The Play

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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 that he could. Then Karen, Gould’s temporary secretary, enters with coffee. Fox happily informs her, to her astonishment, that the two buddies consider themselves a pair of prostitutes.

Karen is told to cancel everything except Gould’s meeting with Ross the next morning. When Fox asks her if she would be willing to stay on with Gould, Karen indicates that she is only a temporary and does not even know what to do. Gould tells her to call the Coventry, a restaurant, and order a table for two at one o’clock.

Fox bets Gould five hundred dollars that Gould cannot...

(This entire section contains 1184 words.)

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get Karen to go to bed with him and then leaves. Karen reenters to say that the Coventry does not have a table—immediately realizing her naïvete in not having mentioned Gould’s name, which would have secured a reservation. Gould, who clearly has been thinking of his bet with Fox, kindly insists that she has made no grave mistake and proceeds to explain the film business to Karen, including what it means to give a “courtesy read” to the radiation book. Karen agrees to read the book and report her opinion of it to Gould at his home that evening. Without blinking, Gould tells Karen to phone Fox, tell him that he (Gould) will be late for lunch, and that Fox owes him five hundred dollars.

Scene 2 occurs later that evening, in Gould’s apartment. Karen tries to convince Gould that the confusing, philosophical radiation book will make a worthwhile film by appealing to his conscience, believing that he wants “to do good.” Convinced that Fox’s prison script is not the basis for a good film, she goes on to explain, unconvincingly, the excellent qualities she finds in the radiation book.

Scene 3 begins as scene 1 did. Gould is sitting behind his desk when Fox walks in optimistically promising more deals. Gould interrupts with “I’m not going to do the film.” Fox thinks that Gould, whom he now calls Bobby, must be joking and says agreeably that the buddy film is worthless. He then intimates that Gould has changed his mind as a result of having slept with Karen. Gould announces that he is going to see Ross himself, leading Fox to believe that Gould is cutting him out of their deal. Fox reminds Gould of his promise. Gould tells Fox that he has decided to use the radiation book as the basis for his next film. Fox, sure that Gould has lost his mind, tries to persuade him that Karen does not “understand” Gould, that she must have ulterior motives. Gould, to convince Fox of the soundness of his decision, allows him to question Karen, who firmly tells Fox that she and Gould, the previous evening, had talked about “the ability to make a difference.” Her position weakens, however, when Fox asks her if she would have slept with Gould had he not decided to make the radiation book into a film. She hesitatingly admits that she would not have slept with him. Gould immediately says, “Oh, God, now I’m lost.” As both Fox and Karen argue—Fox maintaining that she is an ambitious nobody willing to do anything to get ahead and Karen pleading with Gould to remember their “perfect love” and their decision of the night before—Gould fights to maintain objectivity: “I have to think now.”

In the closing lines of the play, Karen reminds Gould, “we have a meeting”—presumably with Ross to seal the deal. Instead, she succeeds in convincing Gould of her ulterior motives, for Gould asks Fox to show her the door. Fox tells her that her idea to make a film out of the radiation book was stupid, because it would never have become a “movie”: “the people wouldn’t come.” Gould regretfully laments that he “wanted to do good” but that he was instead “foolish,” and he and Fox agree that, after all is said and done, they were put on earth to make a movie, so “how bad can life be?”

Dramatic Devices

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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

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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 1.3 million millionaires living in the United States. This number included 50 billionaires. (By comparison, when adjusting for inflation, there were only 180,000 millionaires in the United States in 1972.) Because of an economy that saw vast growth during the 1970s, at least on the upper end of the economic scale, many people wanted to display their newfound wealth with high-end status items. Both Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox in Speed-the-Plow discuss how much money they will make off their deal and what it will get them. During this discussion, Gould says, ‘‘We’re going to have to hire someone just to figure out the things we want to buy.’’ Such greed was typical of the media-enforced images of wealth and success in the 1980s. Television shows celebrated the wealthy lifestyle. One popular televison show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, showed how celebrities and other rich people spent their money and lived their lives. Pop singer/actress/ cultural icon Madonna, who played Karen in the original Broadway production of Speed-the- Plow, was a master at manipulating the media and toying with her image while making a big profit.

The attitude that bigger is better spilled over into the arts and mass media. On Broadway, largescale musicals featured more elaborate sets and large casts. In the publishing world, there were many bidding wars for new novels. Neophyte authors received unheard-of advances on their work. Some of the most popular novels of the era were about the noveau riche and their hedonistic lifestyle. Authors like Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, and Sidney Sheldon sold millions of books that celebrated the glitzy lifestyle.

Similarly, the film industry in the 1980s was concerned with big budgets and even bigger profits. The term ‘‘blockbuster movie’’ was defined by 1980s films like The Empire Strikes Back and Batman. Movies began being marketed and hyped by product tie-ins (such as action figures and soundtracks) released several months before the film itself hit the marketplace. But many of these movies put style and profit before substance. Gould chooses to greenlight the empty Doug Brown movie because it will profitable instead of the ‘‘arty’’ and unknown quantity contained in the novel. Still only a privileged few had enough power to get their movie projects made. Power was consolidated in a few hands, usually producers and studio heads. Mamet depicts Gould as being one of the powerful men in Hollywood whom Fox needs to get his Doug Brown project off the ground.

