In between Jewish jokes, witticisms, and quotes from Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Shel Silverstein, the Pulitzer Prize-winning David Mamet spoke about Chicago and its place in his writing. Known for such plays as Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, and Oleanna, as well as films like Wag the Dog and The Untouchables and HBO’s Phil Spector, Mamet is prolific. So, too, it seems from his conversation at the Chicago Humanities Festival, is his love for Chicago.
Speaking at the Chicago Humanities Festival with Chicago Tribune theatre critic Chris Jones about his newest book in decades, Chicago, Mamet spoke again and again about the impact growing up in Chicago had on him.
His father, for example, was the hardest working man he knew and a man he greatly admired. Discussing the first production of American Buffalo, Mamet fondly recalled how his father couldn’t fathom how one publication’s review (The New York Times) could sink all the other positive press his play had received. To Bernard Mamet, a Northwestern law man who wished his son would follow in his footsteps, it made no sense that someone whose salary would have been somewhere in the ballpark of $30,000 could dismantle a $750,000 Broadway production.
Mamet tries to remember this even at 70. He also tries not to take too much stock in how critics respond to or read his work. Interviewed by Jones—who admitted he couldn’t help but psychoanalyze the autobiographical nature of Mamet’s work, tracing events and locales along Lincoln Avenue—Mamet did reveal some of the ideas behind is sometimes contentious viewpoints about the nature of theatre, film, and art.
One such issue which Jones dutifully dug deeper into was Mamet’s pronouncement that no talkbacks could be held after his performances . This controversial news was first released following a recent production of his play, Oleanna, by Outvisible Theatre Company. In expanding upon his statements, Mamet discussed that talkbacks, like criticism and the politicization of theatre, are ways in which audiences defuse the innate power of theatre.
Cribbing Shakespeare, Mamet contended that theatre has the power to move us to fear and pity. Like religion, theatre exists to express aspects of human behavior beyond our control, and is in fact a “counterbalance to a rational way of life.” Like church, one way audiences can dishonor the power of such a communal experience is by arriving late.
These actions, Mamet claimed, can disarm theatre’s power to remove the weight of consciousness from audiences and bring them closer to experiencing the divine. He argued, “The experience of art can’t be retranslated into rational thought, because then it’s not art.”
This exchange was just one of many illuminating thoughts provided by a writer whose 50-year career has afforded him the ability to work with some of the best working actors in the business, from Helen Mirren to Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. David Mamet’s all-too-brief discussion with Chris Jones, like the two Chicago Tribune reporters in his new novel, was equal parts intellect, wit, romanticism, and Chicago grit.
Visit the Chicago Humanities Festival website for more information on their festival and year-long programming.
Photos by David T. Kindler.
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