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David Mamet was influenced to write Glengarry Glen Ross out of a serious interest in the kind of people who quietly go about their lives, performing “regular” jobs, and who endure indignities large and small on a daily basis, simply trying to earn a living. That Mamet had himself worked as a real-estate salesman early in his career certainly contributed to his interest in portraying this particular profession in the gritty style for which the playwright is known. Rather than speculate, though, one can simply read Mamet’s own comments regarding Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. In a 1997 interview with Paris Review, Mamet described the inspiration for this play:
“That’s how Glengarry got started. I was listening to conversations in the next booth and I thought, My God, there’s nothing more fascinating than the people in the next booth. You start in the middle of the conversation and wonder, What the hell are they talking about? And you listen heavily. So I worked a bunch of these scenes with people using extremely arcane language—kind of the canting language of the real-estate crowd, which I understood, having been involved with them—and I thought, Well, if it fascinates me, it will probably fascinate them too. If not, they can put me in jail.”
And, in a 2001 compilation of interviews with Mamet [David Mamet in Conversation, University of Michigan Press], he told the interviewer that the script for Glengarry Glen Ross was the product of his interest in working-class individuals and the struggles they endure:
Hank Nuwer: What is the premise behind Glengarry Glen Ross?
David Mamet: This play is very much about work and about how one is altered by one's job.
Hank Nuwer: The main characters are real estate salesmen whose job is peddling worthless property. Are you dumping on such salesmen?
David Mamet: I don't write plays to dump on people. I write plays about people whom I love and am fascinated by. A lot of times I want to write letters to newspapers to dump on people, but, gratefully, I can usually resist that impulse.
Hank Nuwer: Glengarry Glen Ross's characters are all frustrated in their struggles to attain success. Are you optimistic that an individual can get what he wants out of life?
David Mamet: Sure. The only person who can get what he wants is the individual man. You can't do it as a race; you can't do it as a culture. In the theater an individual has to come to terms with what he wants and how capable he is of getting it. Making peace with the gods--that's what drama is all about.
The themes of Glengarry Glen Ross involve the indignities endured by men struggling to prevail in a competitive environment in which ethics or moral codes are an afterthought. Mamet’s plays and screenplays frequently involve moral dilemmas, such as the New York City homicide investigator whose Jewish faith is reignited in the midst of a politically-sensitive investigation (Homicide), and the college professor accused of sexual harassment under very questionable circumstances (Oleanna). In Glengarry, those moral dilemmas exist as part of the everyday responsibilities of the real-estate profession. The salesmen are under enormous pressure to sale property of dubious merit or lose their jobs – an onerous proposition for middle-aged men with families. It has been suggested that masculinity and the intense competition to demonstrate one’s virility through professional success constitutes another theme of Mamet’s play. Certainly, his body of work, with Glengarry a noteworthy example, indicates a strong preference for depictions of men interacting in a professional environment. It is reasonable to suggest that this is a central theme of his play.
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