Exploring Characters' Beliefs
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.
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, Fletcher "was not born that way," but he had to "learn" how to be a success, and this idea—that open eyes and intelligence will lead to financial success—is the crux of Don's myth and lesson: "Everything, Bobby: it's going to happen to you, it's not going to happen to you, the important thing is can you deal with it, and can you learn from it." (While Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times that their relationship "may be homosexual," this seems both unlikely and irrelevant to the issue of friendship sacrificed for business that Mamet explores.) Unlike one based on business, their relationship offers returns not financial but emotional: Don offers Bob the idea that he can be a success and Bob offers Don his devotion and discipleship. Together, they mimic a father-son relationship that each of them is lacking in his life outside the junk shop.
When Teach enters the shop, however, the mood of the play changes from one of quiet bonding to one of fury. His opening harangue about a begrudged piece of toast reflects his ideas about friendship and its attendant duties:
So Grace and Ruthie's having breakfast, and they're done. Plates, crusts of stuff all over ... so on. Down l sit, 'Hi, hi.' I take a piece of toast off Grace's plate and she goes, 'Help yourself.' Help myself, I should help myself to a piece of toast. it's four slices for a quarter. I should have a nickel every time we're over at the game, I pop for coffee ... cigarettes ... a sweet roll, never say a word. But to have that shithead turn, in one breath, every fucking sweet roll that I ever ate with them into ground glass (I'm wondering were they eating it and thinking "This guy's an idiot to blow a fucking quarter on his friends) ... this hurts me, Don. This hurts me in a way I don't know what the fuck to do.
As with Don and Bob, Teach sees friendship as a form of give-and-take between its participants but with an important difference: Teach bases it not on emotional grounds, but material ones. While arguing about a piece of toast may seem trivial, Teach's monologue illustrates the degree to which he believes that friendship is a means of sharing things rather than emotions—a characteristic that will resurface later, when he convinces Don to cut Bob from the robbery plan. Ironically, Teach complains that there "is not one loyal bone in that bitch's body," but later convinces Don to be disloyal to Bob so that Teach can become part of the robbery plot.
Teach's name reflects his assumptions about himself and what he sees as his knowledge of human nature and business. Throughout the play, he offers dozens of aphorisms that he uses to boost his own self-image. When looking through the coin collector's guide, he tells Don that there is "one thing" that makes "all the difference in the world ... Knowing what the fuck you're talking about. And it's so rare, Don. So rare." His lament for the stupidity of the world, of course, naturally excludes himself as a part of it. Unlike the lessons of Don, which are carried out in practice until Teach begins to (as Don calls it) "poison" his mind, Teach's lessons are hollow and reflect his understanding not of real business, but the myth of American capitalism. "You got to have a feeling for your subject," "It's kickass or kissass," and "You want it run right, be there" may be theoretically true but are never practiced by Teach, whose legitimate "job" (if he even has one) is never alluded to by any of the characters. And almost as if to answer the charge of, "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich," Teach has a stockpile of excuses for his low-class status, including the assertion that his companions cheat while playing cards. One of his most ludicrous excuses is voiced when he hears Don tell him how much old antiques are worth: he mutters, "If I kept the stuff I threw out... I would be a wealthy man today. I would be cruising on some European yacht." Don simply replies with an "Uh-huh," for he knows that despite all of the noise he makes, Teach is a junk shop Polonius (a wise counselor from William Shakespeare's Hamlet,) and a negative example of the "action talks and bullshit walks" philosophy.
While Teach's adages may be empty, he is flamboyant and convincing, and it is his skill as an orator that begins to corrupt Don, leading him to accept Teach's dictums. Although Don claims to know the difference between "talk" and "action," he, too, has enough greed within him to begin believing Teach's ideas; the card game that took place the night before in the junk shop serves as the perfect metaphor for the way that Teach and Don begin to interact. Poker is a game combining business and friendship: one plays with his comrades but the ultimate goal is to win their money. The rewards are not emotional, but financial, and these are won by the means of being unfriendly: bluffing, being secretive, and even cheating. Although Teach is a friend of Don's and obviously has some sort of shared past with him, he employs cardplaying skills—rather than sincerity—to edge his way into Don's plan and ultimately make him forsake Bob. Like Shakespeare's King Duncan (in Macbeth) who states, "There's no art/To find the mind's construction in the face" only to later be assassinated by the traitorous Macbeth, Don is adept at offering advice but less able to apply it to his own practices. This is especially true given that Don sees Bob—not himself—as the one in need of guidance.
