It would be easy to mock David Mamet for his decision to slap a $25,000 fine on theatres that stage post-play discussions of his work. It sounds arrogant, high-handed, even undemocratic. It also seems especially tough on America’s non-profit theatres which depend heavily on interaction with their local community. Yet it’s worth speculating on Mamet’s motives and asking ourselves whether he has a point.
In Britain, post and pre-play discussion is a growth industry. Some works cry out for audience debate. Terror at the Lyric Hammersmith asks the audience to vote on the moral dilemma that the play raises: whether it is legitimate to shoot down a hijacked civilian plane in order to prevent a potential terrorist attack. It would be even more fascinating if the production invited audience members to explain why they voted as they did. Watching Thomas Ostermeier’s stunning production of Returning to Reims at Home, in Manchester, over the weekend, I felt the play could be the starting point for an intriguing public debate. Nothing could be more topical than the question of whether progressive political parties have lost touch with the genuine grievances of their once-loyal working-class supporters.
If Mamet wants to ban post-play discussions of his work, it might be because he feels a play should usher us into an imagined world rather than simply air hot topics in the manner of a newspaper editorial. You get a clue to his thinking from an interview he gave in 1985 where he said: “The purpose of the theatre is not primarily to deal with social issues, it’s to deal with spiritual issues … to celebrate the mysteries of life.” The problem with that argument is that it is based on a false dichotomy. In great plays, from Hamlet to The Cherry Orchard and A Doll’s House, the social and the spiritual are indivisible. That’s true even of Mamet’s best work: Glengarry Glen Ross is both a social play about the predatory nature of American capitalism and a spiritual play about the redemptive power of friendship.
I respect Mamet’s belief that plays often have a mysterious, unresolved quality that defies instant analysis. As a dramatist, he also has a perfect right to ask theatres to dispense with post-show discussions of his work – but to threaten them with punitive financial sanctions strikes me as absurd. Mamet’s status and integrity as a writer is not being undermined with post-show talks.
On the whole, the arts have gained immeasurably from the notion that audiences crave both information and the chance to exchange ideas. The National Theatre has long hosted Platform events that focus on the works in their repertoire: I remember chairing a chat with the distinguished analyst Mike Brearley about the Freudian resonances of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. Post-show talks are also immensely popular: the Royal Court is one of several theatres that has hosted Dialogue, a club in which members of the audience share their reactions to a show over a drink.
This is healthy activity in a society where it is all too easy to lead a life of digitalised solitude. Mamet’s prohibition of panels perpetuates the notion of theatre as a sanctified temple rather than one of the few public forums available to us in an increasingly atomised world.