Go backBack to selection

Quarantine Reading: David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife

Kevin Spacey and Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross

As a publication about film, we find ourselves in the peculiar position of publishing during a moment when theatrical access to movies, and their ongoing future, is as much in question as everything else. During this suspension of normal filmwatching habits, we’ve reached out to contributors, filmmakers and friends, inviting them to find an alternate path to the movies by participating in a writing exercise engaging with any book about or lightly intersecting with film, in whatever way makes sense to them. Today: Brendan Byrne on David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama.

The first sentence of David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama is, “It is in our nature to dramatize.” This is one of those unproveable mythic assertions which suggests everything and means nothing. Like the Joan Didion quote “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” its proper place is on an independent chain bookstore’s tote bag. Two paragraphs later, Mamet expands: “The weather is impersonal, and we both understand it and exploit it as dramatic, i.e. having a plot, in order to understand its meaning for the hero, which is to say for ourselves.” 

This sentence diagnoses a problem, although Mamet takes it as a description of static human nature. The question here is who “ourselves” are. While Mamet does not, thankfully, offer a potted history of theater, any “Intro to Dramatic Writing” course will tell you drama began with the Ancient Greeks, and “we” are certainly not them. Claire Hall lists the dissimilarities between the contemporary Overdeveloped World and the Attic in a recent issue of the LRB, among them “that the primary way to understand human beings is as distinct individual entities rather than as transient parts of bigger entities.” Whereas for Mamet, individualism is all drama is about: “That which the hero requires is the play. In the perfect play we find nothing extraneous to his or her single desire. Every incident either impedes or aids the hero/heroine in the quest for the single goal.” 

Mamet is happy to extend narrativization from the weather to politics: “We vote for, and follow with interest, that political hero who dramatizes our lives and relieves, for a while, the feeling of helplessness and anomie that is the stuff of modern civilization.” He even engages in some Debordian-lite snipes at the Spectacle: “If we watch any television drama long enough, the Clinton White House, or Hill Street Blues, or ER, we will see the original dramatic thrust give way to domestic squabbles.” 

Three Uses was published in 1998, when “narrative” had yet to cross over into its current use as fetishized buzzword deployed in the construction of corporate, political and personal brands. Thus it scans that Mamet, who almost certainly was not reading French theory, does not trace the deeper current of narrative in politics: the neoliberal subject is meant to be engaged in constant storytelling, often by borrowing content from various entertainment platforms, to define their agency, rather than take political action. 

However, Mamet does return, again and again (and again and again) to the dramatist’s duty to never shove a message down the audience’s throat: “The process of ‘helping,’ in the theater, is not participating in the hero’s journey. It’s a process of infantilizing, of manipulating the audience.” So while Mamet is delighted to mock the use of narratives in politics, he demands that the professional dramatist drain their narratives of all political intent: “I don’t believe reaching people is the purpose of art. In fact, I don’t know what ‘reaching people’ means.”

Mamet’s central antagonist here is the problem play, which is “overburdened by the necessity of expressing a consciously held view of the world…[e]ach scene and each line of each scene must tend toward the right conclusion,” so that the audience can say, “‘And did I not know it all the time? I knew that homosexuals, blacks, Jews, women were people too. And, lo, my perceptions have been proved correct.'” Mamet might call out the smug neoliberal writer who solves social issues on stage or screen to purge the upper-class audience of their anxieties, but he’s less concerned with the trivialization of real world politics (much less acts of appropriation) than he is someone writing bad drama (and him being forced to sit through it). 

Mamet name-checks Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman dubbed “Ike’s Favorite Author,” several times throughout Three Uses, and his equation of the impulse to “help, teach, connect” with oppression is right out of Hoffer’s The True Believer (1951). (Pulled randomly from The True Believer: “The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft.”) Despite the fact that Mamet is a Pulitzer-winning playwright and graduate of Goddard College, he clearly models his rough-hewn intellectual persona on Hoffer’s famous autodidacticism. Mamet’s one-act play Edmond (1982) targets what we might today refer to as cosmopolitan elites, ending with its titular upper-middle-class liberal hero in prison, learning to love being raped by his black cellmate. (Edmond is proto-South Park, weaponizing stereotypes then delighting in our shock and offense, since, after all, aren’t we Edmond?)

