Mamet: just say the goddamned lines.

I’ve been reading David Mamet’s Theatre (Faber 2010), and incidentally, if you’re an actor, writer or director – or you aspire to be – then you can do worse than studying this little gem, memorising it, and applying it in every aspect of your work and life. Mamet’s guiding metaphor is the self-righting plane. According to Mamet, when early aviators got into a tail-spin, it meant they would inevitably die – the most experienced and skilled of pilots had no more chance than first-timers. (I suppose the idea here is that, because everyone died, there was no way pilots could pass on what they had tried and hadn’t worked to their successors, and so the same mistakes perpetuated. In short, there was no accumulation of knowledge – no “time-binding”, as the General Semanticists say). Anyhow, eventually someone invents the ejector seat, and a few pilots start to survive. Then, according to Mamet, a remarkable thing happens: the now-pilotless plane in the tail-spin often rights itself and pulls out of the spin. So, suddenly the advice to pilots became – don’t touch anything, just take your hands away, just leave it alone; let the plane fly itself; trust the laws of physics. (It sends shivers down my spine to think of the self-restraint required for that…)

Next, Mamet applies the metaphor of the self-righting plane to the theatre, where his advice can be summed up as follows:

  • for directors, do as little as possible, don’t micro-manage, let the actors and technicians do what they’re best at, and in short, take your hands off the controls and let the play fly itself;
  • for actors, don’t worry about motivation and Method and backstory, just (as Mamet says) “turn up and say your goddamned lines”;
  • and for writers, don’t try and visualise your characters and give them backstories (education, past loves or moments of danger, hobbies) unless they’re relevant to the story – the principle here is that if the audience need to know, they’re work it out or make it up; and if they don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway.
That last bit is worth repeating:  if the audience need to know, they’re work it out or make it up; and if they don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway. You should tell your audience as little as possible; and, if you’re not going to tell them something, you don’t need to work it out for yourself either. This is contrary to most advice to beginners, which is that you should have backstory and detail even if you don’t intend to use it. (My take: if Mamet contradicts the standard advice for beginners, Mamet has rank.)
So far, so good. Now, there’s a couple of points that spring to my mind immediately about this; the first I think Mamet would agree with, the second he’d run a mile from. First, it’s very easy to say just turn up and say your lines, less easy to do it. Mamet himself says it takes thousands of hours of practice writing for a paying audience to be a good playwright. He is critical of Method acting and of creative writing courses and of structuring the creative arts at all, or at least he is critical in so far as these methods are presented as the truth, the way to “learn to write” or to “learn to act”. For Mamet (again, IIUC), those thousands of hours of practice are a huge obstacle to the beginner, and he or she needs structure, some school, to help them. Method or creative writing courses are as good as any, but they are not “true” in any objective sense; they merely provide the enthusiasm and motivation we need to get us through the training. If you like, they enable us to take our hands off the controls and let the lines write or say themselves; but many other techniques would have worked as well or better, including just sitting down and writing without any structure. The bottom line is that the only way to become an actor is to act, and the only way to become a writer is to write – not just assignments for the course, but the millions of words necessary to get to understand the soul of your chosen profession. There are many schools and approaches, and no particular one is the right one, whatever “right” means in this context. All exist only to structure your apprenticeship, which will be long and arduous; but which school you choose is up to you – whichever motivates you. Make your own school up if you like.
You could say that studying writing, acting, etc are not like studying physics or history or medicine or traditional school and university subjects. The latter group are time-binding – you need to learn huge amounts of what previous great practitioners have done and thought and said before you can hope to contribute yourself. Against this, writing has no ladder of progress, but instead as soon as you start you’re in among the most difficult of things, right in at the deep end – and equally, after your thousands of hours of practice, you’re still a beginner.
Second – and I think this is where Mamet and I definitely part company – it’s worth asking exactly how this alchemy is worked – how a writer transforms a blank page into a story, and how an actor transforms that into a simulacrum of reality. Here, the “alchemy” isn’t in the techniques of the writer or actor, but is an imaginative act. Suppose we take literally Mamet’s advice to “just turn up and say the goddamned lines”. This means that after the thousands of hours of practice (before a paying audience, remember), the actor doesn’t need motivation, they don’t need to know the backstory – they can just say the lines, and something takes over (Mamet says at one point that this force is not within the artist’s control) and it comes out sad or laughing or noble or whatever. The poet Robert Graves talks about a mystic state, where (through thousands of hours of practice) the poet manages to chuck out all the garbage he or she has cluttering up their unconscious and write a true poem. To Graves, this meant a form of Platonism or realism, that the poem is really “out there” somewhere – whatever that means – and the poet is merely discovering it. The poet is the conduit, the communication line, by which the poem reaches Earth – is converted into words, etc; or you could say the poet is merely taking dictation. Hmm. As I say, I don’t think Mamet would agree with that, but it seems to me a logical deduction from what he does say.
Anyhow, read the book and just say the goddamned lines. You’ll see what I mean.


This is a recent book, so isn’t available for free. You’ll have to make do with an excellent summary/review over at the Telegraph:

The BBC’s “Bottom Line” programme this week talks about the business of running theatres, with the Old Vic’s MD praising their subsidy-free business model. This is a model that Mamet also espouses, for artistic rather than political reasons: he claims you can’t know how good something is if you haven’t got people willing to pay the going rate to see it. Hmm again. The programme is at and you can get round the Beeb’s absurd demand for registration by switching to Incognito or private mode, at least at present. Outside the UK you may need to spoof a UK address as well.


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