Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Glengarry Glen Ross questions.

Shelly Levene and John Williamson

David Mamet's play shows the author as a perfectionist. He orchestrates the dialogue like a composer, sometimes directing two characters to keep interrupting each other or to speak at once. Mamet seems to have chosen his characters' names with great care. Shelly's reminds the audience of the English Romantic poet Percy Shelley. This is appropriate because Shelly Levene has a vivid, though crooked, creative imagination and a sort of vernacular eloquence. By contrast, John Williamson could not possibly have a more commonplace name. It sounds like an unoriginal alias. His name makes him seem anonymous, invisible, ineffectual, stereotypical, a colorless factotum--but he surprises Shelly and the audience.

Mamet planned his play to be full of surprises at the end. John Williamson, who has taken scathing verbal abuse from Shelly Levene and even more from Richard Roma, suddenly reveals his intelligence, suppressed emotions, and moral strength when he makes Shelly confess to being the one who broke into the office, faked a generalized burglary, and stole those precious Glen Garry leads. Naturally everyone in the audience has been thinking that George Aaronow is the guilty party, just as everyone has been thinking that John Williamson is a total wimp, and just as everyone has been pleased to hear that Shelly has broken his bad streak by selling eight units of Mountain View to Bruce and Harriett Nyborg for $82,000. Williamson not only demoralizes Shelly by deducing that he burglarized the office and by forcing him to implicate Dave Moss, but he destroys Shelly completely by telling him that the Nyborgs are "nuts." Williamson says, "The people are insane. They just like talking to salesmen." At the end, Shelly Levene is a broken man.

Richard Roma's Hidden Agenda

One of the many surprises in David Mamet's excellent play Glengarry Glen Ross is Ricky Roma's revelation of his crafty and venal character at the very end. Roma has pretended to share in Shelly Levene's triumph when the aging salesman bursts into the office and announces that he just finished selling eight units of Mountain View for $82,000 and is "back on the board." Roma wants to hear all about the sale. He keeps calling him "Levene the Machine," praising and flattering him, defending him from Dave Moss, and finally suggesting that he would like to go into partnership with Shelly. He shows what he has in mind in the following:

"Shel: I want to talk to you. I've wanted to talk to you for some time. For a long time, actually. I said, "The Machine, there's a man I would work with. There's a man. . . . You know? I never said a thing. I should have, don't know why I didn't. And that shit you were slinging on my guy today was so good . . . it . . . it was, and, excuse me, 'cause it isn't even my place to say it. It was admirable . . . it was the old stuff. Hey. I've been on a hot streak, so what? There's things that I could learn from you. You eat today?"

But then, near the very end of the play, when Shelly is pushed into the side room to make a formal confession to the cop named Baylen, Roma says:

"Williamson: listen to me: when the leads come in . . . listen to me: when the  leads come in I want my top two off the list. For me. My usual two. Anything you give Levene . . . . Do you understand? My stuff is mine, his stuff is ours. I'm taking half of his commissions--now, you work it out."

Roma obviously doesn't know that Shelly is going to be taken out in handcuffs and will lose his license and probably go to jail. What Roma has in mind is accompanying Shelly on his "sits" but keeping his own sits all to himself. All his flattery has been leading up to a selfish proposition. He thinks Shelly will go for the idea of a partnership because Shelly has been running cold and Roma has been running hot. Roma is still young. Shelly is getting old and demoralized, not unlike Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Eventually Shelly would have found out that Roma was not sharing his own leads with him but helping himself to half of Shelly's; in the meantime Roma might have made a lot of extra money, and he might have even been able to continue the partnership arrangement if he had proved Levene could make more money with his help than he could make going out on sits by himself.

The way Roma proposed to cheat Shelly is similar to the way Dave Moss cheated Shelly on the sale of the the Glengarry leads to Jerry Graff. Shelly stole them but Moss took them to Graff and gave Shelly $2500, probably keeping around $5000 for himself. Moss was planning to do the same thing with Aaronow, but Aaronow backed out and Moss enlisted Shelly at the last minute.

