Mamet on Decay

I stole a book of essays by David Mamet from my friend Alex’s apartment, and I’ve been rereading it for the last month or so. I have mixed feelings about his plays, but the essays are incredible, about everything from show business to the death of the American pool hall.

Here are some excerpts from one that seemed especially relevant to me, from a lecture he gave at Harvard in 1986:

When a society is growing (just as when a play is growing) all aspects of that society promote growth: the arts, the economy, religion (as in nineteenth-century America). When a society is growing those things appear and thrive which will make the organism strong, virile, happy, outward-directed– seminal, in short. And we have all had this experience when working on a new project: we do without sleep, people who will help us miraculously appear, we master new skills easily, people are glad to meet us…

When the society has achieved itself, all aspects of that society tend toward disassembly, toward reducing that society into its smallest component parts, so that rest can be achieved and those components can be employed in a new task.

When a society has achieved itself, has achieved its inscrutable purposes, it is not “bad luck” but common sense that all aspects of the society promote war, waste, pollution, doubt, anxiety–those things will hasten decay.

We, as a culture, as a civilization, are at the point where the appropriate, the life-giving, task of the organism is to decay. Nothing will stop it, nothing can stop it, for it is the force of life, and the evidence is all around us. Listen to the music in train stations and on the telephone when someone puts you on hold. The problem is not someone or some group of people unilaterally deciding to plague you with bad music; the problem is a growing universal and concerted attempt to limit the time each of us is alone with his or her thoughts; it is the collective unconscious suggesting an act of mercy.

You younger people in the theater might say: Where is the kind and generous producer? The insightful talent agent? The wise critic? Better stop looking for them and assume they don’t exist. Today the job of the agent, the critic, the producer, is to hasten decay, and they are doing their job–the job the society has elected them to do is to spread terror and the eventual apathy which ensues when an individual is too afraid to look at the world around him. They are the music in the railroad station, and they represent our desire for rest.

Most of you who decide to stay in the theater will become part of the maelstrom of commercials, television, the quest for fame and recognition. in this time of decay those things which society will reward with fame and recognition are bad acting, bad writing, choices which inhibit thought, reflection and release; and these things will be called art.

Some of you are born, perhaps, to represent the opposing view–the minority opinion of someone who, for whatever reason, is not afraid to examine his state. Some of you, in spite of it all, are thrown up by destiny to attempt to bring order to the stage, to attempt to bring to the stage, as Stanislavsky put it, the life of the human soul.

Like Laocoon, you will garner quite a bit of suffering in your attempts to perform a task which you will be told does not even exist. Please try to keep in mind that the people who tell you that, who tell you you are dull and talentless and noncommercial, are doing their job; and also bear in mind that, in your obstinacy and dedication, you are doing your job.

If you are going to work in the true theater, that job is a great job in this time of final decay; that job is to bring to your fellows, through the medium of your understanding and skill, the possibility of communion with what is essential in us all: that we are born to die, that we strive and fail, that we live in ignorance of why we were placed here, and, that, in the midst of this we need to love and be loved, but we are afraid.

  1 comment for “Mamet on Decay

  1. leili
    April 29, 2007 at 8:16 PM

    hadn’t peaked in a while, so very glad que tu surprennes avec cet extrait, ca me plait

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