The Complicated Role of Karen

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Many critics have noted that David Mamet does not write strong female characters. Indeed, many of his best plays, including American Buffalo and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross, do not feature women at all. One critic, the Nation’s Moira Hudson, writing on the original New York production of Speed-the-Plow, observed: ‘‘Mamet’s parts for women have never been the equal of his parts for men: Women in his plays always seem to function more as plot elements, as sources of complications than as rounded, living characters.’’ Many reviewers of the play have agreed that the character of Karen works in this fashion but are divided over the merits of drawing her as such. Critics such as Hudson find Karen unbelievable while others believe that the assistant’s enigmatic nature is very powerful. By looking at Karen and her role within the play, it becomes obvious that both arguments have merit. Ultimately, though, Karen is a weak caricature of a woman. Mamet condemns Karen for her ambitions, while the two male characters—who have far more suspicious values (though more powS er)—are allowed to flourish in their rapacious environment.

Karen is by far the smallest role in Speed-the- Plow; this is brought into greater relief given the fact that the play is a three-character piece. Most of the text concerns the wheeling and dealing between Charlie Fox and Bobby Gould, the veteran Hollywood hustlers. Gould is the new head of production at a major movie studio; Fox is a producer with a twenty- four-hour option on a movie deal with a big, bankable star. Karen is merely the temporary secretary, filling in for Gould’s usual assistant who is ill. Karen is not very competent in her position. Even before she is seen on stage in Scene 1, Gould is shown talking with her on the phone, helping her find the coffee machine.

The men also reduce Karen’s character by commenting on her appearance. Fox says ‘‘Cute broad, the new broad.’’ They only consider her in the most superficial manner. When she does finally bring them coffee, the Fox and Gould talk about how they are ‘‘old whores’’ and their long-standing friendship. They also discuss how powerful they are and will be when the movie deal is made. In many ways the discussion is a verbal display of their importance in front of Karen. It both puts her in her position as a lesser and works to impress her, like two male peacocks flouting their plumage during a mating ritual.

Gould and Fox continue to toy with Karen. Gould tells her she can go home after serving them coffee, canceling all his appointments, and making lunch reservations. After she leaves to do these tasks, Fox immediately begins to needle Gould about Karen. Gould decides to make a $500 bet with Fox ‘‘That I can get her on a date, that I can get her to my house, that I can screw her.’’ After Fox leaves, Karen’s incompetence brings her back into Gould’s office. Karen could not get reservations at the restaurant Gould wanted. Karen quickly realizes her mistake: she did not mention Gould’s name when she was making the reservation. This reveals a problematic error in the persona Karen has chosen to present to Gould. First, how does one make a reservation without giving the name of the party who will using it? Second, it implies that Karen is somehow deeper because she might be hiding something. That is, she deliberately made the mistake so as to hide her true nature, that of a career-conscious, ambitious woman.

At this juncture, Karen begins to...

(This entire section contains 1774 words.)

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repeatedly call herself naive when talking to Gould, perhaps conS sciously reinforcing her status as a lesser to the man. This gives her some unexpected power, as Gould begin to believes that she is a green, helpless girl. There is no reason to believe otherwise. Karen services his ego by telling him that this job is allowing her to think in a business fashion. She politely listens to him describe some aspects of the business to her. While Gould is using this opportunity to win his bet, Karen is learning good deal about how business in Hollywood is accomplished. Gould looks at Karen only as an object when he offers her the opportunity to give a reader’s report on a novel about radiation and the end of the world—even though the book has been deemed inappropriate for a film; he is using the ‘‘assignment’’ as an excuse to get her over to his house.

In the brief second scene (in Gould’s apartment), Karen is the dominate force as she describes the book to Gould. Karen’s appraisal of the novel does not make much sense, though she says it left her feeling ‘‘empowered’’ (a telling adjective regarding her rising status). She talks about how much the book touched her, but the dialogue as written by Mamet reveals little of who Karen really is. The scene illustrates her ambitions when Gould offers to help her get a job at the studio, and Karen says that she wants to work on the film adaptation of the novel. Karen continues to sound—in her own words—naive. She tells Gould ‘‘it would be so important to me, to be there. To help. If you could just help me with that. And, seriously, I’ll get coffee, I don’t care .’’ Gould is slightly taken aback, but Karen continues to press the issue. Like Fox, she sees her opportunity and aggressively pursues it.

