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

David Mamet
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 13 2000

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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Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama + True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor
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Product Description

From Amazon

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.

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My Copy Is Torn To Shreds! Jan. 22 2004
By A Customer
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 for a high price.
But to me -- it was all too worth it.
David Mamet is all at once a very clear writer and a very mysterious writer. Critics of this particular book mainly see fault in its "seeming" lack of clarity -- Mamet has the intellect of an academic but does not feel that he should write like a dry academic because ACADEMIC PAPERS ARE BORING -- right? At least, I think so.
Three Uses of The Knife -- I've read it about 30 times, I've underlined my favorite parts, and the dust jacket is falling to shreds. When I had Mamet sign it at a book reading he gave me this confused look because everyone had a brand-new book (it was South of the Northeast Kingdom) and I had this tattered one. I had to have that book signed because that book is really awesome and means a lot to me (it taught me alot).
Wether you love it or hate it you have to appriciate it. Mamet's genius is undeniable, and the confidence he enbues in his writing is unforgettable.
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1 of 1 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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5.0 out of 5 stars Premium content, distractingly poor typography. Aug. 31 2003
I just got this book this morning and these are preliminary reactions.
First of all, the content rocks!
Mamet suggestivey points out how we dramatize our lives in our banal exchanges with each other about impersonal things like the weather. In doing so we endow our lives with significance. The insight reminds me of how charged the world once was when I was in love for the first time. I am sure that the access that this small volume gives to an interesting mind repay reading and reading. This is one of those books that makes you think and makes you feel clever for the thinking the thoughts it guides you to.
Unfortunately, I find the poor word-processed typography is distracting. One line has the the initial capital of a sentence squeezed up against the period of the preceding one. The next line has wide open spaces between the words. Paragraph after paragraph finishes with the dangling ends of hyphenated words. I would rather pay a dollar more for a clean view of a remarkable mind.
Surely a respected publishing company can do better than just feed the author's data file to a poorly automatic compositing application and then print the results unperused by human eye?
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5.0 out of 5 stars An artistic credo well worth reading Jan. 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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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
5.0 out of 5 stars Great!
Interesting perspective, and very well-written. A great read and perspective on theatre for writers of all stripes. Lots of philosophical insight.
Published 3 months ago by Will O'Neill
1.0 out of 5 stars fundamentalist brainstorm
This reads like a weekend brainstorm into the dictaphone, or party-chatter with metropolitan friends. Read more
Published on Dec 21 2003 by rgarton
5.0 out of 5 stars The only sane man in America.
Mamet is a playwright savant. He finds sanity in an industry where sanity has no right to exist, and in this slender, essential volume, he points out various truths about not only... Read more
Published on May 28 2002 by Jack Rogan
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, should be listed under Philosophy
David Mamet is a genius. I sat down with this book, thinking it would be discussing the drama of a play, or theatre, and it does, but more than that, it dissects the drama of life... Read more
Published on Jan. 9 2002 by "chinadusk2"
5.0 out of 5 stars I Like Mamet... Even if he is Unbelievably Opinionated
I think that this book follows Mamet's M.O. to a tee - It is very erudite, yet I find myself laughing. Read more
Published on Dec 15 2001 by Thor Vader
5.0 out of 5 stars A Little Gem
In 3 Uses of the Knife, Mamet has helped me realize that the difference between provoking an audience and manipulating them is the difference between art and salesmanship. Read more
Published on Nov. 20 2001 by Brent Noel
5.0 out of 5 stars Reactionary, but eye-opening
Mamet is known as a pioneer of the theatre. He was one of the first to use pure dialogue as action, thus begat Tarantino and a million other "gritty" talk-fests. Read more
Published on June 24 2001 by Cris L. Edwards
5.0 out of 5 stars Best self-help book I've ever read
This brilliant, inspiring, and occasionally hilarious tract is Ur-Mamet. He's a pleasure to read. I picked it up because I was in the mood for some vigorous polemic--but it never... Read more
Published on Oct. 16 2000
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