By Jeffrey Sweet

The character Byron Jennings is playing is having a conversation with another character. I don't have a copy of the script, but it goes something like this -- (BJ is Mr. Jennings. OC is other character.)

BJ: Are you asking me --
OC: I'm asking --
BJ: Let me be clear --
BJ: Because clarity --
OC: Yes --
BJ: Without clarity you're --
OC: Fucked?
BJ: I would say, I would prefer to say, I would prefer to put it --
OC: OK --
BJ: -- that without clarity, you cannot tell the distinctions, the necessary elements that make one thing distinct from another. That thing that makes one thing not the other thing.
OC: Yes.
BJ: That thing that makes it possible for you to tell, for instance -- to quote Mr. Shakespeare -- a hawk from a fucking handsaw.
OC: Which is necessary.
BJ: If you want to saw a piece of wood, it's useful. You would not want to attempt to saw a piece of wood with a hawk.
OC: No.
BJ: If you were faced with a piece of wood and the necessity of sawing it, the ability to make the distinction, at this juncture, at this particular juncture --
OC: Sure.
BJ: For what would it avail you to saw with a hawk? Sawing is beyond the function of a hawk, which is to fly and to attack and consume small rodents.

OK, I lied. This isn't a scene that Byron Jennings is playing. But if you told me he was rehearsing a new play with this passage in it, I might have believed you, as I've seen him do this kind of material twice in the past few weeks. Most recently, Jason Sherman's "Three in the Back, Two in the Head" at the Manhattan Class Company. Before that, the title piece in an evening of Mamet one-acts at Ensemble Studio Theatre, "No One Will Be Immune".

I'm not picking on Byron Jennings. I think he's a sensational actor. (His performance opposite Helen Mirren in "A Month in the Country" was one of the best I saw in the '94-'95 season.) What I'm suggesting is that ... oh, I don't know -- maybe one David Mamet is enough?

Mamet's done some swell stuff. "American Buffalo", "Glengarry Glen Ross", "Reunion", "Speed-the-Plow" and some fine screenplays. But he has the misfortune to have a style so distinct in its profile that others can isolate its elements and appropriate it. Which is what Mr. Sherman has done. The opening of Mr. Sherman's play has so much of the trademark fragmented phrases, the overlapping, the mock-formal language shredding of observation into paper-thin slices, the semantic quibbling, the convoluted logic of the self-justifyingly corrupt, the reiteration of phrases with minor amendments that offer different shades of non-meaning -- so much of these elements that, even if the play didn't have an alum of a Mamet play, Mr. M. would still come to mind.

Sherman is hardly the only one. I remember the opening moments of Howard Korder's "Search and Destroy". Right at the top, when the lights came up on Griffin Dunne shooting through a virtuoso passage of the pseudo-philosophy of a conman, I heard the very specific echo of Ricky Roma's rant in scene three of "Glengarry".

This brings me back to something that Paul Sills said in "Something Wonderful Right Away": "What happens is that sometime, someplace, you have an artistic work appear as a response to a necessity, and a form is found in that response. Once that form is found, everybody can do it or repeat it or connect with it. So then it can be entertainment. It can be sold, watered down successively. So that you find a well-made play written by a Broadway craftsman today constructed on formal principles that were worked out in, say, the nineteenth century by artists. Once the ground has been broken, once the door is open, everyone can flood in."

Mamet indeed opened a door. He married Pinter to Second City (where he'd been a busboy) and came up with "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "Duck Variations". The language had a vitality and embraced the poetry of invective and obscenity in a way that landed fresh on the ear. Which led to a lot of people embracing his devices and rhythms till, lo, Mamet-speak became coin of the realm.

I wonder if he sometimes gets sick of it. I wonder if he sometimes watches a Quentin Tarantino movie and wants to moon the screen in contempt.

I wonder if Hemingway felt the same way, seeing his laconic, simple sentences and his sparing use of adjectives and adverbs suddenly aped by a generation of creative writing students. I wonder if being surrounded by people who had lifted his style didn't push him a little closer to that shotgun.

Sondheim must have those days, too. Sitting in the orchestra, watching someone else's musical, hearing an agitated figure establish itself on the piano and a singer begin an anthem of ambivalence and regret, I wonder if he doesn't sometimes wish this particular composer-lyricist team hadn't memorized every note of "Company" and "Sunday in the Park with George".

Now, nobody is self-created as an artist. Usually you decide to create because somebody else's work has inspired you. Or you start noodling at the piano because, after listening to a couple of Gershwin songs, you want to give expression to your Gershwinesque impulses. I would bet that almost any writer can point to another whose example inspired. There are lessons to be learned. Only a fool doesn't try to learn from the best. But Santayana's often-quoted line goes, "He who doesn't learn from history is condemned to repeat it." It doesn't go, "Learn from history so that you can better repeat it."

I was reading an article on screenwriting the other day. The writer, with a perfectly straight face (well, OK, I didn't actually see his face) was exhorting fellow screenwriters to originality. Except originality to him resided in taking familiar plots and putting them into new settings. ("The Magnificent Seven" set on Mars. "Bringing Up Baby" in South Central L.A. A gay "Beauty and the Beast". Aiyee -- stop me before I clone again!)

Craft is important Getting confidence with the tools is necessary. Studying how others used the tools is part of being educated. But ultimately, the point is to use them in the service of articulating your own ideas, not to mimic others' voices. As Sills said, artistic work appears "as a response to a necessity, and a form is found in that response." The work of a dramatist is to respond to the world and give expression to that response, not to respond to another dramatist's form with the dubious compliment of counterfeit.

Jeffrey Sweet welcomes reader response.

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