Storytelling — Mamet’s Conflict Airing Theory

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Narrativium

One of the big questions to which I have yet to find a satisfying answer is what stories are, in the set of things that includes various other kinds of speech. David Mamet has what I think is a partial answer in Three Uses of a Knife, a short, stream-of-consciousness meditation on storytelling which I recently finished (ht: Sachin Benny).

I like plays, but not enough to be an avid theater-goer, so my only real exposure to Mamet’s work is the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross, which lives up to its reputation, and a few episodes of The Unit, which I didn’t quite get into. But his storytelling chops are clearly strong enough for his theorizing to be interesting. His practical advice certainly is — here is a memo he sent to the staff of the Unit (ht Steve Hely), with plenty of gems in it.

But this post is about Mamet’s philosophy of storytelling, not his bag of tricks.

Mamet opens Three Uses of a Knife with a discussion of our tendency to dramatize entirely mundane everyday events, like a bus being late, or the state of the weather, into proto-stories. His opening example is:

“Great. It’s raining. Just when I’m blue. Isn’t that just like life?:

His exegesis:

The weather is impersonal, and we both understand it and exploit it as dramatic, i.e., having a plot, in order to understand its meaning for the hero, which is to say for ourselves.

This is already a great starting point. Stories aren’t certain patterns, but a way of looking at any pattern. There is a fairly clear definition of stories implied in his observation that “our survival mechanism orders the world into cause-effect-conclusion.” He elaborates:

Children jump around at the end of the day, to expend the last of that day’s energy. The adult equivalent, when the sun goes down, is to create or witness drama—which is to say, to order the universe into a comprehensible form. Our sundown play/ film/ gossip is the day’s last exercise of that survival mechanism. In it we attempt to discharge any residual perceptive energies in order to sleep. We will have drama in that spot, and if it’s not forthcoming we will cobble it together out of nothing. 

A reasonable paraphrase here is that we use survival surplus to reinforce adaptive worldviews that help us survive better. By this theory, if you (like me) tend to consume or produce nihilistic satire in the evenings with your surplus dramaturgical energy, presumably that reinforces a posture that helps you, personally, survive better at other times.

After a quick survey of ways we make up proto-stories out of the mundanities of life, Mamet declares that it’s all good dramaturgy:

In these small plays we make the general or the unremarkable particular and objective, i.e., part of a universe our very formulation proclaims understandable. It’s good dramaturgy.

which he contrasts with bad dramaturgy:

Bad dramaturgy can be found in the palaver of politicians who have somewhere between nothing much and nothing to say. They traduce the process and speak, rather, of the subjective and nebulous: they speak of the Future. They speak of Tomorrow, they speak of the American Way, Our Mission, Progress, Change.

So clearly, in Mamet’s understanding of the survival function, storytelling helps us survive by imposing a causal orderliness on specifics that is adaptive. Whatever the merits of the causal mechanisms, the survival function has to do with what stories get us paying attention to, and with what level of caring and urgency. The opposite of the storytelling survival instinct is the instinct towards empty, manipulative abstractions.

The fun thing is, both his examples of good and bad dramaturgy are clearly part of things we think of as stories. For Mamet, good stories are the ones that exhibit the focus on particulars that makes for survival value.

Words like rain and blues get us looking at life through specific sensory filters and affect what goes in and out of our awareness. They get us attending to the world in a particular way.

Words like mission and progress don’t actually mean anything until we say a great deal more. They arguably function to lower the degree to which we are attending to the world at all. They make us inattentive, drawing us into our own heads, into a risky, maladaptive disengagement from reality. They are fragilizing.

Manet’s theory falls broadly into the appeal to nature class of explanations, with all the attendant is-ought problems: things are good because they are natural. Or to put it in more modern terms, it’s a trad theory of good stories, where you go from beautiful to good to true. It’s exactly backwards relative the way I tend to process reality, but it is a common way that sometimes leads to interesting results.

In Mamet’s case, it leads to a general account of stories within which almost all modern storytelling — think blockbuster summer movies, sitcoms, stories in the news — is bad because it serves no adaptive purpose beyond brief escape into an alternate reality where the world works as you want to believe it does. These are stories that don’t affect you or stay with you. They are consumables — forgotten the moment you leave the theater or set the book aside, until you return from another fungible hit of the same kind of drug.

