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Book review: David Mamet's 'Theatre' challenges dramatic convention

Published: Saturday, May 21 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

"THEATRE," by David Mamet, Faber and Faber, $15, 155 pages (nf)

In the thin collection of essays titled "Theatre," author, playwright and director David Mamet looks back on his five decades of experience and proceeds the slaughter most of the sacred cows of the modern theatrical experience.

The book was released in hard cover last year, and the paperback version was released last month. It's a delightful read for anyone interested in drama. The 155-page tome ranges in subjects from the current state of Broadway to the holy writ of theater to the evils of selling season tickets and more.

And through it all, Mamet yearns for a return to simplicity, stressing that the role of the actor and director is this: "Cut away all embellishment, and make the audience wonder what happens next."

It's a no-holds-barred examination of modern theatrical practices, and Mamet writes with a precision and wit that delights on every page.

Here are a few examples: On Constantin Stanislavski's three volumes on the art of acting that includes "An Actor Prepares," "Building a Character" and "Creating a Role," Mamet writes, "Stanislavski's trilogy is a bunch of useless gack."

On the current state of the Broadway theater scene, which he says has deteriorated into spectacle catering to tourists, rather than the thoughtful off-Broadway drama that used to attract a loyal local audience, he writes, "The tourist goes to the theater much as I went, in London, to see the Crown Jewels. No adult Londoner would go to see the Crown Jewels, and no adult New Yorker went to see 'Mamma Mia!,' for to do so would have been culturally repugnant."

The playwright also decries the practice of selling season tickets because it creates an audience that has no real interest in seeing a particular performance, but which must attend the theater to meet a financial agreement. "A subscription audience is a dreadful audience," Mamet writes. Method acting is boring, he says. "The audience did not come to see the actor emote, let alone pretend to emote."

Directors are superfluous at best, he writes. "When we leave the play, saying how spectacular the sets or costumes were, or how interesting the ideas, it means we had a bad time. The director is not primary in the theater. His job could, indeed, be disposed of." This despite the fact that Mamet is a working director.

He even titles one of his essays "On the general uselessness of the rehearsal process."

"Theatre" is a lively read and an insightful look at modern theater from one of its most notable practitioners.

Marc Haddock has been a newspaperman for 35 years. He lives in American Fork.

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