Who Can Be Trusted in Glengarry Glen Ross?

The salesmen in David Mamet's acclaimed play Glengarry Glen Ross are bilking the public by selling them land that could be completely worthless or worth only a fraction of what they paid. It is natural that such unscrupulous businessmen should behave the same way towards their colleagues.

Richard Roma seems to be above such chicanery. When he has his argument with Dave Moss he tells him, in effect, that they should all be pals and allies. It looks as if Roma and George Aaronow are at least honest with their co-workers. The others demonstrate by their behavior within the office that they know this is a dog-eat-dog world and they are going to be the dog that eats rather than the dog that gets eaten.

Dave Moss tries to exploit George Aaronow by involving him in a plot to burglarize the office and steal the coveted Glengarry leads. We later learn that Moss exploited Shelly Levene's financial distress by getting him to commit the crime after Moss apparently realized that Aaronow would not cooperate or would not make an effective burglar.

John Williamson, the office manager, intends to exploit Shelly Levene by selling him "the good leads" for fifty dollars apiece plus twenty percent of any commissions. Later Williamson will trick Shelly into confessing that he burglarized the office by pretending that he won't tell if Shelly confesses. Then when Shelly admits the truth, Williamson goes directly to Baylen the investigating cop. 

Levene betrays Dave Moss and also betrays Jerry Graff, who could go to prison for knowingly receiving stolen property. George Aaronow so far has not betrayed Dave Moss for suggesting the burglary to him earlier, but he could get around to it if Moss brought Aaronow's name into it, as he had threatened to do.

Mitch and Murray, of course, are exploiting the entire sales staff and trying to exploit the general public. Moss is referring to them when he says: "I'll go in and rob everyone blind and go to Argentina cause nobody ever thought of this before."

Roma is trying to exploit James Lingk and his wife by selling them subdivided plots of land at exorbitant prices. When Lingk comes to the office Roma lies to him that his check has not yet been cashed, so there is no urgency about cancelling the contract.

Levene is a pathetic character, but he tries to exploit Williamson by faking a burglary and stealing all the Glengarry leads. Levene is also injuring Mitch and Murray as well as his fellow salesmen Roma and Aaronow.

Shelly Levene also tries to help Roma cheat Lingk by posing as a big executive with American Express and lying outrageously about all the land he has supposedly bought from Roma. Levene is a somewhat sympathetic character, but he is the biggest liar of them all because he is the best.

At the very end of the play (but not the film version) Roma reveals his superlative deceitfulness when he tells Williamson he wants to keep his own leads but share Shelly's with him fifty-fifty. Not knowing that Shelly is out of the real estate business and probably on his way to prison, Roma tells Williamson: "Well I'm going to worry about it, and so are you, so shut up and listen. (Pause) I GET HIS ACTION. My stuff is mine, whatever he gets for himself, I'm taking half. You put me in with him." We see that Roma, who has just been flattering and cajoling Shelly, calling him Levene the Machine, is the greediest, craftiest, and most ruthless one of all. He plans to take half of Shelly's commissions without giving him a nickel of his own commissions. Some partnership!

The salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross have become so competitive and so hardened by their profession that they can turn against each other without pity. Such salesmen were called "land sharks" at the time the play was produced, and like sharks they are capable to turning on a bleeding member of their own species and devouring it to slake their insatiable hunger.

