Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913
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, according to American Buffalo, is morality. After selling a buffalo nickel for ninety dollars, Donny feels exploited; thus the purchase of the coin feels like a robbery, not only of the nickel but also of Donny’s pride and masculinity, which Donny must steal back to regain. For Donny, this is a matter of business, and business means “people taking care of themselves.” He takes pride in imparting these lessons to Bobby, emphasizing that all it takes to run a business is “common sense, experience and talent.” Unfortunately, all three central characters lack these qualities, which dooms them to perpetual entropy.
Though the characters see themselves as streetwise entrepreneurs, they know little about succeeding in a capitalistic world. Donny instructs Bobby in business, although he has little practical knowledge of it. He is the owner of his own shop, yet the shop is little more than a storage space for forgotten junk. Bobby admires Donny as a mentor and aims to please him, yet he lacks follow-through and confidence to act. Teach is crippled by his suspicions and his inability to communicate. He attempts to hide his incompetence behind vocabulary, but his discourse is confused, contextually inappropriate, and void of substance. These three characters do a lot of talking, but their words signify nothing and initiate no action; they therefore fall prey to confusion and distrust, which not only destroys their “business” plan but also destroys their relationships.
Inasmuch as the play is about business, it is also about male friendship, examining the universal need for human contact. Personal alliances are betrayed in pursuit of self-interests. American Buffalo questions those remainders of friendships that are forgone in pursuit of personal greed, and offers no easy answers.
The central betrayal occurs between Bobby and Donny, two men who have formed a compassionate bond. It is evident that Donny cares for the young man; however, Donny is easily manipulated and betrays his young protégé. Teach first discredits Bobby’s ability to do the job, and then Donny’s loyalty to Bobby is further eroded when Teach convinces him that Bobby has deceived them by committing the crime himself. The ultimate treason occurs, however, when Donny allows—even condones—Teach’s violent attack on Bobby. Learning the truth, however, Donny is ashamed; at this moment, he calls off the theft. In putting business before friendship, Donny has risked his best comrade, and in so doing has betrayed himself.
Teach, too, although far less sympathetic than Donny or Bobby, is desperate to form personal connections; he is incapable of ever truly understanding friendship or trusting others, yet he longs for approval. This is perhaps most evident in his attempt to displace Bobby as Donny’s “business” partner. At several points in the play, Teach expresses his hurt feelings: when Ruthie slights him at breakfast, when Donny suggests they bring in Fletcher for the theft, and when Donny calls off the job, after which Teach feels betrayed, loses control, and destroys Donny’s shop. Despite his violent acts, Teach still needs Donny’s acceptance; Teach’s bravado is at last squelched and he is reduced to being a foolish, needy child.
Dysfunctional as the three characters may be, in the end they are, in a way, a family. The play ultimately illuminates how easily human relationships can be fractured by greed and selfishness, qualities so easily bred in a nation that still hungers for the American Dream.