Quoting at length

David Mamet in 1997. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times) Click for source.

I recently picked up David Mamet’s collection of essays, Writing in Restaurants, a slender volume that has nevertheless proved, for the most part, too heady for me. Perhaps there is less for the novelist/short story writer to take from the playwright/screenwriter than it seems that there would be. Or perhaps the Mamet aesthetic (which I admire) does not resonate for me when stripped down by its author to its philosophic base.

This is not to suggest that there are not passages that I find interesting and full of implications for any drama. For instance, on the interconnectedness of our response to drama and our dream life:

…if the question posed is one which can be answered rationally, e.g.: how does one fix a car, should white people be nice to black people, are the physically handicapped entitled to our respect, our enjoyment of the drama is incomplete – we feel diverted but not fulfilled. Only if the question posed is one whose complexity and depth renders it unsusceptible to rational examination does the dramatic treatment seem to us appropriate, and the dramatic solution becomes enlightening.

Another passage, from the first essay in the collection, operates as a kind of key to the classic Mamet dialogue:

We all were lawyers in the schoolyard. We were concerned with property and honor, and correct application of the magical power of words. In the narration or recapitulation of serious matters our peers were never said to have “said” things, but to have “gone” things; we ten- and twelve-year-olds thereby recognizing a statement as an action. (He goes, “Get over to your side of the line, or you’re out,” and I go, “I am on my side of the line – it runs from the bench to the water fountain.”) Our schoolyard code of honor recognized words as magical and powerful unto themselves, and it was every bit as pompous and self-satisfied in the recognition of its magic as is the copyright code or a liquidated damages clause.

The idea of word as action, and the childhood betrayal when we find that it is possible, as Mamet says, to swear falsely – this ties unexpectedly to a parenting book I’m reading on communication with children. It is kind of shocking how routinely adults deny or challenge a child’s feelings (Child: Mommy, I’m tired. Mom: You couldn’t be tired. You just napped.). The language of the schoolyard, while commonly cruel, is at least honest.


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