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Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  1,194 ratings  ·  117 reviews
What makes good drama? How does drama matter in our lives? In Three Uses of the Knife, one of America's most respected writers reminds us of the secret powers of the play. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, poet, essayist, and director, David Mamet celebrates the absolute necessity of drama--and the experience of great plays--in our lurching attempts to make ...more
Hardcover, 96 pages
Published January 20th 1998 by Columbia University Press (first published 1991)
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3.91  · 
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 ·  1,194 ratings  ·  117 reviews

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Better than his other treatises which I have so far encountered. This is pithier, more succinct and straightforward. Mamet dissects concepts of drama and the psychological interplay taking place between the playwright and the audience. The only flaw is where Mamet cannot curb his tendency to pontificate and generalize about political matters. He is bent on aligning the spectacle of politics with that of the stage. This theorizing dominates Chapter II (there's only three chapters) but the writing ...more
Jan 06, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a bit of a muddle--Mamet constantly moves back and forth between different ideas without any real cohesiveness--but there are a couple of great ideas in this book on the nature of drama. The best one I think is when he talks about the difficulty of writing 2nd Acts, that writing second acts is a bit like living 2nd acts; in order to write the mid-life crisis, you have live through the mid-life crisis, which many people are loathe to do. They want to write the script without having t ...more
Apr 24, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Finished this book two minutes ago and my head is swimming. At times confusing with its philosophical pondering, at times crystal clear with its direct anecdotes and playful metaphors, it's easily one of the best books on drama I've read. It condenses so much thought into just 81 pages, yet refuses to simply be a "here is how it's done" sort of book.
Megan Lane
May 02, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: craft-books
Okay, well. I'm glad this book was short. But honestly, it was really good for me to read this. I disagreed with an awful lot of it, but I think it was helpful. Sometimes reading things you disagree with helps you better articulate what you actually think.
Overall, Mamet lifts theatre/drama up to a height that it cannot hold itself up to. He almost worships it - holding it up with religion and magic and the Bible. He says art should bring peace and "inspire cleansing awe". Can anything but Jesus
Aug 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a gem. Mamet expounds pithily on drama in art and life, and I found a profundity of things to ponder. It reminded me of In Praise of Shadows in terms of its brevity, intelligence, clarity and originality.

That's not to say I agreed with all of it: Mamet takes a very narrow view of art, saying "The purpose of art is to not to change but to delight" and "I don't believe reaching people is the purpose of art" and "the conscious mind cannot create art" and that what people want from art is p
Cara M
Jul 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Often contradictory and yet uncannily insightful at the same time, which, I suppose is his point. :D
In terms of writing advice, the thing I will take with me is this:

"The true drama, and especially the tragedy, calls for the hero to exercize will, to create, in front of us, on the stage, his or her own character, the strength to continue. It is her striving to understand, to correctly assess, to face her own character (in her choice of battles) that inspires us--and gives the drama power to clea
Guilherme Smee
David Mamet, neste livro, explica como o drama está imbricado nas nossas vidas e às vezes nem o percebemos. Ele explica como o drama e por conseguinte, a narrativa ajudam a criar sentido na vida das pessoas e como a mente humana não consegue lidar com o aleatório. Aí se encontram os significados do drama, da magia e da religião na vida dos seres humanos: dar sentido e significado através de estruturas de tese/antítese/síntese ou primeiro ato/segundo ato/terceiro ato. São essas partes do teatro q ...more
Sue Burke
Aug 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mamet describes the nature and purpose of drama with authority, but in a disjointed way, skipping from one topic to another and back again as if he has too many ideas at once.

He explains how drama is natural for all of us, how we all want to be heros, and how we can misuse drama to make ourselves into God or otherwise pervert art. We can treat politics as theater rather than as a means of governance. As he skips from topic to topic, he drops gems that, if true, should make us all uneasy.

For exam
Brian K
First read this year because it's so very short. Three polarizing lectures which are refreshingly grouchy about all attempts to educate or inform through entertainment (although Mamet pays lip service to all our current shibboleths as well). In case you hadn't noticed, informing through entertainment (propagandizing) is the holy grail of lit these days (e.g., #morediversebooksplease).
Jonathan Maas
Feb 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Was a fan of David Mamet before, a bigger fan now

Though this book takes a few pages to get into, once you are in - you are in. David Mamet doesn't just give us his musings on the theater, he gets to the heart of drama.

