I remember the first time I read ‘True and False’. It was about over years ago; I’d been in London on actorly business and I was ready to travel home. Unfortunately, as is still often the case, First Great Western had failed in their basic business of transporting their long-suffering passengers from point A to point B and so I was forced to kill an hour or two in the railway station bar. Luckily I had a book on me – I always have a book on me – so I ordered a pint and found myself a quiet corner for a read. I’d not read any of Mamet’s work before but I knew that the playwright and director was not unknown for his controversial views so I was intrigued to discover his thoughts on the tenets of acting.
An hour later I’d read the tome – it’s only about 120 pages – and it’s no exaggeration to say that I had to restrain myself from hurling it the length of Paddington Station. I was seething. I’d never read such a wrong-headed and arrogant collection of opinions in all my born puff. Upon my return home the book was dispatched to the nearest charity shop and I had no intention of reading it again.
However… A decade later I found myself remembering the incident and realised that I had no memory of why the book had riled me so. So I picked up a second-hand copy from a popular online retailer for a few pennies and I read it again.
It’s a funny thing: there’s plenty in the book that I agree with now. I share Mamet’s disdain for Method Acting theory for starters. A lot of acting technique is nonsense, let’s be fair. The idea that you have to manipulate and mangle your own emotion to give a true performance is nonsense. As Lawrence Olivier apocryphally once said to a young and over-eager Dustin Hoffman: “Oh dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
“Try to remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture”, that’s all the technique you’ll ever need (although I’ve always struggled with the line-learning” bit).
What I struggle with, as far as Mamet’s marvelous musings are concerned, is that he seems to think that the actor should be totally subservient to the script. Apparently in Mametworld actors seem to be meat puppets designed purely to intone his beautiful and immutable dialogue. Acting is easy as long as you just go on stage and say the words. His words. To me Mamet’s method seems almost more suffocating and prescriptive than THE Method.
Maybe I horribly misunderstood him, then and now, but I’m not sure I’d particularly want to be directed by David Mamet. And, to be fair, I think I’d drive him scatty. I don’t think he’d want someone like me throwing a spanner into his great artistic vision.
The failing is probably mine. He’s a highly respected and successful dramatist and director. My words won’t make a ripple in his reputation and, as far as acting goes, my Bottom isn’t going to grace the stage at the National any time soon.
At least I wasn’t fighting the urge to launch the book into the ether this time. I’m older and wiser. That’s reassuring.