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David Mamet | Biography

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Early Life and Influences

David Alan Mamet was born November 30, 1947, into a middle-class Jewish family on Chicago's South Side. His father, Bernard, was a labor lawyer; his mother, Lenore, was a teacher. The high standards they set for their two children, David and Lynn, combined with their constant fighting created a childhood characterized by "emotional trauma." Mamet's sister, the more outspoken of the siblings and a playwright herself, speculates their grim formative years were the foundation for much of the anger seen in Mamet's plays today.

Mamet began acting at a young age thanks to his uncle, Henry H. Mamet, who produced radio and television shows in Chicago. As a teenager Mamet was a busboy at the now-famous Second City improvisational comedy club, where he began to understand the importance of language and its delivery. Mamet pursued his interest in theater at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, where he studied drama and literature before graduating in 1969. After briefly pursuing an acting career in 1970, Mamet took a job teaching theater at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont. Having falsely told the college administrators he had just completed a new play, Mamet hastily wrote Lakeboat, a one-act drama, which students performed at the end of the school year.

Writing Career

David Mamet moved back to Chicago for a year and performed a slew of odd jobs, including driving a cab and helping out in an investment property sales office. Both occupations showed up later in his plays. He then returned to Vermont to teach theater at Goddard. The teaching position led Mamet to begin writing in earnest as he developed scenes for his students to act. In 1973 with a host of plays to his name, Mamet again ventured to Chicago. With former acting student William H. Macy and other friends from Goddard, he founded the St. Nicholas Theater Company to perform his works. Mamet continued writing for the troupe in part because they couldn't afford to pay the royalties for anyone else's work. Critics and audiences soon realized Mamet's talent, and nine of his plays were produced in Chicago, London, and New York between 1975 and 1978. Sexual Perversity in Chicago, his first big hit, was awarded the Joseph Jefferson Award for best new Chicago play in 1975. American Buffalo (1975) earned the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play in 1977.

Origin of Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet was living and working in New York City by the early 1980s. With a few movie adaptations and a failed run of one of his own plays under his belt, he began writing a script inspired by a conversation overheard at a restaurant. In a 1997 interview with The Paris Review, Mamet recalled, "My God, there's nothing more fascinating than the people in the next booth. You start in the middle of the conversation and wonder, 'What the hell are they talking about?'" Drawing upon his own experiences working in a Chicago investment property sales office, Mamet turned his characters into salesmen and peppered their speech with fast-paced sales jargon and explosive expletives. Glengarry Glen Ross was born.

Mamet was at first uncomfortable with the short length of the play, as well as its asymmetric structure of three short scenes followed by one long act. Seeking advice, he sent the script to his friend and idol, the playwright Harold Pinter (1930–2008). Pinter told him the play was perfect as it was. Critics and audiences agreed. First performed in London in 1983, Glengarry Glen Ross opened on Broadway in 1984. That same year it was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Play, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Mamet has been one of the most revered and prolific playwrights of his generation. With more than 45 published plays to his name, he also wrote novels, essays, poems, and screenplays, and he also directed. His screenwriting credits include several adaptations of his own plays, most notably 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross. Starring American actors Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, and Kevin Spacey, the film expands the play, introducing an additional scene and a new character.
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