Moss, Aaronow, Levene: Three Desperate Men

In Glengarry Glen Ross some of the salesmen are becoming demoralized because they aren't "closing." They may not realize it, but their problem is that the general public is getting wise to the scams that are being perpetrated all over the United States. The typical scam was to buy a large section of very cheap land in a place like Hawaii, Florida, or Arizona, and then subdivide it into lots. This was sometimes hard to do because the developer had to get authorization from the state's real estate commissioner, and the commissioner should have known that the land in question was in a swamp, or on the side of an active volcano, or out in the middle of a desert full of rattlesnakes and coyotes where the temperature could go as high as 120 degrees in the summer. The salesmen would be given "leads" obtained from coupons mailed in by people responding to specious ads in newspapers and magazines; and they would also be given brochures showing what the development was supposed to look like when it was fully completed. They would have shopping, restaurants, golf courses, club houses, fountains, artificial lakes, and other amenities. Most of the people who bought the lots were starting to think about their future retirement. It was not typical for most buyers to invest large sums of money, as they do in Mamet's play, because most of them didn't have that kind of money. It was fairly common practice for a salesman to collect a very small down payment, as little as $100, and then get the buyers to sign a contract to make small monthly payments for many years until the price was paid in full, with interest. A lot might be sold for as little as $2500. The salesman got to keep part or all of the down payment for his commission. The buyers were not given deeds to the property as a rule but were buying on what was called a "land contract," which is not much different from the way people buy cars, furniture, and jewelry. The buyers forfeited everything they had paid if they failed to make one or two payments. If they finally paid off the entire purchase price, they would then get the title deed. Many buyers defaulted on the payments after they had taken a good look at the lots they had bought sight-unseen. The developer would then sell the lots to other gullible people. But word got around that many of the lots were worthless. Nobody was actually living on any of them, except perhaps for a few hermit-types living in house trailers. There must have been a lot of high-level collusion. The developer was doing nothing to develop the land except bulldozing a few dirt roads and driving little stakes with strips of colored cloth attached to them to indicate the locations of the various lots.

Dave Moss, George Aaronow, and Shelly Levene are getting old and desperate. One of the main themes of David Mamet's play is that desperate men will do desperate deeds. Robbing the office for the Glengarry leads is symbolic of what men will do when they have families to support, when they are heavily in debt, and when they are running out of money. When the real estate bubble burst around 2007, it was largely because men just like Moss, Aaronow and Levene were arranging mortgage loans for people who were almost certain to default. These loans were then "packaged" and sold to investors, who probably expected a certain number of foreclosures but could not foresee that most of the loans were based on utterly false credit information--or no information at all! It was often referred to ironically as "creative financing" or "mickeymousing." A lot of the packages of mortgaged loans must have been bought by foreign investors, especially in the oil-rich Middle East, who were looking for high interest on their ever-growing billions and assumed that any land in America must be as good as gold.

Ricky Roma and John Williamson are crooked too. Roma is deliberately trying to stall his buyer James Lingk by telling him his check hasn't been cashed yet, and Williamson thinks he is helping out by saying that he sent the check in and it had been cashed. Aaronow is perhaps the most honest of all the men in the office, but he was obviously considering going along with Moss's idea of faking a burglary and stealing the new Glengarry leads to sell to Jerry Graff, who is guilty of receiving stolen property. It might not have been Aaronow who backed out of the deal but Moss who changed his mind and took Levene as a partner instead. Levene was probably not hard to persuade because he is the most desperate of all. 

Moss, Aaronow, and Levene are like passengers on a sinking ship. They are desperate--and their desperation doesn't help them in "closing" deals, because prospects sense their anxiety and neediness. Such feelings are subtle but can be sensed and even transferred to the prospects themselves.

