Bakhtinâ€™s Polyphonic Novel and the Polyphonic Potential of David Mametâ€™s American Buffalo by Jennifer Young
The theatre is the obvious placeâ€¦for [Bakhtin] to have made a stronger contribution, or at least a logical place to go to further discriminate his own set of categories, and he didnâ€™t do itâ€¦It is a mystery.Â Â I donâ€™t understand itâ€¦This is a topic that needs a lot of work; I hesitate to even talk about it.Â Â But if one were to talk about an agenda for future work, I think that Bakhtin and theatre constitutes a very rich area (Barsky and Holquist, qtd. in Joki,Â MBDÂ 2).
When Mikhail Bakhtin created the genre he called the polyphonic novel, he simultaneously hailed Dostoevsky as its father and rejected the drama as being incapable of sharing its multivoicedness.Â Â In hisÂ Problems of Dostoevskyâ€™s Poetics, Bakhtin explains why the drama cannot be polyphonic.
The speeches in a dramatic dialog do not disrupt the world that is being depicted, nor do they make it multileveled; on the contrary, they require the monolithic unity of that world in order to be truly dramatic.Â Â The world of the drama must be made of a single piece.Â Â Any weakening of the monolith leads to a weakening of the dramatic effectâ€¦True multileveledness would destroy the drama, because dramatic action rests upon the unity of the world and is incapable of tying together and resolving multiple levels.Â Â In the drama the combination of integral fields of vision in a unity which stands above those fields of vision is impossible because the dramatic construction offers no support for such unity.Â Â Therefore the true dramatic dialog can play only a quite secondary role in Dostoevskyâ€™s polyphonic novel (13-14).
Bakhtin has both received kudos and endured backlash for his exploration of Dostoevskyâ€™s polyphony at the exclusion of the drama.Â Â In her essay â€œMarginalizing Drama:Â Â Bakhtinâ€™s Theory of Genre,â€ Jennifer Wise notices how Bakhtin praises Dostoevsky for constructing his novels with a polyphonic texture, but she reveals how these traits Bakhtin so admires actually originate from the drama.Â Â Wise explains that Bakhtinâ€™s analysis is built upon â€œa phenomenology of performance,â€ and that his assertations about novelistic discourse arise from â€œdramatic metaphors:Â Â the novelist â€œstagesâ€ discourses, â€œperformsâ€ cartwheels and lazzi, â€œimprovisesâ€ outside his script; the novelist is said to abandon any unmediated language of his own and speak only through the mouths of others, like a â€œplaywrightâ€ (21).Â Â Beyond pointing out this paradox, Wise also is infuriated by the manner in which Bakhtin simultaneously ascribes â€œthe anti-literary energies of theatrical culture to the novel,â€ while â€œhe perverselyÂ Â withdrawsÂ them theoretically from the theatre itselfâ€ (19).Â Â As she searches for possible rationale for Bakhtinâ€™s privileging the novel over the drama, she finds a possible answer within his cultural poetics:
As Pushkin observed as far back as 1837, Russia had really neverÂ knownÂ a genuinely popular theatrical tradition, and during the Revolutionary and Stalinist periods of Bakhtinâ€™s authorship, the emergence of an unofficial theatrical art was especially unlikely (21).
This is one such problematic moment inÂ Problems of Dostoevskyâ€™s PoeticsÂ in which Bakhtin attempts to describe, and yet not precisely define, the background that gave way to his new genre:
The objective complexity, contradictoriness and multivoicedness of the epoch in which Dostoevsky lived, the situation of the non-noble intellectual(raznochinec)Â and social outcast, the profound biographical and inner involvement in the objective multileveledness of life, and, finally, the gift for seeing the world in interaction and coexistenceâ€”allÂ these things prepared the soil out of which grew Dostoevskyâ€™s polyphonic novel (25).
