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...

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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.

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.

Themes

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

Friendship
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 counts. Action talks and bullshit walks." After Bob apologizes, Don protests, "Don't tell me you're sorry, I'm not mad at you." What the audience learns from this remark is that Don is genuinely interested in helping Bob become more astute in the ways of their own brand of business. He tells him that he should model himself after Fletcher, a "standup guy" and card shark who had to "learn" all he knows about becoming a success. Don impresses upon Bob the importance of attitude and intelligence when confronting the business world: "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."

Don's father-figure interest in Bob is implied through the advice he offers him on a number of topics. When he sends Bob to the diner to get coffee, he insists that he buy something for himself, since "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day"; later, he urges Bob to take vitamins. His most important lesson, however, is what he tells Bob about friendship: "There's lotsa people on this street, Bob, they want this and they want that. Do anything to get it. You don't have friends this life... " The implied end of this sentence—"is worth nothing"—reveals the high value Don places on friendship and people protecting each other from what he calls the "garbage" of the world. As the play proceeds, Bob is revealed to be a drug addict, frequently asking Don for money to support his habit—which Don "lends" him, preferring not to press him for explanations. By the end of the play, however, Don forsakes his friendship with Bob in the name of business—an action which causes him a great deal of shame, since he knows he has failed to follow his own advice. The last scene of the play shows their relationship being rebuilt and Don trying to make amends for his doubting the strength of Bob's devotion.

Like Don, Teach seems to hold up friendship as an absolute good. He enters the play cursing Ruthie, a mutual friend, for making a joke when he took a piece of toast off her plate at the diner. Her remark of "Help yourself" causes Teach to rage at her for forgetting all the times he has picked up the check: he tells Don, "All I ever ask (and I would say this to her face) is only she remembers who is who and not to go around with her or Gracie either with this attitude. 'The Past is Past, and this is Now, and so Fuck You.'" Ruthie's remark has hurt Teach because she has not lived up to the code of friendship that he assumes he embodies.

However, when Teach sees the chance to make "real classical money" in Don's robbery scheme, he immediately tries to talk Don into dismissing Bob. Hiding his avarice under the guise of "good business," Teach convinces Don that Bob, although Don's friend, is not a good candidate for such an operation: "A guy can be too loyal, Don. Don't be dense on this. What are we saying here? Business." When Don does remove Bob from the plan and their plot begins to turn awry, Teach suggests that Bob has betrayed them—a false implication which, nonetheless, is believed by Don until the final scene of the play, when he realizes that it is he who has betrayed Bob in the name of "good business."

Success and Failure
Don and Teach are small-time gamblers and thieves who constantly spout aphorisms that they think attest to their "business" savvy: "Things are not always what they seem to be," "You got to keep clear who your friends are," "Don't confuse business with pleasure" and "You got to trust your instincts" are only a few of their many saws. Don lectures Bob on "good business" and Teach tells Don that he should exclude Bob from the robbery because "as a business proposition" he "cannot afford" to have someone with his lack of experience break into a house.

Anyone watching the play, however, can see that their theory does not convert into practice. The viewer learns that a poker game took place last night in the shop, where Don "did allright" (very likely a euphemism) and Teach ended the game "Not too good." When the game is discussed, Teach attributes his loss not to his own lack of skill but to Ruthie's cheating: "She is not a good cardplayer," Teach asserts, because her "partner" is always "going to walk around," presumably to glance at everyone's cards. (Teach later claims that Fletcher, last night's winner, cheats as well.) When Teach uses a collector's guide to quiz Don on what coins they should steal from their future victim's collection, Don shows his ignorance in this field by guessing that a certain coin is worth $18.60 instead of its actual worth of twenty cents. Later, when Teach tries to call the collector's house to be sure he is not home, he keeps transposing parts of the phone number, resulting in confusion and frustration instead of the "planning" and "preparation" he desires. Both Don and Teach have fully subscribed to the myths of "business" and how it should be practiced, but both are failures, since all of their knowledge resides in their adages instead of experience.

Deception
American Buffalo's plot is one that relies on implication and innuendo rather than concrete events. When the robbery is being arranged, Don and Teach have agreed to meet Fletcher at the junk shop at 11:00 that night. Bob has been told that he will not be involved and the two would-be criminals are satisfied that their planning will result in a successful "shot."

However, when Teach enters the shop after 11:15 and finds Bob there, the viewer (like the characters) becomes suspicious. Bob is trying to sell Don a buffalo-head nickel, much like the one they had originally planned to rob before Teach entered the play. Don is furious with Teach's tardiness, and Teach is equally furious at Bob's presence in the shop. Their tension grows when Fletcher does not arrive and cannot be reached by phone; Teach then begins insinuating that Bob, Fletcher, and Ruthie have stolen the coins themselves and that Bob has offered to sell the buffalo to Don because he needs some fast money. When Bob tells them that Fletcher was mugged and has been admitted to the hospital with a broken jaw, Don calls the hospital to check his story—and is told that Fletcher was never admitted. Convinced they are being hustled, Teach strikes Bob on the head. Don, Bob's former protector, mutters, "We didn't want to do this to you." The viewer is now completely convinced that Bob has betrayed the two men.

This deception lies not between Bob and the two men, however, but between Mamet and the audience. The playwright leads the viewer to believe that Bob has betrayed Don and Teach and lied about Fletcher's absence. This is not the case: Ruthie calls Don and tells him the name of a different hospital to which Fletcher was admitted and the viewer learns that Bob did not steal the nickel from the intended victim's home. Because of their lust for "business" and assumption that everyone else holds these same cynical values, Don and Teach are eventually deceived by their own attitudes. Teach thus ends the play a speechless fool, and Don must then try to heal his friendship with Bob.

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