Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

The junkshop in which Mamet sets American Buffalo presents a parodic model for all commercial enterprises and reveals the triviality of all relationships associated with commercial ventures. Mamet himself has suggested that this indictment of business enterprises indeed forms one of the themes of the play: “The play is about the American ethic of business.” The ethic that dominates the interplay between the three characters in the play is a tawdry display of predatorial selfishness. The burglary is a venture in which Teach demands an exclusive role, in which Don expects to regain his dignity after supposedly being swindled out of greater profits from his buffalo-head nickel, and in which Bob attempts to achieve affirmation of his relationship with Don. The egoism that characterizes the actions of the characters is an indictment of the acquisitive society; the buffalo-head nickel and the other scattered artifacts that litter the junkshop represent the fragmented lives and relationships governed by mercantilism.

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Another aspect of this business ethic that predominates in the play is the paranoia that infects Teach and affects his treatment of Don and Bob. Mamet uses Teach as the spokesperson for the peculiar business ethic that empowers the play, and his definition of free enterprise is itself a doctrine of selfishness: any individual is titled “To Embark On Any . . . Cause he sees fit” for his own personal gain. The paranoia that pulsates in Teach’s diatribes against Gracie and Ruthie and in his suspicion of Bob are interwoven with his sense of business as an essentially manipulative relationship. His insecurity over his participation in the burglary hints at the insubstantiality of his relationship with Don and with the other characters he mentions. His vitriolic attacks on Gracie and Ruthie for an apparent slight are exaggerated outpourings of the frustration that threatens his involvement with Don. Business is the only relationship he shares with Don, who has indeed established a more sensitive bond with Bob, though it too is fragile enough to be undermined when Don feels his integrity threatened by a misplaced trust in Bob.

Fear of failure, and perhaps especially of the unrelenting shame when failure is made public, appears to motivate the verbal drama in the play. It also accounts for Bob’s frenetic entrances and exits, for Teach’s vituperative attacks on anybody who has succeeded (Fletcher had both won at poker and made a profit selling pig-iron purchased from Ruthie), and for Don’s submission to Teach’s fables of the American enterprise. Each character possesses a hollowness which he fills with expletives and business metaphors as a means of avoiding moments of self-recognition. Teach’s hostility toward Fletcher—and toward Gracie and Ruthie—stems from the lack of his own participation in any successful venture. His attack on Bob at the play’s end is thus a defensive action, because he is hoping to destroy any possibility that Bob’s story about Fletcher’s mugging may suspend the only enterprise capable of offering him any success. Ironically, the attack forces him out of the enterprise by bonding Bob and Don’s fragile relationship. The last scene reinforces their participation in a bond from which Teach has been excluded, and their presence onstage as the lights dim transcends the purely commercial ventures that have littered the play’s earlier action.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1304

When American Buffalo opens, Don is lecturing Bob on the importance of committing himself to the "business" deal they have made; Bob is supposed to be watching the target of their robbery but has instead returned to the junk shop. Don tells him, "Action...

(The entire section contains 1856 words.)

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