David Mamet: Chicago

Posted by

[Off-Screen] Please join me in
welcoming Chris Jones and David Mamet. [Applause] [Jones]: Hello everybody.
So nice to see so many people. Yeah, this is kind of an important
building for you, isn’t it? [Mamet]: It’s a very important
building for me. I believe the last time I saw
a play here was Henry Fonda doing Clarence Darrow. [Crowd laughter]
[Mamet]: It’s true. And my first introduction to
the arts was in this building. I started taking piano lessons in 1951. And also, there was a place here
called the World Playhouse that showed foreign films,
and one time when I was in high school at the
Francis Parker school and they had an
Ingmar Bergman festival. It was ten o’clock in the morning and
I saw five Ingmar Berman films in a row. [Crowd laughter]
And I’ve been on Prozac ever since. [Jones laughing]
[Mamet]: And finally — [Jones continues laughing]
[Mamet]: Finally — that’s sad but true — And finally my first film was called
“House of Games” and it premiered — the first time I ever saw it
with an audience was here at the Fine Arts Theater. So this is a very, very
important building to me. [Jones]: You’ve always had
this enormous affection for this town. I remember when you were last here,
I remember asking you — You’d been given a Lifetime
Achievement Award, I think, or something like that,
and you were in your typical way sort of, you know, sort of,
“A Lifetime Achievement Award is one thing.” But then I remember you
saying to me something like “But I’m always happy to
come back to Chicago, because that always means something.” And I sort of then —
It moved me at the time. I remember thinking this city
really does mean something to you. As an artist and as a person and all. I mean it’s where you’re from.
[Mamet, overlapping]: Well, yeah. [Mamet]: I mean my good friend
Rudyard Kipling, right? — [Crowd laughter]
[Jones]: The kindred spirit! [Mamet]: — Was a nice Jewish kid
whose name was Rudolph Kipnis, as you probably know. [Crowd laughter] And he said, “We’ve only one
virginity to lose, and where we’ve lost it,
there our hearts shall be.” [Jones laughing]
[Crowd laughter] [Laughter continues] [Jones]: I always used to —
[laughs] I always used to dine out
on the idea that if you really wanted to
understand David Mamet, you had to understand
Lincoln Avenue. On the idea that, okay —
So this was always my grand theory, was that at the bottom of
Lincoln Avenue you had the Lincoln Hotel where you lived for a time,
and you, you know, you hung out at Second City and famously
mopped the floors or whatever you did there. And then you would hang out
with the poker players there and over time “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,”
sort of came from that time. And then I always imagine you
take the bus halfway up Lincoln Avenue to sort of, in my mind anyway,
like around Irving Park, and there were those
junk shops and I was like, “That’s kind of the world of
‘American Buffalo.'” And then at the end of
Lincoln Avenue where it meets Western I always thought,
“Well that’s ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.'” Because there’s a line in
“Glengarry Glen Ross” where one of the characters —
I’m not sure which one it is — Roma maybe says, “Oh,
I used to sell cars on Western.” So I always imagined there
actually in Lincoln Square. So that was always my theory,
was that the key to Mamet was Lincoln Avenue. [Mamet]: Oh, that’s very good.
Actually I worked for this place called Web Realty which was up
at the end of Lincoln Avenue and I lived at the Hotel Lincoln
so I’d take the bus back and forth, worked for fourteen hours a day
and read on the bus. And then I would get off the bus
and go to what was then Al and Jeff’s Laugh-In Restaurant,
and it was open all night, and you know, and have dinner and — It’s so great to be back. I was over at the Lincoln,
the Union League Club today and I was telling a joke about
porrum, right? [Crowd laughter]
Exactly. [More laughter] But I did myself a disservice
because I injured my eyes. I started to tell this joke,
I said, “Are there any Jews in the audience?”
and I started going like that — [Crowd laughter] [Jones laughing] [Mamet]: There was one guy,
he said his great great-grandmother might’ve been a Jew,
but she became a Unitarian. So that’s… [trails off]
[Crowd laughter] [Jones]: I gotta say, [laughs]
I found — I’m a little intimidated. I think it’s because I think I saw
the very worst literary interview of my entire life in which
you were involved in about — It must’ve been about the mid-nineties,
and some poor interlocutor of yours walked out on stage, [laughs]
I’ve never forgotten it — — walked out on stage and said,
“I’m just gonna say the title of your plays, and I want you to
shout out what comes into your head.” [Jones and Mamet laugh]
[Jones]: And I remember you said, “Let’s not talk about my work,”
[Mamet]: [laughs] That’s good. [Jones]: Then you said,
“Let’s talk about something else.” And then the guy says, “I’m sorry,
but all of my questions are about your work.”
[Crowd laughter] So that was,
that was kind of that. And I also remember
talking to an academic — — this is good too —
talking to an academic about you one time.
And this guy says, “You know, I once
asked him something in a question and answer
session in London, and he yelled back angrily,
‘You must be an English professor!'” And the guy said,
“He couldn’t even see me. He intuited it from the question.” [Jones]: [laughs] Which I thought —
[Mamet]: It’s true. I’m so proud of that. [Mamet]: I don’t think
I did it angrily, I just knew it. And that was one of my
high points of my existence. [Jones laughing] But because our good friend
Mary McCarthy, Mary McCarthy actually said,
“No one knows less about life than an English teacher.”
[Crowd laughter] [Mamet]: That’s true.
[Jones laughing] [Jones]: I —
[Continues laughing] I used to think —
[Crowd laughter] I guess when you’re a writer,
you’re in this bind of people always trying to analyze you
and always trying to — you know, I’m a critic, so it’s sort of
my job to sort of know you, and I suppose it’s your job to be
unknowable on some level. So do you resent —
Or do you even resent the act of being known?
[Mamet, overlapping]: No no, no. [Mamet]: No, not at all.
I mean Trollope in his wonderful autobiography
said he decided early on you can’t have anything
to do with critics. He said, you just can’t do it, he said — because whoever you are,
or however talented you are, or however strong you are,
you aren’t healthy enough to deal with that interchange. So he said,
“I’m just going to absolutely ignore the critics,
for good or ill.” And he said he stuck to it
his whole life, and maybe he did. So I adopted that for many, many years.