Don is also not as distant from Teach as he might think. When telling the story of "the guy" who entered the shop and bought the nickel for ninety dollars, he brags of his business acumen, saying, "he tells me he'll go fifty dollars for the nickel ... So I tell him (get this), 'Not a chance.'" He then tells Teach that the buyer's behavior suggested "it's worth five times that" and then begins to focus more on the buyer's personality rather than his wallet: "The next day back he comes and he goes through the whole bit again. He looks at this, he looks at that ... And he tells me he's the guy was in here yesterday and bought the buffalo off me and do I have some other articles of interest ... And so I tell him, 'Not offhand ...' He leaves his card, I'm s'posed to call him anything crops up ... He comes in here like I'm his fucking doorman ... He takes me off my coin and will I call him if I find another one ... Doing me this favor by just coming in my shop." Don's depiction of the buyer as a pompous con-artist who "takes him off" allows him to justify—to himself and to Teach—that the buyer deserves to be robbed. Rather than accept his lack of business sense, Don (like Teach) blames another for his being taken as a rube. Not stealing back the coin would simply be bad business.
It is this fear of being untrue to the God of Business that causes Don to accept Teach's terms. Although he insists that Bob is a "good kid" and deserves a "shot" at the robbery, Don is swayed by the siren song of Teach's capitalistic rhetoric: "A guy can be too loyal," Teach tells him. "Don't be dense on this." Urging Don not to "confuse business with pleasure," Teach begins a rapid-fire assault on Don's desire to remain faithful to Bob and brings up an incident when Bob had obviously failed them: "We both know what we're saying here. We both know we're talking about some job needs more than the kid's gonna skin-pop go in there with a crowbar." Still faithful to Bob, Don becomes enraged at Teach's insinuation of Bob's drug use and states, "I don't want you mentioning that ... You know how I feel on that." When Teach offers an apology, Don remarks, "I don't want that talk only, Teach. You understand?... That's the only thing." Although he is firm in his protection of his ward, Don is already beginning to see the upcoming job as one in which business, not friendship, will have to be considered.
Teach remains undaunted: "All I'm saying, the job is beyond him. Where's the shame in this? This is not jacks, we get to go home we give everything back. Huh?... You take care of him, fine. (Now this is loyalty.) But Bobby's got his own best interests, too. And you cannot afford (and simply as a business proposition) you cannot afford to take the chance." When Don asks for a moment to consider this new idea, Teach becomes angry and resorts to sarcasm: "You don't even know what the thing is on this. Where he lives. They got alarms?... And what if (God forbid) the guy walks in? Somebody's nervous, whacks him with a table lamp—you wanna get touchy—and you can take your ninety dollars from the nickel shove it up your ass—the good it did you—and you wanna know why?... Because you didn't take the time to go first-class." Anyone sharing Don's belief in the "black and yellow Ford" of the American Dream would naturally want to "go first-class," and therefore Don agrees to cut Bob from the deal. When he informs Bob of his decision, Don gives him fifty dollars, which the viewer and Teach assume is for drugs but which Don feels too shameful to confront, since he had previously insisted to Teach that "the fucking kid's clean. He's trying hard, he's working hard." Thus, in a moment of guilt, Don has effectively paid off his conscience in order to follow Teach's ideals of business.
Like so many fictional crime-capers, however, the plan falls apart once everything is set in place and it is through this turning awry of the scheme that Mamet intensifies the previous Act's examination of business and friendship. Act II begins at 11:15 that evening and Don is anxious over the fact that both Teach and Fletcher are missing. When Bob arrives, however, with a buffalo-head nickel to sell to Don, he becomes momentarily suspicious. He asks Bob if he saw Fletcher or Teach at the diner and Bob responds, "No. Ruth and Gracie was there for a minute." Don's reply—"What the fuck does that mean?"—hints at his fear of being swindled. When Teach enters, Don forces him to bear the brunt of his nervousness and scolds him for his tardiness. Teach, however, is annoyed at Bob's presence and fears that Don has weakened his commitment to their now-shared ideals, he asks Don where Bob got the nickel and implies, through his pauses, that all is not as it should be:
TEACH: And what was Bob doing here?
