David Mamet: A Life in Theater

Ira Nadel
  • Review
By – February 20, 2012

Ira Nadel has writ­ten the first biog­ra­phy of David Mamet, a major fig­ure on the late 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can the­ater and film scene. Play­wright, screen­writer, direc­tor, and actor, Mamet’s rep­u­ta­tion rests large­ly on a series of quirky plays that are note­wor­thy for their no-holds-barred exam­i­na­tion of the amoral­i­ty of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­ca and their dis­tinc­tive lacon­ic and pro­fane dia­logue — includ­ing Sex­u­al Per­ver­si­ty in Chica­go, Amer­i­can Buf­fa­lo, Glen­gar­ry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, and Olean­na. In addi­tion, he has writ­ten the screen­plays for sev­er­al main­stream Hol­ly­wood films (includ­ing The Untouch­ables) and has direct­ed sev­er­al films from his own scripts, with vary­ing degrees of success. 

Nadel’s book pro­vides a sound overview of Mamet’s career and works, but — much as with a typ­i­cal Mamet play — we don’t come away from it feel­ing that we tru­ly know this enor­mous­ly tal­ent­ed but frus­trat­ing fig­ure. Like many lit­er­ary biog­ra­phers, Nadel strives to rec­on­cile sev­er­al appar­ent­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry under­ly­ing cur­rents run­ning through­out his subject’s career, includ­ing Mamet’s machis­mo, his Judaism, and his fas­ci­na­tion with con men, but in his zeal Nadel doesn’t seem to cred­it the pos­si­bil­i­ty that much of Mamet him­self may be sheer hum­bug. Gen­er­al­ly straight­for­ward, the book suf­fers from occa­sion­al­ly con­fus­ing chronol­o­gy and the gloss­ing over of sev­er­al sig­nif­i­cant events in Mamet’s per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al life that deserve deep­er prob­ing. Index, notes.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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