Some scholars such as Amy Mandelker and her troupe that assembledÂ Bakhtin in Contexts:Â Across the DisciplinesÂ now have become so exasperated with the tired, â€˜automatizedâ€™ phrasepolyphonyÂ that they refer to it as a â€˜flattened-out catchwordâ€™ of Bakhtinâ€™s, as meaningless asdialogue,Â chronotope, andÂ the carnivalesque, which â€œnow anesthetize us rather than communicate a concrete point of viewâ€ (4).Â Â Now I hope to refresh the concept of polyphony by explicitly defining it according to its rightful musical terms, and by breaking down its components using as my illustration the playwright David Mametâ€™sÂ American Buffalo.Â Â I will show how Mamet composes his drama with rhythm, meter, and beats in mind, analyze his use of musical elements such as repetition and imitation to pass subjects and themes around, point out how he separates characters into treble and bass clefs for melody and harmony, and how his piece resembles a polyphonic-textured fugue.Â Â As I do this, I will refer back to Bakhtinâ€™s terms and ideas and clarify their relevance.
First of all, what exactly is musical polyphony?Â Â A piece of music that is polyphonic (or contrapuntal) contains two or more melodies of nearly equivalent importance that are harmonically connected but still maintain their linear uniqueness.Â Â The melodies are slightly different but explore a complementary theme.Â Â A polyphonic-textured fugue is written for two or more parts with a set number of voices that develops a subject contrapuntally.Â Â Fugues for three voices or instruments are most common (Miller 165).Â Â A good example of a fugue is â€œToccata and Fugue in D Minorâ€ by Johann Sebastian Bach.Â Â According to Bakhtin, for a novel to be polyphonic, it must contain â€œthe plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnessesâ€ (PDPÂ 4).Â Â A fugue does not have a fixed form but varies from composer to composer.Â Â Nearly every fugue does, however, begin with an exposition, in which a voice introduces a subject and asks a question that is answered by a second voice.Â Â The second voiceâ€™s answer is an imitation of the first voiceâ€™s subject, but is written at a slightly different pitch.Â Â Secondary voices follow with further developments and alterations of the original subject, ending the exposition, and leading into other sections called episodes.Â Â Episodes are transitions in which there is no subject.Â Â At the end of an episode, a statement of the subject with a key change occurs.Â Â The fugue is perpetuated with other subjects that build upon the original in different keys and move the fugue toward a climax and finally, a resolution (Miller 165-67).
Out of all Mametâ€™s plays,Â American BuffaloÂ most resembles a fugue.Â Â Dennis Cunningham sees it as â€œvery like intricate music, a wonderfully profane fugueâ€¦a song.â€Â Â David Skerritt calls the playÂ Â â€œA Fugue for Three Voices in a Junk Shopâ€ (qtd. in Dean 110).Â Â Just as Bakhtinâ€™s polyphonic novel involves multiple voices exploring a common theme, so does Mametâ€™s drama contain various subjects of conversation that are passed between three characters:Â Â Don, the junkstore owner and mentor of Bob; Bob, â€œthe kid,â€ Donâ€™s ward; and Teach, a poker-playing friend of Donâ€™s. No character is more important than the others in the three-man show; they each make up equal parts of a trio.Â Â Together these men, like musical parts, explore themes through repetition and imitation.Â Â As Morson and Emerson explain, â€œPolyphony demands a work in which several consciousnesses meet as equals and engage in a dialogue that is in principle unfinalizableâ€ (238-39).Â Â Bakhtin says Dostoevskyâ€™s heroes enjoy a â€œplurality of equal consciousnessesâ€ and they are â€œnot only objects of the authorâ€™s word, but subjects of their own directly significant wordÂ (neposredstvenno znachashchee slovo)Â as wellâ€ (PDPÂ 4).