And I fell off the wagon at one point. And I was talking to a critic
and the critic said, “Well you haven’t talked to the
critic for ten years. Why is that?” And I said, “Well, because they
ask me all these questions. I don’t know the answers to them,
so whenever I talk to the critics I feel stupid.” And he said, “But that’s absurd.”
And I said, “See.” [Jones laughing]
[Crowd laughter] [Jones]: This book that you’ve all
come here to hear about and to take home with you
is a great book. I mean I’m not — this is not some
talking head who’s read the first chapter. I mean I’ve really devoured this book.
I’ve read it three or four times. It is, after all, about where I work,
and it’s an incredible book. I’ve always thought that
your most revealing work, the work that seemed to me
most revealing of you, I’ve always thought to be
“The Cryptogram.” [Mamet]: Oh, thank you. What a
lovely thing to say. Thank you. [Jones]: Does that please you
that I think that about that play? [Mamet]: I love that play so much.
And you know, we’re backstage, we’re talking about the great
Richard Christiansen, and Chris said Richard Christian–
[Applause] Yeah. — Was as much as anything as
responsible for the existence of the Chicago theatre movement. And Chris said, “You know,
Richard Christiansen’s responsible for my career,”
and I said, “So am I.” [Crowd laughter]
[Mamet]: Which is true. It’s absolutely true.
And so are many of us. And Richard said the most
wonderful thing when he came to see the play, I think in
Boston, something like that. And he said at the end of the play
this little, this — a young boy, what the play’s about,
goes upstairs to kill himself at the end of the play.
And Richard said, “But in real life,” he said,
“The boy didn’t go up the stairs to kill himself, he went upstairs
to become a great American writer.” And I thought that was by far
the greatest praise I ever received. [Jones]: Would you allow that was
your most revealing work? [Mamet]: That’s a good question.
I think it’s — I mean it’s all revealing. You know if it’s not revealing,
what are you doing? You know, you’re pretending
to be someone else. So it’s a very personal work.
It’s a very — it’s a domestic play. I don’t know if I ever wrote
any other domestic plays. [Jones]: Right. [Mamet]: But it’s very, very much —
It’s a domestic play. [Jones]: So, The book is dedicated to, “J.M.
Chicago Police Department, 1924 to 1953.”
[Mamet]: Yeah. [Jones]: So who’s that? [Mamet]: It’s a guy —
I don’t even know if that was — — that was the name that he gave. I was driving a cab in Chicago
about 1969, and I got held up. And the guy had — you know,
the South Side — he had — We didn’t have partitions in those days.
He had a gun, a knife to my neck. he said he’s gonna kill me. I didn’t believe him, but he said it,
so I gave him my money, you know, what the heck.
[Crowd laughter] And I — there I was, all shook up,
and I flagged down a cop, and a cop comes over
and I started talking to him, and he says, “Mamet,” he says,
“Any relation to Bernie Mamet?” I say, “Yeah, he’s my dad.”
The cop says, “We bought your house.” [Crowd laughter]
That’s a true story. I said, “Get out of here!”
He said, “No, we bought your house. You know that cowboy wallpaper?”
— bippidy boppidy boo…. So we start talking and
one thing led to another. And we went out
and we had a drink, and he meets a guy in a bar.
And I start talking to the guy in a bar who’s a friend of his, and the guy
gave me a name, and the man had been — — They were both African-Americans,
and the man was an older man. He’s probably my age at that time,
like around seventy, and he’d been a soldier in World War One,
a highly decorated soldier, came back and he worked
in the Chicago cops…. And then he went to prison.
And he just started talking to me and telling these stories.
And they aren’t his stories in the book but they’re just
such marvelous stories about the old days on the
South Side of Chicago. And later on — so later on
I was doing a — I think it was at the event that you —
I think you were there, about ten years ago,
[Jones]: Yeah [Mamet]: A woman came up to me
because I had mentioned her husband, I had mentioned this event in something
and she was the man’s widow. The officer’s widow.
And she found something. They were re-papering the wall and
she’d found something that I’d written in second grade, and I put my name.
And I did a little drawing of a police star like I’d wanted to be a cop.
I wanted to be Marshall Dillon. And so she gave me that
little red piece of paper, which has been hanging
over my desk ever since. [Jones]: So there are two — The book has two reporters
from the Tribune. There’s one — One’s called
“Paulo,” one’s called “Mike.” And the guy who plays the character
of Paulo is this kind of formalist. You know he sort of speaks in
highfalutin language, but also, he’s sort of the
poet-reporter which we all like to think of ourselves
as being. Which is probably why
I like the book so much. But he says at one point
he’s written a book at the beginning of
the book and he says, “Some swine made
more money than I, sold a story to Harper’s,
fooled a critic. There are those who fall
with the right side up, and thereafter whoever sees them
thinks that fella looks like heads. Read the review,
choke down the prose of watching the world with the
reading public thinking, no, is it not possible that culture
is a field of good or bad potential, but capable presumably of
bringing forth some fruit?” And I thought, you know,
it’s sort of interesting that he says, essentially,
“I’m jealous, yes, of others’ success, but I never envied
anybody’s achievement.” [Mamet]: Yeah.
[Jones]: And that’s struck me as something that was
you talking, I dunno. What’s the difference between
success and achievement? [Mamet]: Well success is, you know,
not to put too fine a point on it, it’s money. And as
Voltaire said, you know, “Every man’s satisfied with his wit.
No man’s satisfied with his fortune.” But if someone could
actually write, I say, “God bless you, and
thank you very much.” And that’s always my test about
reading because I read a lot, is can the person
write a sentence? Because anybody can write a book,
but if they can write — [Crowd laughter] — If they can write a sentence,
I take my hat off to them. [Jones] I always, you know….
Let me give you one other example
from this book: So there’s this sort of crochety
city editor type in it aptly named “Crouch.” What else?