Mamet’s rancor at cosmopolitan elites is no doubt tied up in his dependence on them as his primary audience. Who else goes to Broadway dramas? Who else goes to see a film by David Mamet? Not longshoremen, generally. Further, Mamet’s use of working-class vernacular was integral to his early success, much as it was to previous playwrights Sean O’Casey and John Osborne. Regarding Mamet-speak (which is just as derived from the rhythms of Beckett and Harold Pinter, to whom Glengarry Glen Ross is dedicated), Mamet once said, “If people want to say that it sounds just like the people on the bus, that’s fine with me, because that’s how the people on the bus sound to me.” The choice of “people on the bus” here is deliberate. Who doesn’t ride the bus? Why, the cosmopolitan elite. Who doesn’t know how the workingman speaks? Why, the cosmopolitan elite. 

Yet in Three Uses, Mamet returns again and again (and again and again) to the respect he has for the audience, hence his refusal to preach politics to them: “These people have been paying my rent, all my life. And I don’t consider myself superior to them and have no desire to change them.” Mamet understands the audience and the audience understands Mamet and anyone in the way (producers, actors, drama teachers, intellectuals, critics) are parasites and fools. In place of the problem play’s problem, Mamet offers Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, “[b]ecause a loose abstraction allows audience members to project their own desires onto an essentially featureless goal.” Thus every conflict, from the political to the biographical, is drained of context to become set-dressing.

To elucidate this process, Mamet offers a section entitled “The Perfect Ball Game” that defines dramatic structure as the withholding of satisfaction: “We wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen, retroactively, to have always tended toward a satisfying and inevitable conclusion.” In four pages, Mamet lays out a blueprint that is infinitely more valuable in its brevity, humor, and flexibility than any post-Campbellian graph-laden screenwriting tome. (If you want to write formulaic spec scripts and get on the Black List.) At the end of the day, it’s about getting rid of everything but what the character fuckin’ wants.  

Ironically, Mamet’s career rests on two plays, American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), which initially seem to ignore this directive. Glengarry‘s characters do indeed obsessively seek “the fuckin’ leads,” but these are stand-ins for their own inchoate desires, insecurities and fears. Buffalo is structured, almost comically, around the titular MacGuffin, a coin not even the characters seem to give a shit about. In Three Uses, Mamet sideways addresses this seeming contradiction: “The problem ‘Where can I get some more of my drug?’ may seem difficult, but not as difficult as ‘How can I live my life in this disappointing, unpredictable, and at times loathsome world?'” It is this question which Mamet is writing about in Glengarry, Buffalo, and his break-out play Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974). The formal structure of The Perfect Ball Game is submerged deep within these texts because the characters don’t know what they fuckin’ want. Their unconscious desires are refracted through dialogue which is both a broken tool and a machine of accidental self-revelation, though they rarely get closer to any greater self-awareness than, as Bobby says in Buffalo, “I fuck myself.” 

The question “How can I live my life in this disappointing, unpredictable, and at times loathsome world?” is, of course, not pitchable to film producers. The playwright is allowed, even encouraged, to resort to philosophy when someone asks them what their new work is about; the screenwriter is not. The thing that the hero wants cannot be unknown to them; The Perfect Ball Game cannot be submerged, at least not if you want to get financed. The twin critical-commercial peaks of Mamet’s career as writer-director, House of Games (1987) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997), are intricately constructed con-artist fables which require of the audience conscious and intellectual effort to work out what was done by who, when and why. These are not character studies; what the character fuckin’ wants might be unknown to the audience (at least until the final twist), but the character sure as shit knows.

