A Quibble with Mamet

In True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, David Mamet becomes to Stanislavsky what Christopher Hitchens was to Christianity. The problem with shattering a golden calf is that you mustn’t elect another in its place. It may, however, be an inescapable flaw of a literary desecration, and it’s sure as hell not one that Mamet escapes.

First off, I should say that I agree pretty much unreservedly with ninety percent of what Mamet says. The man clearly knows his onions, and you could do worse than moseying on down to his market stall to give ’em the full admiring. It’s the undefinable, ‘other’ ten percent that’s worth discussing. Like most works (and, indeed, most people) I’ve really enjoyed, Mamet’s book provoked something strong in me. That might result from my squint-eyed perspective on the acting craft. But it’s my squint, so I’ll defend it to the last – and a squint through which I can channel a diverting outpour.

It’s possible that my problems with Mamet are primarily lexical. Time and again, Mamet evokes the same demented clown of an actor as his whipping-boy. In the chapter ‘Find Your Mark’, Mamet casts aspersions on:

 … the actor who mugs, who hams it up, who lays claim to emotions which are false, or who uses these supposed emotions to make a demand upon the audience, [who] can extort an unhappy admiration as he asks the audience in admiring him to admire itself.

Woah, woah, woah! Slow down, Mammers! Four entirely different things there, rather gracelessly lumped together. Unsophisticated caricatures of this sort operate on the same cowardly premise as the unhelpful self-help book. Aspersions are cast in the confidence that an actor-reader will NEVER believe himself implicated in such things: ‘After all, I’m striving to better myself by reading a book on the craft. How could I possibly be one of the devil’s party?’ Well, as someone who often feels like a hammy old mugger, I’m forced to fight back.

‘Mugs’ has been applied to my elastic features as both a compliment and an insult. I’ll admit that I don’t always get the balance right, but my facial contortions are no spasmodic showboating. They’re the ligaments of action; the natural consequence of thinking someone else’s thoughts and having a more than usually rubbery face. Mugging as I understand it is that quite stubborn person inside, endeavouring to make the outward conform to the inward (more on that later). ‘Ham’ is a term that cries for rehabilitation. I’ve always regarded it as a rather fun and fruity word, delineating performances that are all the better for being heightened. It seems the world at large lacks my sense of irony. The more actors I encounter, the more I find that ‘ham’ is the all-purpose negativiser: ‘I agree with it not, and that makes it ham.’ This seems to me absurd. For me, ‘ham’ remains a word redolent with the Ghost of Christmas Present: the joy of abundance and plenty. It’s not called ‘nuclear holocaust’, children: it’s called ‘HAM’. How can a ham outstay its welcome?

Mamet’s later comments on ’emotions which are false’ and emotional manipulation quite unfairly suck mugging and hamming into their orbit – the orbit of legitimately heinous dramatic practices. Mamet recoils because he believes them untruthful. That’s sad, really. And, let’s face it, a betrayal of his rousing statement at the start of the book:

Acting is not a genteel profession. Actors used to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. These people’s performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts. An awesome compliment.

Awesome without doubt. But something to which Mamet himself doesn’t subscribe. Edward Alleyn and Richard Burbage, the great Elizabethan actors, were most certainly not genteel, as they bellowed the holy verses into a pit of clamorous, mud-soaked peasants. They were likely not free of mugging. They were certainly not free of ham. There’s too much talk of ‘overacting’ nowadays. No one ever acknowledges the more dreadful sin: that of ‘over-underacting’. I’ve seen too many actors willingly devoted to being themselves onstage. It’s a confidence trick; a self-confidence trick, and, too often, the purest release for narcissism. Repugnant to behold. Usually, it’s the more (outwardly) beautiful specimens who drift down this route. We’ve all been bored to death by such people on a too regular basis. This is the sort of actor who will ‘extort an unhappy admiration as he asks the audience in admiring him to admire itself’. Compared with this, the plain-faced ham is so ingenuous as to be cuddly. Come to think of it, no one ever seems willing to believe that the plain or the off-centre or the downright ugly are being themselves onstage. (And thank goodness. A path better avoided.) Best to be an under-over-underactor then; to do right by your actor’s ghost.

None of this is to say that you don’t get physically beautiful creatures who aren’t also devoted, hard-working actors. But if the world already wants you to be you, there’s a crucial sense in which you don’t have to earn its interest through your work. If you’ve been told you’re beautiful (or the variants: pretty, sexy, cute, comely, ad nauseum) you must scrutinise your motives for acting all the more closely. (And feel free, as I have with Mamet, to tweak my begangled nose and tell me that I’m wrong.)

I have to acknowledge that these lexical idiosyncrasies – mine and his – might have distanced me from some of Mamet’s really worthy advice. At the end of the chapter, Mamet states ‘forget the Funny Voices, pick up your cue, and speak out even though frightened’. What frustrates me here is the minutiae. I’ve a quibble with the ‘even though’, which suggests avoidance. I’d vote for a ‘because’: capitalising on your imperfection. But then, Mamet endorses precisely the same elsewhere, and we’re on the same page again. And so-called ‘Funny Voices’, as Miriam Margolyes will tell you, are people. Such mannerisms, properly handled, are some of the best and surest ways into characters that I know. Yet Mamet absorbs ‘Funny Voices’ into his tireless lexical bashing of the muggery-hammery bad-man actor-fiend.

Further to the ‘Funny Voices’ jibe is Mamet’s suspicion of transformation. I strongly believe that transformation is an actor’s highest spiritual purpose, and most particularly in the theatre. So I felt charmingly patronised in the ‘Business is Business’ chapter, when I encountered this:

I’ve heard young actors speak of ‘stepping out.’ They felt constrained by the above suggestions, and they wanted, finally, a ‘part to tear a cat in,’ in which they could strut their stuff. They wanted to invent, to mold, to elaborate, to influence, to be a ‘transformational actor’ – to be, in effect, anything but themselves.

No doubt, for the grass is always greener. But the so-attractive actions listed above are the work of the writer. It is the writer’s job to make the play interesting. It is the actor‘s job to make the performance truthful.

First off, what does ‘young’ mean? Do only actors of a certain age gain access to a box of grease paint? Am I typed as a juvenile on the eve of my thirty-fifth birthday, then licensed to play character parts thereafter? The categories are endlessly mutable. And how does anyone get to be ‘themselves’ in the first place? Quite simply, really. We transform to become it. Over years, over decades, in an unconscious but nonetheless concerted effort. There’s a reason that Callow nearly called his seminal memoir Becoming an Actor. Yet you can also look at the above and believe that Mamet advises little other than faithfulness to the text. Which is entirely necessary. I just don’t believe it’s rigidly compatible with actors being themselves. Actors becoming characters, maybe – but never-never-never simply being themselves.

Mamet’s preaching of dogged textual subservience is too idealistic for my tastes. From ‘Talent’:

I do not think it is the actor’s job to be interesting. I think that is the job of the script. I think it is the actor’s job to be truthful and brave – both qualities which can be developed and exercised through the will.

I’ve already stated that ‘truth’ need not run counter to becoming other than yourself – to (dare I say it?) being interesting. It’s the word ‘brave’ with which I have the more serious problem. Like ‘tragic’, it’s a word that’s over-used nowadays. Such mundane actions are tarred-and-feathered in bravery that we’ve lost sight of what it means. Suggesting actors need bravery is a wee bit indulgent. I think it might well take bravery to navigate the encompassing structures that allow you to act in the first instance – braving poverty and seclusion, grinding away for opportunities that may never come. But it’s not brave to get out and do the thing for an audience. It’s in the job description; you knew what you signed up for. Moreover, it’s the basic point of the job. And, as Mamet himself loves saying, nobody’s harmed if you don’t get it right. (And, as I love saying, nobody’s ever got it right.) That Mamet states truth and bravery alike may be ‘exercised through the will’ renders them even more artificial. I’ve no idea what he was getting at.

Mamet toils beneath the platonic ideal that every script you encounter will teem with brilliant riches. ‘Why accept the second-rate in yourself or in others?’ he asks. Well, yes. But what’s the solution? Veto every project that isn’t entirely to your liking? That way lies unemployment. There’s also something deeply cowardly about it. Bad scripts aren’t going anywhere. As an actor, it’s one of your most solemn duties to redeem bad scripts by making them as worthwhile as possible for the audience. It’s also worth mentioning that the work itself can reveal buried riches in a text. Very often a play that seems half-formed on the page will work miraculously in performance. The only way to find out is in the doing it. There’s also the question of context. A Carry On film isn’t going to make anyone’s Ten Best list. But, as examples of their kind, some might well be called masterpieces. Ask an RSC casting director whether Kenneth Williams was a Great Actor and he’ll laugh in your face. Ask me and I’ll tell you my truth.

Mamet goes on:

And in the absence of the real stimulus we are capable of being manipulated and of manipulating ourselves, to take the form for the substance. To take cheap, degraded thrills for fear of having no thrills at all. Because, remember, it is the audience that goes to the theatre to exercise its emotion – not the actor, the audience. And when they go, having paid to be moved, they exercise their right to their money’s worth.

Mamet is especially vocal on that which emotionally moves. Most often, he states that emotion comes from the heroism of ‘the ordinary man or woman forced by circumstances to act in an extraordinary way’. He elaborates:

Because when we see real heroism, the heroism of the ordinary person forced by circumstances to act bravely, we identify with that man or woman and we say, ‘If they can do it, then perhaps I could, too.’

