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

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  1,437 ratings  ·  154 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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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
Isabella González
There was interesting trivia in this book but overall I found it to be rambling and incoherent. The second section was so jumbled that it reminded me of the paragraphs created by the predictive texting game on the smartphone.
Melissa Stacy
First published in 1998, "Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama," by David Mamet, is a short, pithy, excellent read.

Mamet is a renowned playwright and screenwriter, though I admit I have never seen any of his work. He's won a Pulitzer Prize for his plays, Tony nominations, and many other awards and acclaim.

"Three Uses of the Knife" is not a how-to book about craft. It's a summary of Mamet's thoughts about why plays exist -- why theater exists -- and what the audience gets
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
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. ...more
Charles Velasquez
This book is many things at once (I suppose it's three things, considering it's split into three acts/parts). The first portion is a pretty straightforward explanation of the writing process - as I was reading that section, I was tempted to review it with "Save the Cat with terms like anti-Stratfordians" - but then it turns into a rumination on why we make art in the first place. And that was the part where the book got to me. Because in the middle, there's a sub-section where he talks about the ...more
Megan Miller
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
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
Oct 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A treatise on the nature and purpose of drama sounds like a textbook for film and literature students. And that is what I expected it to be, only to find out it is essential reading for any one who thinks deeply about the nature of the human mind and how we perceive and engage with the world. Mamet's style is pithy; he is incisive in his observations and speaks with authority as he deconstructs his observations on humans, society, the elements of politics, art, entertainment, advertising, how we ...more
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
Brian Kohl
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). ...more
Dylan Perry
Good news is, I don't need to read another David Mamet book. I can get my pretentious bullshit elsewhere. ...more
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.
Susan Fowler
I have no idea how to rate this because frankly I didn’t understand a word of it. My recommendation: skip this and instead watch his truly wonderful MasterClass lectures, in which he discusses the exact same concepts but in plain English.
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
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
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
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
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
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. ...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.
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.
Nov 14, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
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
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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

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“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.”
“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.

What comes from the head is perceived by the audience, the child, the electorate, as manipulative. And we may succumb to the manipulative for a moment because it makes us feel good to side with the powerful. But finally we understand we're being manipulated. And we resent it.

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.”
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