He saw the buyer leave his house on a vacation earlier that day, as he reported. Bob made up the story to win back the good graces of Don, after he scolded him that morning for abandoning his post. Furthermore (and unbelievable as it may seem), he did buy the buffalo-head nickel "in a coin store," as he originally claimed. "For Donny." The very fact that the audience is shocked by these revelations reveals the degree to which they—like Teach and Don—have accepted the myth of business, for if a viewer of the play assumes that Bob has been lying, he can see just how much the notion of the "dog eat dog" world has affected his attitudes and assumptions. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you."
Teach's response to this revelation is a physical manifestation of his intellectual and moral outrage. Brandishing a dead-pig-sticker he toyed with earlier in the play, he begins smashing everything in the shop, proclaiming a series of newfound adages. Unlike his earlier ones, however, these are formed from his own despair and humiliation at discovering that his myth of the God of Business is just that—a myth: "My Whole Cocksucking Life. The Whole Entire World. There Is No Law. There Is No Right And Wrong. The World Is Lies. There Is No Friendship. Every Fucking Thing, Every God-forsaken Thing." He continues his ranting and ultimately concludes that, although he is "out there every day," there is "nothing out there." The "nothing" here is the emptiness of his own rhetoric and all of his accepted wisdom. Earlier he preaches to Don that without the ideals of free enterprise, "We're just savage shitheads in the wilderness." Now, however, he knows that his God of Business is an invention and that, when all of the aphorisms are laid bare, "We all live like the cavemen." He exits the play apologizing to Don for wrecking his shop and wearing a paper hat that he makes to protect himself from the rain. Despite his former beliefs and convictions, he is now (in his comical cap) the dunce of his own myth.
While Don waits for Teach to return with his car so they can take Bob to the hospital, he and Bob resume the quiet conversational tone which was interrupted by Teach. Bob is apologetic and repeatedly says, "I'm sorry. I fucked up." But rather than return to his stance from the beginning of the play, Don consoles him with, "No. You did real good ... That's all right ... That's all right." Don knows that he should have taken his own advice, such as when he told Bob, "Things are not always what they seem to be" and that he must now try to heal:
DON: He told you, He wanted to sell me the nickel.
TEACH: That's why he came here?
TEACH: To sell you the buffalo?
TEACH: Where did he get it?
DON: I think from some guy.
TEACH: Who? (Pause)
DON: I don't know. (Pause)
TEACH: Where's Fletcher?
DON: I don't know. He'll show up.
Although Don has already displayed a slight suspicion about the con, he refuses to mention this to Teach for fear of betraying Bob. But since Teach is not as soft-spoken or loyal to anything except his God, he again (as he did in Act I) attempts to make Don have "the balls to face some facts" and offers his own interpretation of events: "You better wake up, Don, right now, or things are going to fall around your head, and you are going to turn around to find he's took the joint off by himself." Don still clings, however, to the shreds of loyalty and friendship left in his heart—until Teach begins working him from a different angle, explaining that Fletcher cheats at cards. The viewer knows that this story is false, but Don, in his anxious state, begins believing it because Teach is able to answer each of his protests against it: when Don asks him why he never exposed Fletcher as a cheat, Teach replies,"It's not my responsibility to cause bloodshed. I am not your keeper. You want to face facts, okay." Don is at his weakest here and again refuses to accept the notion that he may have been a dupe for another "business associate." And because he senses this about Don, Teach begins a fresh assault on all of the values that Don has tried to uphold for the entire play:
I don't fuck with my friends, Don. I don't fuck with my business associates. I am a businessman, I am here to do business, I am here to face facts.
(Will you open your eyes?) The kid comes in here, he has got a certain coin, it's like the one you used to have ... the guy you brought in doesn't show, we don't know where he is. (Pause)
Something comes down, some guy gets his house took off. (Pause)
Fletcher, he's not showing up. All right, Let's say I don't know why. Let's say you don't know why. But I know that we're both better off. We are better off, Don.