InÂ Mikhail Bakhtin, Clark and Holquist explore Bakhtinâ€™s ideas about folk culture, â€œthe culture of the lower orders, of the fair tent and the marketplace from which come his three heroes, the rogue, the fool, and the simpletonâ€ (272).Â Â Defining Mametâ€™s characters inAmerican BuffaloÂ by these terms results in Teach as the rogue, Don as the fool, and Bob as the simpleton.Â Â Furthermore, these men are all both heroes and listeners.Â Â AsÂ Â Voloshinov and Bakhtin explain, language is inherently social and dialogic, and involves the author, the hero, and the listener, as well as the addressee and the superaddresseeÂ Â (Joki,Â MBDÂ 2).Â Â Don and Bob are the first and second voices of the fugue.Â Â Through their student-teacher relationship, they introduce subjects ofÂ Â business and friendship in the fugueâ€™s exposition.Â Bobâ€™s voice echoes that of Donâ€™s since he follows Donâ€™s lead and rarely comes up with an original idea.Â Â When Teach arrives, he modulates the play to a new key.Â Â He bursts into the store and exclaims, â€œFuckinâ€™ Ruthie, fuckinâ€™ Ruthie, fuckinâ€™ Ruthie, fuckinâ€™ Ruthie, fuckinâ€™ Ruthieâ€¦Fuckinâ€™Â Ruthieâ€¦â€ (9).Â Â This is an example of Mametâ€™s use of repetition.Â Â Phrases and melodies or words are repeated over and over again so we remember them and think of them as significant moments in the piece.Â Â He sprinkles repetition throughoutÂ American Buffalo, most noticeably again at the top of the second act, when Don mutters, â€œGreat.Â Â Great great great great greatâ€ (59).Â Â Another musical term that stems from repetition is imitation.Â Â In music, this is when a melody or part of a melody is repeated by another voice or instrument part (Miller 55).Â Â Translated into â€œMametspeak,â€ imitation is when one character repeats more or less what the other character just said.Â Â For example, take this scene inÂ American Buffalo:
Mametâ€™s words are sometimes so technical the beats are as predictable as a Ping-Pong match.Â In the following scene, Mametâ€™s three characters go from single beats to alternating between duple and triple meter, and finally to a change in rhythm altogether.
BOB:Â Â Â Yes.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (Single meter)
TEACH:Â Â Â Why?Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (Single meter)
BOB:Â Â Â Because.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (Duple meter)Â Â Â Pause.
TEACH:Â Â Â Iâ€™ll see you tomorrow, Bobby.Â Â Â Â Â (Syncopation)
BOB:Â Â Â Good-bye, Teach.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (Triple meter)
TEACH:Â Â Â Good-bye.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (Duple meter)
DON:Â Â Â Good-bye, Bob.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (Triple meter)
BOB:Â Â Â Good-bye.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (Duple meter)
Pause.Â Â BOBÂ exits.
DON:Â Â Â Fuckinâ€™Â kidâ€¦ (2.67)Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (Syncopation)
Change in rhythm, or syncopation, is characteristic of jazz music and polyphonic-textured fugues, and it is easy to spot inÂ American BuffaloÂ (Miller 27).Â Â Mamet italicizes words that are to receive primary stress in order to indicate the rhythm of a scene.Â Â Italicized words are clues as to how lines should best be delivered and ensure that the text moves along at a steady, pulsating pace.Â Â InÂ David Mamet:Â Â Language as Dramatic Action,Â Anne Dean notices how â€œthe rhythms and syncopations of Mametâ€™s language authentically reflect both the inner pressures of his characters and the pace and confusion of their urban environmentâ€ (31).Â Â If actors do not obey the rhythmic technique Mamet dictates, they will destroy his poetry.Â Â The musical rhythm conveys the communication (or lack of it) between his men.Â Â To have the three men use simple and ordinary speech in his plays is not enough for Mamet, for the vernacular would be too sluggish and dull to articulate the duress his characters find themselves under.Â Â Instead, Mamet elevates real and natural dialogue, altering spoken words into musical notes or lyrical verse with highly technical beats in order to reverberate the stress and anger felt by his men.
This idea of elevated dialogue that shares both traditional and defamiliarized characteristics is addressed by Bakhtin in â€œThe Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse.â€ When discussing Hellenismâ€™s polyglossia, he shows how this â€œpowerful and illuminating model of other-languagednessâ€¦turned the direct word of barbarian peoplesâ€”their epic and lyric wordâ€”into a discourse that was somewhat conventional, somewhat stylizedâ€ (141-42).Â Â Mamet, too, is representative of such a blend of the ordinary and the extraordinary.Â Â Just as Bakhtin shows how Hellenism served as a springboard for the â€œparodic-travestying double discourseâ€ and Roman laughter, Mamet also distances his dialogue from rigid reality and allows a multitude of ideas to be expressed.
Here is an example of Mamet switching a regular rhythm in favor of an irregular metric scheme to convey tension within his characters:
DON:Â Â Â Iâ€™m going to have Fletch come with us.
TEACH:Â Â Â Fletch.
DON:Â Â Â Yes.