A key revelation occurs in Scene 2 when Karen reveals that she has read the script that Fox wants to use for his Doug Brown project. Someone as unaware of Hollywood practices—as Karen claims to be—would have no idea how to get her hands on such a script. Fox did not bring the script into the office, so Karen obviously found out about the Fox project and procured the script through means of her own. Not only does this illustrate the depth of her wiles, it indicates that her work assignment to Gould was no random act. In having Karen disclose a knowledge of the script, Mamet hints at the considerable calculation that has gone into Karen’s association with Gould: it becomes clear that she sought out the temporary assistant position with the express purpose of getting her foot in the door.

Karen also knows how to play the sex card. She tells Gould, ‘‘I knew what the deal was. I know you wanted to sleep with me. You’re right, I came anyway; you’re right.’’ Karen proceeds to turn the tables on Gould, trying to reinforce their status as equals. She describes them both as people who need companionship and love. She says they have both been bad. She tells him that she is the answer to his prayers. And based on the discussions between Gould and Fox at the beginning of Scene 3, she appears to have succeeded.

The next morning, when Scene 3 takes place, Gould has decided to go with Karen’s project instead of Fox’s. Fox is appalled and immediately blames Karen, though he has no direct reason to believe it has anything to do with her. When Fox finds out it is because of her, he emphasizes their friendship and how Karen is an outsider. Fox asks at one point, ‘‘What is she, a witch?’’ Later, Fox says, ‘‘A beautiful and ambitious woman comes to town. Why? Why does anyone come here? Everyone wants power. How do we get it? Work. How do they get it? Sex. The End. She’s different. Nobody’s different. The broad wants power she trades on the one thing she’s got, her looks, get into a position of authority—through you. She lured you in.’’ Fox emphasizes Karen’s difference, the fact that she is a woman and therefore cannot ‘‘work’’ to get success, to try to persuade Gould to change his mind. Fox spends most of the scene cutting down Karen, her ambitions, and her project. He wants Gould to see her as a user rather than a savior. To salvage his project, Fox asks one question of Karen.

Fox forces Karen to admit that she would not have become intimate with Gould if he had not agreed to make the radiation novel into a film. Gould cannot believe it. He says, ‘‘Oh, God, now I’m lost.’’ Fox knows he has a leg up, and when Karen tries to save herself by saying ‘‘Bob. Bob, we have the opportunity,’’ Fox goes in for the kill. The ‘‘we’’ is important here. It implies that Karen and Gould are linked, to the exclusion of Fox. Fox breaks that down when he says, ‘‘I know who he is, who are you? Some broad from the Temporary Pool. A Tight pussy wrapped around Ambition. That’s who you are, Pal.’’ Again, Fox focus on Karen’s sex to bring her down. Gould is still uncertain, however, about his decision, and Karen and Fox say anything to get him to go their respective ways. But when Karen says, ‘‘Bob, we have a meeting,’’ the issue is decided for him. Karen is only interested in getting her film made. The men regroup and go to the meeting together, effectively killing Karen’s deal in favor of Fox’s film. Fox tells Karen to leave the studio and never come back again.

Hudson’s observation was correct: Karen is the plot complication in Speed-the-Plow. She is the source of jeopardy in terms of the ‘‘right’’ script being made, and she forces the other characters, primarily Gould, to question their values. Karen is not a fully drawn, realistic character but an excuse for the other characters to show off their maleness and power. Karen talks about values but in a super- ficial, manipulative fashion—despite hints that she may have altruistic intentions for her film. Any values she does have (idealism, for example) are condemned by Mamet. By having Karen sleep with Gould to get ahead, Mamet reinforces the idea that this is the only way for a woman to be successful in the business environment. The idea of her starting out in the mailroom, as Gould and Fox did, is never even considered—she wants to enter the business at the top. Thus, Karen is a series of contradictions that seem designed to make her enigmatic, but these contradictions serve the plot, not the character herself. Her potential to be anything more is never realized by Mamet.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Review of Speed-the-Plow

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Nobody in theater today has a better ear for the language of American business than David Mamet. Relentlessly on the make, his characters are not captains of industry but con men on the fringes of society, trying to batter down the doors of the bank with the only weapon at their disposal—their heads. Sometimes they succeed and fill their pockets, and sometimes they just give themselves colossal headaches. Without exception though, their language is vulgar and funny and charges the air with explosive energy.

In Speed-the-Plow, Mamet’s latest play, directed by Gregory Mosher at the Royale Theatre, the subject is Hollywood. Bobby (Joe Mantegna) and Charlie (Ron Silver) have been friends for twenty years, ever since they started out together in a corporate mail room. Now Bobby is head of production at a major studio and Charlie is a producer who comes to him with a twenty-four-hour option on a ‘‘prison buddy’’ story starring (or directed by, it’s not clear) the immensely bankable ‘‘Doug Brown.’’ Bobby, snowed under a deskful of boring manuscripts — including one about radiation and the end of the world by an ‘‘Eastern sissy writer’’— is delirious at the prospect. ‘‘Is there such a thing as a good film that loses money?’’ he asks rhetorically. ‘‘That’s what we are in business to do—to make the thing that everyone saw last year!’’ The only problem is that Ross the Boss, whose approval Bobby needs to green-light a picture over $10 million, is flying to New York City on the company jet and won’t be available until 10 o’clock the next morning. This is cutting Charlie’s twenty-four-hour option a bit fine.

