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Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama [Paperback]

by David Mamet
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 13, 2000 037570423X 978-0375704239 1st Vintage Books ed

The purpose of theater, like magic like religion…ids to inspire cleansing awe. With bracing directness and aphoristic authority, one of our greatest living playwrights addresses the questions: What makes good drama? And why does drama matter in an age that is awash in information and entertainment? David Mamet believes that the tendency to dramatize is essential to human nature, that we create drama out of everything from today’s weather to next year’s elections. But the highest expression of this drive remains the theater.
         With a cultural range that encompasses Shakespeare, Bretcht, and Ibsen, Death of a Salesman and Bad Day at Black Rock, Mamet shows us how to distinguish true drama from its false variants. He considers the impossibly difficult progression between one act and the next and the mysterious function of the soliloquy. The result, in Three Uses of the Knife, is an electrifying treatise on the playwright’s art that is also a strikingly original work of moral and aesthetic philosophy. 

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Editorial Reviews Review

Playwright David Mamet's three lectures at Columbia University are ostensibly about issues of dramatic structure, but as they unfold, and Mamet continually explores the relationship between dramatic structure and the lives we live, much broader concerns are revealed. Here, for example, is Mamet on political propaganda:

It is ... essential to the healthy political campaign that the issues be largely or perhaps totally symbolic--i.e., non-quantifiable. Peace With Honor, Communists in the State Department, Supply Side Economics, Recapture the Dream, Bring Back the Pride--these are the stuff of pageant. They are not social goals; they are, as Alfred Hitchcock told us, the MacGuffin.... The less specific the qualities of the MacGuffin are, the more interested the audience will be.... A loose abstraction allows audience members to project their own desires onto an essentially featureless goal.

Although occasionally academic, the overall tone of the lectures is consistent with Mamet's no-nonsense manner of speech. He has no time for obfuscation and little time for repetition, save when he must absolutely employ it for emphasis. He is passionate about good theater, and passionate about the truth. 3 Uses of the Knife makes an excellent companion piece to his True and False, which addressed similar philosophical matters in the form of advice on the actor's craft. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

One of America's leading living playwrights has crafted three short essays beginning with the premise that it is "our nature to dramatize." The belief in the centrality of drama to our daily lives and the centrality of our daily lives to good drama is the recurrent theme of his ruminations here. While he disdains the current vogue for "problem plays," he avoids attacking any of his contemporaries or their works. And without offering a how-to guide for aspiring playwrights, he provides some interesting thoughts on the inevitable difficulty in creating a convincing second act. Known and respected for his ability to create hyperrealistic dialog, Mamet ultimately reveals the theoretical justification for the sort of drama he writes so well. The text reads a bit like a lecture and never quite convinces the reader that this is a fundamental redefinition of drama. Still, it will be compelling to students of theater and serves as a good companion to Mamet's advice to actors, True and False (LJ 10/1/97). Recommended for academic and large public libraries.?Douglas McClemont, New York
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Series: Vintage
  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books ed edition (June 13, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037570423X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375704239
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #169,292 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I Like Mamet... Even if he is Unbelievably Opinionated December 15, 2001
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I think that this book follows Mamet's M.O. to a tee - It is very erudite, yet I find myself laughing. His writing is very thought provoking in this essay on using your writing to convey meaning. It is not his best book, but it is certainly worthy of the 1 hour it takes to read.
I think this book, as other Mamet books, benefits by his ironclad belief that there is one way to do things. He may actually argue that his POV is not consistent with my last sentence, but he is such an ornery S.O.B., that it is simply a pleasure to listen to him go off on his tirades and tangents.
Will this book allow you to write better? - Maybe. Will this book thoroughly entertain you and enlighten you with Mamet's POV on the issue? - Absolutely. It reads almost like fiction.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Neo-Aristotelianism May 6, 2009
Mamet explicates a compelling theory of drama that links the fine and liberal arts with multifarious forms of American religion and social experience. Though he falters into occasionally harsh prescriptivism, he offers a look at one way American dramatists can and do communicate their world to an audience--and, in many ways, how they communicate the audience's own world as well.

At the heart of Mamet's theory is his claim that all of us make drama out of the ordinary matter of our lives. The dramatist simply takes that hunger and constructs a public spectacle around it. This spectacle raises us up as human beings, and purges the emotions we harbor but which are unacceptable in our modern era. Theatre, in other words, retains its Aristotelian purpose in cleansing the soul.

But Mamet broadens the scope of drama, away from stately tragedy and into more humane territory. As he says, "a play is not about nice things happening to nice people. A play is about rather terrible things happening to people who are as nice or not nice as we ourselves are." In other words, though theatre still requires that characters have their hard-won pretenses stripped away, it is not only kings who must lose everything.

