Most playgoers would probably describe the language of Mamet’s plays as realistic. His dialogue has been described as cynical and street-smart. At first it looks and sounds like the everyday plain street-smart words with abundant use of profanity of frequently cynical people. The words are often blunt, short, slangy and colloquial. In studying the plays for performance actors and directors quickly recognize, however, that the language is precise, rhythmical and is chosen for sound as well as for meaning and that the profanity is used for its percussive as well as its expressive range.
Springfield Contemporary Theatre recently presented Race (2009) July 26-August 11, the latest of his business plays. The earlier plays are:
- American Buffalo (1975), a junkshop inhabited by characters currently planning a heist of a valuable coin collection;
- Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), a real estate agency with four highly competitive agents who are trying to unload a Florida swamp site on unsuspecting customers;
- Speed-the-Plow (1988), the office of a recently promoted Hollywood producer in a struggle for power, sex and money;
- Race(2009), the law firm consisting of two partners, one white, one African-American, and a young female African-American associate, who are asked to defend a white man accused of attempted rape of a young black woman.
“John…John…John. Okay. John. John. Look. (Pause.) The Glengarry Highland’s leads, you’re sending Roma
out. Fine. He’s a good man. We know what he is. He’s fine. All I’m saying, you look at the board, he’s throwing… wait, wait, wait, he’s throwing them away, he’s throwing the leads away. All that I’m saying, that you’re wasting leads. I don’t want to tell you your job.All that I’m saying, things get set.I know they do, you get a certain mindset…. A guy gets a reputation. We know how this…all I’m saying , put a closeron the job. There’s more than one man for the…. Put a…wait a second, put a proven man out…and you watch, now wait a second—and you watch your dollar volumes…You start closing them for fifty 'stead of twenty-five…you put a closer on the…
Shelley, you blew the last…
No. John. No. Let’s wait, let’s back up here, I did…will you please? Wait a second. Please. I didn’t “blow” them. No. I didn’t “blow” them. No. One kicked out, one. I closed…
…you didn’t close…”
The last phrase finishes the beat to send one of the speakers to a new tactic.
Clues to the rhythm and sound jump off the page at you: the words in triplicate; the single words followed by a period, the difference between words followed by a period and words followed by a comma; the ellipses, the italicized words. Mamet uses calculated repetitions, impatient interruptions. Monosyllables quicken the pace.
Look at this line, read it aloud: “All I’m saying, you look at the board, he’s throwing… wait, wait, wait, he’s throwing them away, he’s throwing the leads away.” The opening phrase is stopped by the harder italicized “board,” but followed by the forward thrust of the first of the triplicate, “he’s throwing.” The balanced opening and closing phrases are interrupted by the harder staccato triplicate “waits.” A line of sheer beauty.
This is only the opening few lines with hundreds to follow. The language of every play deserves this kind of close textual analysis. What makes Mamet so interesting is that on the surface the language seems so ordinary and fitting for the character, but close study reveals the “poetry” that he has created. Mamet has said, “It’s an attempt to capture language as much as it is an attempt to create language.” The actor in character must now convey that to the ear of the audience.
Look at and then read aloud this passage from Speed-the-Plow:
“Lunch at the Coventry.
Thy will be done.
You see, all that you got to do is eat my doo doo for eleven years, and eventually the wheel comes round.
Pay back time
You brought me the Doug Brown script
Glad I could do it
You son of a bitch…
Charl, I just hope.
The shoe was on the other foot, I’d act in such a…
Really, princely way toward you.
I know you would, Bob because lemme tell you: experiences like this, films like this…these are the films…
These are the films, that whaddayacallit…that make it all worthwhile.”
Just scanning the lines you begin to sense the rhythm: line 1, three words; 2, two words; 3, four words; 5, twenty-two words—the pattern continues.
Mamet’s characters also indulge in stream-of-consciousness monologues. Within the realistic framework how do you handle them? In most productions they are usually treated as everyday occurrences with the other characters on stage listening. I read about a production of Glengarry that broke the fourth wall and took those monologues as direct addresses to the audience. That treatment would secure an audience response differently and immediately gain a new way to hear the content.
In the 1960s playwrights began to break the language bugaboos, and anything could be used and said. Mamet became well known for his use of expletives. His plays are full of them especially the use of the f word. Of these four plays American Buffalo would seem to have the greatest use of them, as befits the characters of that play. In his The Water Engine (1977) a radio play set in 1934 no expletives appear as they would be unsuitable for the time. In Boston Marriage (1999) profanity has a sparring use but jarring effect. It is the early 20thcentury in the privacy of the home with a power struggle between two upper class Bostonian women, one of them resorts to use of profanity when she senses she is losing the battle. In Oleanna (1992), the play about a college professor and his female student, the professor resorts to profanity only at the end when he realizes the the shift of power to his seemingly innocuous female student. His loss of control shows through his resorting to profanity.
Ruby Cohn, a leading scholar of Samuel Beckett and brilliant authority on theatre of the last half of the 20thcentury, has a most insightful essay on the language of Mamet: Ruby Cohn, “How Are Things Made Round?” in Leslie Kane, DAVID MAMET A Casebook(1992). She limits her study to the business trilogy. Racewas still to be written. She lays the groundwork for a thorough study of the language in all Mamet’s plays. It is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the language used by David Mamet.