Glengarry Glen Ross

by David Mamet

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What similarities exist between Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross?

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Shelley "The Machine" Levene, as his nickname suggests, used to be a hot-shot salesman back in the day. But like Willy Loman, his best days are well and truly behind him. Both men have become dinosaurs, unable to compete in the rapidly-changing world of salesmanship. Yet despite all their troubles,...

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they hold fast to the idea that something is bound to turn up and transform their fortunes. The American Dream and all it represents exerts a tenacious hold on these two old has-beens; in fact, one might argue that it's all they have left.

Shelley and Willy pride themselves on being family men, but their delusions have a negative impact on the people they're supposed to care about. Willy's fantasies are passed on to his sons, who like their old man are incapable of getting on in life. As for Shelley, his last-ditch resort to criminality ensures that his sick daughter won't get the health care she so desperately needs.

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Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Shelly Levene in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross are both feeling the effects of getting old in a competitive world. They are not only losing their zest and energy, but they are losing the charm that comes with youth and departs with age. Shelly especially seems to feel that he still has that old youthful charm, but it looks a little phony on him now. Willy can hardly even pretend to have that old youthful zest and charm. He is pretty much burned out. Both have begun to live in the past. Both keep talking about how great they used to be and what big deals they pulled off. They have started to look backward. This indicates that they are not keeping up with changing conditions in the world in general and in their businesses in particular. Willy does not recognize that he is pushing old-fashioned merchandise, while Shelly does not recognize that the public is not as gullible as it used to be about buying retirement property in distant places. There is nothing either of them could do about these problems even if they recognized them, but they do not even want to recognize them because they are liviing on hopes and dreams.

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Of course they are both salesmen, but the dramatic situation is one where the men's personal moral codes are challenged by their circumstances.  In both plays, the business world is changing for the worse.  The men are finding that the "dog eat dog" competitive world where they once thrived is now eating at their very souls.  Willy's (1949) request for a new route, closer to his family, results in his getting fired, but the problem is not his competitors.  In Glengary Glen Ross, Shelly (1984) is in direct conflict with his fellow-salesmen; the two playwrights are decades apart both in real time and in the world of business where they function.  As playwrights, Miller and Mamet are very far apart -- one important difference is the three-act vs. two-act play format, which both require a different structure of plot and resolution.  The important similarities are the necessity of resorting to questionable acts because of business competition.  The important difference, however, is that we see Willy's home and family environment, and at the end of his career, but with Levine we are always in the business environment, so Mamet can use his own business experiences to build the Shelly character.  Willy is much more sympathetic, and much more a Jungian character type (Will He? Low man), while Shelly is closer to a real criminal type, who will disregard the law for his own profit.  They are both dramatizations of what the business world does to individuals.

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