The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Scene 1 of Speed-the-Plow opens with Bobby Gould in his new but as yet undecorated office, debunking the prose of a heavy-sounding book about radiation. His old friend and right-hand man Charlie Fox walks in unannounced. Gould, who has attained a new position at a Hollywood studio only two days before, continues mocking the book, aware that Fox will shortly let him know why he came. Fox asks Gould how close he is to his boss, the head man in Gould’s Hollywood studio, whose name is Ross.

When Gould tells Fox that he can approve (“greenlight”) a picture, Fox tells Gould that the actor Doug Brown is willing to “cross the street” to do a script that Fox has procured for him. Without answering, Gould tells his temporary secretary to get Ross on the telephone. At this point, the quality of the script is not mentioned. It is clear, however, that Doug Brown means money at the box office.

Fox acquaints Gould with the events leading to this lucky break. Only a few moments before Fox entered Gould’s office, Doug Brown drove to Fox’s house and said that he would settle the deal the next morning at ten. Gould tells his temporary secretary to hold all calls except those from Ross; then he asks her to fetch coffee.

Gould and Fox learn that Ross will see them in ten minutes, during which time Fox briefly describes the plot of the script, using the jargon of the film industry: The film is “a buddy film, a prison film, Douggie Brown, blah blah, some girl. . . .” Gould, thankful for Fox’s loyalty in bringing in a major star, promises that Fox will be co-producer. Protocol will still be observed, however, with Gould doing the talking in Ross’s office: “We get in, get out and we give it to him in one sentence.” Unfortunately, Ross must go to New York, and the meeting is rescheduled for ten the next morning. Fox, nervous that ten will be too late, since Brown has given him only a twenty-four-hour option, is reassured by Gould that it is important to see Ross in person to “forge that bond.” Gould convinces Fox not to worry, promising, “It’s done.”

To pass the time, Fox and Gould ecstatically count their as yet unearned money: Gould plans to hire “someone just to figure out the things we want to buy.” It is clear, however, that Gould feels ambivalent about the impending deal when he says—hypocritically denying the capitalistic nature of his position as well as its moral vacuity—“Money is not gold.” Fox comments on the appearance of the secretary, whom he calls “the broad,” but Gould denigrates her: “Baby, she’s nothing. You wait ’til we make this film.”

Fox reads a few lines from the radiation book that Gould was examining when the play opened, sarcastically noting that it is by an “Eastern sissy writer” and suggesting that Gould make it into a film instead of the buddy film. Gould indicates...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Much has been written about the nature of Mamet’s dialogue, his special ear for the dialogue of the street with its short, often foul, staccato one-liners. Mamet often has his characters subvert important truths by muttering clichéd truisms. Moreover, in Speed-the-Plow Fox and Gould take shortcuts in their speech, speaking in a kind of shorthand that is native to their situation but strange to the uninitiated. Karen’s attempt to become an insider cannot succeed because she misuses the argot. Her attempt to become a part of the team, to penetrate the insider’s world, is seen by Gould and Fox as a hostile take-over bid.

Further, Karen’s unsuccessful explication of people’s fears forces the observation that what people most fear cannot be intelligibly expressed. Unable to communicate their feelings, the characters use words which are not the right signifiers; their words mask their feelings even to themselves. Mamet’s specialized and lean dialogue is enhanced by stage gestures that demonstrate the relationship between the power holder and the power seeker: Critic Brent Staples notes, “While Gould telephones the head of the studio to arrange for Fox to go before the altar of power, Fox pantomimes pretending to perform fellatio on him. Elsewhere he trails Gould across the stage, burying his face in his buttocks.” At one point Gould starts smoking a cigarette while he is already smoking his cigar; the gesture indicates the frantic nature of that particular character at that particular moment.

Perhaps the most intense dramatic moment occurs in act 3. Fox, seeing his twenty-year career going up in smoke, physically knocks sense into Gould, beating him into the recognition that his previously sound mind was worked over, roughed-up, by a “whore.” Fox proves that actions-of-the-street speak louder than words. Gould listens; he does not effect a change. He does not make the film that might better its audience. The only change he makes—in full view of the audience—is to remove his roughed-up shirt and don a clean one. Gould and Fox become, once again, professional white-collar businessmen.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Like much of the 1980s, American society in 1988 was consumed with the ideas of success and image, the bigger the better. By 1988, there were...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Speed-the-Plow is a drama set in contemporary times. Though it is not explicitly stated, the play probably...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the history behind the phrase ‘‘speed the plow.’’ How is the phrase’s meaning related to the themes of Mamet’s play?...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Glengarry Glen Ross, a play that Mamet wrote in 1977, is a drama which also concerns men and their...

(The entire section is 160 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bigsby, C. W. E. David Mamet. London: Methuen, 1985.

Carroll, Dennis. David Mamet. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Friedman, Samuel G. “The Gritty Eloquence of David Mamet.” New York Times Magazine, April 21, 1985, 32-38.

Hubert-Liebler, Pascale. “Dominance and Anguish: The Teacher-Student Relationship in the Plays of David Mamet.” Modern Drama 31 (December, 1988): 557-570.

Kane, Leslie, ed. David Mamet: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1991.

Lieberson, Jonathan. “The Prophet of Broadway.” New York Review of Books, July 21, 1988, 3-5.

Radavich, David. “Man Among Men: David Mamet’s Homosocial Order.” In Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Savran, David. “David Mamet.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Staples, Brent. “Mamet’s House of Word Games.” New York Times, May 29, 1988, sec. 2, p. 1.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Brustein, Robert. Review of Speed-the-Plow in the New Republic, June 6, 1988, p. 29.


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