The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Glengarry Glen Ross opens with various members of a real estate sales force talking about their all-consuming passion: selling property to anyone who comes within their orbit. The men are preoccupied with securing the precious “leads,” tips that will put them in contact with potential buyers. Throughout the first act, the men remind one another that whoever rises to the top of the sales chart will win the ultimate prize—a Cadillac. The runner-up will win a set of steak knives; those who fail to produce will simply be fired. All of act 1, consisting of three quick-paced scenes, takes place in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago.

By the time the first act concludes, it is clear that these men are under enormous pressure to sell land—any land, even when its value is dubious—to any client who happens by. Shelley Levene, one of the older members of the sales team, pleads with John Williamson, the office manager, for good (rather than bogus) leads that will allow him to recover from his sales slump. Williamson, wanting to see only one thing—sales—shows little interest in Levene’s desperate pleas. In turn, the salesmen lament how bad business has been and what a cutthroat profession selling real estate has become. All of them appear on edge, but the fiftyish Levene and Dave Moss seem especially driven. All the men are garbed appropriately in business suits, but as the play progresses their appearance degenerates until they are haggard and disheveled.

Since selling has failed him, Moss resorts to crime, scheming to steal the precious leads that Williamson keeps in the safe, ransack the office to make it appear that someone from the outside committed the crime, and then sell the leads to rival brokers. The bigoted Moss tries in act 1, scene 2 to enlist the kindly George Aaronow to be the hit man in the burglary, but Aaronow, who acts as the raissonneur, refuses. Moss then turns to the desperate Levene (the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

In performances of Glengarry Glen Ross, what strikes audiences most forcefully is the characters’ offensive language. Language is David Mamet’s primary means of making vivid the plight of these salesmen. Through language, he yokes together the public and private worlds of his characters. In elided street talk, in glib business jargon, the values, personal politics, and (usually limited) perceptions of his characters emerge. On a thematic level, his language reveals not only the characters’ sensibilities but also the extent of their personal entrapment. Many of Mamet’s characters seem imprisoned within a cosmos largely created by their own distorted use of language. His men and women seem aware of humane values, though they lack the vocabulary to pinpoint such values. Herein lies the subtlety of the playwright’s often-misunderstood language and aesthetic.

The language of Glengarry Glen Ross objectifies the nature of the salesmen’s obsessive pursuit of sales. Mamet has often been cited for employing realistic street language, but this play’s language is not realistic. It is adorned, overdone, the relentless swearing exaggerated for theatrical purposes. The language gauges the intensity of the salesmen’s desperation and the brutal pressures of selling in a society in which, according to Mamet, selling is tacitly perceived as conmanship. Some may think Glengarry Glen Ross flawed because of its overuse of expletives, but when audiences understand Mamet’s aesthetic—that the language functions as a kind of street poetry, a deliberately embellished dialogue—then the acerbity of the language takes on nonrealistic qualities. Even these salesmen, Mamet would concede, do not talk this way all the time; rather, they talk this way for two hours to assault the audience, to shock the spectator into a new awareness regarding one of America’s primary practices—selling. Their speech communicates the enervating influence that selling exerts on the spirit of the individual.

Another dramatic device Mamet uses is an old-fashioned whodunit plot. The playwright keeps the audience off-balance with several plot reversals. Although it is clear that Moss initiated the burglary scheme, not until Baylen arrests Levene does the audience know who the culprit is.

The setting, too, contributes to the impact of the play. The second act occurs in a topsy-turvy, colorless, barren office, a metaphor for the spiritual state of these small-time real estate peddlers.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Chinese restaurant

Chinese restaurant. Act 1 takes place in what is understood to be a typical Chinese restaurant in any large American city. No description of the interior is provided except that it has booths. Unlike many Chinese restaurants, this establishment serves alcoholic beverages, as the reader learns when Roma buys a round of gimlets for himself and Lingk. The salesmen are always talking about big sums of money, but they give the impression that they subsist on dishes of rice or noodles and chopped up vegetables. The restaurant is not much more than a door or two away from their office.

Real estate office

Real estate office. This place looks like every other real estate office in a big city, except that it has been ransacked. A broken window has been boarded up, and there is broken glass all over the floor. Even the telephones have been stolen in a vain attempt to divert suspicion from the real purpose of the burglary, to steal the fabulous Glengarry Glen Ross leads. It is immediately obvious that there is little in such an office worth stealing because no merchandise or money is kept on the premises. There is an outer office for the salesmen and an inner office for the manager, where Baylen, the detective, questions the salesmen one by one.

*Glengarry Glen Ross

*Glengarry Glen Ross. Real estate subdivision in far-off Florida, parcels of which are sold sight unseen by the high-pressure salesmen. The outlandishly romantic Scottish name, designed to help attract mailed-in “leads,” suggests the ironic contrast to the likely reality—flat, barren, grossly overpriced land infested with mosquitos and alligators, totally unimproved except for a billboard promising a future retirement paradise.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

While most people may not be familiar with the inner workings of a high pressure real estate sales office, the world...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The structure of Glengarry Glen Ross is unusual. Act I consists of three brief scenes, each scene a duologue....

(The entire section is 915 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Read The Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and compare the view of selling in that play with that in Glengarry Glen Ross. Is...

(The entire section is 118 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Glengarry Glen Ross was adapted as a film by David Mamet, directed by James Foley, and starring Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris,...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

American Buffalo, Mamet's 1975 play about three low-life men plotting to steal a rare coin, gives another slant on Mamet's view of...

(The entire section is 146 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Clive, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in the New York Post, March 26, 1984.


(The entire section is 343 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Adler, Thomas P. Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama, 1987.

Bigsby, C. W. E. David Mamet. New York: Methuen, 1985. A study of the life and work of David Mamet, with one chapter devoted to a detailed discussion of Glengarry Glen Ross. This first book-length study of Mamet presents an interesting portrait of Mamet that is based partly on personal interviews.

Carroll, Dennis. David Mamet. New York: Macmillan, 1987. An in-depth study of Mamet’s plays, grouping them thematically, with chapters on business, sex, learning, and communion. The chapter on...

(The entire section is 284 words.)