Lauded playwright, filmmaker, and television writer David Mamet took to the newly opened Broad Stage at Santa Monica College on Thursday, November 13, for the 2008 Alistair Cooke Memorial Lecture, an event honoring the British-born journalist who would have been 100 years old this month.
A previous Alistair Cooke memorial lecture was held at the English Speaking Union in London in 2005, on the day that marked 229 years of American independence from Great Britain; Arizona Senator John McCain was the speaker.
Best known for his long-running BBC radio broadcast, Letter from America, which began in 1946 and ran until 2004, Cooke lived in New York City for most of his adult life. His weekly radio broadcast found him chronicling American happenings with a British sensibility. Famous to American audiences as the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre from 1971-1992, Cooke was an expert on film and politics, and a keen observer of the human condition.
Mamet, a Chicago-born Santa Monica resident, is famous for his tough-talking characters and gritty story lines as showcased in such plays as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross and the Hollywood satire Speed-the-Plow. His screen credits include The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict and The Untouchables, and he is the creator and Executive Producer of the CBS television series, The Unit. Justin Webb, the BBC’s North American editor, said Mamet and Cooke share the sharp ability to chronicle real life.
Mamet began his approximately 25-minute lecture by talking about the purpose and evolution of language.
“Humans speak not to express ourselves, but to get something we want,” Mamet said.
He went on to characterize poetry as the sports of language and the mode in which writers work to enjoy their specific survival strategy. Referring to plays as long poems, he said the great American poets are Hank Williams Jr., Sam Cooke, Randy Newman, and other musicians who literally play with words.
“Intellectuals play with ideas, songwriters play with words,” Mamet said. “The great American writers are not the intellectuals, they are the musicians.”
Moving the lecture into more political territory, Mamet talked about the importance of freedom of speech in general and the right to complain specifically. He said if the government is allowed to censor language, not only will our ability to speak erode, but so too will our ability to see. “When someone says ‘bad dog,’ we see a bad dog,” he said. “The less things we can say, the less things we can see.”
He called the practice of censoring hate speech a dangerous one, because it necessitates a decision be made by a person or group about what constitutes hate speech, thus limiting freedom of speech.
A post-Q&A session included an inquiry as to whether or not the The Verdict was based on Mamet’s real-life experience.
“I was teaching an acting class, and someone asked me if he should use his life experience in his acting, and I said, ‘What choice do you have?’”
David Mamet’s lecture was broadcast live on the BBC November 18; it can be heard on line at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/ alistair_cooke_lecture2008.shtml.