In his latest novel, David Mamet sets his sights on literature teachers and universities, which, he tells Jennifer Wallace, 'exist independent of any possible utility'.
I lovingly think of higher education as super-attenuated daycare," David Mamet tells me, with a deadpan face. "It keeps the kids out of the workforce for a few more years and that's certainly good."
Mamet, one of America's leading playwrights, likes to shock and unsettle. His plays Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo (also made into Hollywood films) are so packed with expletives that "Go **** yourself" has become a recognisable Mametism (as in the familiar joke - wealthy man to beggar: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" (William Shakespeare); Beggar to wealthy man: "Go **** yourself" (David Mamet)). And he enjoys playing the agent provocateur in his work or, as he wrote recently, "being prepared to say the unacceptable".
His latest subject for attack is academia. Universities, he believes, are institutions that "exist independent of any possible utility" and their main purpose is to provide students with an excuse to pass the time for three years. The teaching of English literature is particularly pointless, because its effect is "to distance kids from any possible enjoyment of literature".
Of his own education - he grew up in Chicago and attended a liberal arts college in Vermont -he says: "Anything that a teacher laid his or her hands on was ruined for ever for me, because it stopped being literature and started being homework." His main memories of college are sex and drugs.
The reason for these reflections is the publication of Mamet's third and latest novel, Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources. The novel is set at the end of this century and imagines a time when libraries have been destroyed, archives have been burnt and the internet, which had become the sole repository for information, has crashed. Just a few fragments from popular 20th-century culture survive and these are pored over and analysed by a bunch of pedantic academics.
Two of the fragments analysed for complex meaning are the song There was a Farmer had a Dog and Bingo was his Name, and the car bumper sticker, "My other car is a Rolls-Royce". The discussion in the novel leads inevitably to footnotes and to notes on the footnotes and to absurdly titled supporting reference works such as "on dating the birth of Edison, see J. Blota, First See if it's Plugged in (Mud Press, 2091)", or "For further work on the phone book, I direct the reader to Anon, Funny Names, No Plot".
"It's a book about false scholarship and it's a book about scholarship and perhaps it asks are the two one," Mamet explains. Academic writing is too far removed from reality, he thinks. "Nobody knows less about life than an English teacher."
Wilson is not Mamet's first venture into academia. His play Oleanna, first performed in 1992, dramatises the confrontation between a university student and her tutor. The play is partly about political correctness and it polarised its audiences. When the tutor refuses to raise the student's grades, the student responds by accusing him of sexual harassment.
The play is also about the value of college education. The tutor tries to comfort the failing student by questioning the worth of higher learning. College education, he says, has "become such a fashionable necessity that we espouse it as a matter of right and have ceased to ask what is it good for."
If that is the tutor's attitude, responds the student, why should she listen to him? Is he not exploitative in expecting her to jump through the hoops of a system he no longer believes in just so he can earn a living? But the student also responds by saying that, for her, college education is important and that she has worked hard to get there. As an outsider aspiring to improve her lot, she values higher education and it is only her tutor, who has achieved success, who can question it.
Mamet concedes: "I think that may be one of the prime worths of a university education, to be able to admit that college education is meaningless. You need to be on the inside to be able to say that."
It is this capacity of Mamet to appear both an insider and an outsider in his work that makes him difficult to fathom. Like the best satirists, he exposes an institution's way of thinking by paradoxically echoing its favourite jargon.
He has always had an ear for the way people speak. In Glengarry Glen Ross, it was the sales pitch of real estate agents. In House of Games, it was the cut-throat argot of poker players. This time, it is the convoluted sentences of academics. "The way people speak is extraordinarily meaningful," Mamet says. "In effect it is more than meaningful. It is poetical. The sound of the words is very important."
So in the T. S. Eliot memorial lecture, which he delivered last week at the University of Kent, while he argued the oppressive effect of institutions such as universities on individuals, he did so in such a complicated and intellectual way that he left many in his audience baffled. Similarly, Wilson is as much a celebration of academic discourse as a critique. "It's an homage to academia," says Mamet. Only academics, accustomed to ploughing through footnotes, will have the patience to read through the novel and will appreciate the jokes. "I think it's pretty damn funny. It made me laugh writing it."
So Mamet remains an enigma. One drama critic in the United States, John Heilpern, has called him the Andy Warhol of the theatre. "It's just because I've been writing a lot about soup cans," Mamet says. In fact, one never knows whether to take what Mamet says seriously or not. Everything is delivered with a deadpan expression, but it could all be, as he puts it, "baloney". When, I ask him, is he being serious, and when is he not? He is typically evasive. "I could give you the answer, but why should you believe me?" This makes Mamet tricky to talk to. Stories about the terrors of interviewing him are passed among journalists. At a recent literary jamboree at London's South Bank to celebrate the publication of Wilson, Christopher Bigsby, professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia, who interviewed Mamet in front of a capacity crowd, was visibly anxious. When Mamet gave one-liner joke replies to his first three questions, Bigsby muttered that he did not know what question to ask to elicit a serious response.
I get my fair share of the Mamet treatment. Can creative writing be taught, I ask him? After all, he once accepted a fellowship in creative writing at Yale University. "Everyone talks about creative writing. Nobody talks about destructive writing. It doesn't seem fair, does it?" he replies. I ask him about the power of American academia. "It's like zucchini. You can't get them not to grow," is his answer. By the end of the interview, when he is visibly growing bored, he gets sharper. To a simple question about his Jewishness, a topic that he himself has raised, he fires back: "You can ask me that question because you don't know any better because you're a Brit, but I always thought that if anyone asked that question in America it's rather an impertinence."
As our chat ends, he asks: "Have I made your life sufficiently difficult?" At the end of his South Bank performance, he reads out one of his poems titled Charade. "Can you decipher me?" is the last line, and with that he makes a dramatic exit, leaving the audience puzzled and frustrated.
But in the practical world of the theatre and acting, where he is more comfortable, Mamet is different. He taught acting at Goddard College in Vermont, the college he attended. Acting, unlike literature, can be taught, he believes. "It doesn't mean anybody can become an actor. But I believe that the philosophical underpinnings can certainly be described in a fair degree of precision, such that a student can understand them."
While in London to promote the publication of Wilson, Mamet catches a performance of his play American Buffalo at the Donmar Warehouse. One of his former students from Goddard College, William H. Macy, with whom Mamet has collaborated on various theatre projects, is starring in the role of the older petty criminal, Teach. By coincidence, I find myself sitting next to Mamet in the audience. It is moving, he tells me, to see Macy perform, because Macy played the role of the younger criminal at the play's inception in 1975. When the actors take a bow at the end of the show, Macy tips a sly wink at Mamet in the audience. There is no song and dance made about it and probably nobody else notices. But still, understated, it is there. College education might be three years of wasted time, but the bonds between teacher and student are pretty strong and meaningful, it seems.
Jennifer Wallace is director of English, Peterhouse, Cambridge.