TEACH:Â Â Â Youâ€™re having himÂ comeÂ with us.Â Â (1.50-51)
When a word is to receive even more prominence than a stress can give, Mamet extends the letters.Â Â This tactic is like a composer placing a fermata over a note to signal the holding out of a note.Â Â In the second act ofÂ American Buffalo, Teach says, â€œAaah, fuck.Â Â Iâ€™m sorry.Â Â I spoke in anger.Â Â Iâ€™m sorry, Iâ€™m sorryÂ Â (Everybody can make mistakes around here but me.).Â Â Iâ€™m sorry, Bob, Iâ€™m very sorryâ€ (65).Â Â This line contains several musical elements.Â Â Mamet places a fermata over the word â€œAaah,â€ uses repetition to convey Teachâ€™s apology, and indicates that his volume should change when he speaks the words bracketed in parentheses.
The pauses that abound in Mametâ€™s plays (and originated with Pinter and Beckett) are examples of musical rests and cadences.Â Â Rests are symbols that denote brief moments of silence.Â Â Cadences last even longer, signifying not only silence but aÂ conclusive end of a phrase (Miller 49).Â Â For Mamet, this would indicate a pause followed by a change in intention by one of the characters.Â Â The three types of pauses inAmerican BuffaloÂ are:
1.Â Â Â Â Â Â TEACH (Pause):Â Â Â Donâ€™t send the kid in.Â Â (1.33)
2.Â Â Â Â Â Â TEACH:Â Â Â What are we saying here?Â Â Loyalty.
Pause.Â Â (1.33)
3.Â Â Â Â Â Â TEACH:Â Â Â â€œYou set it up with him.â€â€¦You set it up and then you told him.
DON:Â Â Â I gave Earl ten percent.Â Â (1.36)
The first pause is like a musical rest in which Teach takes a quick breath and continues speaking.Â Â The second pause is longer than a rest; it is a way for Teach to redirect his focus and to try a different tactic of manipulation.Â Â The third pause occurs only once in the play; it is when Teach is planting seeds of doubt in Donâ€™s mind about his friends.Â Â Don takes a long pause before he speaks because he is allowingÂ Â Teachâ€™s poisonous words to sink in.Â Â InMamet, Bakhtin, and the Dramatic:Â Â The Demotic as a Variable of Addressivity, Ilkka Joki suggests that Mametâ€™s pauses are key elements in which to uncover his stylistic intentions:
In Mamet, language should always be the starting point for analysis, but a vital interest also relates to what he leaves non-verbalised, and to what might be described in Russian Formalist terms as an estrangement (or de-familiarization) of everyday realityâ€¦In more Bakhtinian terms, the estrangement in Mamet is a carnivalization of realistic dialogue.Â Â In one sense, Mamet may even be said to be carnivalizing himself (21).
The episodes in a fugue are concluded in cadences, just as Mametâ€™s characters discuss a topic, settle it, and move on to another.Â Â In one sense, the episodic phrases inÂ American Buffaloserve as important events that carry the story a stage further.Â Â In another sense, they are nonsensical events that trap the men into a never-ending and circular dialectic web, devoid of meaning.Â Â Through such musical cadences and turn taking, Mamet shows how language fails his characters and adds more confusion to their pathetic hamster wheel existences.Â Â So many times inÂ American Buffalo, Teach, Don, and Bob misunderstand one another because they are not equipped with the tools to express themselves properly.Â Â It is both tragic and hysterical to hear the men mutter such nonsensical sentences as â€œCocksucker should be horsewhipped with a horsewhip,â€ â€œAction talks and bullshit walks,â€ and â€œYou make life of garbage.â€
In â€œThe Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,â€ Bakhtin addresses such â€œappropriating of anotherâ€™s discourse and languageâ€ in the Middle Ages in ways that can easily be compared to Mametâ€™s men inÂ American Buffalo:Â Â â€œThe boundary lines between someone elseâ€™s speech and oneâ€™s own speech were flexible, ambiguous, often deliberately distorted and confusedâ€ (145-46).Â Â Regarding the charactersâ€™ violent interaction with one another, Bakhtin exposes this â€˜marketplace speech of praise and abuse as false, stereotyped, narrow, and especially incompleteâ€™ because of its â€˜intimate and frank familiarityâ€™ (qtd. in Joki,Â MBDÂ 88).Â Â In his essayÂ The Dialogicality of Grotesque Realism,Â Joki examines how Mametâ€™s characters appear to be on familiar terms but are in actuality far from it:
For male characters this kind of bonding through the carnivalistic demotic is sometimes possible, but only under exceptional circumstances.Â Â Such positive, open familiarity is not very common in Mamet, as there are so few fully realized human relationships between his characters.Â Â Most often, verbal abuse retains its uglier faceâ€¦Don and Teach use abusive speech genres constantly.Â Â Although [Mamet] labels Teach as Donâ€™s â€˜friend and associate,â€™ there is little extreme familiarity between them.Â Â This is an ironic commentary by Mamet on the nature of business, which correlates with egoism.Â Â Both Don and Teach maintain that when they are talking business friendship has to be set aside.Â Â Because the â€˜businessâ€™ between Don and Bob is very small, familiarity and a touch of friendship may enter into their interaction more easilyâ€”but on Donâ€™s terms.Â Â This means that absolute demotic familiarity does not come about between Don and Bob.Â Â The use of demotic language is subordinate to the power structure existing between the three of them (89-91).
