Glengarry Glen Ross

by David Mamet

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Morality and Characterization in Mamet's Play

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1978

There is no doubt that David Mamet is a major writer and perhaps the preeminent American playwright of his generation. As Dennis Carroll pointed out in David Mamet, Mamet is the only American playwright to emerge from the 1970s who has managed to establish a significant international reputation. His plays have appealed to a large and wide range of audience.

Glengarry Glen Ross met with success not only in London and New York, but had a long United States national tour and quickly received major productions in Tel Aviv, Israel; Johannesburg, South Africa; Dublin, Ireland; Marseilles, France; Genoa, Italy; Sydney, Australia; Helsinki, Finland; and Tokyo, Japan. Moreover, Mamet had had major successes before Glengarry Glen Ross and has continued to write excitingly and successfully for the theatre in addition to his steady output of scripts for movies and his career as a film director. Furthermore, as Carroll pointed out, Mamet has created a body of work rich in complex variations on his themes rather than merely repeating himself obsessively.

He has written plays focusing on relationships between men and women, parents and children, sexual politics, communion, redemption, the power of language and the debasement of language, the passing on of knowledge and tradition, to mention only some major themes. He has also written books of essays, childrens' plays, radio plays, and television scripts. While Glengarry Glen Ross contains many layers of thematic concern, it is usually grouped with American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow as major plays that focus primarily on business and capitalism. In American Buffalo the characters are small-time thieves who consider themselves to be businessmen. Speed-the-Plow focuses on Hollywood , where the product is films and the focus is on raw power and making money.

There is no doubt that Mamet is a moral writer who seeks to make the audience aware of what he sees as the spiritual vacuum in present-day America (and, judging from the broad range of productions, in other countries as well). We are pressured to succeed, to make more money, to buy more things that we don't need. We don't take the time to regenerate our spirit. We do not accept responsibility for what happens to ourselves but rather operate on received values without questioning whether they are good or even aimed at making us happy. People full of energy and talent spend themselves seeking empty rewards. Mamet says in his book of essays Writing in Restaurants, "Our civilization is convulsed and dying, and it has not yet gotten the message. It is sinking, but it has not sunk into complete barbarity, and I often think that nuclear war exists for no other reason than to spare us that indignity."

In another essay, Mamet says that "the essential task of the drama (as of the fairy tale) is to offer a solution to a problem which in non-susceptible to reason. To be effective, the drama must induce us to suspend our rational judgment, and to follow the internal logic of the piece so that our pleasure (our "cure") is the release at the end of the story." We suspend reason in order to gain deep insights. The purpose of theatre is not to teach a lesson or to provide a neat "moral;'' the purpose of theatre is to provide us with a communal experience which we then ponder, as we do all forceful experiences in our lives. Mamet does not preach his themes at us; his themes are played out. He does not describe his characters; he puts them into action. Mamet has said that the job of the dramatist is to...

(This entire section contains 1978 words.)

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translate the imperfectly formed desire of the characters into clear action that is capable of communicating itself to the audience.

In drama, just as in life, we judge people by what they do, by their actions. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, rightly said that character is just habitual action. The dramatist must show us what the character does rather than have him described by either himself or others. In his studies of the Stanislavksy system of acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre, Mamet came to appreciate that the actor is always pursuing the character's objectives, trying at each moment to achieve what the character wants. This action, which is always present in well-written dialogue, is known as the "subtext.'' It is by discovering the character's objectives and how the character would go about trying to win those objectives, and then doing those things—the actions—that the actor and the character become one and the same. It is not a psychotic experience for the actor; it is mental focus. Moreover, by focusing on winning those objectives the actor is freed from extraneous considerations. The actor performs the actions, and the "meaning" of the play is in those actions. It is precisely his mastery and economy of action in dialogue which impresses audiences and makes plays by Mamet challenging and exciting for actors.

Joe Mantegna, who has acted in several Mamet plays and films and played Roma in the first U.S. production of Glengarry Glen Ross, said in an interview with Leslie Kane in her David Mamet: A Casebook, "The great thing about David is the way he can say so much with so little . . . everything else seems so over-written. There are certainly other writers who have that capability, such as Shakespeare and Pinter. As much is said between the lines as with the lines." He also pointed out that because the writing is so concise and full of meaning, the actor must be precise in his choice of how each line is delivered. Mamet says that the actor does not need to characterize, he simply needs to find the correct action and then do it. From seeing those actions, the audience will draw its own conclusions about the character. Mantegna says, "You don't have to worry about dropping little clues or hints that will help the audience figure this out later. No, you just play the moment as real as you can."

