David Mamet and the Role of the Performer

by Tom Ingram

In 1999, David Mamet wrote a book called True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. In it he gave his perspective on acting, specifically that the influential actor Constantin Stanislavski was an amateur and most of what actors spend their time doing is a waste of time. He claims that actors should not try to “find the character”, but instead recite the lines simply and let the words themselves create the illusion of character in the audience’s head.

I should probably disclose that I haven’t read the book. I looked up reviews of it online and put it on hold at the library, but it will be a few days before I’ll get around to it. These are uninformed first impressions, and I’ll come back to Mamet once I’ve finished reading the book. I also know approximately nothing about acting, but I do know a thing or two about the related field of music.

Essentially what Mamet is arguing is that the playwright should be the central creative force behind a play, and everyone else’s job is to get across the playwright’s vision transparently and accurately. (Mamet, by sheer coincidence, happens to make his living as a playwright). This is analogous to the role of the composer in classical music, and, in fact, Berlioz expressed a similar sentiment about singers in one of his essays:

A singer who is able to sing even sixteen measures of good music in a natural and engaging way, effortlessly and in tune, without distending the phrase, without exaggerating accents to the point of caricature, without platitude, affectation, or coyness, without making grammatical mistakes, without illicit slurs, without hiatus or hiccup, without making insolent changes in the text, without barks or bleats, without sour notes, without crippling the rhythm, without absurd ornaments and nauseating appoggiaturas–in short, a singer able to sing these measures simply and exactly as the composer wrote them–is a rare, very rare, exceedingly rare bird.

–Hector Berlioz (trans. Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay)

The composer or playwright creates the “text” to be performed. They make the notes to be played or the lines to be recited unambiguous. They give an indication of the desired articulation and inflection. They even write little directions now and then, like “(aside)”, “calando”, or “release the penguins”.

The instrumentalist or singer would be analogous to the actor. They both read the creator’s text, get up on stage, and transform it into something an audience would want to watch. In other words, they perform. The conductor and the director have essentially the same role: keep everyone involved in the production working toward the same overarching goal. Prevent conflicts between performers’ differing interpretations, and cast the final veto on any questions that crop up.

Conductor Alexander Mickelthwate with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

I’ll stress again that I don’t know anything about acting, but Mamet’s advice applied to the world of instrumental music goes against everything everyone has ever taught. Musicians and conductors are taught to have an image of the work or a specific section in their mind. The whole purpose of conducting is to give a visual representation of the piece, for the benefit of performers and audience alike. We are taught to have a “sense of line”–a way of playing the music where each note seems to flow logically from the next. Technically skilled performers often hear the complaint that they are only playing “what is on the page”.

Make no mistake, the composer is still the preeminent figure in the classical tradition. A Mozart piece, no matter who performs it, will always sound primarily like Mozart. But the standard wisdom is that being able to play all the notes correctly doesn’t mean you’re done with a piece, it means you’re ready to start. Even once the articulations and dynamics are perfect, there is still a surprising amount of work to be done.

The great composer John Stump was known for his exceedingly specific instructions.

And while Mamet would no doubt imagine his wording is unambiguous, the fact is that writers and composers alike aren’t always as clear as they intend. How loud is a passage marked forte? That, of course, depends on the instrument, the ensemble, the genre, the conductor’s preference, and the phase of the moon. Dynamics and other markings are labelled with words, and words are inherently slippery. Even verbose composers like Grainger leave a lot of wiggle room.

Mamet may be correct to argue that the playwright is the central figure of the theatre. But in True and False, he does more than that. He demands that performers subordinate themselves entirely to the playwright and cease to be performers at all. He insists that the creator’s vision leaves no room for interpretation and, ultimately, the less anyone thinks about it, the better. This seems counterintuitive and more than a little arrogant. I can’t speak to the acting world, but if Mamet’s advice were applied to the related performing art of music, the result would be worse music.