Like Othello, Don has been convinced by the "plausibility" of one who plays upon his most secret fears, and while Teach is no Iago (the villain in Shakespeare's Othello, who turns the title character against his wife), he is able to use language to transform the opinions and previously-held values of his "superior." Earlier in the Act, Teach defines "free enterprise" as "The freedom ... of the Individual ... To Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit ... In order to secure his chance to make a profit." Here, Teach is a hell-for-leather caricature of capitalism, "embarking" on a "course" founded on innuendo and insinuation in order to "make a profit," disregarding Don's concerns over loyalty to Fletcher and protection of Bob.
Teach, however, does not exist in a vacuum, and in order to demonstrate the prevalence and ubiquity of his mythology, Mamet engages in a daring theatrical maneuver at the climax of his play. When Bob returns to tell Don that Fletcher was mugged and is in the hospital with a broken jaw, Teach insists that he is lying and Don—now unable to trust anyone except the man who has been filling him with half-truths for the last half hour—calls the hospital to verify the story. When he is told that Fletcher was not admitted, he and Teach begin grilling Bob about the nickel and Fletcher's absence. The audience is completely convinced at this point that Fletcher, Bob, and possibly Grace and Ruthie have plotted against Don and Teach.Bob can offer no answers to any of their questions and Teach finally is possessed by the God of Business, punishing he whom has doubted His powers:
TEACH: I want you to tell us here and now (and for your own protection) what is going on, what is set up ... where Fletcher is ... and everything you know.
DON: (sotto voce) I can't believe this.
BOB: I don't know anything.
TEACH: You don't, huh?
DON: Tell him what you know, Bob.
BOB: I don't know it, Donnie. Grace and Ruthie...
TEACH: (grabs a nearby object and hits Bob viciously on the side of the head) Grace and Ruthie up your ass, you shithead; you don't fuck with us, I'll kick your fucking head in.
Although a viewer would not condone Teach's action here, he can certainly appreciate his frustration at being betrayed. Even Don, Bob's former protector, states to Bob, "You brought it on yourself."
But this is the moment where the entire play finds its meaning and where Mamet lays down his winning hand: Ruthie then calls and says that Fletcher was admitted to the hospital—which is verified when Don calls a different hospital from the one he had tried before. Bob then tells the men, "I missed him"—which they discover means that he never begrudged the physical and emotional wounds caused by his forsaking friendship for the God of Business. As Mamet said in the New Theatre Quarterly, Don "undergoes recognition in reversal—realizing that all this comes out of his vanity, that because he abdicated a moral position for one moment in favor of some monetary gain, he has let anarchy into his life and has come close to killing the thing he loves." Don has almost left his friend to the same fate as the real American buffalo, which moved in herds of their own comrades but whom were also destroyed by the wave of capitalism and Teacher-defined "free enterprise" that swept the country. He is back in the "foul rag-and-bone shop" of his heart and must now rebuild his friendship with Bob if he is ever to find another "ladder" again. The "black and yellow Ford" has crashed, leaving the three men staring at the wreckage.
Source: Daniel Moran, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Moran is an educator specializing in literature and drama.
Ethical Perversity in America: Some Observations on David Mamet's American Buffalo
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2459
David Mamet, currently an associate director of Chicago's Goodman Theater, was born in Chicago in 1947 and grew up on the city's South Side. He attributes his sense of dramatic rhythm in part to a job during his high-school years as busboy at Second City, the famous Chicago improvisational cabaret. After several years in New England attending college and working at various theaters as a house manager and actor, Mamet returned to his native city and a series of odd jobs which included a stint teaching theater classes at the University of Chicago. Some of his plays were staged at small Chicago theaters during the early '70s—including the St. Nicholas Theater of which Mamet was a founding member and first artistic director. The title of my essay is a pun on the title of a play for which Mamet received the Joseph Jefferson Award (best new Chicago play) in 1974, and later an Obie Award, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. So there is some reason to associate him with that city! It is the setting of many of his plays, including the one I shall examine here. For American Buffalo Mamet again received an Obie, and it was named the best play in 1977 by the New York Drama Critics' Circle.