Mamet has long been fascinated with language. His father would often stop conversation at the dinner table until David or his sister Lyn could find the exact word to express their meaning. In Writing in Restaurants he remembers that "our schoolyard code of honor recognized words as magical and powerful unto themselves," and that "The Schoolboy Universe was not corrupted by the written word, and was ruled by the power of sounds." It is that "power of sounds" which the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross use to achieve their objectives. As Jack Shepard, the Roma in the original London production, described it to Anne Deane in David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action, "The rhythms are slick, fast, syncopated like a drum solo." Frank Rich, the critic for the New York Times, talked of the dialogue in musical terms: "In the jagged riffs of coarse, monosyllabic words, we hear and feel both the exhilaration and sweaty desperation of the huckster's calling." In the interview with Dean, Shepard recalled the great tension of the rehearsal period: "There is just so much to remember at any one time in Mamet's works ... Mamet knows exactly what he wants ... he is very fast, very dynamic." The language has the feeling of improvisation with speeches overlapping, people interrupting each other, thoughts unfinished. It sounds like ordinary street talk or natural speech, but it has been painstakingly and specifically created to have an impact. It is crafted for the actor to use as action. This fact is especially important for the actors in Glengarry Glen Ross because the characters use language and storytelling to survive and to celebrate survival. The characters themselves are actors. This is most obvious during the improvised performance with which Roma and Levene attempt to steer Lingk away from his intention to cancel his contract, with Levene playing the vice president of American Express who is a major client and friend of Roma. Roma gives Levene only a few cues on how to proceed, and Levene enters the role. Another obvious instance occurs when Williamson tells Roma that Murray, one of the partners in the firm, will take care of re-closing Roma's sales himself: "he'll be the president, just come in from out of town." Playing roles is natural for these people, and they change roles to suit their purposes in any given circumstances.

Levene is a master at this. In Act I he pleads with Williamson in an attempt to get good leads. He is submissive, repeats Williamson's name, John, is careful not be critical of him, strives to appear confident, uses delaying tactics to prevent Williamson from turning him down. At the same time, Mamet has incorporated the rhythms of desperation into Levene's speech. In Act II, when Levene tells the story of his sale, his enthusiasm and pride are unbounded and infectious. He carefully draws the scene, gives us enough detail without getting tedious, uses fluid phrasing to pull us along, and holds us in suspense as he recalls sitting silently at the kitchen table with the old couple for "twenty-two minutes by the kitchen clock'' until "they wilted all at once. No gesture ... nothing. Like together. They, I swear to God, they both kind of imperceptibly slumped.'' After this climax to the story, Levene provides a denouement as he quietly recalls having a small drink to solemnize the occasion: "Little shot glasses. A pattern in 'em. And we toast. In silence. (Pause.)" The story winds down gently and all are quiet in appreciation. The viewer may find reprehensible the fact that Levene has sold worthless land to old people who cannot afford it, but his story pulls us in and and we admire his performance nevertheless. The audience sees Levene the actor as masterful storyteller, and they also "see" Levene in a scene which he writes and in which he is the star actor. The viewer sees Levene selling himself.

Mamet based the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross to some extent on the men with whom he had worked for a year in a dubious real estate office in Chicago. He admired their ability to live by their wits and their dynamic addiction to what they did. He found them amazing. That does not mean that he approves of what they do. As he points out in Writing in Restaurants, "The desire to manipulate, to treat one's colleagues as servants, reveals a deep sense of personal worthlessness: as if one's personal thoughts, choices, and insights could not bear reflection, let alone a reasoned mutual examination." Behind all the foul-mouthed manipulation and boasting are people who are empty or nearly empty of humane values. They victimize others, but they are victims themselves of a system which offers no rewards but money and punishes failure by taking away the means of earning a living.

The mass media has created an audience who expect everything to be neatly summed up and easily spelled out for them, including laugh-tracks to tell them when to laugh and somber music to tell them when to be sad. They want simple answers, lessons. Then they will know what to say about the play, if they feel the need to say anything at all, and can go on the next diversion. But that is not the job of theatre and David Mamet does not do that for us. Glengarry Glen Ross is character-centered and the characters are expressed through fast-paced action. The audience is given an exceptional and disturbing experience. Later, when we think about that experience, there are plenty of clues to the deeper meanings in the play for those who are attuned. The experience becomes our experience to ponder.

Source: Tercy Browne, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Browne is an instructor at the State University of New York who specializes in drama.