Though Teach, Don, and Bob do not have enough words in their vocabulary to properly express themselves, they are nonetheless expressive in spite of their shortcomings.Â Â These men communicate through the musical rhythm of their words, as Mamet illustrates:
My main emphasisâ€¦is on the rhythm of languageâ€”the way action and rhythm are identical.Â Â Our rhythms describe our actionsâ€”no, our rhythmsprescribeÂ our actions.Â Â I am fascinated by the way, the way the language we see, its rhythms, actually determines the way we behave, rather than the other way around (Dean 16).
Teach is the impetus for much of the melodic line ofÂ American Buffalo.Â Â Like Iago in Shakespeareâ€™sÂ Othello, Teach raises suspicion in Donâ€™s mind about his surrogate son Bobâ€™s ability to handle an upcoming robbery.Â Â While he manipulates Don, Teach takes over the leading melody, supported by Donâ€™s harmony.Â Â Teach assumes the treble clef high notes while Don takes the low notes in the bass clef.Â Â Teach usually controls the melody, which is can be either high or low.Â Â Don will occasionally take charge of the melody, but more often than not adopts the harmony.Â Â In this early scene, Don listens to Teach and agrees with him, imitating his words and providing a steady beat:
TEACH:Â Â Â Every goddamn thing.
DON:Â Â Â Yes.
TEACH:Â Â Â If I kept the stuff that I threwÂ outâ€¦
DON:Â Â Â â€¦yes.
TEACH:Â Â Â I would be a wealthy man today.Â Â I would be cruising on some
DON:Â Â Â Uh-huh.
TEACH:Â Â Â (Shit my father used to keep in hisÂ deskÂ drawer.)
DON:Â Â Â (My father, too.)
TEACH:Â Â Â (TheÂ basementâ€¦)
DON:Â Â Â (Uh-huh.)
TEACH:Â Â Â (Fuckinâ€™ toys in the backyard, for chrissakeâ€¦)
DON:Â Â Â (Donâ€™t even talk about it.)
TEACH:Â Â Â Itâ€™sâ€¦I donâ€™t know.
You want to play some gin? (1.19)
This scene illustrates perfectly why David Mamet has been called â€œthe Aristophanes of the inarticulateâ€ (Kroll 109).Â Â Teach, after convincing Don to take Bob out of the â€œbusinessâ€ transaction and to put him in his stead, arrives late.Â Â Don is furious and tensely awaiting their impending robbery scheme.Â Â The men trade themes around, exhibiting imitative polyphony and syncopated rhythms, and failing to comprehend one another.Â Â Bakhtin would call this contrapuntal relationship â€œonly the musical variety of broadly understoodÂ dialogical relationshipsâ€ (PDPÂ 36).
DON:Â Â Â Do you know what time it is?
TEACH:Â Â Â What?Â Â Iâ€™m late?
DON:Â Â Â Damn right youâ€™re late.
TEACH:Â Â Â Iâ€™m fucked up since my watch broke.
DON:Â Â Â Your watch broke.
TEACH:Â Â Â I just told you that.
DON:Â Â Â When did your watch break?
TEACH:Â Â Â The fuck doÂ IÂ know?
