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Lyn Gardner: David Mamet’s attempt to silence debate risks turning theatre into pointless masturbation

So, David Mamet doesn’t want any post-show discussions of his plays. Companies staging his work are liable to a $25,000 fine [1] if they hold what the Americans call talk-backs within two hours of the final curtain.

Clearly, Mamet wants his plays to do the talking, but his high-handedness looks at worst like arrogance and at best a lack of understanding about the way contemporary theatre engages with its audience and how venues are increasingly trying to build a community around their programmes. That means giving people a chance to talk and share responses about what they’ve seen.

Intriguingly, Mamet once wrote an essay suggesting that “the audience (before it leaves the theatre and puts on – as do you or I – its wise, critical hat) is the only judge. If the audience members didn’t laugh, it wasn’t funny. If they didn’t gasp, it wasn’t surprising. If they did not sit forward in their seats, it is not suspenseful.”

Maybe his dislike of the post-show discussion stems from the feeling that it makes the audience don their critical hats while they are in the theatre. But plays are not tablets of stone to be handed down by the playwright to the audience, but the start of a wider and longer conversation. Mamet’s position is akin to turning up to a party and holding forth loudly and refusing to give anyone else the chance to have their say. It’s the difference between the outdated notion of making theatre for audiences, and recognising that the play only exists in dialogue with the audience. Without the audience, a play is only monologuing, or as Steve Marmion of Soho Theatre has called it: masturbation. [2]

Nonetheless, if Mamet’s move didn’t come across like a prickly man attempting to shut down conversation around his work, I might have some sympathy with his antipathy for the post-show discussion in which director and actors sit on the stage and answer questions from the audience.

I’m all for more conversation around theatre and one of the great things about the internet is that it has thrown that conversation wide open. Everyone can join in. Thinking out loud about theatre is no longer the prerogative of about 14 white, Oxbridge-educated men, as it was in the 1980s when I first joined what was undoubtedly then a critical fraternity.

Of course, the discussion that happens immediately after curtain down is not always the best forum. It takes time to process a show, which is why reviews filed an hour after the show are often less considered and interesting than those written the next morning. There are plenty of days when I wake up feeling quite differently about a show than I did the night before.

I’ve seldom been at a post-show event that feels like a real conversation, mostly they are quite stilted and overly polite, with the presence of the director and cast often inhibiting the audience from saying what they really think. I did once host a riotous post-show discussion for the purposes of a newspaper article, but it was an entirely rogue one set up in a downstairs bar across the road from the Royal Court in London and involving copious amounts of alcohol. The name of the play under discussion? Oleanna [3] by one David Mamet.

But attempting to stifle conversation around a play, even if you are doubtful about the form of the talk-back, does no favours to theatre. If, as Chris Thorpe suggests [4], theatre is “a national laboratory for thinking about how we think and how we are and what we are” (he actually once stopped his piece Confirmation mid-show when a woman in the audience insisted on discussing it there and then), then open and unfettered discussion, in whatever form that might take, must be part of the play-going experience.

I’m much more in favour of the Platform events hosted by the National Theatre that happen during the run but not immediately post-show, or the Theatre Club [5]events that give space to those who have seen a production to talk about it in informal book club style, away from anyone involved in the production.

But to try to shut down any kind of discussion is to hurt theatre because, just as what is not reviewed is not valued, what is not discussed risks being viewed as an irrelevance. At a time when theatres and arts institutions appreciate that their relationship with audiences must change from one that is merely transactional to one in which the audience’s voice is as relevant as that of the artist, Mamet’s move is unhelpful. Not least because many working in in the arts now understand that the long-term survival of theatres is about being less like monasteries and more like town squares, a place where everyone gathers to talk.