From this it's a short step to Mamet's assertion that "the purpose of art is not to change but to delight. I don't think its purpose is to enlighten us. I don't think it's to change us. I don't think it's to teach us." This is especially good advice for young writers who have been coached by public school English courses to see literature as a manifesto to be decoded. Too many young writers think their work will transform society and remake us as better people.
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26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Arrogant over-simplifications April 30, 2002
By A Customer
It's rare that I regret buying a book, but I'm not happy that I spent money on this one.
I don't argue that Mamet is a good playwright. Glengarry Glen Ross is brilliant, and American Buffalo isn't too bad, either. But reading this book makes me wish Mamet would stick to playwriting and not impose his narrow ideas on others.
Essentially, the book oversimplifies matters in astonishing ways. For instance, Mamet dismisses the American musical out of hand. Many successful playwrights cringe at the thought of watching The Music Man or Kiss Me Kate one more time, but does his comment apply to more intense productions like Cabaret? That's a major distinction that Mamet fails to make, and it's not the only one. Also, lumping together all political theater as an automatic failure, and excusing Brecht from the rest by claiming that Brecht didn't know what he was talking about when he called his own theater political? The logic escapes me.
As far as Mamet's self-aggrandizement goes-- well, I can't say I didn't know it was coming. But that he lets it interfere with the construction of solid arguments is troublesome. For a book on how to construct or read a play, look at Louis Catron's book, or even go back to Stanislavski or Chekhov. They will be much more helpful to the working writer.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An artistic credo well worth reading January 31, 2003
While Mamet's booklet is essentially an exposition of opinions with little or no discourse, it is extremely thought provoking and provides ample fuel for thinking about drama - and art in general - as lying at the edge of reason.
In a treatise that mirrors the three act structure he discusses, Mamet eloquently puts forth the idea that much of political drama, by instructing us what to think and feel, is mere melodrama and that "the theatre exists to deal with problems of the soul, with the mysteries of human life, not with its quotidian calamities." He assails avant-garde artists for taking "refuge in nonsense" and electing themselves "superior to reason," yet also criticizes the "hard-bitten rationalist who rails against religious tradition, against the historical niceties, against ritual large and small."
"Three Uses of the Knife" is a book that will be read quickly, but will stick to the back of your mind for sometime afterwards.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
As an aspiring playwright currently developing a script, I found Mamet's book to be an invigorating and succinct investigation of the function of true drama ("The theater exists to deal with the problems of the soul, with the mysteries of human life, not with its quotidian calamities."). For me, the most arresting and appealing aspect of Mamet's aesthetic philosophy is his candid unearthing of the roots of our dramatic urge in the collective human psyche. This urge manifests itself in our natural impulse - indeed, "our unique survival tool" - to structure our perceptions of the world into `event-complication-denouement' sequences, in other words, to seek a three-act structure (the book's title, with a hat-tip to Leadbelly, derives from this progression). Mamet cites Aristotle in delineating a protagonist/hero's dogged and single-minded pursuit of his/her goal within this framework of a play.
Also intriguing in "Knife" is Mamet's association of theater with myth, magic, religion, and dreams - all of which address the most fundamental non-rational human needs, compulsions, and feelings of powerlessness in the face of death.
"Knife" is a bracing must-read, and left me hungry for more.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Finding the path to your true story
A thought-provoking book. Mamet cuts through the drivel of television news and skewers the "information age. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Susan Fleet
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book
This was the first time I had read it. Great material and ideas to chew on. Using it in an Intro to Theater class.
Published 8 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars review of Mamet's 3 Uses of the Knife
Excellent text for actors, screenwriters, playwrights or anyone who may want to consider major social issues from a fresh perspective - highly recommended
Published 20 months ago by DianaB
4.0 out of 5 stars Mamet And His Aphorisms
The actual text of a play is usually short, it's the subtext that matters. This is also true of Mamet's "3 Uses of a Knife" which weighs in at 87 pages but says a great deal more... Read more
Published on January 16, 2011 by L. King
5.0 out of 5 stars Life Itself As Drama
Readers should not expect another 'How To' book here. This slim philosophical essay makes the claim that we are hard-wired, as it were, to interpret our lives as dramatic... Read more
Published on June 14, 2010 by Michael Brindley
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential
David Mamet, the master of Drama, gives advice and technique in this GREAT book. Truly a must have for the aspiring writer of drama!
Published on December 22, 2008 by Orion Christy
5.0 out of 5 stars So much in this short volume.
I read this book every year, and every year I take something new from it. There's SO much in this short book. It's FILLED with truth about life, art, and life & art.
Published on August 12, 2008 by Ricky L. Lax
3.0 out of 5 stars David Dramamet
Through studying David Mamet's theories, I came to realise that a character can be understood not only through what they do, but also through what they say. Read more
Published on February 18, 2008 by Mister Quickly
5.0 out of 5 stars A contemporary poetic.
This book is a great essay about dramaturgy and politics that evolves some philosophical and psychological theories.
Published on March 12, 2006 by Eduardo Gurza Lorandi
5.0 out of 5 stars My Copy Is Torn To Shreds!
I bought this book when it first came out in hardcover. It was about triple the price that it is now on Amazon, and many people I knew thought I was insane to buy such a small book... Read more
Published on January 22, 2004
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