Mantegna and Silver, draped in off-white suits that look tailored by Bijan of Beverly Hills, are both excellent as two cynical hustlers about to hit the jackpot. (Mantegna’s character, the one holding down a regular job, wears his suit with sneakers, no tie and no socks.) ‘‘It’s lonely at the top,’’ says Bobby ironically. ‘‘Yeah,’’ agrees Charlie, ‘‘but it ain’t crowded.’’ Mamet captures the vernacular perfectly, littering the play with industry expressions and his signature repetitive phrases. It has often been observed that Mamet is a poor-man’s Pinter, and it is true that the staccato exchanges are easy to mimic and at times threaten to turn cloying. But the two main actors’ line readings are deft and point up the fact that Mamet is an actor’s playwright, creating a language which is less simply overheard and recorded whole-cloth than boiled down, crafted and reassembled to create an intense, hyperrealistic theatrical experience. This, after all, is what art is all about.

That being said, the play is far from perfect. Its flaws center chiefly on its third character, Bobby’s temporary secretary (played by Madonna). Karen is a semi-naïf who can’t find the coffee machine and doesn’t even know how to drop her boss’s name when booking him a table at a fashionable restaurant. As the first act closes, Charlie says, ‘‘She’s neither dumb enough or ambitious enough,’’ and bets Bobby $500 she’ll never go to bed with him. Accepting this challenge, Bobby shows Karen the sissy-writer’s radiation novel; he asks her to give it a ‘‘courtesy read’’ and to file a report on it at his house later that evening.

The brief second scene takes place in Bobby’s living room, sparsely furnished with pink curtains, a Turkish rug on the sofa and a Mexican chest which opens into a bar. Karen appeals to Bobby’s vestigial noble instincts and convinces him that the movie he should pitch to Ross the Boss is not the exploitative prison buddy picture but the radiation picture. The fact that this scene drags terribly and that Madonna’s line readings are less deft than Mantegna’s (or Silver’s) has something to do with her talent as a stage actress. Still, she isn’t all that bad—or if she is, it’s hard to tell: The part she’s been given is by far the least convincing of the three. Mamet’s parts for women have never been the equal of his parts for men: Women in his plays always seem to function more as plot elements, as sources of complication rather than as rounded, living characters. It is diffi- cult to believe that someone as naïve as Karen would actually be working in the movie business, and it’s just as difficult to believe that someone like Bobby would be so easily swayed by her, despite her undeniable attractions. (It is also difficult to watch Karen and not keep remembering it’s actually Madonna.)

With the second act, and the return of Ron Silver, things go into high gear. When Charlie learns be is about to be screwed out of the chance of a lifetime, that his option on Doug Brown will expire through no fault of his own, his despair and desperation become palpable and even highly moving. All at once his beard grows unkempt and his natty suit seems to wrinkle up as if he’s slept in it. Realizing he has only five or ten minutes to salvage his chances, he becomes a caged animal, lashing out with every argument at his disposal. When Bobby says he’s going to green-light the radiation book because he believes in it, Charlie replies, ‘‘I believe in the Yellow Pages, Bob, but I don’t want to film it.’’ He asks Bobby to tell him what the novel is actually about, and when Bobby hesitates, he says, ‘‘If you can’t put it to me in one sentence they can’t put it in TV Guide. ’’ Our sympathies go out to him because he is totally vulnerable, a two-bit hustler who knows it and isn’t afraid to face himself. The prison buddy film is garbage, but what matters above all is loyalty and friendship. Bobby has broken his word.

Speed-the-Plow says nothing about Hollywood that hasn’t already been said many times before, but Mamet manages through his language and timing to breathe life into old clichés. Glengarry Glen Ross a few seasons back was better, but there is likely to be little else on Broadway this season with his new play’s energy.

Source: Moira Hodgson, review of Speed-the-Plow in the Nation, Vol. 246, no. 24, June 18, 1988, pp. 874–75.

