There is a subtle moral fabric to Speed-the-Plow, as there is to all David Mamet’s plays. In Speed-the-Plow, Mamet casts a person at the lowest level of the totem pole—a temporary secretary and a woman—to be the one who attempts to make a difference, to “do good,” to create a film with ethical values instead of one designed to make money.
Within Mamet’s scheme, Charlie Fox emerges as the victorious antihero because Fox has no confusing, contradictory scruples and no self-defeating desire to “do good.” Uncomplicated in his desire for money and power, he will do whatever it takes to get to the top. Since Fox does not seem to possess one admirable quality, moral confusion confronts an intelligent audience which finds itself rooting for this disreputable person’s victory, validating his “money above art” credo, and cheering for his shoddy way of life.
Gould submerges whatever urges he has to “do good” in order to be successful in his dog-eat-dog world. He believes himself to be loyal, but he honors that loyalty only until a better deal comes along. Gould is a happy, self-proclaimed “secure whore” until Karen reawakens his slumbering ideals. Karen’s own idealism, however, is seen to be impure, inspired by her desire for power (unacceptable for women in Mamet’s male world). When Karen consciously uses sex to achieve her goal, she becomes the play’s real whore. Her methods are the worse because she thinks herself better. She, like most Mamet characters, not “knowing herself,” proves herself to be a fake idealist and a hypocrite. In Mamet’s moral world, there can be nothing worse.
The audience is never meant to assume that the theoretical “radiation book,” full of ideas about the meaning of existence, would make a good film. It is confusing; its plot cannot be explained, as the buddy film can, in one simple sentence. Karen’s explication of people’s fears in scene 2 is intentionally turgid and unconvincing, forcing the observation that people’s deepest fears cannot perhaps be intelligibly or honestly expressed.