Hollywood, like many other aspects of society especially in the cultural milieu, was still very maledominated. Though there were several prominent female film producers, such as Dawn Steel, and many prominent actresses with some clout, Meryl Streep for example, women had a hard time breaking into the industry. At the end of Speed-the-Plow, Fox throws Karen out of the studio. She has no place there in his eyes. The burgeoning feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s lost its way in the 1980s. Though women made some progress in the workplace, their successes were seen as individual triumphs rather than collective steps forward.

Literary Style

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SettingSpeed-the-Plow is a drama set in contemporary times. Though it is not explicitly stated, the play probably takes place in Los Angeles, the movie industry capital of the world, at a major studio. The action is focused in two settings. Scenes 1 and 3 take place in Bobby Gould’s new office. Because he has just been promoted to the head of production, the office is sparsely furnished with ‘‘boxes and painting materials all around,’’ as the stage directions indicate. The brief Scene 2, where Gould and Karen meet to discuss her report on the novel, is set in Gould’s home. It can be speculated that everything takes place in Gould’s spaces because he is the man who ultimately makes the decisions. Charlie Fox and Karen are at his mercy, and they must try to influence him on his turf.

Karen nearly succeeds in getting her project off the ground because she is invited into Gould’s private life. Fox uses the fact that this is a business deal—and the fact that Karen used sex to further her own ambitions—to his advantage in Scene 3. The office is where business is done, not at home. The spare sets also put Mamet’s rapid-fire, though ultimately simple, dialogue at the forefront of Speedthe- Plow.

Foreshadowing Several times in Speed-the-Plow, Mamet plays with lines that foreshadow future events in the play. However, the predicted events do not always work out exactly as intended. For example, Gould says that he ‘‘don’t fuck people’’ in Scene 1, yet that is exactly what he does. Though it seems he will betray Fox and not get the Doug Brown picture made as he promised, Gould ends up backing out of his promise to greenlight Karen’s novel. The novel itself is at the center of another example of foreshadowing. In Scene 1, Fox picks up the novel, The Bridge, and says in jest ‘‘Why don’t you do it? Make it.’’ A few lines later he suggests ‘‘Instead of our Doug, Doug Brown’s Buddy film.’’ Gould agrees with him, also in jest, saying ‘‘Yeah. I could do that.’’

By the end of Scene 2, however, Karen has actually convinced Gould to do this very thing. In the beginning of Scene 3, Fox repeats this idea, with a clause attached, not knowing what Gould has decided. Fox says, ‘‘I were you, I’d do the film on Radiation. That’s the project I would do; and then spend the rest of my life in a packing crate.’’ Though Fox eventually convinces Gould not to do the novel, this kind of ironic foreshadowing adds texture to the play.

Dialogue As a playwright, Mamet is often praised by critics for his realistic dialogue. Mamet writes dialogue in a way that reflects how people really talk to each other. Words overlap, people interrupt each other, and sentences are often short and complete with pauses. In Speed-the-Plow, Mamet’s language choices reflect his subject matter. Charlie Fox and Bobby Gould use Hollywood cliches (the buddy picture, for example) and other lingo (greenlighting a picture), to set the tone. Sometimes characters hide behind these cliches. For example, when Karen serves coffee to Fox and Gould, they use more Hollywoodspeak to emphasize their positions of power within the business to the self-described naive woman.


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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

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

Henry, William A. III. ‘‘Madonna Comes to Broadway’’ in Time, May 16, 1988, pp. 98-99.

Hodgson, Moira. Review of Speed-the-Plow in the Nation, June 18, 1988, pp. 874-75.

Kroll, Jack. ‘‘The Terrors of Tinseltown’’ in Newsweek, in May 16, 1988, pp. 82-83.

Mamet, David. Speed-the-Plow, Grove Press, 1987.

Rich, Frank. ‘‘‘Plow’ and ‘Butterfly’: New Leads, New Light’’ in the New York Times, September 23, 1988, p. C3.

Simon, John. Review of Speed-the-Plow in New York, October 3, 1988, p. 79.

Simon, John. ‘‘Word Power’’ in New York, May 16, 1988, p. 106.

Further Reading Dean, Anne. David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. This book discusses the role of language in Mamet’s plays.

Lahr, John. ‘‘Profile: Fortress Mamet’’ in the New Yorker, November 17, 1997, pp., 70-82. This biographical article gives a sweeping synopsis of Mamet’s life and work.

London, Todd. ‘‘Mamet vs. Mamet: He’s Playwright, Director, Theorist—and His Own Worst Enemy’’ in American Theatre, July-August, 1996, p. 18. This article discusses Mamet’s extraordinary use of language in his plays and contrasts this aspect of his work with his persona as director of his own plays.

Mamet, David. The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions, Random House, 1992. This book contains a series of autobiographical essays.

Staples, Brent. ‘‘Mamet’s House of Word Games’’ in the New York Times, May 29, 1988, pp. B1, B24. This article discusses Mamet’s extraordinary ear for language and how it affects dialogue in his plays.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide