Glengarry Glen Ross

by David Mamet

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What influenced David Mamet to write Glengarry Glen Ross and what are its main themes?

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David Mamet was influenced to write Glengarry Glen Ross out of a serious interest in the kind of people who quietly go about their lives, performing “regular” jobs, and who endure indignities large and small on a daily basis, simply trying to earn a living.  That Mamet had himself worked as a real-estate salesman early in his career certainly contributed to his interest in portraying this particular profession in the gritty style for which the playwright is known.  Rather than speculate, though, one can simply read Mamet’s own comments regarding Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.  In a 1997 interview with Paris Review, Mamet described the inspiration for this play:

“That’s how Glengarry got started. I was listening to conversations in the next booth and I thought, My God, there’s nothing more fascinating than the people in the next booth. You start in the middle of the conversation and wonder, What the hell are they talking about? And you listen heavily. So I worked a bunch of these scenes with people using extremely arcane language—kind of the canting language of the real-estate crowd, which I understood, having been involved with them—and I thought, Well, if it fascinates me, it will probably fascinate them too. If not, they can put me in jail.”  

And, in a 2001 compilation of interviews with Mamet [David Mamet in Conversation, University of Michigan Press], he told the interviewer that the script for Glengarry Glen Ross was the product of his interest in working-class individuals and the struggles they endure:

Hank Nuwer: What is the premise behind Glengarry Glen Ross?

David Mamet: This play is very much about work and about how one is altered by one's job.

Hank Nuwer: The main characters are real estate salesmen whose job is peddling worthless property. Are you dumping on such salesmen?

David Mamet: I don't write plays to dump on people. I write plays about people whom I love and am fascinated by. A lot of times I want to write letters to newspapers to dump on people, but, gratefully, I can usually resist that impulse.

Hank Nuwer: Glengarry Glen Ross's characters are all frustrated in their struggles to attain success. Are you optimistic that an individual can get what he wants out of life?

David Mamet: Sure. The only person who can get what he wants is the individual man. You can't do it as a race; you can't do it as a culture. In the theater an individual has to come to terms with what he wants and how capable he is of getting it. Making peace with the gods--that's what drama is all about. 

The themes of Glengarry Glen Ross involve the indignities endured by men struggling to prevail in a competitive environment in which ethics or moral codes are an afterthought.  Mamet’s plays and screenplays frequently involve moral dilemmas, such as the New York City homicide investigator whose Jewish faith is reignited in the midst of a politically-sensitive investigation (Homicide), and the college professor accused of sexual harassment under very questionable circumstances (Oleanna).  In Glengarry, those moral dilemmas exist as part of the everyday responsibilities of the real-estate profession.  The salesmen are under enormous pressure to sale property of dubious merit or lose their jobs – an onerous proposition for middle-aged men with families.  It has been suggested that masculinity and the intense competition to demonstrate one’s virility through professional success constitutes another theme of Mamet’s play.  Certainly, his body of work, with Glengarry a noteworthy example, indicates a strong preference for depictions of men interacting in a professional environment.  It is reasonable to suggest that this is a central theme of his play.

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What influenced David Mamet to write Glengarry Glen Ross? Also what are the main themes to this play? Are these themes relevant to his life?

