Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 29: David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre (1977)
I first came across this Mamet play when looking for a play to potentially fill a slot in a studio theatre when on their production team. The other Mamet play we discussed doing that season was Glengarry Glen Ross. There was a very brief discussion in which we said we’d one day like to see it performed in the theatre’s main house. After that, we quickly moved on after agreeing that it would most likely prove unpopular with our audiences and could shut the theatre down! But that’s for another blog post. As for the studio slot, I think we plumped for Butley.
A life in the Theatre follows two actors, one older and more experienced (Robert) and one who is still learning the ropes (John). Over 26 scenes, the play follows their time in rep, performing plays, reading plays, waiting backstage and unwinding after a performance. On one hand the play is a two handed love letter to theatre, a fairly commercially viable play which can be easy to stage. More than that Mamet explores the personal politics of these two characters. Characters dominate and defer and compete for control. Anyone who has worked in theatre will be familiar with the unspoken etiquettes, the silent codes and the strange rituals which Mamet cleverly evokes here. To use a detrimental term, Robert is a luvvie. The sort of actor that others might tread around; the sort of actor who perhaps drops theatrical terms into everyday conversation amongst people are not in the know; the sort of actor who anecdotally reminisces how he once gave Alan Rickman acting advice (this isn’t Robert, I’m using my own examples here). Mamet asks if you can you really have an equal, creative, collaborative working experience when power struggles exist?
The onstage scenes are the most interesting: little stand-alone scenes from plays typically performed in rep theatre. Featured is a play about the sea, a play about war and a play set in a lawyer’s office. Is Mamet mocking the types of plays which are standards of the repertory I wonder? He writes as another writer in these scenes, and it’s enjoyable to try to guess the titles of those plays from particularly emotive lines in them: The Last Day for the trench scene perhaps, Men and the Sea for the boat scene, Force of Habit for the lawyer scene. There are also some nice subtle moments where we see how events offstage affect the playing of the onstage scenes, and how the actors’ relationship changes from that.
A Life in the Theatre is a bit self-indulgent and not quite as satisfying as you think a play about theatre could be. Out of five or so American plays that have featured in #ReadaPlayaWeek this year, from The Little Foxes to The Motherfucker with the Hat, Mamet’s play differs in that it’s not plot led and isn’t particularly driven by strong, magnetic characters. Instead, over short bursts of scenes we are privy to something not dissimilar to a work play in which there is a power battle between two characters, all coming together in kaleidoscopic fashion to portray a life in the theatre.