David Mamet engages in blunt, humorous banter

David Mamet

David Mamet

Judging from all the hardened characters and backstabbing that typify the works of David Mamet, one thing the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright probably knows intuitively is how to entertain people by exploiting the follies of man.

He managed to do just that Jan. 28 during an evening talk titled "Art, Politics, Judaism and the Mind of David Mamet," held in Memorial Auditorium and presented by Hillel at Stanford and the ASSU Speakers Bureau.

Mamet, the writer behind the stage and screen versions of Glengarry Glen Ross, began by rushing through a typewritten speech that nominally addressed the aforementioned topics and several other loosely related issues.

Those included a rant on herd mentality, racism, the incompetence of government, how a liberal arts education delays an adolescent's matriculation into society and how humans are alike in their imperfect and immoral nature. Throughout, he was consistently clipped in tone and unapologetic about his views.

"In my racket, which is show business, one learns through doing and through watching. That's it," Mamet said. "There's no way to approximate the experience of failure in front of a paying audience."

Mamet began his screenwriting career with a re-make of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), later clinching success with the screenplay for The Untouchables (1987) and earning both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for the 1997 political satire Wag the Dog. He also has published three novels and is a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post.

During his talk, Mamet referred time and again to the image of a rat pulling a lever to get a pellet, a metaphor for the reward mentality of humans. He used the example of someone bad-mouthing former Republican vice presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a behavior that gets rewarded with acceptance into a group.

But it wasn't until the question-and-answer session afterward that all became clear. As in The Spanish Prisoner—a 1998 movie starring Steve Martin that Mamet wrote and directed—the audience had to wait until the end for clarity.

"I agree with you that this is the way things have always been and always will be. But given that, so what?" a man in the audience asked. "What is the point of, I don't know, trying to fight the pellets or what have you?"

"The point is to try to understand how to look at the world through the conditioning which all of us are subject to," Mamet answered. "What I'm talking about is to try to examine our behavior [in order] to understand our thought processes."

Another member of the audience, who described himself as an independent filmmaker and taxi driver in San Francisco, asked Mamet about his stint as a cabbie back in his native Chicago—and, specifically, how that influenced his approach to writing dialogue.

"It allowed me not to die," Mamet quipped.

One student complimented Mamet on the psychological depth of his writing and asked what advice he might have for a young writer. Mamet responded by saying that "psychological depth is vastly overrated" and that writers are drawn to the craft for no other reason than to amuse themselves or to relieve themselves of the burden of their own thoughts.

"Just keep writing," Mamet said as the student walked back to his seat. "Good luck."

Mamet's use of that comedic pause was one of two onstage tricks that kept his fans laughing despite his blunt and somewhat dismissive demeanor. The other was repeatedly turning to a student from the ASSU Speakers Bureau who stood onstage beside him and asking her to repeat questions from the audience—apparently because of hearing loss caused by doing a lot of competitive target shooting as a kid without earplugs.

A woman in the audience pointed out to Mamet that many of his works and the thoughts he shared that evening were about men. So she asked him what his opinion was of the increasing prominence of women in government and theater, and what role sexism plays in literature.

"Yeah," Mamet said, instantly turning to the student onstage. "What was the question?"

The audience member then simplified her query in a way that prompted a smattering of laughter and applause from the crowd: "I'll just say this: Can you talk about women?"

"The roles of men and women in any given society have been puzzling people since the beginning of recorded thought, and will continue to puzzle our betters in the years to come—when everything is perfect," Mamet finally responded. "But living in such a world is a great gift for a dramatist."