And he says this, he says, “A newspaper is a joke,
existing in the pleasure of the advertisers to
mulct the public –” It’s M-U-L-C-T — I dunno what
“Mulct” means. Do you know — What is — who knows what
“mulct” means? [Mamet]: That means to extract with
a certain amount of nefarious attempt. [Jones, continuing the excerpt]:
“– Gratifying their stupidity,” [Crowd laughter]
“And renders them small advance on investment to owners,
offering punitive employment to their –” [pauses]
“– etiolated,” Etiolated? [Mamet] Blanched out.
Wasted. [Crowd laughter] [Jones, laughing]: “To their —
— etiolated, wastrel sons. And those young Solons –”
[pronouncing] Sullens? Solons? [Mamet]: Yeah, Solon
is a Greek wise man. [Jones] This is a reporter of
the Tribune saying all this. “– to those — ”
[Crowd laughter] [Jones laughing] [Mamet]: It was a while ago.
[Continued laughter] “And those young Solons
circuit between the Fort Dearborn Club and the
Everly House of Instruction.” [laughs] I mean, that’s fabulous! [Mamet]: Thank you. [laughs]
Thank you, that’s very kind. [Jones]: So you, in this book you
went around and you did some historical research
back in our town. You’ve got the Everly Club in there.
You’ve got some real addresses. How did all that… Did you like
prowl around on — [Mamet]: Well, my great friend,
rest in peace, was Shel Silverstein. And he once…. [trails off]
He was a marvelous man. He loved me, loved my wife,
loved my family. We spent forever with him.
And once he says, one day says, “Come on, we’re gonna go out and
have some coffee and screw around.” I say, “I can’t, I gotta do
some research.” He says, “Never do research.
When you do research, all you’re doing is reading some
bullshit by some son-of-a-bitch who didn’t do research.”
[Crowd laughter] [Jones laughing]
So that’s kind of how I feel. [Jones]: But it is a mix of —
It’s a mix of, it’s a mix of sort of fictional characters.
The lead characters are fictional, but in a milieu that we
recognize as 1920s Chicago. [Mamet]: Yeah, but I mean
I grew up in it, you know. It’s your mother’s milk. I was saying to somebody
that as a historical novel, which I guess it is in addition
to being a genre novel, I’m the same distance from
Al Capone as Leo Tolstoy was from the Napoleonic wars.
So those were the stories he grew up in that his dad heard
from his grandfather. And these are the stories that
I grew up with exactly the same way as Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
grew up with the stories of the Mafia. The stuff of your life — you go to
the Francis Parker school, they tell you, “Across the street was
the garage where they had the seven against the wall.”
And you drive down Dearborn street and say,
“You see there’s two chips in the wall where they — at the
Holy Name — where they shot Dean O’Bannion.”
And you know, you grow up on the Wooded Island,
they say, “Well that’s where Leopold and Loeb threw their
typewriter into the lagoon at the Wooded Island.”
Et cetera, et cetera. So that’s kind of how we
mark time in Chicago. And it occurs to me I was
very fortunate to live many, many years in the country,
and there’s — in Vermont — And there’s an old American tradition.
Ancient American pastoral tradition called “bumping,” which is you take the
young kid, basically the boys because they were gonna be
in charge of the farm, and you walk them around the property.
And when you get to a mark, the old tree, the stone wall, you bump
into them. [Slaps arm] And that’s how you teach them
to remember the property. So when you grow up in Chicago,
at least when I did, there’s a certain amount of
that bumping going on, right? “Oh, that’s where the Metro Bowl is,
and that’s where Al Capone had his headquarters.” Or,
“That’s in Cicero where they had, you know —
He hung out over there.” Or, “That’s the statue in Lincoln Park
where Nails Morton got thrown by his horse and kicked to death.”
So those are our beloved bounds. [Jones chuckles]
You know. [Jones]: In the book
there are these — you know, I’m sorry for doing all this
psychoanalysis, but I remember thinking,
“Here’s two sides of this guy.” You’ve got this one reporter —
the one I’ve just quoted from who’s this sort of hyper,
you know… you. [Crowd laughter]
And then you’ve got the other one, Mike,
who is the one I certainly identify more with, but also
feels to me to be your romantic — Yes, you’re a romantic, and a
softie at heart I’ve always thought. And this guy’s like that.
He falls in love with this Irish girl who’s the — the
plot of the book is he tries to find who killed her.
And I thought, “Well he’s compartmentalizing himself
into these two different characters.” And then they keep disappearing to,
I think it’s a cabin on the Fox River. [Mamet]: Mhm.
[Jones]: And I thought, “Okay, that’s Vermont.
Because he would do that. He would get out of —
Oh, somehow that’s his country, that’s his absent side.”
So that was mine. That was how I entertained myself
when I read it. I thought it was — It just seemed like many
sides of you in this novel. [Mamet, overlapping]: Oh, thanks.
You know, I just feel so much that I really got lucky.
I got into writing this book and one thing led to another,
and I had some really great help from my assistant Pam Susemiehl,
and a grant of encouragement from my agent David Vigliano,
kept saying, “Do it again! Do it again! Look deeper, what’s the
inherent plot? Work it out.” And so I did it many times
over a certain period of time. And I just looked at it at the end
and it occurred to me something Somerset Maugham said. He was looking back in his nineties
at a shelf full of all of his work. And he said to his nephew,
he said, “Who wrote that?” [Audience chuckles]
So that’s kind of how I feel. [Jones]: You feel that
about your earlier work? [Mamet]: I feel about it the
whole thing. I mean, you know. [Jones]: You don’t recognize
the person that wrote it? Or you’ve forgotten him?
[Mamet, overlapping]: I really, [Mamet]: I do and I don’t.
And there’s an early, early book by Somerset Maugham, and I
can’t remember the name — Someone will help me out.
It was not published until later. He became successful.
It’s called “Mrs. …” Anyone? “Mrs.” something-or-other.
It’s not a good book. [Crowd laughter] But…
And he rewrote it when he became successful.
He said, “It wasn’t a good book. It was very thought-y and it had a lot of
ellipses and a lot of question marks,” and bippidy-boppidy-boo,
“I rewrote it the best I could, but I don’t know who wrote that book.
