Glengarry Glen Ross

by David Mamet

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The Play

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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 audience, however, does not realize that Levene is the culprit until the very end of the play).

Act 1, scene 3 closes at the restaurant, as Ricky Roma enters into what appears to be a friendly conversation with James Lingk, a stranger who happens by for a drink. Roma, the star of the sales team, quickly turns the conversation to business. Youthful and handsome, Roma exudes a certain flair, a personal style that clearly sets him apart from his colleagues. Whereas the others talk about their past conquests and how, with a little luck, future sales will restore them to the top of the sales chart, Roma produces. He quickly seizes the opportunity to talk with the unsuspecting Lingk about buying property.

In act 2, which consists of one extended episode, the burglary has already occurred: The office is in a shambles, and Baylen, a police detective, grills each man in an offstage back room. Having succumbed to Roma’s hard-sell tactics, Lingk decides to buy Glengarry Highlands. Lingk’s wife, however, vetoes the deal, prompting him to return unexpectedly to the office (the setting for the remainder of the play). Confused, Lingk attempts to cancel the transaction. Roma quickly enlists Levene, who happens to be in the office; together the two salesmen improvise, weaving a series of lies that serve to deepen Lingk’s confusion and buy extra time for Roma. If Roma can avoid Lingk for a bit longer, he will be locked into the purchase, regardless of his wish to void the contract. So the two sales partners invent a vaudevillian story to escape from the office and delay Lingk’s cancellation plans until...

(This entire section contains 796 words.)

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after the allowable three days.

The most effective and damaging lie Roma devises is his attempt to allay Lingk’s fears by professing friendship over business: “Forget the deal, Jimmy. (Pause.) Forget the deal . . . you know me.” Moments later, Roma adds, “Now I want to talk to you because you’re obviously upset and that concerns me.” Human compassion, he argues, overrules this particular business transaction. By this point, however, the audience is aware that all Roma really cares about is sales. He reduces Lingk’s marriage to a business venture, a mere legal agreement—and he nearly persuades Lingk. Moments later, however, Williamson’s smooth assurance—“Your check was cashed yesterday”—saves Lingk and costs Roma both this particular sale and the sales contest. Aware that he will not win the Cadillac, Roma explodes into a tirade.

The play draws to its close with Levene’s imminent arrest. Only now does the audience realize the identity of the burglar. After Levene’s (and perhaps Moss’s) arrest, life goes on as usual. In the now barren office, the remaining salesmen simply carry on. “I’ll be at the restaurant,” says Roma.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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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

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While most people may not be familiar with the inner workings of a high pressure real estate sales office, the world surrounding Glengarry Glen Ross in 1983, the year the play was completed and first performed, certainly made that world seem not only plausible but almost inevitable. The 1980s in American business were a time of corporate takeovers, both friendly and unfriendly, in which those engineering those takeovers reaped personal rewards in the tens of millions of dollars. Frequently, those takeovers were funded by high-yield "junk bonds," first proposed by Drexel Burnham Lambert executive Michael R. Milkin. Assets of the target company were pledged to repay the principal of the junk bonds, which yielded thirteen to thirty percent.

Former Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tonaka was convicted in Tokyo District Court October 12 of having accepted a $2.2 million bribe from Lockheed Corporation to use his influence to persuade All Nipon Airways to use Lockheed Tristar jets.

Social Security legislation was signed by President Reagan which delayed cost-of-living increases in payments and increased payroll deductions.

President Reagan told an evangelical group at Orlando, Florida, on March 8 that the Soviet Union was "an evil empire," and was "the focus of evil in the modern world." On March 23, President Reagan had proposed his "Strategic Defense Initiative," a high-tech shield of satellites that would use lasers to shoot down incoming enemy missiles. Senator Ted Kennedy dubbed the program "Star Wars," and few scientists believed the program to be possible despite its projected staggering costs.

On October 25, three thousand U.S. Marines, accompanied by three hundred military personnel from Caribbean nations, invaded the island nation of Grenada to topple "political thugs" who had taken over the government in a coup on October 12, and who seemed to be creating a new bastion for communism in the Caribbean.

November 2, President Reagan signed legislation to create a holiday in January to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, a holiday which is ignored by financial markets and most business firms.

Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt, who had fought to open federal lands to private exploitation including oil drilling, resigned October 9. He had caused outrage by lightheartedly declaring that his coal advisory commission was a well-balanced mix: "I have a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple."

In the Soviet Union, commercial fishing ceased in the Aral Sea. The draining of water from the inland sea's two source rivers in a massive project to irrigate surrounding desert had shrunk the sea by one third, doubled its salinity, and created an ecological disaster as winds blew chemically contaminated dust and salt from the sea bottom onto surrounding fields, poisoning water supplies and even mothers' milk.

In December, Chicago motorists began talking on cellular telephones in their cars, available at $3,000 plus $150 per month for service. The telephones quickly became not only handy business tools but highly desirable status symbols.

Cabbage Patch dolls became black market items as stores ran out of supplies.

Literary Style

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The structure of Glengarry Glen Ross is unusual. Act I consists of three brief scenes, each scene a duologue. Through these scenes we learn the jargon of the real estate sales world, come to know the characters involved, and are introduced to the possiblity of a burglary of the sales office by two of the salesmen. Act II has a more conventional structure and is similar to that of a mystery play in which the perpetration of the crime is sought and caught. However, it would be a mistake to think that the interest of Glengarry Glen Ross is sustained by the plot. The main action is contained in the language and takes place through the shifting relationships and stories of the characters.

Mamet is very clear about what is important in his plays. In one of his essays in Writing in Restaurants he points out that it is not the theme of the play to which we respond, but the action. In another essay in the same book he points out that "good drama has no stage directions. It is the interaction of the characters' objectives expressed solely by what they say to each other—not by what the author says about them.'' There is very little description even of the set in Glengarry Glen Ross and no directions for character action. Character is habitual action, and the author shows us what the characters do. It is all contained in the dialogue. There is no non-essential prose.

In Writing in Restaurants Mamet says, "Technique is knowledge of how to translate inchoate desire into clear action—into action capable of communicating itself to the audience." The Characters in Glengarry Glen Ross are created by the language they use and, for the salesmen, at least, their livelihoods depend on their use of language. This language is not used to communicate truth but rather to hide truth, to manipulate others, savagely attack each other, and to tell stories that celebrate victory—as Levine does when telling how he closed a deal for eight parcels of land. It is no mistake that the salesmen far outshine the office manager Williamson, the customer Lingk, and the police detective Baylen (although through the reactions of Aaranow and Moss we know that Baylen also uses language powerfully when he is in charge of the interrogation off stage in Williamson's office). Language is ammunition in the primal battles for power and survival.

It is widely agreed that Mamet has an exact ear for male dialogue (Robert Cushman, an English critic, says, "Nobody alive writes better American"). However, his language is not naturalistic, not an exact copy of how people really speak; it is very carefully structured. The speech patterns, repetitions, interruptions, hesitations, great outbursts of savage obscenities, and scatologocal bombs becomes a sort of poetry. Remember, stage dialogue is not written to be read but rather to be heard. Mamet's dialogue becomes musical. As Jack Shepard, the actor who played Roma in the first production, put it, "The rhythms are slick, fast, syncopated, like a drum solo." We hear and feel the power of the music and sense the fear, panic, and desolation beneath it. The rhythm and the action are the same; the salesmen use their arias or duets to impress and control their audience, whether that audience is a potential customer or a colleague, or the theatre audience. And the theatre audience can get caught in these stories just as the characters on stage can. Levene's story in Act II of the closing, his cutting away of nonessential words, the masterful uses of pauses in the storytelling, and the story itself (he tells of sitting silently for twenty-two minutes by the kitchen clock), and the solemn toast that took place after they signed, draws the audience into the world of Levene. Roma's speech to Lingk in Act I makes little logical sense, but it is masterful. Roma spins a tale filled with allusions to common bonds of sexuality, guilt, acceptance of oneself and of life, and builds a sense of male comradeship. He gives no pause in his double and triple talk except to allow Lingk to agree with him. Roma plays on Lingk's obvious need for male friendship. He uses language to fascinate and then, like a cobra, strikes with the sales presentation.

Dramatic IronyGlengarry Glen Ross is a very funny play in spite of its dark moral vision of a corrupt and demoralizing system. Part of the reason we are able to respond positively to the play is Mamet's use of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony means that the audience knows more than some or all of the characters. Mamet assumes that we will feel superior to the characters on stage, that we know we live in a better world and behave in a better manner than they. This allows us to feel superior. We also sense, and this too figures into the dramatic irony, that Mamet likes and even admires his characters. In spite of their venality, greed, immorality, lack of loyalty, and vicious lies, he sees them as victims of the system in which they are forced to strive. It is the system that forces them to use their considerable talents to achieve unworthy ends. The characters are quickwitted, brilliantly audacious, and display the sort of tenacity common to all great comic characters. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that, to some extent, we do admire these characters and so recognize ourselves in them.

Media Adaptations

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Glengarry Glen Ross was adapted as a film by David Mamet, directed by James Foley, and starring Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, Bruce Airman, and Jude Ciccolella; distributed by LIVE Entertainment, Movies Unlimited, Baker & Taylor Video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Bilhngton, Michael, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in Guardian, September 25, 1983.

Coveney, Michael, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in Financial Times, September 22, 1983.

Cushman, Robert, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in Observer, September 25, 1983.

Hirschhorn, Clive, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in Sunday Express, September 25, 1983.

Kissel, Howard, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in Womens Wear Daily, March 26, 1984.

Kroll, Jack, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in Newsweek, April 9, 1984.

Shulman, Milton, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in the Standard, September 22, 1983.

Watt, Douglas, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in the Daily News, March 26, 1984.

Bigsby, C. W. E., David Mamet, Methuen, 1985, p. 15.
The first book-length study of Mamet covers from the beginning through Glengarry Glen Ross. An excellent introduction to the approaches and themes of Mamet.

Carroll, Dennis, David Mamet, MacMillan, 1987, p. 155.
An excellent assessment of Mamet at mid-career, from the beginnings through Glengarry Glen Ross approached by thematic groupings.

Dean, Anne, David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action, Associated University Presses, 1990, pp. 96-197.
A brilliant analysis of Mamet's use of language, approached overall and play-by-play. There are also useful insights into themes and the rehearsal process taken from interviews by the author.

Gordon, Clive, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in the Spectator, September 27, 1983.
A remarkably unperceptive and arrogant review of the London production.

Kane, Leslie, Interview with Joe Mantegna, in her David Mamet: A Casebook, Garland, 1992, pp. 254-55, 259.
A fascinating look into the work of a fine actor in approaching and rehearsing a character. There are other essays in the Casebook that are helpful, notably "Power Plays: David Mamet's Theatre of Manipulation" by Henry I. Schvey; and "Comedy and Humor in the Plays of David Mamet" by Christopher C. Hudgins.

Mamet, David, Writing in Restaurants, Penguin, 1986, pp. 3, 6, 13, 14, 20, 32, 116, 124-25.
A broad range of essays that are very useful in understanding of Mamet's view of theatre, tradition, technique, and life in general.

Rich, Frank, Review of Glengarry Glen Ross in the New York Times, March 26, 1984.
A long, rich, and insightful review of the New York production.


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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 “Business” compares Glengarry Glen Ross with another popular Mamet play, American Buffalo (1975).

Davis, J. Madison, and John Coleman. “David Mamet: A Classified Bibliography,” in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present. Vol. 1, 1986.

Dean, Anne. David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action. London: Associated University Presses, 1990. Focuses on Mamet’s poetic use of the American vernacular. Contains many quotes from five of Mamet’s plays and devotes a chapter to Glengarry Glen Ross.

Jones, Nesta, and Steven Dykes, comps. File on Mamet. London: Methuen, 1991. This small book is packed with useful information about David Mamet, including excerpts from reviews of various performances of Glengarry Glen Ross. Detailed chronology and a bibliography.

Mamet, David. Interview with Matthew C. Roudane, in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present. Vol. 1, 1986.

Mamet, David. Writing in Restaurants. New York: Viking Penguin, 1986. A collection of thirty essays in which Mamet expresses his thoughts about a number of subjects, including the theater and film making in Hollywood.

Roudane, Matthew C. “Public Issues, Private Tensions: David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross,” in The South Carolina Review. XIX (1986), pp. 35-47.

Storey, Robert. “The Making of David Mamet,” in The Hollins Critic. XVI (October, 1979), pp. 1-11.


Critical Essays


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