Critical Context

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There has been much speculation about the significance of the title Speed-the-Plow, with its flow-through hyphenation. Researchers have uncovered its agrarian good luck phraseology from eighteenth century England; it means roughly, “Hope your ploughing gets finished swiftly and profitably.” If this is what Mamet had in mind, he is using the title subtly to suggest that the fast-paced movie industry has had many forebears. Speed-the-Plow’s business-as-usual realistic ending wins out over its possible romantic counterpart.

One ironic aspect to Speed-the-Plow is that the buddy movie that the men are going to make is contained within a buddy play. Mamet, too, has had to wrestle with the fact that art for art’s sake does not sell tickets. If his characters seem to practice an “honor among thieves” (with the buzzword in Speed-the-Plow being “loyalty”), we see much the same characters in his dramas as in his screenplays: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), The Verdict (1982), The Untouchables (1987), House of Games (1987), and Things Change (1988).

Mamet’s misogynistic and immature male characters, Bobby and Charlie, are like the others in his canon. Pascale Hubert-Liebler states that “the rare heterosexual relationships, doomed from the start by male misogyny and the mutual incomprehension of the sexes, usually end in disaster.” In Speed-the-Plow, Karen is objectified, as Mamet’s women often are. She is regarded as a body, not as an individual to be taken seriously. Like a commodity, she is a trophy to be won in bed and conned into submission.

The audience cannot assume that the values and relationships found in Speed-the-Plow apply only to Hollywood. The characters in Speed-the-Plow seem no different in psychological make-up from the thieving salesmen found in Glengarry Glen Ross (pr. 1983) or the unsuccessful schemers of American Buffalo (pr. 1975). One cannot assume that these psychological cripples are any different from the rest of the world.

The roundness of structure found in Speed-the-Plow, the careful matching of form to content, is also found in other Mamet plays. Mamet’s repeated themes are also here: that humans are all alone; that their friends are only their business associates; that business implies money; that people like a person for what he or she can do for them. Worthy of note is the thematic similarity between this play and Mamet’s earlier The Disappearance of the Jews (in his Three Jewish Plays, pb. 1987), which contains a character named Bobby Gould who has fantasies about Hollywood.

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Critical Overview