workers or audience, to practice or share a "technique". there is no such thing as a "stanislavsky actor" or a "Meisner actor" or "Method actor". there are actors (of varying abilities) and nonactors.

The job of the actor is to perform the play such that his performance is more enjoyable-to the audience-than a mere reading of the text.

Similarily, the job of designers of costumes, sets, and lights, is to increase the audience's enjoyment of the play past that which might be expected in a performance done in street clothes, on a bare stage, under work lights.

This is a very difficult task indeed, for most plays are better enjoyed under such circumstances, as anyone who has ever seen a great rehersal in a rehersal hall can attest.

Why is this great rehersal more enjoyable than the vast bulk of designed productions? It allows the audience to use its imagination, which is the purpose of coming to the theatre in the first place.

it takes a real artist to increase the enjoyment of the audience past that which would be found in seeing the play on a bare stage, for the first rule of the designer, as of the physician, is do no harm. And, as with the physician, the rule is quite often observed in the breach.

What of the director?

Actors, left alone, will generally stage the play better than it could be staged by all but a few directors.


Actors never forget that which most directors never realize: The purpose of staging is to draw the attention of the audience to the person speaking.

Each actor in the directorless play will insist (for his own reasons) on being seen, heard and rationally featured for that portion of the play in which the playwright has indicated he should be the center of attention.

Further, actors, thinking, as they should, that the most interesting parts of the play are those which feature themselves, will, in commitee, vote to get on with it, and move the play along. Which is all the audience cares about.

(If you think about it, this desire of the actor to get to the part where he talks and the desire of the character to do the same are indistinguishable to the audience-if we say, as I will later, that there is no such thing as the character, then these two urges are not merely indistinguishable, but identical.)
The task of the good director, then, is to focus the attention of the audience through the arrangement of the actors, and through the pace and rhythm of the presentation.

And there you have it. Actor, designer, director. First and last, their job is to bring the play to the audience. Any true technique, then, would consist-and consist solely-in a habitual application of those ideas that will aid in so doing.

"But," the observant may remark, "did not the Moscow Art theatre, its studios, the Group, et cetera, did they not, irrespective of their adoration of the theoretical, do good and even great work? And has not the author himself and at length, offered the world theoretical treatises?" It is all true; and I suggest that such treatises and theories be accepted not as instruction manuals but as the otherwise incathectable expression of love for an ever-widening mystery, in which spirit I offer these essays.

1 comment:

Candy Minx said...

P.S. this is an absolutley brilliant book. Mamet has articulated everything that is the enemy of art. And everything that is the enemy of joy and fun.

I read this in one sitting, without putting it down as if I had just run into a dear dear friend and we had all the time in the world to visit.

Thank you Mamet...I hope everyone who dreams of being an artist reads this book.

...but who really needs to read this book is every professor, intellectual, and critic...and they should be very afraid ha ha ha....