Fortunately for the public, the salesmen depicted in David Mamet’s play are not typical for the real estate business as a whole, although they use many of the sales techniques taught by big real-estate brokerage firms at motivational seminars. Mamet’s salesmen are “hard sell” con artists selling land for far more than it is worth. Typically they obtain prospects from coupons mailed in by people responding to glowing advertisements in newspapers and magazines. The story’s leads are requesting a brochure but do not realize that the brochure will be attached to the end of a high-pressure salesman’s arm. Prospects rarely see the land itself but are shown maps and photographs designed to create the illusion that these subdivisions in far-off Florida, Arizona, Hawaii, or some other sunny place will be turned into a vacation and retirement paradise with golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, clubhouses, and other amenities. The buyers are buying a dream and an illusion. Most make only a small down payment and continue to pay monthly installments for years, looking forward to the day when they can leave the noisy, dangerous city and move to their patch of paradise. If any actually visit their property, they are likely to be so disillusioned that they will stop making payments, forfeiting everything they have invested, and the land will revert to the developers who will sell it to somebody else. The victims are likely to find that their land is located in the middle of an alligator-infested swamp or on the side of a smoking volcano or in the middle of a desert inhabited only by coyotes and rattlesnakes. They are likely to find that streets and roads shown on the maps are nothing but tracks scraped out by bulldozers and that the amenities depicted in the brochures are nothing but cardboard signs and scraps of faded cloth fluttering on wooden stakes.
While Mamet was struggling to become a successful writer, he worked at a variety of part-time and temporary jobs. In one he did clerical work for a company of “land sharks” such as those he depicts in Glengarry Glen Ross. He liked and admired the salesmen, although he could see they were little better than crooks. What he liked about them was their histrionics and poetry. They had to have vivid imaginations as well as a raw eloquence in order to create the illusions that would make their prospects sign on the line. Salesmen make good stage characters because they are articulate. Mamet’s reputation as a playwright is based on his ability to reproduce the poetry of the American vernacular. He is a successor to writers such as Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and others who have reproduced the beauty in the cadences, humor, and imagery of ordinary American speech.
Glengarry Glen Ross is an example of minimalism, a highly popular school of American literature since the 1960’s. The minimalist writer provides a minimum of information and forces the reader or audience member to make guesses, inferences, and assumptions. This effective technique is challenging and involving. None of the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross is described as to physical appearance. The name of their company is not even mentioned. Their employers are not given last names. The audience must infer that there are other salesmen who do not appear on stage, since it seems unlikely that Mitch and Murray would fire two salesmen if they only had a total of four. Audience members who might be unfamiliar with real estate jargon get no explanation of terms such as “leads,” “sits,” “shot,” and that most holy...
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of holy words, “closing.”
Levene refers to his daughter with emotion, and the audience, without any information, must assume that this girl or woman is sick or handicapped and totally dependent upon her father. Mamet’s salesmen are all such liars it is conceivable that Levene invented a sick daughter for the purpose of eliciting sympathy. No information is given about the salesmen’s personal lives; they may not have any lives outside their work. They seem to spend most of their free time in a Chinese restaurant. With all the information that is not given, it is amazing what a multidimensional world the audience can visualize from guesses, inferences, and assumptions based on rapid-fire dialogue full of slang, insults, and outrageous profanity.
The play is well plotted. After both Roma and Levene, in a rhapsody of profanity, vent their rage at the system on the stooge Williamson, there is a surprise ending worthy of Guy de Maupassant or O. Henry. Led to believe that Aaronow committed the burglary, the audience suddenly realizes that Moss must have given up on the weak-willed Aaronow and persuaded Levene to become his accomplice.
Glengarry Glen Ross, like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), is an indictment of laissez-faire capitalism. Both plays demonstrate how capitalism promotes greed, competition, and envy, causing people to wear themselves out, wasting their lives in pursuit of an illusion. The contest in Glengarry Glen Ross resembles the dance marathon in Horace McCoy’s bitter novel of the Great Depression era, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), which describes dance marathons in which there are no winners but in which exhausted dancers who fall behind are eliminated. Mamet has been quoted as saying that capitalism is “obviously an idea whose time has come and gone.” He has also pointed out that Glengarry Glen Ross “is about a society based on business . . . a society with only one bottom line: How much money you make.” Arthur Miller believed that socialism would solve most social problems. Mamet, like many modern writers, does not believe there are easy solutions. Like many other modern writers, he has seen in the histories of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China that socialism only transfers power from one group of imperfect human beings to another. Mamet seems content, like many other minimalists, to dramatize the human condition without trying to explain how that condition might be improved. Writers are not obligated to provide solutions to the problems they illuminate.
Mamet has at least one thing in common with some of the world’s greatest writers: He likes people in spite of their faults and perhaps even because of their faults. He appreciates his boastful, unscrupulous, nervy, frightened salesmen as colorful specimens of humanity. He makes his audience identify with these characters and suffer along with them, pitying them for their empty lives and forgiving them for their faults. By sharing their feelings, the audience experiences a sense of unity with the characters on the stage.