Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century

DAVID MAMET (1947- )

American playwright, essayist, screenwriter and film director David Alan Mamet was born on November 30, 1947, in Flossmoor, Illinois. The son of attorney Bernard Mamet and teacher Lenore June, he grew up in a South Shore neighborhood of Chicago where he remembers stickball being played in the street. In 1958, his mother and father divorced and young Mamet moved to the suburbs with his mother and her new husband (a former colleague of his father's).

Mamet’s childhood years were not without turmoil. “Suffice it to say we are not the victims of a happy childhood,” his sister, Lynn Mamet, would later say. “There was a lot of violence, but the greatest violence was emotional. It was emotional terrorism" (New York Times, 1997). Some would say these early life experiences have manifested themselves in Mamet's writing, particularly in the second act of The Old Neighborhood which depicts recollections of childhood abuse and resentments resulting from a divorce, and in The Cryptogram which tells the story of a young boy whose parents have separated.

Mamet first became interested in the theatre through his Uncle Henry who produced radio and television for the Chicago Board of Rabbis and who cast his nephew in a few small roles, and one of David's first jobs was as a busboy at Second City, a world-renowned improvisational comedy troupe based in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago. Educated at Goddard College in Vermont and at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater in New York, Mamet would work various odd jobs before finding a way to earn his living from the theatre. During this period, he worked as a maintenance man, at a roadside diner, and even, for a while, sold real estate "to unsuspecting elderly people" in Chicago. Eventually, however, his theatrical inclinations asserted themselves.

A founding member of the Atlantic Theater Company, Mamet began his career as an actor and director before achieving acclaim as a playwright for a trio of off-Broadway plays in 1976: The Duck Variations, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and American Buffalo. The Woods (1977) and Edmond (1982) were followed by two enormously successful plays--the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross (1984), a scathing representation of American business practices inspired by Mamet's own experience as a real estate broker, and Speed-the-Plow (1988), which savagely reveals the amoral underside of the film industry.

The most easily recognizable aspect of Mamet’s style is his sparse, clipped dialogue. Although reminiscent of such playwrights as Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, Mamet’s dialogue is so unique that it has come to be known as “Mametspeak.” His language is not so much “naturalistic,” as it is a poetic impression of streetwise jargon. His stories, often involving the plight of small-time grifters, dubious real estate salesmen and other marginal types, explore a desperate, obsessed landscape that is deeply American.

Also known for the abundance of profanities in his writing, Mamet defends his colorful dialogue, saying, "The people who speak that way tell the truth. They don't institutionalize thought." Mamet critic Anne Dean agrees, suggesting that his characters express "an honesty that is uncluttered by the bonds of polite conversation" (David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action). She elaborates, "From the bluntest of materials, Mamet carves his dialogue, establishes mood and character, and imbues his work with tension and movement. With apparently so little, he achieves so much." Not all critics, however, are quite so infatuated with Mamet's language, or at least the evolution of it. According to Ben Brantley, "The ripe street vernacular of early Mamet has been replaced by perfumed locutions of improbable archness. Well, mostly anyway. Obscenities explode every so often, rather like stink bombs at a garden party ... there is a distancing air of contempt to the proceedings, a faint disdain for the emptiness of posturing estheticism" (New York Times, June 16, 1999).

Another often discussed (perhaps unfairly) aspect of Mamet's work centers around charges of mysogyny. Some critics suggest that Mamet's female characters are nothing more than shallow foils for his misogynistic males. Other suggest that Mamet is himself an misogynist. In a 1997 interview, Mamet responded to this charge, saying, ""It's inaccurate and it's a lie, and not only is it that, but it's cowardly. What happened, I believe, was, years ago, I wrote a play called Sexual Perversity in Chicago which was about misogyny; how a nice, healthy relationship between two nice young people was ruined by the incursion of a misogynist. And since then, people have said, 'It's been said that you are a misogynist.' Well, nothing could be further from the truth, either in my personal life, if it's anyone's business, or in my work. I think if someone wants to make such an unpleasant and demonstrably false assertion, let him or her make it, and I'll respond with whatever small courtesy it deserves" (The Boston Globe, 1997).

Indeed, Mamet's body of work is much more complex than those who cry "misogynist" might care to admit. He writes of a world in which alienation is a fundamental, perhaps even universal, experience. A common theme in his plays is the potentially destructive force of the American dream which he observes "was basically about raping and pillage.... We are finally reaching a point where there is nothing left to exploit.... The dream has nowhere to go so it has to turn on itself" (In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights).

Mamet has also written many critically acclaimed screenplays, including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), The Untouchables (1987), House of Games (1987), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Hoffa (1992), Wag the Dog (1997), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), The Winslow Boy (1999), State and Main (2000), Hannibal (2001), and Edmond (2005). His screenplay for Barry Levinson’s political satire Wag the Dog earned him both an Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Screenplay. Given the opportunity, Mamet often chooses to direct his own screenplays, and while some have criticized him for this, he doesn't see it as a handicap. “There are two stages,” Mamet says, “First I write the best script I can and then I put on my directors hat and say, ‘What am I going to do with this piece of crap?’” He does, however, acknowledge that there are additional challenges involved in writing movies as opposed to writing plays. "I like mass entertainment," says Mamet. "I've written mass entertainment. But it's the opposite of art because the job of mass entertainment is to cajole, seduce and flatter consumers to let them know that what they thought was right is right, and that their tastes and their immediate gratification are of the utmost concern of the purveyor. The job of the artist, on the other hand, is to say, wait a second, to the contrary, everything that we have thought is wrong. Let's reexamine it." (Salon Magazine)

Mamet has taught at New York University, Goddard College, and the Yale Drama School. His awards include the Joseph Jefferson Award, 1974; Obie Award, 1976, 1983; New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1977, 1984; Outer Circle Award, 1978; Society of West End Theatre Award, 1983; Pulitzer Prize, 1984; Dramatists Guild Hall-Warriner Award, 1984; American Academy Award, 1986; Tony Award, 1987.

Mamet was married to actress Lindsay Crouse from 1977 to 1990, and the couple had two children together: Willa and Zosia (pronounced Zasha). In 1991, Mamet married actress and singer-songwriter Rebecca Pidgeon, and they have two children as well: Clara and Noah. Both of Mamet's wives have appeared in films he has directed.

Mamet's other plays include:

  • Lakeboat (1970)
  • The Duck Variations (1972)
  • Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974)
  • Squirrels (1974)
  • American Buffalo (1975)
  • Reunion (1976)
  • The Water Engine (1976)
  • A Life in the Theatre (1977)
  • Revenge of the Space Pandas (1978)
  • The Woods (1979)
  • The Blue Hour (1979)
  • Lakeboat (revised, 1980)
  • Edmond (1982)
  • The Frog Prince (1983)
  • Glengarry Glen Ross (1984)
  • The Shawl (1985)
  • Speed-the-Plow (1988)
  • Bobby Gould in Hell (1989)
  • Oleanna (1992)
  • The Cryptogram (1995)
  • The Old Neighborhood (1997)
  • Boston Marriage (1999)
  • Faustus (2004)
  • Romance (2005)
  • The Voysey Inheritance (adapted, 2005)


Back to 20th Century Theatre