American Buffalo was first produced in 1975 in Chicago and was David Mamet’s first drama to gain critical attention. Although receiving mixed reviews, the play commenced a brief Broadway run in 1977, winning Mamet the New York Drama Critics Circle award. American Buffalo lays the thematic foundations for Mamet’s future works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning Glengarry Glen Ross, which explores the corrupt ethics of American business and their effects on the individual.
American Buffalo presents a disturbing portrait of American culture, exposing the capitalistic agendas that drive the corruption of American industry, and of how individuals are led astray by the failure of the American Dream. Each character—Donny, Teach, and Bobby—strives for economic success and some position of power. Ultimately, the play questions what occurs when business and self-interest take precedence over moral responsibility to the public good.
Don’s Resale Shop, located in the South Side of Chicago, becomes an allegory for the world of business, a system in which all three characters become trapped. Donny’s business is selling junk from America’s past. At one point, Teach fondles some items collected from 1933, presumably from the Chicago World’s Fair. The objects are at once reminders of a time of possibility and progress for the United States, also of a time of extreme poverty and hardship—the Great Depression. A similar dichotomy functions in the lives of the three central characters, who invest in the illusion of progress and free enterprise, but who will never realize that potential.
The buffalo nickel upon which the action centers is itself a symbol of the corruption of American business, simultaneously signifying the prosperity of an expanding nation and also revealing the more sinister aspects of manifest destiny—the oppression and near annihilation of the American Indian peoples. Here, Teach’s ruthless definition of free enterprise applies: “the freedom of the individual to embark on any . . . course that he sees fit.” America indeed embarked on a course, without regard to the cost.
The cost of American business,...
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