Heist (2001), an eventually exhausting series of twists, con-jobs and betrayals, serves as both exaggeration and endpoint of Mamet’s engagement with this sub-genre, at least in film. A transitional text, Heist finds Mamet the post-Pinter playwright and Mamet the neo- Eisensteinian formalist film director still coexisting, though uncomfortably. (For more on the latter mode please see Mamet’s satire/handbook On Directing Film [1991].) Increasingly dull chunks of process-obsessed montage are broken up by heritage actors deploying increasingly crusty-ass one-liners. Mamet’s subsequent film and TV work would emphasis his (rather controversial) ideas about direction at the expense of revelation of character through dialogue at even greater expense to the audience. The characters of Spartan (2004) and Redbelt (2008) often seem expressionless automatons realized via reverse-Bressonian techniques, seeking only and endlessly their particular MacGuffin. This is Mamet’s Decadent phase.    

The pilot for Mamet’s CBS series The Unit (2006) is the high water mark for this period. Its Army special operatives have fairly simple goals: kill the bad guy, go home, inseminate their wives. Though the pilot is jargon-laden, it’s noticeably devoid of Mamet-speak. (At one point Robert Patrick says “please” with an interesting rhythm.) If Glengarry and Buffalo linger in the language of the damaged masculine psyche, The Unit is their perversion: a celebration of psychotic American violence. Mamet was a 9/11 neo-con, and The Unit is transparently patriotic propaganda. In the pilot, posse comitatus is suspended so our heroes can kill terrorists on US soil: the gloves are off, shitbirds.

It is tempting to situate 9/11 as a turning point in Mamet’s politics: the cynical trickster libertarian discovers he was only one catastrophe away from becoming a reactionary. However, Mamet’s play Oleanna (1992) suggests that such a clean transformation is a false construction. Oleanna appears, at first, as a battle between a (male) professor and his (female) student, submerged in the style of Buffalo: we don’t quite know what they want, they don’t quite know what they want. Throughout the play, the professor, John, is handled in a classically Mametian manner. He spews contradictory desires, emotions, facts, and his mammoth phone-calls could be read equally as attempts to close on a house or destroy his marriage. We are never quite sure whether he is engaging in dialogue with his student, Carol, in order to help her, save his career, amuse himself or convince himself of his own worth and truth. The character of Carol is, however, machine-tooled to destroy John. She has no contradictory impulses, no unconscious desires. Her actions, which at first seem potentially motivated by resentment against an authority who has sought to mold her are eventually revealed to be the result of her brainwashing by an activist group. 

Oleanna thrives on bad faith: the bad faith of Carol, the bad faith of the playwright, and, if successful, the bad faith of an audience who will leave and have much to discuss on the ride home. Mamet is here harnessing the logic of the problem play. Instead of saying, “See? [Insert group identity here] are people too!” he is saying “These children! They don’t know what rape is! Didn’t you always know they weren’t to be taken seriously!” Even assuming Oleanna isn’t the product of Mamet freaking out about the Clarence Thomas hearings (which took place the year before the play’s premiere), it is as didactic as any text Mamet would castigate six years later in Three Uses, and it betrays the idea that his work was, at any point, unpolitical. 

In 2020, Mamet and the audience no longer have the cozy connection they had in 1998. He proved, with The Unit, that he had too much contempt for TV to write it. His last theatrical release, Redbelt, caps the Bush era and remains most notable for a cast-against-type Tim Allen. His last screenplay credit is for About Last Night (2014), a Kevin Hart vehicle which adapts the 1986 Edward Zwick adaptation of Sexual Perversity. With 2017’s The Penitent, his plays have ceased to open on Broadway, which was once unthinkable.

Audiences have changed in the last 22 years. Offending them is no longer a sure route to success; increasingly, they demand clarity of intent. In Three Uses, Mamet writes that artists create because “[t]hey are driven to lessen the burdens of the unbearable disparity between their conscious and unconscious minds.” Yet Mamet has, with increasingly frequency over the years, created a deliberately political body of work, much of it seeking to offend, often with proto-troll-like glee.

This might not be a great guy to take advice from.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham