American Buffalo

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Ever since Samuel Beckett demonstrated with Waiting for Godot in 1954 that an intense exploration of a static situation, replacing the conventional causal plot, could not only be philosophically provocative, but dramatically exciting as well, the modern theater has been glutted with such “situational” or “metaphorical” plays, ranging in quality from unquestioned excellence to thorough mediocrity. Thus, the basic situation in American Buffalo has been exploited by a score of contemporary dramatists to the point that it has almost become a cliché.

Two or three men wait somewhere for something or to do something. While waiting, they fill the time with apparently aimless dialogue, act out their idiosyncrasies, and play “games” with themselves and their surroundings. Their concealed and not so concealed prejudices, dislikes, and perversities surface and clash with those of their associates; tension mounts as whatever they are waiting for fails to arrive or whatever they are to do becomes increasingly delayed, difficult, or unlikely. Eventually the conflicts either erupt into violence or near-violence (Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter or The Caretaker) or they simply unwind and dissipate (as in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Endgame).

To present such a play in 1977, twenty-five years after Waiting for Godot, required audacity leavened with folly. Not only to succeed, but to do so with originality in a form that would seem to be dried up, requires an exceptional talent indeed. Echoes of the contemporary masters—especially Pinter—are present, of course, but Mamet’s vision and vocabulary are his own and American Buffalo is as fresh and unique a product as any on the recent American stage.

The primary reason for Mamet’s success is probably that, while Absurdist ideas and techniques have been in the dramatic atmosphere for more than two decades, attempts to harness it to the American experience have been largely unsuccessful, Edward Albee’s periodic forays into the area notwithstanding. David Mamet is really the first dramatist to weld the force of the situational play to the American environment with a characteristically American rhythm and diction (although two other fine young playwrights, David Rabe and Sam Shepard, have utilized absurdist materials quite effectively. Rabe’s plays are, however, more conventionally experimental and essentially realistic, while Shepard’s are wildly powerful in language and image, but generally lack the focus needed for a coherent theatrical experience).

As in all effective examples of the situational approach, the setting of American Buffalo is crucial. Mamet’s three would-be felons wait and plan in Don’s Resale Shop, a crowded, messy junk shop that becomes a metaphor for the lives of those characters that inhabit it. Its claustrophobic density suggests their narrow, trapped lives. The various objects that are piled and jammed aimlessly together are all bits and pieces of the American culture turned to worthless scrap. These “things” (the word takes on ominous connotations during the play) have little present value, but retain the dangerous capacity to stimulate the thoughts, false expectations, and absurd dreams of these three sad men who sit amidst the clutter.

It is not stretching the metaphor too far to see the characters themselves as “junk objects,” as individuals outside society, whose only connection to it lies in those distorted expectations and fantasies it induces. Perhaps such vague hopes and unlikely dreams can even have a positive value in such lives as they blunt the dismal reality of the bleak present and negative future. But, given the stimulus that opens up a glimmer of real possibility—however far-fetched—to these longings, they can potentially provoke violence and destruction. This is the simple dynamic that animates American Buffalo.

Don Dubrow, middle-aged owner of the salvage shop, discovers a gem in his trash, or, rather, has it discovered for him. A well-dressed stranger walks into his shop, spots a buffalo-head nickel and, after a short negotiation, buys it for ninety dollars. This sudden, amazing profit...

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

American Buffalo is set in Don’s Resale Shop in an unidentified city. The opening act unfolds on a Friday morning as Don and his gofer Bob are engaged in conversation, the importance of which the audience is not initially told. The elliptical dialogue provides the audience only with snatches of names and details that will form the basis of the subsequent action: Apparently Don has sold a buffalo-head nickel to a customer for ninety dollars and now believes that he has been swindled out of an even greater “business deal.” Bob has been sent to follow the customer to check Don’s suspicions in anticipation of a planned burglary—Don intends to steal any other coins the customer may have in his collection. Amid this conversation, Walter Cole (Teach) arrives, delivering a tirade against Ruthie, one of the many names which will trigger reactions that will illuminate the personalities of Teach, Don, and Bob. Teach’s bilious attack on Gracie and Ruthie and their alleged mistreatment of him for taking a slice of toast from Gracie’s breakfast plate underscores Teach’s temper and his latent paranoia—an instability exacerbated by Bob’s presence in Don’s junkshop.

Teach discovers that the burglary is being planned; he hopes to participate, and he further hopes to exclude the much younger Bob. Don’s avuncular regard for Bob surfaces in his vocal defense of Bob’s presence and his alleged drug habit (his “skin-pop”), and it forms the basis for the tenuous relationship among the three men. This relationship appears to be predicated on an inverted notion of business—a term which Teach and Don mention throughout the first act—and it is the business (that is, the business of the burglary) which is the act’s central concern. Bob’s initial exclusion from the business comes only after he has conducted his own personal “business” with Don by cajoling fifty dollars from him, apparently for his “skin-pop.” Subsequent dialogue between Don and Teach conveys the irrationality and vapidness of the conspiracy now being hatched.

The audience never learns the source of the relationship between Teach and Don, but Mamet hints that the dualism of business and friendship is an ambiguous component of that relationship, and it governs the remainder of the dialogue in act 1. Teach is hesitant about the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Mamet uses fragmented dialogue and characterization to stress the factious, insular existence of the play’s three characters. Dialogue is often obliquely uttered between the men, all of whom communicate across vast distances of space. The language, often explosive and vulgar, is used as a weapon by the various characters to give voice to inchoate rage and oppressive guilt. Bob uses vulgar language against himself in act 2 as a self-lacerating response to his own fears that he has disappointed Don. Teach’s harsh invective against Ruthie when he first arrives onstage reflects his paranoia over Ruthie’s alleged discourtesy toward him. His frequent declarations on friendship and free enterprise are defensive postures which he assumes for Don’s benefit.

The buffalo-head nickel that propels the plot is a precise, focused image of the triviality of the characters’ motivations, and it is a keen parody of the business ethic that Mamet satirizes in the play. The coin acquires several values in the play for each of the characters. For Teach, it embodies a successful enterprise, which he seems to crave as a means of restoring his sense of worth in his circle of acquaintances. For Don, it is a reflection of his failure as a businessman; he had been made to feel like a “doorman” rather than a competent participant in the business enterprise. For Bob, it is a means of proving himself to Don and reinstating himself in Don’s good graces when Bob believes...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Although written in 1975, American Buffalo premiered on Broadway in 1977, in the midst of a theater season notable for its collection...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

American Buffalo takes place in Don's Resale Shop, a secondhand "antique" store (really a junk store) run by Don...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Look at some current bestsellers that offer their readers techniques for success in the workplace: are any of the values or assumptions...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

American Buffalo was adapted as a film in 1996, starring Dustin Hoffman as Teach, Dennis Franz as Don, and Sean Nelson as Bob. Mamet...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet's 1983 look at the workings of a real-estate office, is an intense and unnerving glimpse into the lives of...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)


Barnes, Clive, "Stage: Skilled 'American Buffalo'" in the New York Time's, February 17, 1977.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Almansi, Guido. “David Mamet, a Virtuoso of Invective.” In Critical Angles: European Views of Contemporary American Literature, edited by Marc Chenetier. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Barbera, Jack. “Ethical Perversity in America: Some Observations on David Mamet’s American Buffalo.” Modern Drama 24 (September, 1981): 270-275.

Bigsby, C. W. E. David Mamet. London: Methuen, 1985.

Carroll, Dennis. David Mamet. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.


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