How their jobs affect Moss, Aaronow and Levene

There seems to be something draining and debilitating about the type of work these salesmen do. Ricky Roma has not been visibly affected yet because he is still young and full of energy and great expectations. But the other three principals, Dave Moss, Shelly Levene, and George Aaronow, all seem old before their times. It is almost as if they are being punished for all the lying and cheating they have to do in order to sell worthless or grossly overvalued land. They have to keep radically irregular hours because they need to get husbands and wives together on their sits. They have to get both signatures on the contract, and this usually means going to their homes at night, perhaps sitting there for hours making friendly conversation, and then either having a few drinks to celebrate or a few drinks to cheer them up because they failed to close. They do not eat regular meals at regular times. They gobble down short orders in restaurants that seem to stay open all night. The fact that they spend so much time eating and drinking at a Chinese restaurant seems to symbolize their de facto homelessness; it is as if they are living in far-away China. Dave Moss may have a wife and children but he says nothing about them. Shelly Levene seems to have no one except a grown daughter who is under intensive care in a hospital. George Aaronow gives the impression of being completely alone in the world. They are being driven by the office manager John Williamson and by the higher-ups Mitch and Murray who never appear in person. They are continually reminded that they should always be closing. They must dream about closing customers in their sleep. They are actually always closing because they are always thinking about closing, talking about closing, remembering their successful closings, and planning tactics for future closings of new prospects. Furthermore, they cannot be sure that the deals they close will stay closed. We see that buyers by law have three working days in which to change their minds. And many of them probably do, because it doesn't make good sense to buy land you have never seen. At one point Shelly Levene tells John Williamson, "A man is his job." If a man has a secure job that pays well and is socially useful, he can enjoy life and spend quality time with his family. But these men have fallen into a pit and can't get out. They are chronically depressed, overworked, and scared. They never have a moment in which they don't have at least one problem to worry about. Every time the phone rings it can mean trouble. Not only that, but they hate each other because they are all competing for some prize or just to hang on to their jobs. We pity all three of them, but Shelly Levene is the most pitiful because he is losing his Midas touch with advancing age. He is growing desperate and panicked, and these feelings create a poor impression on his prospects regardless of how he tries to hide them behind a mask of friendliness, cheerfulness, and supreme self-confidence. He is doomed, and his arrest for stealing the Glengarry leads only expedites his complete ruination.

Ricky Roma and Shelly Levene

When Shelly Levene comes into the office elated after having sold $82,000 worth of land to Bruce and Harriett Nyborg, Ricky Roma praises and flatters him, encouraging him to talk all he wants about how he closed the deal. The viewer believes Roma is sincere in his admiration of an older professional. However, Mamet plants one subtle clue in the dialogue between these men which should alert the viewer that Roma has an ulterior motive for giving Levene such attention and flattery.

Roma (To Levene): You were saying? (Pause) Come on. Come on, you were in the kitchen, you got the stats spread out, you're in your shirt-sleeves, you can smell it. Huh? Snap out of it, you're eating her crumb cake. (Pause)

Levene: I'm eating her crumb cake . . .

Roma: How was it . . . ?

Levene: From the store.

I think we have all had the experience of pretending to be interested in someone's anecdote when we're really not, when we really have something different on our minds, some different objective, something we want from the person we're pretending to listen to. But we can give ourselves away by showing an interest in some detail that is trivial and intrinsically uninteresting. This is what Roma seems to be doing with asking about the crumb cake. What does he care about the crumb cake? As a salesman, Roma knows that you often have to do a lot of talking about a lot of nonsense before you get around to talking about "closing." He just wants to keep Shelly talking. He is setting him up. Shelly might ordinarily become suspicious of all this feigned interest in his deal, but he is in seventh heaven because he has finally broken his losing streak--he thinks! He is back on the board. He is reinvigorated, rejuvenated, still rather dazed and ecstatic.

In the motion picture version of Glengarry Glen Ross, Ricky Roma, somewhat inexplicably, does not ask Williamson to give him half of Shelly's future leads, as he does in the play. This makes Ricky come across as a nicer guy. But in the play we can see that he is probably the most greedy and the most ruthless of all these greedy and ruthless salesmen. He proposes working with Shelly as partners, and then later, not knowing that Shelly is going to be arrested for burglarizing the office, he corners Williamson and reveals his true intentions.

"Well I'm going to worry about it, and so are you, so shut up and listen. (Pause) I GET HIS ACTION. My stuff is mine, whatever he gets for himself, I'm taking half. You put me in with him."