DON:Â Â Â Well, you look at it.Â Â You want to know your watch broke, all you
got to do is look at it.
TEACH:Â Â Â I donâ€™t have it.
DON:Â Â Â Why not?
TEACH:Â Â Â I took it off when it broke.Â Â (What do youÂ wantÂ here?)
DON:Â Â Â Youâ€™re going around without a watch.
TEACH:Â Â Â Yes, I am, Donny.Â Â What am I, youâ€™re myÂ keeperÂ all of a
DON:Â Â Â Iâ€™m paying you to do a thing, Teach, I expect you to know where
you are when.
TEACH:Â Â Â Donny.Â Â You arenâ€™t paying me to do a thing.Â Â We are doing
something together.Â Â I know we are.Â Â My watch broke, that is my
concern.Â Â TheÂ thingÂ is your and my concern.Â Â And the concern of
Fletcher.Â Â You want to find a reason we should jump all over each other
all of a sudden like we work in aÂ bloodbank, fine.Â Â But itâ€™s not good
Pause.Â Â (2.63)
The robbery plan gets botched up, Teach accuses Bob of lying, and the play reaches a violent and heartrending climax when Teach manages to turn Don against his most beloved young friend.Â Â Musically, Teachâ€™s tirade is described as the fugueâ€™s climax, the musical and emotional high point of a melodic line.Â Â The music modulates, or changes keys, and lines becomes faster and faster, as Mamet employs the technique of accelerando.Â Â With Don now on his side, Teach viciously strikes Bob with a blunt object.Â Â Don regrets allowing Teach to resort to violence, but truly believes that Bob betrayed him.Â Â When Don concedes that his ward is a traitor, Mamet provides the stage direction â€œsotto voce,â€ meaning â€œwith a soft voice,â€ and further adds to the mood of the music by placing his lines in parentheses to indicate a more introspective reading (94).Â Â As Don sees his student lying on the floor of the shop, beaten and bloody, he receives news that Bob was in fact not lying after all.Â Â The musical key turns minor here, as Don realizes he has been duped by Teach and has failed as a father figure.Â Â Mamet explains that â€œbecause he [Don] abdicated a moral position for one moment in favor of some monetary gain, he has let anarchy into his life and has come close to killing the thing he lovesâ€ (Schvey 94).
Don then turns on Teach, punching him and blaming him for the violence, saying, â€œYou have lamed this up real goodâ€ (100).Â Â Teach trashes Donâ€™s store, screaming out mixed-up clichÃ©s and not making sense.Â Â His language has completely atrophied into mass media-induced jargon and unoriginal ideas; all that is left is an enumeration of his disappointments:Â Â Â â€œMy Whole Cocksucking Life.Â Â The Whole Entire World.Â Â There Is No Law.Â Â There Is No Right And Wrong.Â Â The World Is Lies.Â Â There Is No Friendship.Â Â Every Fucking Thing.Â Â Pause.Â Â Every God-forsaken Thingâ€¦We all live like the cavemenâ€ (103).
Mamet elaborates on his musical, poetic, and sometimes absurdist language:
I was talking to my daughter last night, and she was (sheâ€™s about two), she was making a strange sound.Â Â I said what are you doing?Â Â She says, â€œIâ€™m hicking up.â€Â Â I was talking to a cop in Chicago and he says, â€œYeah, I was walking that blankety-blank over at the station houseâ€ (he was talking about some criminal).Â Â And he says, â€œWeâ€™re walking across the street and I wouldnâ€™t have cared if he got hitten by a cab.â€Â Â So itâ€™s the same thingâ€”where â€œhicking up,â€ â€œgot hitten by a cab,â€ obviously that expressesâ€¦itâ€™s poetic language.Â Â It expresses the thought absolutely perfectly, unbound by the self-consciousness of the fact that the locution is not the correct English (Benson).
