The Natural Dramatic Urge

Excerpts from Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama by David Mamet:

It is our nature to dramatize. At least once a day wee reinterpret the weather—an essentially impersonal phenomenon—into an expression of our current view of the universe: “Great. It’s raining. Just when I’m blue. Isn’t that just like life?”

Or we say: “I can’t remember when it was this cold,” in order to forge a bond with our contemporaries. Or we say: “When I was a lad the winters were longer,” in order to avail ourselves of one of the delights of aging.

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.

We dramatize the weather, the traffic, and other impersonal phenomena by employing exaggeration, ironic juxtaposition, inversion, projection, all the tools the dramatist uses to create, and the psychoanalyst uses to interpret, emotionally significant phenomena.

We dramatize an incident by taking events and reordering them, elongating them, compressing them, so that we understand their personal meaning to us—to us as the protagonist of the individual drama we understand our life to be.

If you said, “I waited at the bus today,” that probably wouldn’t be dramatic. If you said, “I waited at the bus stop for a long time today,” that might be a little more dramatic. If you said, “The bus came quickly today,” that wouldn’t be dramatic (and there would be no reason to say it). But you might say, “Do you know how quickly that bus came today?”—and all of a sudden, we’re taking the events of life and using dramatic tools.

“I waited half an hour for a bus today” is a dramatic statement. It means: “I waited that amount of time sufficient for me to be sure you will understand it was ‘too long.’”

(And this is a fine distinction, for the utterer cannot pick a time too short to be certain that understanding is communicated, or too long for the hearer to accept it as appropriate—at which point it becomes not drama but farce. So the ur-dramatist picks unconsciously, and perfectly, as it is our nature to do, the amount of time that allows the hearer to suspend his or her disbelief—to accept that the half-hour wait is not outside the real of probability, yet is within the parameters of the unusual. The hearer then accepts the assertion for the enjoyment it affords, and a small perfectly recognizable play has been staged and appreciated.")

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We can see the natural dramatic urge in newspaper quotes of a film’s grosses. The dramatic urge—our impulse to structure cause and effect in order to increase our store of practical knowledge about the universe—is absent in the film itself, but emerges spontaneously in our proclamation of a natural ocurring drama between films.

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jumping-on-a-bedChildren 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 it it’s not forthcoming we will cobble it together out of nothing.