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Reviews115 David Mamet. Three UsesoftheKnife: On theNatureandPurpose ofDrama. The Columbia House Lectures on American Culture . NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1998. Pp. 96. $19.95. As one might expect from a bookwritten by popular playwright and occasional agent provocateur of theater, David Mamet, Three Uses ofthe Knife: On theNatureandPurposeofDrama is,at various times, thought-provoking, irreverent , contentious, and conventional. Like many of Mamet's plays, this book offers some innovative approaches to its subject matter, although much of the volume embraces convention, especially when Mamet champions "true" dramatic structure, which includes a single hero pursuing a single goal through three clearly delineated acts. Although Mamet's promotion oftraditional form may not hold up under the gaze ofmany contemporary scholars and artists or, for that matter, the modernist artist from a century earlier, the book maintains a significant amount ofcredibilitybyvirtue ofits author having managed to do what has eluded most late twentieth centuryAmerican dramatists: make a substantial living as a critically acclaimed playwright. Thus, in spite of—or perhaps because of—the book's conservative approach to aesthetics,its three loosely organized chapters offer potentially useful advice for crafting a crowd pleasing drama. These same chapters, however, display an intolerant attitude towards drama and art that is formally innovative and/or socially engaged while, ironically , implying that such biases may have something to do with being a commercially successful playwright in the United States. Mamet begins the small volume by explaining that people naturally dramatize everyday occurrences, and that such dramatizations adhere to a particular form. "Our survival mechanism orders the world into cause-effect-conclusion " (8) and "a three-act structure" (9). Echoing a well-worn theme, Mamet writes that life itself is inherentiy theatrical—"It is difficult, finally, not to see our lives as a playwith ourselves the hero" (12)—and that the ways in which we dramatize our everyday experiences are not far removed from what he calls "true" drama, particularly tragedy, which—along with myth and religion— creates awe within the audience while avowing the individual's helplessness. Tragedy, myth, and religion "do not deny our powerlessness," Mamet declares, "but through its avowal they free us ofthe burden of its repression" (15). That is, by making the spectator realize that she is powerless to affect the "natural order," "true" drama enables the spectator to achieve "peace." Such statements bring to mind the very different dramaturgy of Brecht, whose work—emphasizing that the "natural order" is merely an illusion—encourages the spectator to intervene in the world in order to make it more equi- 116Comparative Drama table. Only with society's gross inequities altered, Brecht suggests, can the subject ever attain "peace." In spite of Mamet's impatience with political drama, however, he approves ofBrecht's plays because they"are extraordinarilycharming and beautiful and lyrical and upsetting. Coincidentally, they happen to be on social issues" (47). But Mamet opposes Brecht's often radical essays, which "bear little relationship to his plays" (47), as well as the work of numerous other dramatists which critiques the dominant ideologies. The"problem play," according to Mamet, is "false drama" in which "we [the audience and playwright ] indulge a desire to feel superior to events, to history, in short, to the natural order" (15). Unwilling to acknowledge that human agency, and not nature, creates social hierarchies, Mamet—utilizing the specious reasoning of Social Darwinism—suggests that "true" drama must always uphold the "natural order." To support this assertion, Mamet paraphrases Aristotle and several neoclassical theorists—"the purpose ofart is not to change but to delight" (26)— and goes on to say that art which purports to teach (unlike art that supports contemporary social hierarchies, the "natural order") is actually totalitarian and results in "oppression" of the audience. Mamet believes that drama should not have didactic tendencies because "true" art cannot appeal, primarily, to rational thought: "the good play will not concern itself with cares . . . that can be dealt with rationally" (25). Artistic forms which appeal "to the conscious mind do not satisfy . . . the conscious mind cannot create art" (46, 49). As Mamet suggests, art that reaches beyond conscious perception can be quite powerful, which is why artists have been consciously trying to represent the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 115-118
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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