WhenÂ American BuffaloÂ premiered in the 70s, some critics panned it as â€œlittle more than a foul-mouthed exposÃ© of the criminal underworldâ€¦a very thin slice of low life.â€Â Â Mamet retorted with, â€œIn this country, we only understand plays as dope, whose purpose is anaesthetic, meant to blot out consciousnessâ€¦A play which does not soothe or reinforce certain preconceived notions in an audienceâ€¦simply baffles [us]â€ (Dean 107-8).Â Â NowAmerican BuffaloÂ is considered to be a classic in American theatre, and David Mamet has joined the ranks of Albee, Shepherd, Williams, and Miller as one of Americaâ€™s foremost playwrights.Â Â Novick elaborates on Mametâ€™s impressive technique:
Mr.Â Â Mamet has not tried to make poetry out of the way [his characters] talkâ€¦:Â he has made music instead.Â Â That is, he has not tried to work up his crummy lowlifes to the point where they are inspired to give eloquent descriptions of their experiences and beliefs, but he has developed the rhythms of their lassitude, their bitching, their rising excitement, their fear, their negotiating, quarreling, cross-examining, with a subtle, beautiful dexterity that has to be heard to be fully enjoyed (qtd. in Joki,Â MBDÂ 16).
Mametâ€™s dialogue is larger than life and more than merely street language.Â Â As Dean puts it, â€œMametâ€™s poetic and rhythmic gifts enable the language to become much more than dialogueâ€”itÂ Â becomes the shape of the play itselfâ€ (15).Â Â What is vital is not what is said, but how it is said.Â Â Mametâ€™s words are rife with action when spoken in the proper rhythmic manner.Â Though the characters inÂ American BuffaloÂ donâ€™t often venture beyond their claustrophobic junkshop, they are still highly active in their verbal exchanges.Â Â Their lack of understanding for one another causes them to try even harder to communicate.Â Â Since the men are so incoherent and tongue-tied, they must rely on the rhythm of their words in order to verbally joust and grasp at meanings.Â Â In a musical, when a performer can no longer communicate through words, when speaking is no longer satisfactory to expressing true thoughts, it is time to sing.Â Â A songâ€™s purpose in a musical is to articulate what is being felt inside, to express what cannot be spoken.Â Â Such is the case with David Mametâ€™s dialogue.Â Â Quite amazingly, it transcends from words read on the page into music when performed.Â Â David Mamet possesses the gift of making polyphonic fugues out of profanities.Â Â Rumplestilskin-like, he transforms shit into gold.
One final aspect of Bakhtinâ€™s polyphonic novel that must be addressed in relation to Mamet is the place of the author within a text.Â Â Bakhtinâ€™s ideal author of the polyphonic novelÂ is far from neutral in his relationship to this image:Â Â to a certain extent he even polemicizes with this language, argues with it, agrees with it (although with conditions), interrogates it, eavesdrops on it, but also ridicules it, parodically exaggerates it and so forthâ€”in other words, the author is in a dialogical relationship withâ€¦language (PNDÂ 129).Joki notices how Mamet subtly finds his own place within his work:
Mamet criticizes and ironizes certain sociolinguistic and socio-ideological phenomena.Â Â But as far as demotic man-and-man speech is concerned, although he criticizes some of its features and typical contexts and voices carrying it, Mamet participates in it without reserve.Â Â He does not hide the fact that he is made of the same linguistic metal as some of his male characters.Â Therefore he is in a position to put the centralizing and decentralizing forces within street genresâ€”genres which basically belong to disunifying forcesâ€”to the test from theÂ inside.Â Â He is capable of doing this without distancing or elevating himself above the level of such characters and the varieties of language they use, or at least not more so than is necessary for maintaining his overall speech plan for the artistic utterance (MBDÂ 5).
Therefore, David Mametâ€™sÂ American BuffaloÂ does exhibit polyphony after all, though not in the same manner in which Bakhtin applied it to the polyphonic novel.Â Â Whereas Bakhtin, who was censored and exiled and yearned for a multitude of distinct and valid voices, both those belonging to the author and to the characters, Mamet is politically freer but still seems to yearn for boundaries in the postmodern world.Â Â Joki points to how both Bakhtin and Mamet have resided â€œin times of rapid cultural change, albeit in opposite directionsâ€ (MBD101). When Bakhtin speaks of many voices, he is thinking of the manner in which Dostoevsky juxtaposes contrasting viewpoints of persons from different social realms. On the other hand, Mametâ€™s men banter back and forth in a dialogue that can easily be deemed polyphonic, but these men are from a similar social strata.Â Â This is the primary distinction between the different forms of polyphonyâ€”Bakhtinâ€™s version and my own that is based in music.
