It's Never Easy To Go Back

Acting Literary Director Arthur Holmberg discusses The Old Neighborhood
with playwright David Mamet.

Reprinted from To reach the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences home page, click here.

H: The copyrights on the three plays in The Old Neighborhood are seven years apart. The Disappearance of the Jews is copyrighted 1982, and the other two, Jolly and D., are copyrighted 1989. What is it about the character of Bobby Gould that after seven years made you want to go back and explore him again?

M: I have no idea. I just came across it, and I don't really know anything more than that.

H: You came across the Disappearance of the Jews, and you decided to explore further Bobby's attempt to return home?

M: That's right.

H: And you put the three plays together in one evening because you thought they established a dialogue among each other?

M: I think so.

H: You have said many times in many different contexts that drama is the quest of the protagonist for a single goal. What is Bobby Gould's goal in The Old Neighborhood?

M: He's attempting to close out some unfinished business.

H: And what would that unfinished business be?

M: Well if I tell you, then you're going to tell the subscribers, and they're not going to come to the theater.

H: Although they both try, neither Bob Gold in Homicide nor Bobby Gould in The Old Neighborhood seems to be able to find any kind of meaningful way to be Jewish in the United States although they both try. Why do they fail?

M: Because they're Jewish in the United States.

H: You're saying it's impossible to be Jewish in the United States?

M: No, it's not impossible to be Jewish, but it's difficult to be Jewish and to come to grips with it. This problem is explored in the plays.

H: You said once, and this is a direct quote, that theater is a place of recognition; it's where we show ethical exchange. What would you say is the recognition, the ethical exchange, in The Old Neighborhood?

M: Well, it's something very gentle. Perhaps it's on the order of one can't go home again, or perhaps not. I don't know, I hope the audience enjoys it. It's an unusual form. It would be too grand to call it a trilogy, but it's something trilological. Three explorations of the same theme which make the evening partake of the dramatic, I hope, and also of the epic. Other than that, I just hope the audience has a good time.

H: I'm surprised by the word "epic."

M: I am too, but I think that's what it is.

H: Epic because there's more at stake than just this one character, because there is a whole social and historical panorama sketched in behind him?

M: Yes, there is certainly that dynamic in the play. The guy went away and came back and everyone else has stayed.

H: Like Orestes, who comes home after being in exile for many years. You've been writing plays since your last year in college -- for almost thirty years now. What evolution do you see in your career as a playwright?

M: I've started writing tragedies. The last couple of plays that I did at the A.R.T., The Cryptogram and Oleanna, were tragedies -- classically structured tragedies, which I'd written a couple of before, and they're much much more challenging, and much more rewarding to write.

H: What were the tragedies before Cryptogram and Oleanna?

M: American Buffalo and The Woods.

H: Why do you find them more challenging and more rewarding? And how would you classify the other plays you've written?

M: Some of the others were gang comedies.

H: Glengarry Glen Ross?

M: Yes.

H: You would call that a gang comedy?

M: Yes, or a gang drama.

H: And The Old Neighborhood, what would you call that?

M: I don't know what it is. What would you call it?

H: Like The Cryptogram it differs from most of your earlier work with the exception of Reunion. Reunion explores the same territory. First, they're about families, and the search for a family and a home. Also, the tone is gentler and more nostalgic and yearning. The issues that they explore are also more personal. But to get back to your career. You've had an astonishing career in theater and film. What has surprised you the most about your career?

M: That it all went so quickly.

H: In D., the third segment of The Old Neighborhood, there is a wonderful passage in which the woman says, "Oh, yes. (Pause) I never knew what you wanted. (Pause) I thought I knew. (Pause) I thought that I knew. (Pause) Finally. (Pause) And I said, they say there's going to be a frost." It's a beautifully written passage. There are many such pauses throughout The Old Neighborhood. Like Pinter and Beckett, you use pauses to great dramatic purpose. But your pauses are different than Pinter's and Beckett's, and I wondered if you could say something about how and why you use pauses and silence.

M: It's just a rhythmic device. It's like a rest. You know, if you take a rest out of any composer's work, the work's going to sound very different.

H: One of the great tragedies of American theater is that playwrights, after they write one or two good plays, often go to Hollywood, on the one hand, or simply fail to develop. It's sad to see young playwrights who don't sustain a career in the theater. have managed for almost thirty years not only to write good plays but to develop as a playwright and constantly add colors to your palette? Why have you been able to sustain a creative output in theater for thirty years?

