Themes and Meanings
Glengarry Glen Ross extends David Mamet’s exploration of a world where business reigns supreme. Avarice is the force that motivates the characters in their single-minded quest to secure the precious leads, buffalo clients by spinning any fact or fiction necessary to close the deal, and rise to the top of the sales chart. Like Mamet’s earlier plays American Buffalo (pr. 1975) and The Water Engine (pr. 1977), Glengarry Glen Ross relies on the American dream as its ideological backdrop, the social and cultural milieu on which the drama revolves. In their noble yet pathetic efforts to sell real estate, the small-time sellers in Glengarry Glen Ross are living the myth. The problem is that the salesmen sell not only land but themselves as well.
The play spotlights the connection between the public self—the smooth-talking, eager-to-please salesmen—and the private self—the anguished characters’ inner reality. In the play’s compelling presentation of a series of particular events that suddenly broaden to encompass more universal experiences, all the characters emerge as essentially tragic figures. In their confrontations, Mamet examines the wider tragedy of modern existence itself.
The public and private unite within Glengarry Glen Ross because of the salesmen’s acceptance of the American dream as a talismanic cultural force. The salesmen subscribe to two principles inherent in the free enterprise system: first, that competition is the backbone of democratic capitalism, and second, that competition prospers best when business judgments are unfettered by government interference. Such a deep-rooted belief in uninhibited competition is what drives Levene, Moss, Aaronow, and Roma. Each feels justified in, even entitled to, his unfettered pursuit of the American dream. Mamet’s salesmen try to ennoble their spirits through hard work and profit, yet Roma descends to deception, and Moss and Levene to crime. One key theme in the play, then, is that private self-interest unchecked by moral conscience, inevitably leads to the collapse of the self. In Glengarry Glen Ross, informed social responsibility does not exist; there is only anomie.