Monday, December 6, 2010

David Mamet's "Theatre"

In the back of his latest book, Theatre, David Mamet (who already has a society dedicated to his work) has the following Acknowledgements:

I am very much indebted to the works of Thomas Sowell, Paul Johnson, Frederich Hayek, and Milton Friedman, and to those of Richard Wright and Eric Hoffer.

Some may remember Mamet's piece in The Village Voice two years ago, Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal, in which he writes that

I began reading not only the economics of Thomas Sowell (our greatest contemporary philosopher) but Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, and Shelby Steele, and a host of conservative writers, and found that I agreed with them: a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.

As we can see, he has since added Hayek to that list.

So it seems we have as a fellow free market supporter (if not outright Austrian) one of the greatest living American playwrights. Not too shabby.

Anyone who even likes theatre who hasn't read "Theatre" should. But if you are a playwright, actor, director, or are otherwise directly involved in theatre, there is no question that you should read this book. For those of us interested in the economics involved in literature and literary production, Mamet has quite a bit to say in this small book. Most notably, he argues that feedback is vital to have a healthy theatre. The audience's reactions to the work teach the playwright and actors what works and what doesn't. The souls of playwrighting, then is "writing, revising, staging, revising, and starting again" (127) -- i.e., feedback, and responding to that feedback. More, he argues that government support for theatre destroys such feedback and, thus, is destroying contemporary American theatre. It results in the creation of a bureaucracy in charge of the theatre -- a bureaucracy that believes itself to be the reason for the theatre's success, meaning it will do what is necessary to expand itself, "For while the task of the artist is to create, the task of an institution is to continue" (101). With government subsidies and various tricks of the trade to get people into seats, what you end up with are two possibilities: 1) a conservative lineup of plays that won't offend anyone, or 2) a lineup of plays that cannot and will not improve because there are no consequences to either bad plays or bad performances. Neither is conducive to the development of a healthy theatre. You have to have a paying public -- paying for each and every performance you put on (rather than season tickets) -- to have the kind of useful feedback that results in well-written and well-performed plays.

Thus we see, in Mamet's work, how economics can help us to understand not necessarily how a work of literature -- in this case, a play -- comes into existence, but how a good work of literature comes into existence. You have to have audience feedback. The audience "is the only judge. If the audience members didn't laugh, it wasn't funny. If they didn't gasp, it wasn't surprising. If they did not sit forward in their seats, it wasn't suspenseful" (104). And that is that. It is the audience that matters most, because they came to be entertained -- and make their judgment in their seats. "The teacher, critic, competition judge, assembly of fellow students all watch the performance in order to judge, and so their opinion, either of the moment or of the piece as a whole, is worthless" (105). If not truly worthless, they certainly provide a very different kind of feedback -- one which has little to do with the success of the piece as a work anyone may enjoy.

Yes, people come to the theatre to experience beauty, in its various guises. That is the ultimate judge. That is the economics of the theatre.

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