Mamet's Jackals in Jackets

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

"It's contacts, Ben, contacts!" says Willy Loman. "Give me the leads!" exhorts Shelly (The Machine) Levene in David Mamet's dazzling new play, Glengarry Glen Ross. Willy dies the death of a salesman; Shelly says, "I was born for a salesman,'' but then suffers a fate that's a kind of grotesque counterpart to the ignominious end of Willy. Mamet's play is a funny and frightening descent into the Plutonic world of sleazy hucksters who peddle dubious real estate with deceptively poetic names like Glengarry Highlands and Glen Ross Farms.

Mamet's salesmen have created a lingo of their own, a semantic skullduggery that can fake out a prospective buyer with non sequiturs, triple-talk and a parody of philosophical wisdom that's breathtaking in its jackhammer effrontery. The first act of Glengarry Glen Ross consists of three colloquies in a murky Chinese restaurant as the salesmen spar and jockey with their fink of a boss (J. T. Walsh), with a befuddled client and with each other. The second act takes place in their sales office, which has been broken into and burglarized; a detective is on scene, and this squall of criminality blows open the hidden frustrations and ferocities of these jacketed jackals.

Mamet's pitchmen sandbag their gullible customers and slash away in cutthroat competition with each other, trying to win the "sales contests" their bosses use to drive them on, rewarding the winners with Cadillacs and the losers with threats of dismissal. Their code is pathetically macho; yet they have their own mystique, a perverse chivalry of chiselers. One of them recounts with almost mystic ecstasy how he nailed a deal with a pair of customers. "They signed, Ricky," he says. "It was great. It was like they wilted all at once. No gesture... nothing. Like together. They, I swear to God, they both kind of imperceptibly slumped. They signed. It was all so solemn."

Mamet seems to get more original as his career develops. His antiphonal exchanges, which dwindle to single words or even fragments of words and then explode into a crossfire of scatological buckshot, make him the Aristophanes of the inarticulate. He makes the filthiest male-to-male dialogue pop with the comic timing of Jack Benny or pile up into a profane poetry that becomes the music of desperation. In Glengarry Glen Ross Mamet appears to be trying to wed the uncompromising vision of moral primitivism in American Buffalo with a more accessible, even commercial appeal. The move is a good one, but it costs him something. His second act introduces elements of relatively conventional plotting and farce that occasionally wobble; the resolution of the real-estate-office ripoff doesn't quite ring true.

But in all other respects Mamet is better than ever. He's that rarity, a pure writer, and the synthesis he appears to be making, with echoes from voices as diverse as Beckett, Pinter and Hemingway, is unique and exciting.

Source: Jack Kroll, "Mamet's Jackals in Jackets," in Newsweek, Vol. CIII, No. 15, April 9, 1984, p. 109.

Theatre: A Mamet Play, Glengarry Glen Ross

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1157

The only mellifluous words in David Mamet's new play are those of its title—Glengarry Glen Ross. In this scalding comedy about small-time, cutthroat real-estate salesmen, most of the language is abrasive—even by the standards of the author's American Buffalo. If the characters aren't barking out the harshest four-letter expletives, then they're speaking in the clammy jargon of a trade in which "leads," "closings" and "the board" (a sales chart) are the holiest of imperatives. There's only one speech in which we hear about such intimacies as sex and loneliness—and that speech, to our shock, proves to be a pre-fabricated sales pitch.

Yet the strange—and wonderful—thing about the play at the Golden is Mr. Mamet's ability to turn almost every word inside out. The play wright makes all-American music—hot jazz and wounding blues—out of his salesman's scatological native lingo. In the jagged riffs of coarse, monosyllabic words, we hear and feel both the exhilaration and sweaty desperation of the huckster's calling. At the same time, Mr. Mamet makes his work's musical title into an ugly symbol of all that is hollow and vicious in the way of life his characters gallantly endure. The salesmen—middle-class bloodbrothers of the penny-ante Chicago hustlers of American Buffalo—are trying to unload worthless tracts of Florida land to gullible victims. It's the cruelest cut of all that that real estate is packaged into developments with names like "Glengarry Highlands'' and "Glen Ross Farms."

