The Subject of the Drama is The Lie: Review of David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife

All of your thoughts are bizarre and troubling, says David Mamet. So sit down with a coffee and examine your own head and there’s always something to write about. And if you’re asking yourself “Am I mad?” “Will people want to see this?” then you’re probably on the right track.

This is a passing thought along the way, as Mamet tells us about the structure of drama, the 1,2,3 form that makes a drama pop. Yes, follow those troubling thoughts, but you’re going to need to keep a few rules in mind as you work, if your drama is going to achieve its purpose. (We’ll get to the purpose later.)

I’m making it sound like a how-to book, and it really isn’t that. For all Mamet talks about structure, this particular book gives the impression of a ramble – hopping from discussion of Hollywood to politics to God and back to politics again – with insights fizzing up along the way that will inspire any reader interested in the business of writing. We seem to be listening to a fascinating speaker holding court, following his own mind wherever it leads him. And we’re grateful that we’re here to listen.

But it is only an appearance of chaos, an illusion created by a master dramatist. He has done it to keep us off-balance to the end, to make us wonder what is coming, and excited for the next revelation. In other words, he has created a drama for us, disguised as a book about writing.

A central point for Mamet is that the struggle of the artist is reflected in the struggle of the hero. You can’t have the latter struggle without the former. Unless the writer is struggling as she writes, the hero she’s created just won’t be interesting. Artists create not to produce any effect on the audience, but to resolve their own inner conflicts. They are seeking peace through struggle, but it is an impossible task. Creation is a compulsive process, and compulsion never leads to peace, but only to more compulsive thoughts and behaviours.

A great drama reflects this truth. For Mamet, too much so-called drama seeks a peaceful and comforting resolution: the hero finds the strength to overcome the odds; the villain is caught; and so on. A well-written hero, on the other hand, is compelling because there’s something in her that cannot be resolved, that makes her human – only more so. And we know that the resolution is not going to bring ever-lasting peace.

The common demand for a peaceful resolution is tied up with our deeply-ingrained belief in reason, says Mamet. It’s not that we think that reason can save the world, but that we think it already has, and a corollary of this belief is that doing the right thing in this best of all possible worlds will lead to happiness and peace. To many of us, such schmaltzy resolutions seem false because we have an even deeper feeling that rationalism is a lie, and that things never “come out even.”

And so we come to the purpose of drama. The good dramatist will not try to rationalise the world but will merely “air” the situation, says Mamet. The result will not be happy, but it will be truthful. “The subject of drama is The Lie,” says Mamet, and “At the end of the drama THE TRUTH … prevails.” And though this is a resolution, it is rarely a peaceful one. Everything comes “whole” again when the truth is out, and life goes on, however happily or unhappily. We could maybe sum this up as the old piece of writing advice: “Show don’t tell!” The artist shows us the whole truth about the situation in the drama, for better or worse, for right or wrong, and doesn’t try to tell us what to think about it.

This is the purpose of the drama – to allow Truth to prevail over The Lie – and, as we’ve seen, the aim of the artist is distinct from this. The artist can only follow her own inner struggle and, depending on her skill, will create either great or mediocre art in the process of showing us the whole idea of that struggle. The great artist only airs rather than rationalises the troubling thoughts in her head because she knows she cannot hope for more, and the creative struggle must go on and on.

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