So I have no relationship to him. I just looked on it as an editor.” So I feel that way about a lot of my —
I’m really glad I did it, you know, beats washing windows for a living.
I used to do that too, but…. [Jones laughs] [Jones]: I guess though,
if you’re a playwright — A novelist, it stays on the shelf,
people pick it up, and they go, “Well here’s this book
he wrote at this time.” But if somebody does, say
“Oleanna” now, then there’s a whole thing that cranks up
by dint of the production, if you know what I mean.
It’s sort of, somebody calls you, there’s a whole media thing
if it’s a big production, the play is reexamined in the
context of the current moment. It’s a little different it seems to me
for a playwright when your plays are, like you, constantly being redone
and then applied in a new era. [Mamet]: Well, that’s true.
I was extraordinarily fortunate, and I was here as part of the era of
the burgeoning of Chicago theatre. We didn’t know any better and
there was no money involved. And we did it because we loved it.
And all of us were absolutely — There was no question in any of our minds
that whenever we put on a play, there was no better theatre being done
any place in the world that night. [Jones chuckles]
We were young and talented and full of spunk,
and we just loved doing it. And I just wrote a new play,
and a lot of people looked at the new play — it hasn’t
been done yet — and they said, “You can’t do this.
You’re out of your fucking mind. You can’t do this play.”
But it occurred to me people have been saying
that to me for fifty years. [Jones laughs] So there’s an interesting process
of aging which you bring up. Like when we first did my play “Oleanna”
with Rebecca Pidgeon and Billy Macy in New York, the people
came very close to rioting. Just about every night there
was a fight in the audience. Seriously, it was a fight
in the audience every night. And the woman who replaced Rebecca
actually got punched coming out of the stage door. People would scream at each other.
And now that’s kind of become part of — become part of the cultures,
or as William Maxwell said, “Time will darken it.” You know?
But it’s an interesting process. But some people who perhaps are
less arrogant than I, would say, “Okay, you know, let’s play these.
You know, I’ll settle down and write a play about moderately difficult
things happening to moderately interesting people.”
[Jones chuckles] But I was very, very fortunate in
the way that I was brought up that I didn’t have to do that. [Jones] I think people sometimes
wonder about you to what extent are you fundamentally a satirist?
That is to say, it’s a question that’s come up for years about you.
Whether it’s about say, your book about acting or your, let’s say
your pronouncement that there shall be no talk-backs after your
plays, which I must say I kind of like because I can’t stand ’em.
But some people feel differently. Is it — you know, my question is,
does he mean it? This novel feels extraordinarily
sincere to me, somehow, but what about the broader question? [Mamet]: Tell me again what
broader question are you saying? [Jones]: To what extent are you now,
or have you ever been, a satirist? [Mamet]: I don’t think I’ve
ever been a satirist. I think I’ve been a farceur.
A lot of my plays are farces. But I don’t think I’ve ever been —
I’ve never been a satirist. Because I didn’t go to Yale.
[Crowd laughter] [Jones laughing]
[Mamet]: And I actually, you know, I think things
are funnier than that. You know, as Mel Brooks said,
you know, Mel Brooks said, “Anybody can laugh at an actor
dressed up like a little old lady in a wheelchair falling down stairs,
but if you’re really a comedian, it’s a gotta be a real
little old lady.” [Crowd laughter]
[Jones laughing] [Laughter continues] [Jones]: What about this talk-back thing
that got everybody all excited about it, when you said —
[Mamet, overlapping]: Oh, that’s such — [Mamet]: It’s such bullshit.
Listen, here’s the thing: [Jones laughing]
The theatre — Here’s the thing, when I was a kid,
there was the Goodman Theatre which did bad productions
of Eugene O’Neil, right? [Jones laughing]
[Crowd laughter] And on the other hand, there was
Ravinia, which did bad productions of Eugene O’Neil.
[Crowd chuckles] And there was nothing in between,
except the community theater production where — community theater movement —
where they did bad productions of Charlie Zanton’s “Ten Nights
in a Dark Turkish Bath.” And then out of nowhere, out of the mind
of Bob Sickinger and Jim Schieffelin — [Jones]: The late Bob Sickinger.
[Mamet]: Stewart Gordon and a couple of other people,
this movement — and also out of Second City, you know went out of
the Compass and Shelley Berman and [inaudible] and all those guys —
This movement arose in Chicago burbling out of the sand,
of “Let’s put on plays! Let’s write new plays and — ” I’m so in love with the
sound of my own voice, you have to tell me what
the question was again. [Jones giggles]
[Crowd laughter] [Jones] I don’t know that it was
relating to that answer, but — [Mamet]: Oh, I’ll get to it, trust me.
[Jones laughs] [Mamet]: Ok?
[Jones]: You know, when you said this to our
mutual friend Rick Cohen at the Tribune on Sunday,
“Every society has to confront the ungovernable genie of sexuality
and tries various ways to deal with it, and none of them work very well.
There is great difficulty when you are switching modes,
which is what we seem to be doing now.”
[Mamet]: Yes. [Jones, continuing excerpt]:
“People go crazy. They start tearing
each other to bits.” [Mamet]: Yeah, so the theatre exists
as we discovered, idiosyncratically out of nowhere. And the theatre exists to
express otherwise indefectible perceptions about human behavior.
The theatre doesn’t really come from entertainment, the theatre
originally comes from religion. So it allows us to say,
“There’s something happening,” I don’t know what the hell it is.
We can call it God, or we can call it — maybe it’s another guy of the
same name, but something is happening here that is
beyond our control, which is what the Bible is about —
the Old Testament’s about — is everything beyond your control.
We try to do it good and we do ill. We try to love each other,
we hate each other. We, as Aristotle said,
we follow a perfectly planned form of plan of action
down to the end, which we find out we’ve just destroyed ourselves
and everything that we love. So the theatre is the counterbalance
to a rational understanding of life. It’s a myth. Which is not to say that
it’s not true, but that it’s irrational. It deals with our dream life
in the say way, as Freud said, that music is polymorphous perversity.
