Glengarry Glen Ross

by David Mamet

Start Free Trial

Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Glengarry Glen Ross extends David Mamet’s exploration of a world where business reigns supreme. Avarice is the force that motivates the characters in their single-minded quest to secure the precious leads, buffalo clients by spinning any fact or fiction necessary to close the deal, and rise to the top of the sales chart. Like Mamet’s earlier plays American Buffalo (pr. 1975) and The Water Engine (pr. 1977), Glengarry Glen Ross relies on the American dream as its ideological backdrop, the social and cultural milieu on which the drama revolves. In their noble yet pathetic efforts to sell real estate, the small-time sellers in Glengarry Glen Ross are living the myth. The problem is that the salesmen sell not only land but themselves as well.

The play spotlights the connection between the public self—the smooth-talking, eager-to-please salesmen—and the private self—the anguished characters’ inner reality. In the play’s compelling presentation of a series of particular events that suddenly broaden to encompass more universal experiences, all the characters emerge as essentially tragic figures. In their confrontations, Mamet examines the wider tragedy of modern existence itself.

The public and private unite within Glengarry Glen Ross because of the salesmen’s acceptance of the American dream as a talismanic cultural force. The salesmen subscribe to two principles inherent in the free enterprise system: first, that competition is the backbone of democratic capitalism, and second, that competition prospers best when business judgments are unfettered by government interference. Such a deep-rooted belief in uninhibited competition is what drives Levene, Moss, Aaronow, and Roma. Each feels justified in, even entitled to, his unfettered pursuit of the American dream. Mamet’s salesmen try to ennoble their spirits through hard work and profit, yet Roma descends to deception, and Moss and Levene to crime. One key theme in the play, then, is that private self-interest unchecked by moral conscience, inevitably leads to the collapse of the self. In Glengarry Glen Ross, informed social responsibility does not exist; there is only anomie.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The plot of Glengarry Glen Ross is simple: in Act I in three brief two-person scenes set in a Chinese restaurant we meet the principal characters and learn that they are under extreme pressure to sell apparently worthless land in Florida, and that to succeed in this they need good sales ''leads,'' which are under the control of the reptilian office manager, Williamson. Act II begins the next morning; the office has been ransacked and the leads stolen. The act ends with the apprehension of Levene, one of the salesmen, as the thief.

Duty and Responsibility
The major theme of Glengarry Glen Ross is business and, by extension, capitalism. Mamet never discusses, neither to praise nor to condemn, the workings of business; he shows the quintessential paradigm of business, the salesman, striving to survive by his wits in the system and how it damages and drains his better humanity. In the published play, Mamet includes a quote of the ''Practical Sales Maxim: 'Always Be Closing.'" Everything is business, even personal relationships.

American Dream
The American dream that we can "get ahead" through honest hard work is undermined by the fact that, for these salesmen at least, the only measure of success is material and the only way to succeed is to sell. They are selling land—probably worthless land—to people who dream that buying that land will somehow provide the big score, the chance to make large profits when they resell it. It is interesting to note that no one mentions building on or settling on the land; it is always referred to as an investment...

(This entire section contains 1131 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

opportunity. Moreover, the salesmen will say anything and promise anything to ''close."

Alienation and Loneliness
Certainly all of the characters suffer alienation both from nature and other people. They are apparently unfamiliar with the land they sell and refer to it as "crap." It is just a commodity. They are also alienated from their customers, whom they despise, and from each other. They do have a unity in despising what they know is an unfair system, but whenever it seems that friendship is involved—whether with one another or with a customer—we soon learn that it is just another scam, another preparation for "closing." For example, Moss seems to commiserate with Aaranow but is really setting him up to do a burglary for him; Roma seems to be having a heartfelt conversation with Lingk, and it even appears to the audience that they are old friends, but, we find that he is just disarming a stranger when he produces a sales pamphlet; Roma suggests that he and Levene work as partners only to betray him almost immediately afterwards.

Language will be discussed in some detail under "style," but it should be noted here that language is also a major theme in Glengarry Glen Ross. Language as a means of communication has been subverted. Nothing that is said is necessarily true even when it seems to be in support of friendship or to express a philosophy of life. Language is used by these people solely as a tool to manipulate potential customers and each other.

Deception is at work on every level. We see lying and fantasy as a way of thinking and operating: certainly there seems to be little truth to anything anyone says to anybody. The most explicit example is in Act II when Lingk comes to the office to cancel his contract. Roma and Levene put on an elaborate improvised show for him in which Levene pretends to be an important executive with American Express who is a large investor in the land Roma is trying to sell. Throughout the play, the characters immediately turn to deception when they are in a tight corner—which is most of the time.

Success and Failure
Success and failure are very easily measured in the closed world of Glengarry Glenn Ross and by extension in the larger world of American capitalism. To succeed is to get money; to fail is not to get money. Again, it is not only the salesmen who measure success materially: their customers also think that if they buy the land they will sell it at a huge profit and eventually get something for nothing. Also, if these people do not make sales their whole sense of self is destroyed. For the salesman, selling is not just a job but a persona; it is who and what they are.

SexismGlengarry Glen Ross depicts a world of men and men's relationships. Selling is the sign of manhood. Roma and Levene both tell Williamson that he is not a man because he has never actively made sales. There are only two females who are even mentioned in the play: Lingk's wife and Levene's daughter. Lingk's wife has forced Lingk to confront Roma and cancel his contract. Roma commiserates with him and, seemingly at least, wants to talk to him man-to-man about his problems. Lingk does cancel the contract with apologies for having "betrayed'' Roma. Levene's daughter, for whom he has provided an education, is apparently ill. This barely-mentioned daughter seems to provide the only glimpse of human warmth in this group of men.

Anger and Hatred
In that world of vicious competition devoid of morality or friendship, all the characters seem to operate out of anger and hatred: they are angry at Williamson for not producing better leads; they are angry with each other because the success of one means the failure of another. They are caught in an unfair system and they know it. Finally, at the end of the play, Aaranow states openly what all, with the possible exception of Roma, feel: "Oh, God, I hate this job."

Morals and Morality
There is no mention of morals or morality or even business ethics in Glengarry Glen Ross. Morality and ethics are not part of the operating procedure. In Roma's pseudo-philosophical discourse to Lingk, he says that he does ''that today which seem to me correct today." While Roma purports to accept that there may be an absolute morality, he says, "And then what?" It is the very absence of morality which gradually dawns on the audience and frames the entire play. These people operate in a vicious jungle in which only the strong survive and nothing else matters.

Similarly, not one of the characters is troubled by conscience. Conscience does not seem to exist as a part of anyone's makeup. Again, it is Roma who mentions the concept in Act I, scene iii: "You think that you're a thief? So What? You get befuddled by a middle-class morality ... ? Get shut of it. Shut it out. You cheated on your wife ...? You did it, live with it. (Pause) You fuck little girls, so be it?"