I think one of the things that motivated David Mamet to write Glengarry Glen Ross was the fact that salesmen make excellent characters because they are fairly ordinary people but they are more articulate and often more eloquent than most ordinary people. So a stage play, which consists almost entirely of dialogue, can seem quite natural and realistic when you have a bunch of men doing nothing but talking. Most ordinary people do not do a great deal of talking. They are not good at expressing themselves if they haven't had a lot of practice. In Mamet's play Ricky Roma, Dave Moss, and Shelly Levene are all quite articulate. George Aaronow may have been more articulate when he was younger and more self-confident, but he seems to be losing his marbles. He makes a sharp contrast to Roma, Moss, and Levene because he hardly ever speaks a complete sentence. He is always struggling to get something out. He is something of a paradox--a tongue-tied salesman. The office manager John Williamson is not a salesman but a manager, and he does not seem very articulate either. Often he says nothing but, "Mmm." It is surprising when he attacks Levene at the end and forces him to confess he burglarized the office. But even then Williamson uses a lot of body language. He keeps turning to go into the inner office to report Levene to the detective. Williamson keeps repeating the same words too. "How do you know I made it up?" "What did you do with the leads?" The cop is not articulate either. He asks questions, he doesn't answer them. And James Lingk, who is not a salesman, has a terrible time expressing himself. He just gets out a few words at a time, like "the check" and "the deal." The name Lingk quite appropriately sounds like a tongue-twister. Ricky Roma can obviously talk rings around James Lingk and keep him confused and tongue-tied. No doubt Lingk's wife does most of the talking in their family--and she will do plenty of talking to the attorney general. Although the play is shockingly full of bad language, some of it is oddly poetic, which may explain why Glengarry Glen Ross was such a success.

The 1992 movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross is a must-see production, because the play is so good and brings together such a talented cast. It was a labor of love for the top actors who appeared in it--Al Pacino as Ricky Roma, Jack Lemmon as Shelly Levene, Alan Arkin as George Aaronow, Ed Harris as Dave Moss, and Kevin Spacey as John Williamson. Alec Baldwin is memorable as the brutally aggressive super-salesman called Blake, acting as the hatchet-man for Mitch and Murray. That part did not exist in the original stage play but was written into the film script by Mamet himself. Jonathan Pryce is also excellent as the self-conscious, inarticulate James Lingk. Mamet sometimes has nearly all of them onstage at once, all arguing, circulating, asking questions, insulting, swearing, selling, closing. That is something very hard for a writer to do. It takes genius.

At the time he wrote the play around 1982, David Mamet believed that capitalism was bad because it brings out the worst in people. He has since changed his mind and has become ultra-conservative in his political views.

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What influenced David Mamet to write Glengarry Glen Ross? Also what are the main themes to this play? Are these themes relevant to his life?

Wile attending college in Vermont, Chicago-born David Mamet, who claimed that he gleaned his earlier educational foundation in the Chicago Public Library, discovered his love for the theater. His techniques and philosophy of acting and writing were greatly influenced by Sanford Meisner, who placed emphasis not on "method" acting which emphasizes internalization, but on outward and practical techniques. One such technique is in dialogue such as that of his play Glengarry Glen Ross; what has come to be termed "Mamet Speak" involves turning language and meaning into innuendos and deceptive designs. For instance, in this dialogue, two salesmen [Dave Moss and George Aaronow] contemplate stealing from the office of their employer as they equivocate upon the meanings of the verbs to talk and to speak:

MOSS    No. What do you mean? Have I talked to him about this[Pause]
AARONOW    Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just...
MOSS    No, we're just...
AARONOW    We're just "talking" about it.
MOSS    We're just speaking about it. [Pause] As an idea.
AARONOW    As an idea.
MOSS    Yes.
AARONOW We're not actually talking about it.
MOSS    No.

The ideas for this play came from Mamet's actual experience as an office manager at a real estate office in Vermont in 1969. His job became the character Williamson's job and other parts came from Mamet's observations of other workers there. In Mamet's most celebrated play, the salesmen's belief in unfettered competition is at the core of their concept of the American Dream. One critic writes that Arthur Miller's

Death of a Salesman eulogizes the death of the American Dream; Glengarry Glen Ross takes this death as a given and uses it as a starting point for deeper social criticism.

Along with the theme of Business Practices in which competition is unfettered by government regulations, there is also the theme of Language as a business tool and a mode of characterization. Mamet insisted upon realistic language and inflections as they are the tools of a salesman as successful salesmen manipulate language to their advantage and persuade their customers to buy their products. Indeed, because of his first-hand experience in the sales world, Mamet's play is graphically realistic.

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