American Buffalo

by David Mamet

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Critical Context

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American Buffalo’s success can be gauged by its selection by the New York Drama Critics Circle as the best play of 1977 and by Mamet’s winning an Obie Award as best playwright. Like many of Mamet’s works, American Buffalo is a drama with a minimalist plot and intense verbal interplay between its characters. Like the later Glengarry Glen Ross (pr. 1983), for which Mamet would win a Pulitzer Prize, much of American Buffalo’s vibrancy is derived from the ruthless, discordant language uttered by its characters. Like the obscenity-laden dialogue of the real estate dealers in Glengarry Glen Ross, Teach’s furious outbursts and his physical attack on Bob are theatrically disturbing for an audience because they are so extreme. Teach generates this explosiveness with the expletives which Mamet compounds even more densely in characters such as Ricky Roma and Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross.

In Sexual Perversity in Chicago (pr. 1974), Mamet explores the degradation of female and male relationships through the coarse language and trivialization of emotions, and his treatment of romantic relationships in that play anticipates the satire of the male relationships in American Buffalo. The cynicism of Bernie in Sexual Perversity in Chicago foreshadows the caustic posture Teach assumes as a way to avoid confronting his fears of failure in his relationships. It is Mamet’s concern with such relationships and the delicacy of sustaining those relationships that have led some critics to compare Mamet’s work with that of Harold Pinter, but the narrowness of Mamet’s tones differs from Pinter’s overarching exposition of human foibles. Don and Bob’s relationship is at best incipient, and its potential for lasting success is uncertain. However, Mamet highlights that relationship with greater compassion than the more Machiavellian friendship of Levene and Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross.

As a parody of commercial enterprise, American Buffalo is the first play in a series of Mamet plays (and movies) that examine the cold utilitarianism underlying the business community. A similar reductionism of human relationships surfaces in Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow (pr. 1988), and the motion picture House of Games (1987), a cinematic study of swindles and manipulation that provides a further exposition of the philosophy Teach promulgates in American Buffalo: Each individual is free to engage in any action to acquire profits. As American Buffalo depicts, such a latent philosophy behind the business ethos creates more emotional debris than it does substantial wealth, and this destructive economy is a major concern of Mamet’s writings. His body of work from the 1990’s continued his exploration of human relationships, found in plays such as The Cryptogram (pr., pb. 1995) about emotional abuse within a family, or his novel The Village (1994), about the complexity of relationships in a small New England town.

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Critical Evaluation