Exploring Characters' Beliefs

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4020

William Butler Yeats's "The Circus Animals' Desertion" ends with the speaker stating that, since he cannot find a theme for his art, he must delve more deeply into his own experience to seek one: "Now that my ladder's gone,/I must lie down where all the ladders start,/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." Like the speaker of Yeats's poem, the characters in David Mamet's American Buffalo are searching for satisfaction which they are sure will bring meaning to their lives in the form of financial success. And, again like the speaker of "The Circus Animals' Desertion," the three men all lose hope that they will ever find it: their "ladders" of friendship and their shared myth of capitalism are systematically stripped away, until they are left pitiful, dejected, and lying like dogs in the "foul rag-and-bone shop" of their hearts.

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To hint at the values and assumptions of the three men inhabiting the "foul rag-and-bone shop" of Don Dubrow's Resale Shop, Mamet's play contains an epigraph. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord./He is peeling down the alley in a black and yellow Ford." These lines (attributed by Mamet to a "folk tune") equate God with the automobile—one of the foremost symbols of American capitalism and consumerism. Although the characters do not dress in expensive suits or carry briefcases, Mamet uses them to illustrate the ways in which members of the proletariat (lower class) have fully ingested and accepted the myths of American capitalism; as the play progresses, the characters are seen (in various ways) bowing down to the "God of Business." This God, which dictates the way these petty thieves behave, allows them to excuse any betrayals or underhandedness in His name.

By the end of the play, however, the God becomes an angry one, as vengeful as any imagined by Jonathan Edwards (an eighteenth-century theologian who spoke frequently of God's wrath toward sinners), and extracts a terrible payment. "Business" is an easy label to use in sugar-coating all kinds of deception, but if the God is invoked too often, He will demand great sacrifices from His believers. As "Don's Resale Shop" is a euphemism for "Don's Junk Store," "Good Business" is a euphemism employed by the characters to, as Mamet has described in an essay for the London Times, "suspend an ethical sense and adopt in its stead a popular accepted mythology and use that to assuage [their] consciences like everyone else is doing." What the play specifically examines is the way that one man—Don—becomes an acolyte of the God of Business to the point where he almost loses the one thing that gives his life human (rather than financial) meaning: his relationship with Bob.

The opening scene of the play establishes Don and Bob's relationship, which initially mirrors that of a teacher and student. Scolding Bob for not watching the house of the man they intend to rob, Don tells him "You don't come in until you do a thing" and that "Action counts." Bob keeps offering excuses until Don states, "I'm not mad at you." While a viewer may find this surprising due to the tone of Don's reprimands, a further conversation reveals that Don is genuinely interested in Bob's future and ability to operate in their low-class world of business: he tells Bob, "If you want to do business," then excuses "are not good enough." Bob must have "skill and talent and the balls" to arrive at his "own conclusions," or he will never succeed. Don invokes the God of Business in the form of Fletcher, an offstage gambler and minor business deity who embodies all of the values Don wants to impart to Bob: "You take him and put him down in some strange town with just a nickel in his pocket, and by nightfall he'll have that town by the balls. This is not talk, Bob, this is action."

According to Don,...

(The entire section contains 6755 words.)

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