Good stories (and to make it clear upfront, I don’t buy his definition of “good” but I find it interesting), on the other hand, stay with you in a particular way according to Mamet:

The superego is created to arbitrate the functions of the conscious and the unconscious mind. So are neuroses and psychoses, so are the arts. When art functions as the synthesizer, the arbitrator, balance is created. In great art—the Bible, Shakespeare, Bach—the balance is long-lasting. It is not that great art reveals a great truth, but that it stills a conflict—by airing rather than rationalizing it.

So now we have a sense of what is good in what Mamet finds beautiful — long-lasting balance. Good — both morally and aesthetically — stories create an enduring reality that stays with you, rather than a consumable, disposable one where the balance fails the moment you walk out the theater.

A lot of the book is extended rants against the bad (both morally and aesthetically) kinds of stories or story elements that he classifies under bad dramaturgy. Montages, escapist sex or violence, stories devoted to “issues” or “problems,” and so on. It becomes clear somewhere through the rant that the primary storytelling sin for Mamet is attempting to feel superior to events through rationalization. For instance:

That melodrama offers anxiety undergone in safety, the problem play offers indignation. (Television news offers both.) In these false dramas we indulge a desire to feel superior to events, to history, in short, to the natural order.

As befits an appeal-to-nature style theory, with an inherent is-ought problem (which he would deny is a problem), it is not possible to separate Mamet’s politics from his storytelling posture. His polemic against melodramas and escapism bleeds into self-righteous political commentary about American and world politics. There is no difference between telling/consuming good stories and being a good person for Mamet. And being a good person appears to primarily be about a posture of submission and resignation that is essentially religious in nature:

Tragedy is a celebration not of our eventual triumph but of the truth—it is not a victory but a resignation. Much of its calmative power comes, again, from that operation described by Shakespeare: when remedy is exhausted, so is grief.

For Mamet, good stories then, are essentially good because they are like good religions. A crucial and curious result is the dismissal of things uncorrelated to moral posture:

Things that can equally befall a good or bad person cannot be evil; they can only be accident and, as such, are the fit subject not of drama but of gossip. Like gossip, “issue” plays have a great capacity to demand our momentary attention; also like gossip, they leave us rather empty after our rush of prurience has run its course and is followed, as it usually is, by shame.

This is very interesting — for Mamet, stories are only good insofar as they reveal the difference between good and bad through breaks in symmetry. But note that we are talking about things “befalling” people rather than narrower category of direct agency and causation. So we are not limited to things befalling people as a direct result of their actions. We are talking the diffuse effects of their general moral posture in a universe that is responsive to moral postures in ways we can identify and adapt to, but whose actual causal structure we are helpless to understand. This is a generalization of the old idea of hamartia in Greek tragedy.

This overall posture comes together is in a very predictable place: traditional religiosity with a firm and unironic participation in cultural forms and ritual. Starting from evolutionary adaptation premises, he lands on:

And the cleansing lesson of the drama is, at its highest, the worthlessness of reason.

He doesn’t mean reason in the sense of everyday logic or the sort that is integral to mundane scientific work, but reason as deployed in bad dramaturgy that attempts to rationalize the world in a way that allows you to adopt a posture of agency, control, and superiority, as opposed to helplessness, vulnerability, and humility. Mamet’s “reason” is a similar to Taleb’s notion of fragile intellectualism. In a way, for Mamet, what reason can illuminate is (at least dramatically) worthless, and what does have (at least dramatic) worth cannot be illuminated by it.

For Mamet, the great sin of reason lies in how it allows you to live in (dramatic) nonsense:

The avant-garde is to the left what jingoism is to the right. Both are a refuge in nonsense. And the warm glow of fashion on the left and patriotism on the right evidence individuals’ comfort in their power to elect themselves members of a group superior to reason.

This is a second-order critique of bad stories. Bad stories are bad because they apply the tool of reason, meant for illuminating worthless things, to things deemed a priori worthwhile (the interesting hidden premise here is that it appears things are worthwhile precisely by virtue of being beyond reason).

Artists don’t wonder, “What is it good for?” They aren’t driven to “create art,” or to “help people,” or to “make money.” They are driven to lessen the burden of the unbearable disparity between their conscious and unconscious minds, and so to achieve peace.

For Mamet, not only is it futile, it is sacrilegious futility. Like attempting to bribe or bargain with God (“Artists” in the bit above, should probably be read as “good person”).

The net effect of the Mamet theory is to simply set aside the vast majority of storytelling as “bad” and made by “bad people” (non “artists”) and therefore not worth explaining at all. All that is necessary is to accuse them of the rationalizing impulse, find them guilty, and hang them. Just as for Taleb, 90% of “intellectual” production can simply be judged to be bad and set aside. No further account is required.