Why do we have it? What is its purpose? What's the purpose of art?

And he answers it all fairly well, though of course in doing so brings up a few questions.

This book is not for those looking for how to write like Mamet, or to gain any insight into his plays/movies. This book is for
Jan 08, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: drama
15. 3 USES OF THE KNIFE. (1998). David Mamet. ****1/2.
This is a short work published in the series, “Columbia Lectures on American Culture.” Mamet, in my opinion, is one of the best dramatists America has produced, and his work has starred in print, the stage, and on the screen. It was a coincidence that my wife and I had just finished watching a film written and directed by Mamet, “Heist.” It starred Gene Hackman and Danny DiVito and a great supporting cast. Find it and rent it (or buy it), it
Aug 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book took me a long time to read relative to its length. That was due, in part, to the book's density of ideas. It reminded me of one of those spiritual guidance books that have at most one paragraph per page, written with the intention of a reader's reading just one page at a time, closing the book, and thinking about what they have read. While Mamet does subdivide the book into chapters, and each chapter into a few sub-chapters, even the sub-chapters go off into a variety of directions, e ...more
Aug 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
David Mamet gives a frank, funny, and fierce description of what drama is and what it isn't. His insights go beyond how to write, or act, or direct, and into who we are and why we do. Read The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell if you want to know what the "Monomyth" is, then read this and see why and how we live it everyday.

Flipping to a random page we have this "Dramatists who aim to change the world assume a moral superiority to the audience and allow the audience to assume a mora
Lewis Manalo
In a word: convoluted.

Through his premise of describing the use and purpose of drama, Mamet hops from classic drama to psychology to bad tv to politics to blues music and back again, and the reader's never sure what his opinions are of any of it. For example, when he writes about the big speeches that come at the end of every second act he seems annoyed that they're there, but then he notes the greatness of the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V.

There is some valuable information to be extrac
Troy Neujahr
A brilliant, penetrating, and brief dive into the nature and purpose of drama. Mamet does not eschew drama, but begins by explaining its function in everyday life. As we progress from there, Mamet skewers schlock entertainment posing as drama as well as drama created especially to inform those unfortunate masses that are sadly less enlightened than the benighted, preachy, "artist."

An exceptionally handy volume for preachers to have nearby as they consider the role of art and drama in worship, an
Carac Allison
Mar 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

I think 99.9 percent of the books about writing are dishonest and dangerous. But if you want to learn about plot I believe there are two worthy of your time. The first is, naturally, Aristotle's "Poetics". And the second is Mamet's "Three Uses of the Knife". In this slim tome America's poet of fuck lays out how plots have evolved and how they work. He explains our human need for stories and why writers have always been vital to our understanding and culture.
Good luck finding a copy. But if you d
Mar 11, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this useful, and surprisingly dense given its brevity. It's a rumination on what makes the three act structure powerful (or not), and the value of theatre and, by extension, art. Goes onto a bit of a political/ideological tangent in part 2, but otherwise very good.

There are some especially good ideas about writing that's generated from thoughts (as opposed to feelings). I also liked the notion that a good writer is someone who keeps what others would throw away and throws away what other
Dec 22, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
It's possible I hated this book because it wasn't what I was expecting it to be, and that if I had picked it up wanting to read about Mamet's cynicism about pretty much everything else, I would've enjoyed it just fine. But I wanted to read about, you know, the nature and purpose of drama, and it really didn't deliver. Also I didn't find it particularly well-written; it jumped all over the place seemingly at random and just. Frankly, I probably would have had more fun poking myself in the eye wit ...more
Rj Thompson
Had a few good ideas, some bad ideas, and a lot of nonsense. The author tries way too hard to sound intellectual and ends up saying hardly anything at all. For a book about writing, this is pretty poorly written.
Derek Fraser
There is a loosely organic structure to the book, but it can seem as though Mamet meanders from one topic to the next. Don't let that lose you. He hits upon "the nature and purpose of drama" like a theme returned to in a musical composition. This a book of theory, not practical advice.
Robin Babb
Feb 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the finest pieces of writing I have ever laid eyes on. Gripping as a drama and clever as a good essay, and as unsatisfyingly thought-provoking as real art.
Knarik Avetisyan
so much water. At least I liked the title.
Jun 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a delight to read. It's intellectually vigorous, clear-headedly cynical without being destructive, and thrillingly, energetically phrased. And short!

