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From the Reading Room | Mamet Speak

In my family, in the days prior to television, we liked to while away the evenings by making ourselves miserable, solely on the basis of our ability of speaking the language viciously. That’s where my ability was honed.

David Mamet, in The Paris Review interview

When David Mamet caught the attention of theatregoers in the mid-eighties, so much of the excitement was about the language. There had been plenty of hardboiled writing for the stage before, but nothing quite as shocking as the forceful, invective-strewn dialogue in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Dialogue has always come easily to David Mamet. It’s there from his earliest plays, that rich, swaggering, American idiom. When he made it big with Glengarry Glen Ross in 1984 every critic and commentator wrote about the dialogue: new, fresh, hyper-natural, hypermasculine, rhythmically alive, and, of course, profane. Thirty years ago every expletive in the theatre was a detonation and much of Mamet’s sudden fame was simply notoriety about the unrelenting barrage of four-letter words in his early plays. But those who cared to listen through the noise for the signal caught an authentic sound. It was called ‘Mametesque’ by some, but that seemed too literary for such down-to-earth argot, so now most refer to it as ‘Mamet-speak’.

Mamet-speak comes directly out of Mamet’s view of the roles of the writer and the actor that he worked out during his years in independent theatre in Chicago in the early seventies. An actor’s job, he has long insisted, is to be truthful. It’s not an actor’s job to put their feelings into the text, or their experience, or thoughts, or colour it with an unusual reading. All that stuff is either in the text or it’s nowhere. It’s the job of the writer to create the drama. And this theatrical philosophy is explicit in Mamet’s dialogue, especially in its detailed use of typography and punctuation, which instructs the actor how to say the line. Take this example from Glengarry Glen Ross. Richard Roma is talking to the office manager:

ROMA: Williamson: listen to me: when the leads come in … listen to me: when the leads come in I want the top two off the list. For me. My usual two. Anything you give Levene …
WILLIAMSON: … I wouldn’t worry about it.
ROMA: Well I’m going to worry about it, and so are you, so shut up and listen. (pause) I GET THIS ACTION. My stuff is mine, whatever he gets for himself, I’m taking half. You put me in with him.

The pause is the only conventional stage direction in this exchange, but, in fact, it’s all stage direction. The colons, commas and full stops, the italics, the ellipses, the sentence fragments, the repetitions and restarts, and the shouting capitals are instructions to the actor about how it should sound. It is dialogue as musical notation.

While the construction is intricate, the effect is naturalistic. British critic Benedict Nightingale, writing about the first New York production, marvelled at how Mamet could ‘create a kind of brazen poetry out of everyday speech – and yet still convince you that it is everyday speech.’ People really don’t talk this way, not even in Chicago real estate offices, at least not all the time. Correcting an interviewer who overstated his debt to realism, Mamet once said: ‘[Mine is] a poetic language. It’s not an attempt to capture language as much as it is an attempt to create language … And when it’s good, to the most extent, it’s called realism. All realism means is that the language strikes a responsive chord.’

Mamet-speak is stage speech: rich in rhythm, repetition, pauses and silences, enjambment, shocks and smoothness; it runs, stops and regathers, yet always seems to be flowing. When characters talk to each other you get an impression of their moment to moment recalibration of the changing situation. That is the essence of Mamet’s gift as a writer: his rhythms communicate the psychological state of the speaker; they are an expression of the character’s intentions, motivations and drives.

And that leads us to the final key to Mamet’s dialogue: yes, it’s muscular, but more importantly the muscle is always in action. It’s not there for colour, or ornament, or to create a sense of contemporary authenticity; it’s working hard, moving towards its object. For Mamet, dialogue is always about what the character wants. ‘No one says anything that doesn’t want something’ is how he has frequently put it. In the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, where everyone is fighting for survival, the action is furious and it’s all in the words: impressing, cajoling, bullying, lying, negotiating, seducing, threatening, pleading, denying and attacking.

Published on 11 July 2014