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Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama 1st Vintage Books ed Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0375704239
ISBN-10: 037570423X
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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 an alternate Paperback 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 an alternate Paperback edition.
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The latest book club pick from Oprah
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books ed edition (June 13, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037570423X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375704239
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,865 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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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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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By A Customer on April 30, 2002
Format: Paperback
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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It's long become customary to nickname David Mamet as "controversial", "acerbic", "opinionated", and the like... Evidently, he's making someone nervous. So much so that they're willing to exploit some of the most unsubstantiated, desperate, primitive ways of debasing their "Nemesis". I hope he's taking it as a compliment. Come to think of it, what can be more dangerous than a powerful, rational thinker, a one of a kind intellectual, an eloquent artist on his quest for truth? Why, he would have been among the first ones to be eliminated by any totalitarian regime!

As for the "Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama": this book is an enlightened, aphoristic conversation that celebrates moral reasoning and good taste. I wholeheartedly recommend it and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
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Format: Paperback
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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