He has a very firm point of view about what drama is for and what that means about what kind of drama is Good, or Art: that by admitting we're fucked, we feel less fucked for a moment, and by trying consciously not to be fucked we end up even more fucked than we were in the first place. So, in the big picture, drama comes from those tim
Aug 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mamet And His Aphorisms

The actual text of a play is usually short, it's the subtext that matters. This is also true of Mamet's "3 Uses of a Knife" which weighs in at 87 pages but says a great deal more about both theater and our driving need to inject drama into our politics and lives. Truth? What truth? Truth is only a kernel. The pundit who claims that Marlowe or someone else truly wrote Shakespeare is putting themselves above God - see here how clever I am, able to dismiss the Bard with a sin
Robert Starr
This was along the lines of Mamet's book On Directing Film, but not as straightforward. It's easier to point out bad writing than explain what it takes to produce good writing. Much of this is summed up better in his letter to the writing team on The Unit, but it's also worth reading here.

Too many stories, whether plays, movies, or novels, are caught up in a message. We see a movie where we agree with the message, sit bored through it, leave extolling the virtues, and then forget about it two da
Dec 29, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2018
This book wasn't what I was expecting. It was mostly Mamet ranting about random topics, many topical news items from the time when the book came out. From paragraph to paragraph it was hard to follow his train of thought. I can't remember where I heard about this book, but it was recommended as a great one to read about plotting, and it certainly falls short of the mark there. Mamet himself emphasizes that nothing in a work should be irrelevant to the quest for the MacGuffin, yet if the MacGuffi ...more
Jordan Shipman
Dec 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Based on previous reviews I found this little gem unexpectedly great but not unsurprisingly.

Mamet is a god in the theatre world—or at least was to me when I was in college. His plays were my favorite to work on but also the hardest. He’s brilliant and his work requires capable actors.

I thought this would be more of a play writing clinic than a philosophical treatise on the nature, workings and purpose of drama. Or what makes a story great.

To understand story and drama is to understand our own
Elizabeth Laborde
Jan 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For years, this sat on my bookshelf, unread. I used one of my many days in bed with a cold as an excuse to pull it out. At the book's end, I'm not sure how to land on it. Certainly, it had moments of great insight about art, its purpose, its limitations, and its tools. A few of the sentences stood out as kernels of wisdom, if not Koans for reflection.

Where the book became a reflection on politics, be it dictators like Hitler or American foreign policy, I felt like my attention swayed. While Mam
Sep 28, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mamet is better organized and digresses less here, than in Writing in Restaurants. Although Three Uses of the Knife does not have a 4-star chapter, such as I noted in the review of Writing in Restaurants, the gems steadily came throughout the 85 pages.

Even when I did not agree with Mamet's POV of glass-half-empty, I still got the impetus of the message. And so I leave this book behind more informed of what drama's purpose is from the first to last act.

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David Alan Mamet is an American author, essayist, playwright, screenwriter and film director. His works are known for their clever, terse, sometimes vulgar dialogue and arcane stylized phrasing, as well as for his exploration of masculinity.

As a playwright, he received Tony nominations for Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988). As a screenwriter, he received Oscar nominations for Th
“And there are plays – and books and songs and poems and dances – that are perhaps upsetting or intricate or unusual, that leave you unsure, but which you think about perhaps the next day, and perhaps for a week, and perhaps for the rest of your life.

Because they aren't clean, they aren't neat, but there's something in them that comes from the heart, and, so, goes to the heart.”
“When you come into the theater, you have to be willing to say, "We're all here to undergo a communion, to find out what is going on in this world." If you're not willing to say that, what you get is entertainment instead of art, and poor entertainment at that.” 5 likes
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