Mr. Mamet' s talent for burying layers of meaning into simple, precisely distilled, idiomatic language—a talent that can only be compared to Harold Pinter's—is not the sum of Glengarry Glen Ross. This may well be the most accomplished play its author has yet given us. As Mr. Mamet's command of dialogue has now reached its most dazzling pitch, so has his mastery of theatrical form. Beneath the raucous, seemingly inane surface of Glengarry one finds not only feelings but a detective story with a surprise ending. And there's another clandestine story, too, bubbling just underneath the main plot: Only as the curtain fails do we realize that one of the salesmen, brilliantly played by Robert Prosky, has traveled through an anguished personal history almost as complex as Willy Loman's.

So assured and uncompromising is Mr. Mamet's style that one must enter his play's hermetically sealed world completely—or risk getting lost. Taken at face value, the actual events, like the vocabulary, are minimal; the ferocious humor and drama are often to be found in the pauses or along the shadowy periphery of the center-stage action. But should this work fail to win the large public it deserves—a fate that has befallen other Mamet plays in their first Broadway outings—that won't be entirely because of its idiosyncratic form. Glengarry which was initially produced at London's National Theater last fall, is being seen here in a second production, from Chicago's Goodman Theater. Mr. Prosky's contribution aside, this solid but uninspired staging isn't always up to the crackling tension of the script.

In the half-hour-long first act, that tension is particularly Pinteresque. We watch three successive two-character confrontations that introduce the salesmen as they conduct business in the Chinese restaurant that serves as their hangout and unofficial office. The dialogue's unfinished sentences often sound like code; one whole scene turns on the colloquial distinction the characters draw between the phrases "speaking about'' and "talking about."

But these duologues in fact dramatize primal duels for domination, power and survival, and, as we penetrate the argot, we learn the Darwinian rules of the salesmen's game. Those who sell the most "units" receive a Cadillac as a bonus; those who hit "bad streaks" are denied access to management's list of "premiere leads" (appointments with likely customers). Worse, this entreprenurial system is as corrupt as it is heartless. The losing salesmen can still get leads by offering kickbacks to the mercurial young manager (J. T. Walsh) who administers the business for its unseen owners.

When the characters leave the dark restaurant for the brighter setting of the firm's office in Act II, Mr. Mamet's tone lightens somewhat as well. The office has been ransacked by burglars, and a detective (Jack Wallace) arrives to investigate. Even as the salesmen undergo questioning, they frantically settle fratricidal rivalries and attempt to bamboozle a pathetic, tearful customer (Lane Smith) who has arrived to demand a refund. As written (though not always as staged), Act II is farce in Chicago's "Front Page" tradition—albeit of a blacker contemporary sort. While we laugh at the comic cops-and-robbers hijinks, we also witness the unravelling of several lives.

The play's director is Gregory Mosher, Mr. Mamet's long-time Chicago collaborator. Mr. Mosher's work is often capable, but sometimes he italicizes Mr. Mamet's linguistic stylization: Whenever the actors self-consciously indicate the exact location of the text's hidden jokes and meanings, they cease being salesmen engaged in do-or-die warfare. This is not to say that the actors are inept— they're good. But, as we've seen with other Mamet works, it takes a special cast, not merely an adequate one, to deliver the full force of a play in which even the word "and'' can set off a theatrical detonation.

The actors do succeed, as they must, at earning our sympathy. Mr. Mamet admires the courage of these salesmen, who are just as victimized as their clients; the only villain is Mr. Walsh's manager—a cool deskman who has never had to live by his wits on the front lines of selling. Among the others, there's particular heroism in Mike Nussbaum, whose frightened eyes convey a lifetime of blasted dreams, and in Joe Mantegna, as the company's youngest, most dapper go-getter. When Mr. Mantegna suffers a critical reversal, he bravely rises from defeat to re-tighten his tie, consult his appointments book and march back to the Chinese restaurant in search of new prey.

Mr. Prosky, beefy and white-haired, is a discarded old-timer: in the opening scene, he is reduced to begging for leads from his impassive boss. Somewhat later, however, he scores a "great sale" and expands in countenance to rekindle his old confidence: Mr. Prosky becomes a regal, cigar-waving pontificator, recounting the crude ritual of a contract closing as if it were a grand religious rite.

Still, this rehabilitation is short-lived, and soon Mr. Prosky is trying to bribe his way back into his employer's favor. As we watch the bills spill from his pockets on to a desk, we at last see greenery that both befits and mocks the verdant words of the play's title. But there's no color in the salesman's pasty, dumbstruck face—just the abject terror of a life in which all words are finally nothing because it's only money that really talks.

Source: Frank Rich, "Theatre, A Mamet Play, Glengarry Glen Ross" in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXV, no. 4, March 5, 1984. Rich is an American editor and performing arts critic.


Critical Overview