It makes sense when you say, “That’s true,” but we
can’t really say why. So, because the theatre is so
potentially affecting, as Shakespeare said,
“I’ve been told that guilty creatures sitting at a play
may be so moved to their –” blah blah blah, “That they
act against their better nature.” [Jones]: Yes.
[Mamet]: — In “Hamlet.” Because the theatre has that potential,
we try — the conscious mind tries to disarm it. And
how do we know? I’ll tell you how we know —
Because people always come late to the theatre.
Nobody comes late to the movies.
[Jones chuckles] Right? People always come late
to the theatre, and what’s the other thing that everybody
always comes late to? Anybody? [Audience member off-camera]:
Church! [Mamet]: They come late to church!
[Jones and Crowd chuckling] [Mamet]: They don’t come
late to the soccer game, but they come late to church.
Why do they come late to church and why do they come late to the —
Why do we do these things? Because there’s something
in us that’s guarding our most precious possession which is our
erroneous understanding of our own rationality.
[Crowd chuckles] [Jones]: So people are frightened
of the theatre on some level? [Mamet]: Well, “frightened”
is a good word, you know. They say in Hebrew, they say
that you should fear God. The word actually in Hebrew is
closer to the word “awe.” That you should have
an “awe” of God. So the people have an
unquenchable, unconscious awe of the theatrical interchange:
Actual people sitting on stage, acting out something that those
people out there, we out there, have suspended our disbelief
sufficiently for, to understand “Oh my God, that’s just like me.”
Which may, as Aristotle said, move us at the end of the play
to fear and pity, right? To pity the poor son-of-a-bitch, and fear
“Oh my God, that’s just like me.” So one of the ways that we try
to disarm the power of the theatre is by coming late. Another way in which we try
to disarm the power of the theatre is by interposing a critical
establishment, right? Which may be —
[Jones]: Excuse me? [Crowd laughter]
[Mamet]: I’m working on it! [Jones laughs] It may in fact actually be benign,
which is to say, and I am the great recipient of it, in the work of
Richard Christiansen or in the work of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel,
it may actually be the work of a person who so loves the form that he
wants to write about it out of love. Which is a great help, right?
Or, it may be the other thing where the critic understands
his or her job is to knock off anything which isn’t immediately
categorizable as brilliance. Which is to say, “Give me
some mediocrity,” right? And another way to defuse
the power of the theatre is to break the fourth wall,
and to say, the actors in this blah blah are gonna come on stage
and rather than letting you guys alone, or as Shakespeare says,
“You this way, we that way,” letting you go home and think
about it and talk to each other, we’ll say, well let’s talk it to death.
Let’s pretend that we’re all bad English teachers,
[Crowd laughter] and talk about the
themes involved, right? [Jones]: Right.
[Mamet] So one way to defuse the very deep
theatrical experience is to talk about the themes.
I don’t know what the themes are in any of
my plays. It’s a play. [Crowd chuckles]
If you could reduce it to a theme, you know,
if you can go out humming the theme, you can
come in humming the theme. So, there’s a guy called
Danny Newman who wrote a book —
[Jones, overlapping]: Yeah, [Jones]: Yeah lived here
in Chicago, yeah. [Mamet]: — what…?
[gestures at Jones] [Jones]: “Subscribe Now.”
[Mamet]: “Subscribe Now.” So Danny Newman shows up.
He’s a very smart guy. He’s a Chicagoan guy, and he says,
“Here’s how you get people into the theatre: You make up
a subscription series and you sell a subscription series.”
But what happens is, as the Italians told us,
anybody who has a partner has a master. So if you have a theater and it’s
got a managing director and it’s got an artistic director, right?
What you have is a managing director and the lackey, right?
Because the bad money’s always gonna drive out
the good money. So as soon as you say
the purpose of the theatre is not for Stewart Gordon or
Billy Peteresen or John Malkovich, or me or Billy Macy or whomever,
they say — or Greg Mosher — “This is the way it is. Let’s
put on the goddamn play.” Somebody comes in and says,
“Yes, well, you don’t want to risk your base, so let’s put on
a subscription series, and we’ll say, ‘Five plays for the price of four.'”
But that’s not why we go to the theater. It makes sense, except it’s wrong.
[Jones chuckles] Right? Nobody goes to the theater
and they say, “Where can we get a twenty-five percent discount?”
[Jones laughs] [Audience laughter]
The only play that you, and you and I want to go to is
the one that says — that everybody says,
“You can’t get a ticket.” [Jones]: Yeah
[Mamet]: Right? [Jones]: Right.
[Mamet]: So, this is a very overlong response, but
if you wanted to like — you know. [Jones]: Let me ask you
delicately about aging. Like, you’re perceived most of
your life as a young writer. That’s probably pressing it now
to say you’re a young writer. [Mamet]: Yeah. [Jones]: I would imagine if I were you with this
new play you’re working on that there must be some
resistance in you that goes, “Oh my God, do I really
wanna go to the wall again? Do I really wanna deal with all this?”
Which I guess is a roundabout way of asking almost a legacy question
I suppose, or a sense of: Are you weary of any controversy?
Or do you retain the energy that you had, or do you act without
regard to any of these criteria? Do you just write and
that’s what you write? [Mamet]: Well, I’d like to quote
two people on the subject — that’s a very good question.
The first one is Archimedes, right? Who — Archimedes respond to —
Do you know what Archimedes responded to as critics? He said,
“Fulcrum if they can’t take a joke.” [Crowd laughter]
[Jones laughing] So — thanks! [laughs]
So that’s my first one. And the second one is —
[Jones laughing] I was reading the story
of Samson, right? You remember Samson.
[Jones]: Yeah. [Mamet]: Okay, good.
So it occurs to me Samson is the story of an artist.
It’s a magnificent story of an artist. Here’s a guy who’s given
a gift from God, and God says, “Okay, we’re gonna give you
this gift, you’re gonna be the strongest guy in the world.
But just one thing: Don’t cut your hair.”
Samson says, “Okay, I get it. I’ll do that.”
Strongest guy in the world. You know, lots of girlfriends, lots of
fun, lots of well-deserved praise. Having a wonderful time.
So he meets this woman who says, “Okay, just have to
tell me your secret. You have to tell me your secret.
