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...

(The entire section is 1746 words.)