I think of Elizabeth I’s declaration that ‘I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls’. Despite Mamet’s beliefs to the contrary, he doesn’t know what moves his actor-readers. Mamet makes windows in the souls of audience members, fumbling for precisely what makes them tick. Hang on, though! Surely this is the core philosophy of Mamet’s caricatured ham actor: a hyper-conscious monitoring of audience reaction. Yet because Mamet couches it in disingenuously bare-faced rhetoric, it passes (almost) unnoticed. I would argue that it is not the audience but the actor whose soul is the window. The actor opens up, inviting the audience to look in as though surveying an aquarium of exotic fish. It’s the audience’s choice whether they open up in response. ‘Having paid to be moved’, they can bally well do as they please.

There’s a harmless strain of egocentrism in Mamet – the kind that resides in all of us – but it often seems he’d rather die than admit it. Nowhere is this clearer than in his recollected daydreams:

Most of us, in the course of a day or a week, treat ourselves to the fantasy of the Bad News at the Doctor’s Office in which we are invited to sit and hear our fate. And in that fantasy we are stoical and simple, and that is of course what makes the fantasy so pleasing to indulge in – we wait to hear the verdict on our future bravely.

An outlet for self-pity – or at least an inflated self-regard. It’s necessary. Absolutely! Sensibly contained too; it shan’t be hurting others. But it’s also weirdly displaced. In this fantasy, Mamet becomes actor and audience as one. For my money, the more common fantasy is imagining your own funeral. It’s another self-centered displacement activity – but one far more representative of the acting craft. You, pinned in your coffin, are the actor; the mourners are the audience. You’ve made the really big gesture, what with the dying an’ all. Whether the mourners open up is their prerogative (in the fantasy, of course, they can and must). And this is what Mamet seems to be arguing for – elsewhere at least.

A word on bravery. The active search for bravery is, I think, doomed to fail. It renders you navel-gazer par excellence. And you’re no further on when you’re done. Mamet buys into the old maxim that stripping back all but the playwright’s core meaning is the road to liberation: ‘And then, rather than pretending, we can discover whether or not we are courageous’. But surely consciously striving to be courageous is reductive; Mamet’s been silly enough to dovetail emotional truth with personal profit. Any self-consciously virtuous individual ceases to be so. The awareness renders it void. There’s also something strangely one-dimensional about the people that Mamet finds courageous. They’re all ordinary people who are forced into the extraordinary. That rules out the otherworldly tragedians of Shakespeare. With the glaring exception of Mamet’s beloved Hamlet – who is everyone and everything to every different age – we lose Othello, Lear, Cleopatra, Richard II and Coriolanus. You can relate to all of them. But none are ordinary people. This is to stretch the point a bit, but I think it’s worth demolishing the modern cult of heroism. It all comes down to the quintessentially American slaverings for uncomplicated machismo; endless recapitulations of Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

Funnily enough, the only really successful example of Mamet’s brand of dramatic heroism is English: Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. To call More ordinary is another stretch – but as Scofield plays him, he is warm, modest and unassuming, only faintly imbued with the otherworldly. It’s with his plain wits that More faces down Henry VIII’s endeavours to have him approve of the marriage to Anne Boleyn. More’s conversation with Norfolk (here Howard) offers one such example:

Give in!

I can’t give in, Howard. Our friendship’s more mutable than that.

Oh! The one fixed point in a world of turning friendship is that Thomas More will not give in!

For me it has to be, for that’s myself. Affection goes as deep in me as you, I think. But only God is love right through, Howard, and that’s myself.

Perhaps the reason I treasure this play beyond any other is that it advocates selfhood. The integrity of the individual. Mamet doesn’t try to make windows into men’s souls, but he does assume that men’s souls are all pretty much the same. But they’re not! They’re not! They’re not! And that is the fascination of acting! Rugged Individualism: a point that anyone attuned to folksy Americana can take. The individual is absolutely at the centre of acting. Mamet’s truth of acting is unquestionably right – as his truth. Just as this tirade is unquestionably right – as my truth. Theories of acting are only ever perfect for the one who devises them (and then for only an instant; after all, we’re all changing all the time). Further to the extract from A Man for All Seasons, it’s worth observing that, in the end, reasons always run out. It has to be a matter of love. We might not agree on the technicalities, but I’m sure that Mamet and I would resoundingly agree on the ‘why?’ of acting.

Before signing off, I must restate that Mamet’s book is fantastically good. Beg, steal or borrow a copy; I read it in one sitting. As ever, though, it’s from the disagreements that the best lessons emerge. Go and see what you dislike!

1 Comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays

One response to “A Quibble with Mamet

  1. Mark Watson

    Great blog James. ‘True and False…’ is a fantastic book and one I always recommend to actors who have been conned into thinking that Stanislavsky et al. are the whole of their profession but I agree with your most of your points. Sadly Mamet seems unsatisfied with a simple deconstruction of modern acting and feels the need to add his two pennorth worth.
    On a related note, I’ve just emailed you a letter from Mamet to his writing staff on the tv show ‘The Unit’ (never seen it to be honest) it’s quite an interesting lesson in writing for tv that you might enjoy.
    Mark W

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