Rough Diamonds

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In Thomas Morton’s Speed the Plough (1800), the most famous character is Mrs. Grundy, whose name became a synonym for British respectability, and she never appears at all. In David Mamet’s Speedthe- Plow, the most pervasive character is also offstage: the American movie audience. As in Morton’s play, where characters are constantly guessing what Mrs. Grundy would think, Mamet’s Hollywood hacks, who have their commercial credibility rather than their reputations to lose, assume that they know what will bring the moviegoers to the boxoffice: what brought them there last week. Their low estimate of the public is confirmed by the weekly listing of movie grosses; in the most recent Friday the Thirteenth topped Beetlejuice. Anyone for Rambo III?

Mamet’s up-from-the-mailroom dealers are rough diamonds—zircons, at least—who know each other so well that they can overlap one another’s speeches, communicate in reiterated platitudes decorated with sometimes elegant obscenity. Bobby Gould (Joe Mantegna) has just become head of production at what we are to accept as a major studio and Charlie Fox (Ron Silver), who comes to him on his first day in power, has snagged a bankable star for a buddy movie he is trying to peddle. They agree to join forces, go onward and upward with the sellable schlock, but the path of true greed never runs smooth. Enter the woman, for that is the way it is with buddy movies and has been at least since Gunga Din. Speed-the-Plow is a Mamet variation on the buddy movie. His best plays (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross) are set in male enclaves, and Sexual Perversity in Chicago follows the buddy formula in its story. So does Speed-the- Plow. After the requisite feminine interruption, the two men go off together to face the studio head— like Flagg and Quirt hurrying to the front in What Price Glory?—and the woman is tossed aside.

If there is a difficulty in Speed-the-Plow, it lies with the woman in the case. It is not, as some reviewers have insisted, because Madonna is playing Karen. Her performance is not as flashily free as those of Mategna and Silver, but she does a creditable job with a character who—unlike Bobby and Charlie—is never clearly defined. At first she seems to be the dumb secretary stereotype, too dense to find the coffee machine, but at this stage she may be only a reflection of Bobby’s attitude toward women. He accepts Charlie’s bet that the he cannot seduce her. In her big scene in Act II, having read and presumably been won over by the book on nuclear destruction that Bobby asked her to give ‘‘a courtesy read,’’ she persuades him to present it to the studio head rather than the buddy script. She does so not by arguments, but by sleeping with him. In the last act, she has a new authority, a taste of power that leads her to the plural pronoun (‘‘we have a meeting’’), but if she were just another ambitious broad, as Charlie insists, she would not answer his direct question as she does, admitting that she only went to bed with Bobby to get the film made. That revelation frees Bobby, of his flirtation with art and social conscience and sends him back to his true calling as a junk merchant.

It is possible that Mamet intends Karen as an innocent for whom the true heart of Hollywood is as elusive as the coffee machine—just the person to be taken in by the ‘‘Eastern wimp’’ author’s pretentious book. It sounds like the kind of work which fondles the annihilation of the world while it whimpers its dessicated whisper of hope. There is a marvelous moment in which Karen tries to use the book to resnare Bobby after he allies himself again with Charlie. She reads a ponderous paragraph and then, faced with defeat, insists that that is not the passage she has in mind and keeps flipping the pages hopelessly. Mamet seems to be using the book and Karen’s naive embrace of it as a matter for satire, but there is a problem there too. Reviewers tended to describe the book as an ‘‘anti-radiation’’ novel, but it is called Radiation and, from what we hear of the argument, the author is using radiation and Mamet uses decay and decadence in his essays in Writing in Restaurants, as a necessary destructive stage to revitalization. Mamet’s theory of decadence seems to me fair game for the satirist, but I am not sure that he is Bernard Shaw enough to guy his own ideas for the sake of the play.

Whether Karen’s projected movie is a joke or a serious option for Hollywood or a comic suggestion that serious options are possible, it is rejected. Greed and vulgarity triumph. Yet Mamet has more in mind than a ritual chiding of Hollywood venality. In a group interview in the New York Times (May 16), Madonna called the play a metaphor: ‘‘it’s not just about Hollywood. It’s about life.’’ Silver modi- fied her metaphor by suggesting that this was still another of Mamet’s examinations of American business: ‘‘You show me one person in business who decides to do something that’s good if the sacrifice is their quarterly statement.’’ The Mamet point of view is clear enough, but the play’s successful borrowing of the buddy plot muddies the social theme. Bobby and Charlie are a reprehensible pair (each would sacrifice the other for an edge up), but Mategna and Silver give them so much energy, so much chutzpah, so much tacky charm that we find ourselves roofing for Bobby’s return to chicanery. Maybe that is the point. Maybe the target is not Hollywood, not American business, but the audience itself.

Source: Gerald Weales, ‘‘Rough Diamonds’’ in Commonweal, Vol. CXV, no. 12, June 17, 1988, p. 371.


Critical Overview