Writing in Restaurants, David Mamet (Penguin: $6.95). In David Mamet's ideal scenario of cultural life in America, theater reveals the human soul, mirrors the unconscious and studies our natural growth and decay; all the stage is our world. Not surprisingly, we fall short, and, in this book, Mamet, drawing authority from his 1984 Pulitzer Prize for play writing, attempts to target the reasons why. He reproves culture for being "morally bankrupt," art for censoring and controlling rather than creating and, of course, TV for catering to "the lowest of the low in human experience." Yet however brash Mamet might sound, this is not a predictable highbrow assault on popular culture. Mamet is not out to denigrate bad taste; what depresses him is no taste: blandness in comedy that fails to evoke "the tenuousness of our social state," in drama that skirts the issue of death, and in a growing national apathy that eviscerates great emotions from life: "Every reiteration of the idea that there is no drama in modern life, there is only dramatization, that there is no tragedy, there is only unexplained misfortune, debases us."
Institutions supporting this detached attitude bear the brunt of his criticism; President's Day, for example, is described as "a bastard amalgamation of two distinct and spontaneously created national rituals," devoid of festivity, faith, mourning. Conversely, Mamet celebrates the Super Bowl ("true to our national love of invidious comparison") and the Oscars ("fascinating, refreshing . . . the Big Bar Mitzvah") as reflections of genuine human feeling. Mamet's staccato sentences sometimes hide his subtle reasoning. In one chapter, for instance, he says that ours is an "evil time," for we do not wish to "examine our unhappiness," while in another he says we are "destroying ourselves by accepting our unhappiness." These ideas are only contradictory on the surface, however, for in the larger context of the book, Mamet's point--that we can examine our unhappiness without sinking into it--becomes clear. In asking us to look inward (and in asking playwrights to stimulate introspection), Mamet recalls Freud, "The only way to forget is to remember."