It’s also sort of like how Christopher Alexander represents a trad theory of architecture wherein older forms of architecture are in some sense not just a subjective aesthetic preference, but more true via appeal to certain presumptively timeless adaptive patterns, while forms like suburbia or glass-and-chrome high-rises are false in the same sense. Suburbia and skyscrapers are uninteresting to the Alexandrian because they are, in some is-ought blurring sense, “untrue” and therefore not worth attending to beyond a dismissive judgment process.

As with all such theories, Mamet’s theory of narrative is a good way to appreciate the value inherent in tradition, but a poor way to appreciate new possibilities that are unknown to tradition. It is a conservative view of storytelling. What it declares to be good is almost certainly good, but what it declares to be bad is not necessarily bad.

The problem with Mamet’s theory of stories is that it does not offer a satisfying account of many things that many people enjoy that we ordinarily think of as legitimate stories. For Mamet, it is sufficient to dismiss them as not stories at all, but some sort of perversion of a natural and good instinct. That many enjoy them is not mere a matter of bad taste or weak intellect, but a kind of sinfulness brought on by succumbing to the temptation to feel superior to the world.

It’s a sentiment that resembles Donna Haraway’s idea of “staying with the trouble,” the idea of infinite games, and Frank Chimero’s interesting argument about the difference between managing problems and solving them.


I think Mamet’s moralistic theory of narrative is wrong but it does get him to a place that I think is roughly right: good dramaturgy being an airing of conflict rather than a rationalizing attempt to pseudo-resolve it. You walk away from a Mamet-good story with a renewed appreciation for a timeless facet of life that has been long known to humanity, but no easy answers. Mamet-good is Lindy-good.

I like the airing-of-conflict central idea, but prefer to draw a much bigger circle around it, and adopt a far more indulgent and amoral view of what does and does not count as a story.

My takeaway is that Mamet’s idea of “good” is worth treating as one kind of sufficient but not necessary approach to effective narrative. You can set aside the exclusionary aesthetic and moral judgment it rests on. Other kinds of stories can be effective too, and there is no need to bring any sort of inescapable moral sensibility (let alone Mamet’s specific, peculiar one) to the production and consumption of narrative unless you want to. A story you enjoy in the moment, but forget the moment you exit the theater is just a different kind of story. It may only create balance and order in the universe for a couple of hours instead of a a couple of millennia, but as far as I am concerned, it has as much of an adaptive purpose.

As an aside: The word dramaturgy is interesting to think about. It is literally defined as simply the theory and practice of dramatic composition, but I like to (dramatically?) think of it as the work of a fictional being we might call a dramaturge, by analogy to demiurge (“an artisan-like figure responsible for fashioning and maintaining the physical universe”). The word dramaturge seems to exist as an obscure synonym of playwright, so it seems safe to use it in a more vivid sense as a figure responsible for fashioning and maintenance of a non-physical universe.

In the sense I mean it, the elves of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld are dramaturges. They live off the magical narrativium of Discworld, and when they invade Roundworld (non-magical Earth), they introduce storytelling to humans in order to survive there. On both Discworld and Roundworld, the elves are bad. They foment narrative trouble to survive.

Mamet too, has an implicit notion of a dramaturge at work beneath his theorizing: a sort of superior moral being who shows lesser mortals how to navigate the moral universe with humility and resignation. Curiously, Mamet’s dramaturge also foments narrative trouble to survive.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Chris Stewart says

    Interesting way at looking at the story
    Good for thought

  2. Kevin Obsatz says

    I wonder if you’d be interested in the book Poetics of Cinema by Raul Ruiz. The first chapter/essay is called Central Conflict Theory and it addresses what you’re exploring in this series from an interesting angle, I think.

  3. This was absolutely Not Fun and Very Satisfying to read. I’ve spent a lot of my life in the theatre world, and I’m of an age that Mamet was one of my first favorite playwrights, so reading this rant while having a lot of his plays echoing in my mind was… fascinating. Your take on his take is what made this genuinely interesting – watching a pragmatist deconstruct a moralist is always fun. Also, FWIW, “dramaturge” is an actual position that’s filled on the production team of many/most plays these days, and it’s primarily a research role. I’d be happy to share more thoughts from the theatre side if you’re interested, and in the meanwhile thanks for encouraging my various curiosities.