M: For the first ten years that I was writing, I was represented by the William Morris Agency in New York. They couldn't get me a job. So I kept on writing, and it got to be a habit.

H: But you can get jobs now, and you still continue to write.

M: Well, it's a habit, you know.

H: And not only do you write plays, but you write novels, you write film scripts, you write poetry, you write essays. Could you say something about how the use of language differs when you write these different genres?

M: I probably could, but not unless I'd had a couple more hours sleep.

H: You once defined technique as the breaking down of barriers between the unconscious mind and the conscious mind.

M: No, I said that the purpose of technique is to break down the barriers between the conscious and the unconscious mind.

H: Could you tell me exactly what what do you mean by "technique?"

M: The purpose of any technique, the purpose of any skill which is learned through cognition and repetition in the arts, or in sports for that matter, is to break down the barriers between the conscious and the unconscious mind so that you don't have to think about what you're doing. You can only be free if your unconscious is unfettered. There are a lot of people who don't have technique but whose unconscious is unfettered: children, psychotics, some artists. But for most of us, we need a technique to enable us to get out of our own way.

H: Could you give me an example, so that I know exactly what you mean by a writing technique?

M: No. But I could give you an example of a sports technique. You practice putting. You practice it over and over.

H: So in terms of a playwright, it would mean that you write over and over, so that the techniques of what makes a good line, what makes a good rhythm, what makes a good scene is so automatic that it frees you to be able to let the unconscious seep into the sentence, the rhythm, the scene?

M: I think so. Somebody intelligent said, and it might have been Bob Brustein, as a matter of fact, that the way you write a good play is that you write a lot of plays.

H: In a very beautiful essay on Tennessee Williams, you said that he had an impact on you, but only very late in your career. What kind of impact?

M: A wonderful, wonderful writer. He's a lyric poet. He was such a good structuralist that the plays sustained the poetry. The poetry and the drama give life to each other.

H: How did being raised in Chicago affect your writing? Do people in Chicago talk differently from people in, say, New York?

M: Yes.

H: How would you define that difference?

M: I don't know if I could define it.

H: But you hear it.

M: I was just on the West Coast, and I was hanging around with Joey Mantegna, whom I hadn't seen for a while, and just to hear the rhythms and cadences of the old speech, of the old country, it made me smile. It was wonderful to hear that.

H: You frequently mention Beckett and Pinter as influences. How did they influence you in terms of dramatic technique?

M: Well they're great. They're stunning geniuses. I mean, the revelations of one and then the other, and Pinter, of course, as a writer in his own and also as an inheritor of Beckett. That's the revelation of twentieth-century drama. You can apply the Aristotelian unities to a microcosm, to a very, very small human interchange. You can take it apart. It didn't have to be about conquering France. It can be about who did or did not turn on the gas on the stove.

H: You often talk about novelists like Willa Cather and Dreiser, who influenced you. You never mention Dostoevsky.

M: It's very difficult to read Dostoevsky because all of those characters, their names are too long. Some of their names are so long that just to read their names you have to start early in the morning and pack a lunch. That being the case, when I was a kid, I would kind of mmm-mmm-mmm them over in my mind, but then one day I had an English teacher who said that it was wrong to do that, that you actually had to say the names. That ruined Dostoevsky for me.

H: One of my favorite Mamet plays is The Duck Variations. The speech patterns of the two old men reflect the influence of Yiddish. You've said that one of the old men is based on your grandfather. Which of the two?

M: Perhaps, both of them.

H: Your maternal or paternal grandfather?

M: My maternal grandfather.

H: Was he from Russia?

M: He was from Warsaw. Poland.

H: Could you tell me something about him?

M: He was a traveling salesman. He traveled in the Midwest, and he was in clothing, just like Willy Loman. He came home one day a week. He was also a great storyteller.

H: Did you spend a lot of time with him?

M: I spent a pretty good amount of time with him.

H: Is there anything else you'd like to say about The Old Neighborhood?

M: I'm real glad A.R.T. is doing it. I'm very grateful to Bob Brustein. It's been terrific working over at A.R.T. with my two last plays, Oleanna and The Cryptogram. I was and remain thrilled by the way they were done, and I'm grateful for everybody's support over there.

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