You have to tell me your secret.” Right? And the truth is,
I believe in every artist, at some point there’s that secret.
There’s that thing that you just… you can’t say. You have a certain relationship with
something whether you call it talent or whether you call it the audience,
or whether you call it the Divine, or the universe, there’s this something
that is in you, and you know when you’re doing it right and
when you’re doing it wrong. And you know when
you’re betraying it. And as you become successful
there’s always that little voice — which we Jews know is
the Yetzer Hara which is the Spirit of Evil —
[Jones chuckles] that says, “Oh come on. A little bit.
A little bit ain’t gonna hurt you. A little bit ain’t gonna hurt you.”
So eventually, a little bit ain’t gonna hurt you, and
Samson says to Delilah, “Okay, cut off my hair.”
They cut off his hair and his eyes are put out,
and he’s bound between pillars in Gaza and he’s
made mock of. And so what does he do, he says,
“God, I’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake. Please, please,
please, please God forgive me. You asked me to do
one simple thing and I couldn’t do it.
And I’d been justly punished.” And he prays for the strength
yet again to be true to his vow. And that’s the end of that story. So I always thought that’s
a story about an artist. [Jones] So you don’t crave love from
those who consume your work? [Mamet]: No, the only
love I crave is like all that there is.
[Crowd laughter] [Jones laughing]
[Crowd laughter continues] [Jones]: But times do change.
I mean, let me try this one more time. Times do change.
[Mamet]: Yeah. [Jones]: There are decent artists who
adapt to the times or consciously say “Okay, this is now what the people want.”
You appear not to be in that number. [Mamet]: Well, you’re asking very,
very good questions, but I just, I got this great gift, you know.
I grew up in Chicago. My wonderful middle-class family.
But it’s like getting — “You’re seventeen years old,
nice to see you, have a good time.” And I didn’t have any skills,
and I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any prospects, and
I did every menial job in the world. And was glad to have the money,
and I just always felt like this wretched, wretched failure who’s gonna
end up sleeping under a bridge. And then I found that I could write,
and I said, “Okay,” you know, “The choice is yours. You wanna do it
or do you wanna say,” you know, “What I could’ve been?” It’s like —
I got to be the pretty girl at the party for fifty years, right? So what the universe or
God was saying to me was, “Okay, but do the best you can.” So I… I try. I’m sure I fail sometimes.
But I try, so it’s not a question of adapting myself to the times,
because the best thing that I could do for my audience is to do
the best I can as a writer. I mean, I don’t know what other —
[Jones, overlapping]: In a formative, when you say the best
you can as a writer, what does that mean?
[Mamet]: That means I was writing something up with
a young writer the other day. Said, “If you’re a writer, you better
be thinking one of two things: Either, ‘This will kill ’em,
or this will kill me.'” So, that’s what that means.
[Jones chuckles] [Jones]: You said, I remember you
saying once when talking about the difference between film-writing —
which you’ve obviously done a lot of — and playwriting.
I think you said that, correct me if I’m wrong,
something along the lines of, “In a movie it’s really all about plot,
and in a play, it’s more about ideas.” Here you are with a novel.
What’s the form of the novel? Right? I mean what’s —
What’s a novel? [Mamet]: Well no, a play’s all about plot.
That’s all there is in a play, is plot. [Jones]: Oh.
[Mamet]: I guess all there is in pictures, in movie
is plot. But the difference is, as Eisenstein told us, is the plot
is advanced in a movie through the juxtaposition of images.
And it’s advanced in a play through dialogue.
But in a novel, the epic form, you get to
explore ideas and you get to veer off here and veer off there.
Write about Father Zosima if you want to. You know, he’s a fucking
commie, by the way. [Jones chuckles]
[Mamet laughs] [Mamet]: I’ll tell you later.
[Jones laughs] [Crowd chuckles] [Jones]: Because you have some dialogic
scenes in this, and then you have — [Mamet]: Yeah.
[Jones]: — scenes of epic description. [Mamet]: Yeah, so the story is about
this guy who comes home from the war and he’s a war hero, and he’s
a crime writer, and he gets his girlfriend killed.
And he spends the book trying to find out how he can live in a
world where he got his girlfriend killed. Who killed her? Why they killed her
what he can do about it. So that’s the plot of the book.
But one gets to expatiate, you know, just like Tolstoy said.
Okay, you know, I once wrote — I do a lot of cartoons, I was
influenced by Shel Silverstein, and one of them was
“The Little Engine That Could,” written by Leo Tolstoy.
[Crowd laughter] And it’s a cartoon,
[Jones chuckles] and Leo — the Little Engine
That Could was saying, “Oh no, a Russian noblewoman distressed by
love has thrown herself over the tracks. But I must get the toys to the good
little children. Oh well. Ding ding.” [Crowd laughter]
[Mamet laughs] So you could reduce the plot of
“Anna Karenina” to that. [Continued laughter] But, you know, he throws all kinds
of other crap in there too. [Long pause] [Crowd laughter] [Jones]: Let’s, you know,
when you guys walked in, I believe some of you
filled out some cards. This always terrifies me, but I’m gonna
take some questions from the good people. You ready?
[Mamet]: Yeah. [Jones laughs]
[Mamet]: I got one yesterday, was, “Who do you like in the
third [inaudible]?” So. [Crowd laughter]
[Jones laughing] [Continued laughter] [Jones, reading]: “What influence did your
father’s work have on your writing?” [Mamet]: Well my father was a
Chicago lawyer, one hoarse Chicago Lawyer, and great lawyer,
and very, very, very hard worker. Whatever I wrote, he would say,
“This is great, but you know what seems to me is this character
you’re writing would be better served if he were like,
a hard-hitting immigrant labor lawyer.” [Crowd laughter]
[Jones laughing] But I wanna tell a story about —
I’m sure I’ve told this story before. Did I ever tell you guys the
story about my dad and the opening night of “American Buffalo?”
[Jones]: No, I don’t know that story. [Mamet]: Okay, so we did this show
“American Buffalo,” and we did it here, and it opened at The Goodman. The Goodman did it in the
little theater for twelve performances, and then we moved
to the St. Nicholas. Then we did it in New York.