Though Bakhtin rejected the drama on the grounds that it was incapable of being polyphonic, Booker and Juraga discover inÂ Bakhtin, Stalin, and Modern Russian Fiction:Â Â Carnival, Dialogism, and HistoryÂ that his â€œseemingly cavalier dismissal of the polyphonic potential of drama must be viewed in light of his suggestions elsewhere that essentially any genre can be infused with the spirit of dialogism and therefore â€œnovelizedâ€ (15).Â Â So perhaps Bakhtin did realize in his later writings the enormous potential for polyphony in the drama, though he never expressed it directly.Â Â As Joki says, â€œdrama, like the novel,Â canÂ be dialogic; dramaÂ canÂ contain several languages, independent voices, centres of consciousness which possess integrity, and multiple worldsâ€ (MBDÂ 216).Â Â It is now time to reclaim the bastard child, the drama, and to include her as the final missing piece of Bakhtinâ€™s elusive poetics
Polyphonic-textured fugueÂ for three parts (music with 2 or more melodies of approximately equal importance present at the same time that are harmonically connected but still maintain their linear uniqueness)
Characters of equal importance conversing about various topics
|RepetitionÂ (repeating phrase or melody over and over again to establish its significance)||One character repeating himself or another character echoing back first character’s words|
|ImitationÂ (form of repetition in which a melody or portion of a melody is repeated in another part)||One character repeats another character’s words or phrases|
|SequenceÂ (form of repetition in which same voice or instrument repeats the melodic idea using
slightly different pitches)
|One character repeats himself with a new intention or rhythm or another character repeats what the first character said using slightly different words, rhythms, or intentions|
|SyncopationÂ (change in rhythm)||A character changes his stress to a new word, changing the rhythm and intention|
|FermataÂ (extended notes, duration of which is left up to the performer’s discretion)||Extended letters to indicate holding a word out|
|RestÂ (brief moment of silence in which music stops so that performer may take a breath)||Pause|
|CadenceÂ (melodic or harmonic progressions that give the effect of closing a section)||Long pause and change in intention|
|MelodyÂ (rhythmic sequence of single tones that make up a musical piece)||Leading character|
|HarmonyÂ (combination and progression of chords in musical structure)||Following character|
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Booker, M.Â Â Keith, and Dubravka Juraga.Â Â Bakhtin, Stalin, and Modern Russian Fiction:
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Clark, Katerina, and Michael Holquist.Â Â Mikhail Bakhtin.Â Â Cambridge:Â Â Harvard UP,Â 1984.
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Joki, Ilkka.Â Â â€œDavid Mametâ€™s Drama:Â Â The Dialogicality of Grotesque Realism.â€Bakhtin:
Carnival and Other Subjects:Â Â Selected Papers from the 5thÂ International Bakhtin Conference.Â Â Ed.Â Â David Shepherd.Â Â Amsterdam:Â Â U of Manchester, 1991.
—.Â Â Mamet, Bakhtin, and the Dramatic:Â Â The Demotic as a Variable of Addressivity.
Turku, Fin.: Abo Akad, 1993.
Kroll, Jack.Â Â â€œMametâ€™s Jackals in Jackets.â€Â Â NewsweekÂ (April 1984):Â Â Â 109.
Mamet, David.Â Â American Buffalo.Â Â New York:Â Â Â Grove, 1976.
Mandelker, Amy.Â Â Bakhtin in Contexts:Â Â Across the Disciplines.Â Â Evanston:Â Northwestern UP, 1995.
Miller, Hugh M.Â Â Introduction to Music.Â Â 3rdÂ ed.Â Â New York:Â Â Harper Perennial, 1991.
Morson, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson.Â Â Mikhail Bakhtin:Â Â Creation of a Prosaics.Â Â Stanford:Â Â Stanford UP, 1990.
Profile of a Writer 6:Â Â Â David Mamet.Â Â Dir. Alan Benson.Â Â R. M. Arts, 1985.
Schvey, Henry I.Â Â â€œDavid Mamet.â€Â Â New Theatre QuarterlyÂ Â 4.13 (1988):Â Â 89-96.
Wise, Jennifer.Â Â â€œMarginalizing Drama:Â Â Bakhtinâ€™s Theory of Genre.â€Â Â Essays inTheatreÂ 8.1 (Nov. 1989):Â Â 15-22.