I say the setting of American Buffalo is Chicago, but in the text of the play the scene specified is "Don's Resale Shop. A junkshop," and the city is not mentioned. There are telltale signs of locale, however. The traveler from New York to Chicago still encounters verbal differences: "soda" becomes "pop," for example, and "bun" becomes "sweet roll." So a Manhattan audience attending American Buffalo knows Teach is not from the Big Apple when he vividly complains "But to have that shithead turn, in one breath, every fucking sweet roll that I ever ate with them into ground glass ... this hurts me, Don." And a Chicago audience, when it hears a passing reference to "Lake Shore Drive," knows the setting is, as it were, the neighborhood. A sophisticated Chicago audience also recognizes the allusion in the following bit of dialogue:
TEACH: (... Indicating objects on the counter) What're these?
DON: They're from 1933.
TEACH: From the thing?
DON: Yeah. (Pause)
TEACH: They got that much of it around?
DON: Shit, yes (It's not that long ago). The thing, it ran two years, and they had (I don't know) all kinds of people every year they're buying everything that they can lay their hands on that they're going to take it back to Buffalo to give it, you know, to their aunt, and it mounts up.
The "thing" that ran two years was the 1933 World's Fair held in Chicago in celebration of the city's 100th anniversary. Although it took place during the Great Depression, the Century of Progress Exposition was so popular it was held over for another year and attracted 100 million people.
Aside from the few specifically Chicago allusions in American Buffalo, Don's Resale Shop could be located in any number of large American cities. What is important is not Chicago, but a particular kind of urban American subculture—urban because one does not imagine a character like Teach, his staccato manner, in rural Kansas, say, or Mississippi. And one is more likely to imagine a junkie like Bobby in an urban setting. But it is the characters' street language which is worth examining for a moment, because it has stirred controversy among the critics. Gordon Rogoff concluded that, "With friends like [Mamet] ... words don't need enemies," and Brendan Gill wrote of the play's "tiresome small talk," which attempts "in vain to perform the office of eloquence ..." Jack Kroll, however, praised the "kind of verbal cubism" in which Mamet's characters speak, saying the playwright "is someone to listen to ... an American playwright who's a language playwright" and who is "the first playwright to create a formal and moral shape out of the undeleted expletives of our foul-mouthed time."
I find myself in tune with Kroll. In any assessment of American Buffalo, Mamet's use of language must be regarded as an achievement. If the vocabulary of men such as Bobby, Teach and Donny is impoverished, Mamet's rendering of it reminds us that vocabulary is only one of the resources of language. Teach does have an eloquence when expressing his sense that he has been abused. Galled by Grace and Ruthie, he tells Don:
Only (and I tell you this, Don) Only, and I'm not, I don't think, casting anything on anyone from the mouth of a Southern bulldyke asshole ingrate of a vicious nowhere cunt can this trash come.
This sentence, so politely diffident at first, lets fall its invective in a rain of hammering trochees. It is marvelous invective, more vivid than that in James Stephens's "A Glass of Beer," and ironic to boot, for in the most vulgar language Teach has denounced as "trash" Grace's sarcastic remark, "Help yourself." Teach is constantly undercutting himself this way, as when he says, again referring to Grace and Ruthie, "The only way to teach these people is to kill them." In Act II, Don does not want him to take a gun on a robbery, and Teach replies that of course the gun is not needed:
Only that it makes me comfortable, okay? It helps me to relax. So, God forbid, something inevitable occurs ...
The urban nature of the language in American Buffalo is a matter not just of its street vulgarity, or expressions such as "skin-pop" and "He takes me off my coin ...," but also of an abbreviation characteristic of urban pace. One of my Mississippi students told me she had a job in Manhattan which required her to answer the telephone saying, "Hello, this is so-and-so of the such-and-such company." A typical caller responded, "I like your accent honey, but could you speed it up?" Teach telescopes "probably" into "Prolly," and utters such staccato sentences as: "He don't got the address the guy?", and, "I'm not the hotel, I stepped out for coffee, I'll be back one minute." Such elliptic expression is a matter not of Mamet's invention, but of his ear for how some of us speak these days. On the Dick Cavett ETV show (Mamet appeared on November 29, 1979 and January 16, 1980), Mamet mentioned entering an elevator and hearing a woman say, "Lovely weather, aren't we?"
Besides the play's language, a second critical issue which has resulted in opposing assessments of American Buffalo is that of its content, or lack of it. Gill complained, in the review I have already mentioned, that the play provides the meager and familiar message "that life, rotten as it is, is all we have." And in a review in America, Catharine Hughes found that what happens in the play "too often seems much ado about very little." Before I proceed with a defense of American Buffalo as being of intellectual interest, and as going beyond the "message" Gill found in it, a capsule of the plot seems in order.
In his late forties, Don Dubrow is conversing with the much younger Bob about a man Bob is supposed to watch. Four major motifs emerge from their conversation: friendship, looking out for oneself, business, and being knowledgeable. Teach enters Don's junkshop and, while Bob is getting coffee, learns of Don's plan to rob the man Bob has been watching. After the man spotted a buffalo-head nickel in Don's shop and purchased it for ninety dollars, Don concluded it must be worth much more and that the man must have other valuable coins. Teach talks Don into cutting him in on the robbery, and convinces him Bobby is too young and, as a junkie, too unreliable to be part of it. That night the plan goes awry and Teach, in anger and frustration, "hits BOB viciously on the side of the head." This unjust attack stirs Don against Teach, and restores the solicitude toward Bobby we noticed in Don at the start of the play. Even in this low-life ambiance, in effect, there is some decency. Though all three characters are losers, the friendship between Don and Bobby is something of worth.
It is in the relationships, tensions and contradictions in the patter of Don and Teach, concerning the motifs I mentioned, that the "content" of this play resides. Take the motif of business. Don tells Bobby that in business deals intentions are not good enough: "Action talks and bullshit walks." And a bit later he defines business as "common sense, experience, and talent." This soon turns into, "People taking care of themselves." But if business is looking out for oneself, what is the relation between business and friendship? In passing, Don and Bobby have been discussing a business deal between Fletch and Ruthie. It seems that Fletch purchased some pig iron from Ruthie and made such a profit on it that Ruthie felt cheated. Was it unfair of Fletch to profit so much from a friend? Don, who defends Fletch, saying, "That's what business is," and "there's business and there's friendship, Bobby ...", goes on to say, "what you got to do is keep clear who your friends are, and who treated you like what." But that is clearly what Ruthie has done, and that is why she is angry with Fletch and feels he stole from her. Later we learn that when Don imagines the nickel he sold for ninety dollars must be worth much more, he feels he was robbed—so much for "That's what business is." Contradictions and elaborations on "business" continue through the play. A funny definition of free enterprise will stand as a last example:
TEACH: You know what is free enterprise?
DON: No. What?
TEACH: The freedom ...
DON: ... yeah?
TEACH: Of the Individual ...
DON: ... yeah?
TEACH: To Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit ...
TEACH: In order to secure his honest chance to make a profit. Am I so out of line on this?
TEACH: The country's founded on this, Don. You know this.
Of course the individuals in this case see fit to embark on robbery. Part of Mamet's intent in American Buffalo is to expose the shoddiness of the American business ethic by having his low-lives transparently voice it. He said as much in an interview with Richard Gottlieb:
"The play is about the American ethic of business," he said. "About how we excuse all sorts of great and small betrayals and ethical compromises called business. There's really no difference between the lumpenproletariat and stockbrokers or corporate lawyers who are the lackeys of business," Mr. Mamet went on. "Part of the American myth is that a difference exists, that at a certain point vicious behavior becomes laudable [New York Times, January 15, 1978]."
Mamet got the idea of an identical ethical perversity existing at both ends of the urban economic spectrum from Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)—the American sociologist, economist, satirist, and sometime Chicagoan. In considering the relation between Veblen's thought and American Buffalo, one should start with Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). His theory of the leisure class is related to his theory of business enterprise in that Veblen saw businessmen as involved with the pecuniary and predatory interests of ownership, rather than with the industrial and social interests of production. Teach is a good example of a Veblen "lower-class delinquent," and Veblen's ideas of emulation, and of the snob appeal of what is obsolete, are relevant to the play—the latter, especially, as it applies to collecting rare coins and World's Fair memorabilia.
That Mamet is justified in expecting an audience to accept his play's small-time criminals as representative of American businessmen is arguable. One way of understanding the play's title mainly applies to them as members of a marginal class of society. In a review of the play for the Nation, Harold Clurman wrote: "Look at the face of the coin, as reproduced on the show's playbill. The buffalo looks stunned, baffled, dejected, ready for slaughter. The animal is antiquated, and the would-be robbers are a mess. The combination is symbolic." Don and Teach and Bobby are as antiquated and out-of-it as the American buffalo or bison (successful American businessmen may or may not be ethical, but they are not marginal). We must admit that Don and Teach and Bobby are dumb. They are not even streetwise, though Don and Teach may think they are. Fletch probably is streetwise—consider the pig-iron deal, or the fact that he won at cards in the game in which Don and Teach lost. They admire and resent his success, and feel they have been cheated. They are envious of anyone who is knowledgeable and successful, such as the man who purchased the coin. Knowledge, an important motif in the play, is the key here. "One thing Makes all the difference in the world," says Teach. And when Don asks, "What?" he replies, "Knowing what the fuck you're talking about. And it's so rare, Don. So rare." Of course Teach does not know what he is talking about, as we learn in the routines about which coins are valuable, where the man would keep his coins, how to get into his house, and what to do about a safe.
This contradiction leads us to the other way of understanding the title, a way which applies to the characters as representatives of the business class as well as representatives of a class of urban marginal crooks. For "buffalo" read the slang verb "to intimidate." It is because he does not know anything that Teach must try to buffalo Don. And it is common for businessmen to buffalo the public: "The windfall profits tax will dry up America's oil," and "If you don't buy this laxative no one will love you." Fletch evidently can buffalo successfully; Standard Oil can; Teach cannot (aside from Don, who buys his line, "Send Bobby in and you'll wind up with a broken toaster"). But to buffalo is as American as to bake an apple pie. Notions of the American way—democracy and free enterprise—become corrupted when they enter the look-out-for-number-one rationalizations of crooks and unethical businessmen. Down-and-outs in a democracy may feel they have been cheated because "all men should be equal." Knowledge creates divisions among people, divisions of power and wealth, but such divisions can seem undemocratic, un-American. So robbing and cheating are attempts to restore justice. Or, "In America one is free to make a fortune for himself" turns into Teach's definition of free enterprise. My modest conclusion is that in satirizing such corrupt notions Mamet has written a play of intellectual content.
Source: Jack V. Barbera, "Ethical Perversity in America: Some Observations on David Mamet's AmericanBuffalo" in Modern Drama, Volume XXIV, no. 3, 1981, pp. 270-75.
Albee and Mamet The War of the Words
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 276
David Mamet is apparently listening to America's lower class. The news he brings back in his new play, American Buffalo (at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway), is that Americans living on the dark underside of small business and petty crookery speak of macho frustrations almost entirely in four-letter words. If the news doesn't seem new or persuasive, that may be because we have heard more antiseptic versions of it on big and little screens, where—with a little soap in their mouths American Buffalo's trio of charmless deadbeats would be more at home.
Robert Duvall's Walter Cole (known as Teacher) is the latest in a long line of Stanley Kowalskis trying to mimic the language they think businessmen use. Some of the linguistic turns are cleverly heard: Teacher-Kowalskis do like to say words like averse, deviate, instance; and they love to talk about planning, preparation, business propositions, and facing facts. Duvall's performance has as much body in it as it does dirty English, but it is more an expert impersonation of an archetype than an enactment of an authentic event.
How could it be otherwise? Mamet is imitating a hundred Bogart, Cagney, Robinson, and Brando movies, and he's not bad at the job. His dialogue has some of the vivacity missing from those movies. They were better at plot, however, and they didn't always treat Bogart and company like dummies. In The Maltese Falcon, Wilmer wasn't bright, but he had dignity. Mamet patronizes his trio: he is out to kill and get laughs. Modest ambitions, modestly achieved.
Source: Gordon Rogoff, "Albee and Mamet: The War of the Words" in Saturday Review, Volume 4, no. 13, April 2, 1977, pp. 37.