And it was opening night, and Irv Kupcinet was there
and Essy Kupcinet was there, and my family was there.
Judy was there, and the kids, and my dad was there.
And it was Robert Duvall, and Kenny McMillan,
and — [pause] — Savage, Jim Savage, and
we’re getting the reviews. The reviews come.
One review is the Chicago whatever-it-was, and they do like
four papers in New York at the time. [Jones]: Those were the days.
[Mamet]: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Great review in the Daily News,
genius review in the Daily News. Genius review in the Post.
Genius review in the Newark Star-Ledger. Genius review in Philadelphia Inquirer.
And everybody’s very, very calm as we’re waiting for the reviews.
And my dad says, “These are great reviews,
what the hell is this about?” They say, “We’re waiting for
the New York Times.” And my dad says,
“Well, these are great. Could the New York Times
kill it by a bad review?” And everyone says, then as now,
“Yes, that’s what they do.” [Crowd laughter]
[Jones laughs] So, you know. “We have to wait
for the New York Times.” And my dad says,
“What did it cost to put this production up?”
And the producer says, “It cost $750,000”
And my dad says, “And the New York Times,”
— This was then Clive Barnes — “What does he make in a year?”
And the guy says, “He makes about thirty-grand.”
[Jones chuckles] My dad said,
“Are you nuts?” [Crowd laughter]
So…. [Jones laughs]
[Crowd laughter continues] So that’s one of the many things
I learned from my dad. [Jones]: Was he very — he must’ve been —
What was his reaction to that play? [Mamet]: He loved it.
It was wonderful. He was really, really proud of me. He loved it. But… [laughs]
One of the things he said — So it opens on Broadway,
and you know, it’s a big hit. He says, “When are you gonna scrap
all this nonsense and go to Northwestern Law School?”
[Crowd laughter] [Jones laughs]
[Crowd continues laughing] [Mamet]: So here’s another thing
i learned from my dad. My dad was — he and his brother were
raised by a single mom during The Depression and went off
to the army and came back, And he got into Northwestern
Law School on a scholarship. And he’d gone to Wilson Junior College
which he always referred to as, “The University of Southern Wilson.”
[Jones chuckles] And for two years.
He got in and he eventually graduated first in his class,
and he was on a scholarship where they gave him full scholarship
and $250 a year to live on. So he got a job selling
shoes to support himself. And he was selling shoes
some place downtown, and Northwestern Law School
was then at Navy Pier. And the bursar came in and recognized him.
And they called him into the office. and they said, “You’re a Jew.
You know you’re here on a quota. How can you betray us and your people.”
So he had to go weep weep weep weep weep, “I’m so sorry, please don’t kick
me out. Please don’t kick me out.” And then he got a job
selling shoes in Berwyn, so. [Crowd laughter] But he was the hardest working man I
ever saw, and that was one of the most important influences in my life. [Long pause as Jones reads] [Jones]: “Who do you feel are the
best actors,” better say your wife here, “Who do you feel are the best actors
to ever play any of your characters?” [Mamet]: Oh that’s — I’ve been really,
really, really fortunate working with the greatest actors in the world.
And off the top of my head, Tony Hopkins and Helen Mirren,
Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, Bob Dinero and Jack Nicholson.
And I just got a chance to work with everybody.
[Jones]: Do you ever marvel that they can do your work?
I sometimes think, you know, it’s like actors are like
sacred people, almost. They can walk into a room,
you can throw your precise…. You know, you can throw at them,
your stuff isn’t easy, and yet great ones can just kind of pull it off.
[Mamet]: Well see, I think the opposite view, but the reason
I think that view is I can’t act. And I was once doing an interview and
Billy Macy and I were up on the stage. Somebody asked me
about acting, I said, “I’d be the first person in the
world to tell you that I can’t act.” And Macy said, “No,
you’d be the second one.” [Crowd laughter]
[Jones laughs] [Laughter continues] [Jones, reading]: “Do you see
dangers of political correctness in writing in theatre?” [Mamet]: Yeah, there’s dangers
of political correctness. You know, “Hedda Gabler,”
where did “Hedda Gabler,” — Where was it first performed?
Anybody know? It was performed in Chicago,
I think it was actually performed– [Jones]: Yeah it was this building I think
[Mamet]: Right on this stage — [Jones, overlapping]: Actually, it’s not–
It was performed in Iowa actually I think. I think it was. But yes,
very, very soon here — [Mamet]: You’re ruining my story. [Jones laughs]
[Crowd laughter] [Mamet]: And the other thing is
I was reading Ben Hecht — Ben Hecht wrote our best play,
“The Front Page,” with Charles MacArthur, and reported for The Daily News,
and he wrote a column called — it was eventually put in book form —
called, “One-Thousand-and-One Afternoons in Chicago.”
Which is the best journalism anybody ever read. It was
like three or four years of — He would go out and he’d write
seven-hundred words a day on whatever caught his fancy.
And one of the things he reported on was the world premiere
of “The Love of Three Oranges,” by Prokofiev which nobody would do,
hence world premiere at Orchestra Hall. So… Political correctness — I mean,
listen, that’s one of the ways in which we try to deal with art is to
make it political, and it just, it looks like a good idea, and people say,
“You know so-and-so, that changed my life.”
I say, “Oh, really? Was a play changed your life?”
It’s not the purpose of the theatre to change your life.
Wouldn’t give you the ideas of the author, right?
But maybe it might relieve you for a moment from the burden
of your own consciousness, which will bring you close to the Divine.
I think that’s probably something better to do than to teach you what
you already knew, which is whoever the other son-of-a-bitch is, is a
son-of-a-bitch, right? Which is what all
political writing is about. [Jones]: So that’s a very spiritual view–
I mean, I thought you were going to say there when you said
“relieve you from the burden,” I thought that was sort of an
argument for comedy but then you veered in a different way and you
sort of said, its veering allows you to escape the burdens of
consciousness to some degree. [Mamet]: Yeah, sure.
I mean, as they say, “Whoever arises refreshed from his
prayers, his prayers have been answered.” That’s what the theatre’s good for.
You know, whether it’s tragedy or comedy. And I go back and forth about
thinking which is the higher form. It relieves you from the burden of your —
of each of our incredible unrest at our own humanity.
Because it’s not a lot of fun to be human and some of the things which
are the most fun, like anger and arrogance and rage and self-loathing and
so forth, are dreadful for you. They don’t belong as part of
your daily life. So one of the ways in which
we can put them down is through the experience of art,
which can’t be re-translated into — because it can’t be re-translated
into rational thought. Because if it could, it’s not art. [Jones]: But you’ve delved into
things that you have to say. I mean I remember you wrote
an article in Newsweek as I recall at one point, did you not? I mean–
[Mamet, overlapping]: Oh yes, I did, I wrote a lot of nonfiction
in my life and I did a little bit of political writing because I thought,
“You know what, you’re too comfortable and you’re making too much money.
Why don’t you get yourself blacklisted?” [Crowd laughter]
[Jones laughs] [Jones]: You did pretty well then.
[Mamet]: Oh yeah. Worked great. Yeah. [Jones, reading]: “Would you want to
write the screenplay of this book? Has it been optioned for one?
Would you want to write the screenplay and direct the film?”
[Mamet]: That’s a good question — [Jones]: Great question.
[Mamet]: I was thinking about that. I was thinking, you know like making
a movie out of your book is like raping your children to
teach them about sex. [Crowd laughter]
[Jones chuckles] [Jones]: So no, is the answer?
[Crowd laughter] [Jones, reading]: “Aside from
the classicists,” — — Aside from the classicists —
[Mamet]: Yeah. [Jones]: “Who is your favorite playwright,
other than yourself?” [Mamet]: I would say Hecht and
MacArthur who wrote — [Jones, interrupting]: Really?
[Mamet]: Oh yeah. Who wrote “The Front Page.”
Harold Pinter. Beckett. Bill Shakespeare — Billy Shaperstein
before he had to change his name. [Crowd laughter]
[Jones laughing] [Jones]: This question makes the
assumption in the preamble to the question that you have,
in fact, perfected your craft. [Reading]: “As you perfect your craft,
does the writing get easier?” [Mamet]: No, no, the writing gets harder.
[Jones]: Why does it get harder? [Mamet]: Well for two reasons.
One is the more, you know — Somebody once — Shaperstein said,
“Thus conscience –” [Crowd laughs] “– doth make cowards of us all.”
Right? And “Enterprises of great pith and merit their various currents
turn awry and lose the name of action.” Right? Because the more
you know about plot, the more one knows about plot,
the harder one has to work to — At the one hand, and the other hand,
the ability to write dialogue, to write very, very free-flowing dialogue
has a lot to do with your short-term memory, you know,
as you get older you can’t remember anything, so it’s — I work a lot harder on writing
dialogue and I also work a lot harder on writing plot. [Jones, reading]: “Where would you like
to see ‘Oleanna’ staged today?” [Mamet]: I would —
[Jones]: Or would you? [Mamet]: You know, I’d like to see it
staged everywhere simultaneously. [Crowd laughter]
[Jones laughs] [Jones laughing as he begins to read]
[Mamet laughs] [Mamet]: I like it already.
[Jones]: Right. It goes — The question is asking what line people
say when they see you on the street. And the — like “Oh, David Mamet –”
[sound of excitement] “– That line!” [Mamet]: Oh, they say, “Coffee is
for closers,” which is great. And, “Always be closing,”
[Jones]: Always be closing. [Mamet]: Yeah. So that’s….
[Jones laughs] [Mamet]: So that’s —
[Jones]: Does that happen? You’re walking down.
You’re walking on the Santa Monica pier, and someone goes,
“David Mamet! Always be closing!” [Mamet]: No, because everybody
on the Santa Monica pier is stoned out of their mind.
[Crowd laughter] [Jones laughs]
[Laughter continues] [Jones, reading]: “What was Francis Parker
like when you were there? Did your teachers encourage your writing?”
[Mamet]: Francis Parker was magnificent. I spent two years there, 1963 to ’65.
And I was for some magnificent reason, I was adopted by both the student body,
which is very closed — it was the closed, very closed, multi-generational,
mainly intellectual — the children of intellectual professional
Jews on the North Side of Chicago. And they were real smart and real funny.
And they adopted me, you know, this schmuck kid from — been
living in Olympia Fields, Illinois in you know, in the model house
in the middle of a mud field, and — [Crowd laughter]
Equally, the teachers loved me. And I could never tell why,
because I failed at all my classes. But they, they just, they loved me.
And, I’m constantly grateful to them. [Jones]: I was talking with
one of my crusty editors, I said, “I’m terrified to be interviewing
David Mamet,” and he said, “Well you need an icebreaker joke,”
and I said, “I don’t have the guts for an icebreaker joke.”
So he says, “Well try this one,” And he said, “There’s a homeless guy,
there’s a guy in a suit walks by, and the homeless guy says,
‘Can you give me a loan?’ And the guy in the suit says,
‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be. – Shakespeare.’ And the homeless guy says,
‘Fuck you, you fucking fuck. – David Mamet.'”
[Crowd laughter] [Jones, to audience]: David Mamet,
ladies and gentlemen! [Audience applause] [Mamet, off-screen]: Thank you.
Thank you all. That was such fun. [Jones laughs off-screen] [Applause continues] Subtitles by the Amara.org community


  1. The solar system is a big lie.

    The earth does not revolve around the sun but it is the sun that revolves around the earth as the moon.
    The solar system is a strategy to honor the sun god worshiped-in antiquity.

    I defy any astrophysicist (NASA or ESA …) to come and discuss with me.

    No astrophysicist has demonstrated the solar system with supporting evidence.
    That's jokes against human intelligence.

  2. Holy Name Cathedral is at 735 N. State Street, not Dearbrone. And the holes are not from gunfire. That's a local myth. Just sayin'. (Mamet = South Sider)

  3. 49:50: (Paraphrasing) "Art can't be retranslated into rational thought. Because if it could, it's not art".

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *