Thursday, 14 February 2013

David Mamet

Throughout the twentieth century, we can see a consistent degradation America’s own view of itself, through the work of the playwrights studied. Its dreams and idealisms have, for these playwrights, fallen down around them. The Depression destroyed the dreams of economic security and the confidence in capitalism. The McCarthy trials destroyed faith in American democracy, and its position as a ‘land of the free’ was challenged by those who pointed out the vast inequalities sustained by so-called American ideals. 

Playwright’s responded to these various set-backs in a variety of ways. Some like Clifford Odets wrote plays designed to act as clarion calls: calls for social reform, as idealistic and as optimistic as those of the Founding Fathers. Others, like Tennessee Williams, responded with despondency, presenting a world of decayed values in which the individual soul was irretrievably lost amid the confused jockeying of societies privileged few. There was a brief flowering of a new kind of optimism with the election of John F. Kennedy, whose charisma and inspirational speeches led many to believe a new era had dawned. Kennedy famously determined in 1962 that America would travel to the moon - not because of any monetary value it might afford, but simply because of the glory and inspiration such a venture afforded. Not because it was profitable, but because the human spirit needed it:

A year after making this speech, Kennedy was assassinated. His moon project would go ahead, but the shadows of military interventions in Korea and Vietnam quickly took the stellar shine of this achievement, and as the 70s arrived Americans had perhaps as much reason to be disillusioned as they had ever had.

The United States exited Vietnam in 1973; Saigon collapsed the following year. Nixon’s resignation amidst scandal diminished trust in government. The oil embargo of 1973 contributed to economic instability. Rising “stagflation” – a term coined by economists of the time describing a combination of inflation and recession – marked the end of America’s post-World War II boom … Following the economic turnaround, large sections of the nation experienced moribund incomes … [the 1980s] saw the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan administration, and continuing obstacles to minority participation in the economy. The anarchy and liberation of the 1060s gave way to rampant individualism and acquisitiveness even within the most liberal segments of society. (Krasner, 2006. p. 101).

Into the last quarter of the twentieth century, a new brand of response began to emerge in writers looking to respond to this new despondency, and to move away from the large – often limiting – influence of dramatic giants such as O’Neill, Williams and Miller. The brief moment of idealistic optimism inspired by the eloquence of John F. Kennedy had been shot down the moment its inspiration was, and despite the concerted efforts of the Reagan administration in the 1980s to re-kindle that kind of hope, there followed a series of political and economic throughout the 70s and 80s which served only to deepen the sense of gloom. The economy was, as during the depression, marginalising the majority at the same time that it was creating a strata of the uber-wealthy. 

The intellect of Odet’s had made no mark on social structures. Miller’s eloquent tragedy had changed nothing about the unfeeling and curelly material world it described, and Miller himself barely avoided jail for trying to change it. Williams' romanticism had been ineffectual, and his marginalisation because of his sexuality only served to support the pessimists view of the country as having betrayed its roots in social equality. Despite the efforts of these giants of drama, America was still going to hell in a handcart. 

It is interesting, perhaps, to compare the kind of ineffectiveness attributed to artistic expression in American up to this period, with stagnation of drama in Britain before 1956. In Britain, in a post-war period in which many were feeling increasing disconnected to their pasts, and increasingly out of step with the social ideologies which formed their national roots, drama was considered ineffective largely because it was not even attempting to articulate the experiences of a disaffected contemporary society. In America, society was seen to be degenerating quickly, and although the drama that accompanied it had gone far to move with the times, it had yet to construct a response to it which seemed adequate. A voice had not yet been found to articulate the experience of a late twentieth-century American existence. The British ‘land-mine’ which blew up the perceived bog of dramatic unconcern was John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Look Back in Anger succeeded not because it shaped an answer to social concerns, but because it understood that there was no answer. There was simply an expression of that frustrated sense of inadequacy, of un-belonging, of disaffection with the past. The articulation of this sense of social experience was one of rage – a rage all the more powerful because it was never entirely sure what it was raging against, except perhaps apathy. Except perhaps a lack of empathy with the emotional force of embittered frustration: 

In America, this intellectual rage had been pre-figured a decade or more earlier by the likes of Stanley Kowalski and Willy Loman – characters who represented a common class of society, but through whom the Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller expressionistically developed an articulate and eloquent social critique. It was the gutteral anger agains society in Osbourne's play though, which shocked audeinces. In effect Look Back in Anger succeeded because as an example of an intellectual response, it failed. Through its own failure to construct a convincing social critique, it fell back on the simple fact of its heroes rage against society. 

Through its own failure to understand that rage, it encapsulated to a new degree the frustrations of disconnection which characterised individual experience in post-war British youth culture.
In 1976 the film Network seemed to pick up on this idea of rage. In the face of all the disappointments of modern American, its disillusionments, frustrations, and the feelings of powerlessness in the face of a political and economic bourgeousie Network's central character Howard Beale is a television presenter facing redundancy. Since for Beale this makes him feel as though his life is over, he gives full vent to his feelings of anger and frustration, urging his audience to join him in expressing that frustration in the now-famous lines "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!"

In America, the need to identify an effective social critique was now no longer as pressing as the need to articulate an effective expression of individual experience. All that was left to express the rage and frustration of dreams denied, ideals betrayed, and a self lost and abandoned in a society consistently failing to live up to expectations was a new kind of eloquence. A visceral eloquence. An eloquence born on the streets of those at the sharp end of disappointment, and which would shape the dramatic landscape of both American theatre, and much of American cinema, from then until the present:

Goddamn this fuckin’ place, how can anybody live in this shit city? (Lanford Wilson, Burn this (1987) 

But there is a problem. Despite all this rage, and all this frustration, the hegemony of the economic and political powermongers remains untouched. In Network, the presenter Howard Beale rails against the corrupt forces of a new America which marginalises its majority while its minority grows rich. Eventually though, network owner Arthur Jenson calls Beale to his office and delivers his own tirade. Unlike Beale's tirade, Jenson's is done in private, in the sanctity of his company boardroom. Jenson's rhetoric and sense of the theatrical turns him into a god. He is preaching a message of capitalism to the unconverted Beale, who sits looking small and insignificant in comparison.

Beale is convinced. He returns to his programme and becomes an evangelist for capitalism and corporate greed. The rage has again proved futile, and this sense of futile rage is what becomes a powerful characteristic of dramatic writing in America during the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps the most eloquent articulator of futile and visceral rage in this period, is David Mamet. In Mamet’s plays characters rage against anything, or nothing. They express fury and resentment. They vow vengeance, they plot retributions, they whip themselves up into a frenzy…and do nothing. As Christopher Bigsby writes, in Mamet’s plays the “language of liberal concern and humane principle echoes through plays in which rhetoric seldom if ever matches the reality of characters or action” (1999, p. 196). David Krasner echoes this sentiment, asserting that, “[b]luster and puffery is the essence of Mamet’s dialogue, artfully disguising ineffectuality … Mamet’s characters speak of doing but rarely do anything. They use transitive verbs to investigate, provoke, and alter the environment, yet reality rarely changes.” (2006, p. 103, 104).

Mamet has become famous for cinematic contributions such as The Untouchables, State and Main, or The Winslow Boy – the last of which he adapted from an original script from Terrance Rattigan, and which makes for a fascinating comparison with his other works. In 1976 though, he made his first impact on the stage with American Buffalo. Just as British audiences were shocked by the appearance of an ironing board on stage at the introduction to Look Back in Anger, and French audiences were shocked by the expletives bellowed out in Alfred Jarry’s Ubi plays, so American audiences were in for a shock on the appearance of the character Teach: 

Teach: (Appears in the doorway and enters the store.) Good morning. 

Don: Morning Teach. 

Teach: (Walks around the store a bit in silence.) Fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie. 

Don: What? 

Teach: fuckin’ Ruthie

As shocking as the language may appear, it disguises the thing which makes Mamet one of the most fascinating of playwrights today – a lyrical, almost musical eloquence. Perhaps more than anyone else, Mamet is a master of dialogue – a dialogue in which expletives which express rage are subtly turned into a lyrical and rhythmic expression of powerlessness, and duplicity Glengarry Glen Ross draws on themes which have permeated American drama since the beginning of the twentieth century. On it’s fist production, it inevitably drew comparisons with Death of a Salesman because of its focus on salesmen – and in particular, salesmen who are losing touch with the modern world and being left behind. Salesman who are characterised by a sense of disillusionment with the world around them, and who are struggling to find a sense of self in a world where the past means nothing, and the future is insecure. Indeed, in Glengarry Glen Ross we encounter a collection of disgruntled and disillusioned salesmen, each filled with a sense of righteous anger and frustration. In a scene which bears comparison with that of Jenson in Network a representative of the corporation is sent to give these salesmen a 'pep talk'. Just as Beale's rightous anger is thrown back at him, so the anger of these salesmen is thrown back at them - and they are left equally speechless at the sheer power and force of this symbol of economic might.

The response of the salesmen to this invective is, predictably, anger. Moss and Aaranow drive away from this scene together and we see Moss eloquently expressing just how unfair he thinks things are. "It's medieval..." Moss declares, "it's wrong". What is 'wrong', according to Moss, appears to be the whole system - an economic structure which means that they are powerless against the material power of the businesses they work for: "And we enslave ourselves. To please. To win some fucking toaster". Like Willy Loman before him, Moss expresses the sense that it is unfair to those who have been with the company a long time to treat them like this and concludes that action needs to be taken:

MOSS Look look look look, when they build your business, then you can't fucking turn around, enslave them, treat them like children, fuck them up the ass, leave them to fend for themselves... no. (pause) No. (pause) You're absolutely right, and I want to tell you something. 


MOSS I want to tell you what somebody should do. 


MOSS Someone should stand up and strike back. 

This all sounds very noble. Indeed, at this point in the dialogue we might be thinking that Moss is equivalent of Jacob in Awake and Sing! - a voice of idealism, urging others to action. Of course this makes it all the more of an uncomfortable anti-climax when we discover that Moss's intended action is to rob the office. In a world where the system is unfair, and where the system pushes people to the edge, the action of robbing the office only adds another layer of self-interested unfairness to those which already exist. In other words, such an action does not oppose the system which oppresses them - it is a part of it.

It is hard not to see in this scene a powerful expression of the extent to which the systems of capitalism and market forces have both enslaved people, and at the same time appropriated any form of protest against itself. The idealism of Jacob is here converted into an act which serves the interests not of the collective, but of Moss and Aaranow only. Jacob gives his life to serve the greater interests of 'the people', but ultimately Moss is not interested in them. Ih what ways would robbing the office challenge the way his company treated employees? In what ways would robbing the office make like better for anyone else who worked there?

We can see the problem more clearly as the scene progresses. As Moss and Aaranow continue, what was initially an anger directed at the system which turns men into slaves becomes an anger directed simply at the mis-management of that system:

In other words, the problem is not that they are working for a system which is itself corrupt, and which takes advantage of people, but that the company is not efficient enough in the way it takes those advantages. "Don't sell a guy one car" Moss concludes, "Sell him five cars over fifteen years". Don't JUST rip a guy off. Rip him off in the long term. It quickly becomes clear that the discomfort we might feel at the aggressively discriminatory language of Moss (the "deadbeat Polack" and the "Fuckin' Indians") is syntomatic of the sense Mamet is creating that these are characters who have been systematically corrupted to the point that their aggression against the systems which oppress them is mis-directed into areas which only serve the interests of that system.

If this wasn't enough, even this questionable form of protest becomes something which Moss wraps in layers of ambiguity - is such an action something which he intends as a direct action, or is he (like Jacob) simply 'talking the talk'?

As Bigsby comments, in “Mamet’s world is a world in which people are not what they seem” (Bigsby, 1999. p. 197). What is becoming apparent here is that Moss is indeed very much like Jacob in Awake and Sing! He is not intended to participate in his version of social protest, but wants to incite others to action. Notice here though, that again that form of protest is corrupted from the very beginning. Moss does not incite Aaranow to action. He blackmails him into it. The whole conversation has been about Moss manipulating Aaranow into doing something which serves the principal interests of Moss alone. As we discover later in the play, Moss has been manipulating not just George but Levine as well, who he has more successfully persuaded and who eventually commits the crime. 

The rage and fury Moss vents at the self-serving company is itself futile and self-serving. In the end the ones who suffer are those who were even worse off than him: his rhetoric of rage and idealism leads to himself profiting the lion share of the profits from the stolen leads ("He told me my share was twenty-five"), and to the one salesman who seems to have a less purely selfish motive (his hospitalised daughter) facing a jail sentence on his behalf.

When Levene finally appeals to Williamson on behalf of his daughter, Williamson's response is an archetype of self-interested and un-empathetic attitudes prevailent throughout Glengarry Glen Ross:

LEVENE John: daughter... 


In Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet presents us with a vision of American society as he sees it. It is a vision of decay: environmental decay, physical decay and, most significantly, moral decay. The sales office is a downbeat environment, in which characters react and respond to each other violently and aggressively, without ever generating a real threat. The business of sales is one of deception and exploitation – of lying in order to achieve a sale. 

“Everyone, it seems [in Mamet’s plays], exploits everyone else and when it appears otherwise, as, briefly, in Speed the Plough, this proves illusory. Reality is deconstructed. It is not that human needs or fears are denied. Quite the contrary. Mamet’s tricksters freely acknowledge them; they show a perception, a sympathy, an insight which is startling. It is simply that such an awareness is a tool of the trade. Just as advertising, pornography or Hollywood make fundamental human needs serve the purpose of commerce, so Mamet’s confidence-men do the same” (Bigsby, 1999. p.198)

Moss manipulates Aaranow and Levine by subtly and intelligebtly understanding their human weaknesses - just as Levene attempts to sell people properties by manipulating theirs. All the salesmen demonstrate their own particular brand of lying, and for each one the question of there being a moral issue is not even raised. Deception is simply the business of selling. As the company man from downtown makes absolutely clear, business is business, and the rest is of no concern in that office. Ironically, this message surprises the office salesman not because it is new, but because it is so obvious they didn’t even pay attention to it any more. 

In this salesman’s world, the ideals of capitalism gone wrong, so unpleasantly personified in the company man, have created a state of moral decay in which deception, lying and cheating are no longer wrong – they are simply the way things are, and the way they have to be. Roma has little or no compunction in using any trick available to ensure his victim is unable to take advantage of the cancellation period on a sale, even though it is clear his victims marriage is at stake, and even though it is clear that his victim is the closest thing to an honest man the play has to offer:

There is an awkward irony towards the end of this scene, when the victim of Roma’s duplicity actually apologises to Roma for foiling it:

LINGK Oh, Christ...(starts out the door) Don't follow me...Oh, Christ. (pause, to Roma) I know I've let you down. I'm sorry. For...Forgive...for...I don't know anymore. (pause) Forgive me.

In a clever moment, this apology is followed by a shifting silence ("Lingk exits.Pause.") in which the audience may half expect some abashment from Roma – perhaps even a sense of relief that the honest man had not, after all, had to sacrifice his marriage in order that Roma might win a car. Lingk is an honest man. A man struggling with the pressures of modern life. A man who has, perhaps more than any of the others, just cause to complain about a system which oppresses and corrupts people. A system which destroys human relationships.

Roma is perhaps the only salesman we think might be receptive to this. After all, he has just demonstrated a perceptive and compassionate understanding of LIngk's plight:

ROMA Forget the deal, Jimmy. (pause) Forget the know me. The deal's dead. Am I talking about the deal? That's over. Please. Let's talk about you. Come on. (pause. Roma risesand starts walkingtoward the front door) Come on. (pause) Come on, Jim. (pause) I want to tell you something. Your life is your own. You have a contract with your wife. You have certain things you do jointly, you have a bond there...and there are other things. Those things are yours. You needn't feel ashamed, you needn't feel that you're being untrue...or that she would abandon you if she knew. This is your life. (pause) Yes. Now I want to talk to you because you're obviously upset and that concerns me. Now let's go. Right now. Lingk gets up and they start for the door.

Far from abashment though, far from relief, Roma and Levene turn on Williamson – roundly abusing him for, as far as Roma knows, telling the truth (although it is actually a just another lie). Indeed, Roma's invective is one of the most explicit and most bitter in the play:

ROMA (to Williamson) You stupid fucking cunt. You, Williamson...I'm talking to you, shithead...You just cost me six thousand dollars. (pause) Six thousand dollars. And one Cadillac. That's right. What are you going to do about it? What are you goin to do about it, asshole. You fucking shit. Where did you learn your trade. You stupid fucking cunt. You idiot. Whoever told you you could work with men?

In the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, were deception is right and truth is wrong; where goodness reaps no reward, but lays itself open to exploitation – in such a world, anything genuine dies or suffers. Levine appeals for Williamson’s help using every possible argument – and only at the very last gasp appeals on behalf of his daughter, who we know is very ill. After bribery and bluster, this is his only genuine, his only real and human appeal – and being genuine, he knows it will be the least effective. 

In the world of 1980s America, capitalism was seen as a shining light which empowered individuals to provide for loved ones, and reap the rewards of individual endeavours – the underpinning ideology of the American Dream, in which all men achieve wealth and success (all they have to do is close a deal). The economic boom of the decade seemed to justify such ideals. In Mamet's world though, such a system is seen to de-humanise. It takes away from humanity and individual identity, and replaces it with self-interest and corruption. As Bigsby writes, “David Mamet explores the myths of capitalism, the loss of that spiritual confidence which was once presumed to underpin individual identity and national enterprise alike” (Bigsby, 1999. p.196). 

In his play The Water Engine, Mamet asks the question, and proposes the answer, which perhaps can be seen as an eloquent summary of the message of Glengarry Glen Ross: “What happened to this nation? Or did it ever exist … did it exist within its freedoms and slogan … Where is America? I say it does not exist. And I say it never existed. It was all but a myth. A great dream of avarice.


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Boon, K. (2011). 'Ethics and Capitalism in the Screenplays of David Mamet', Literature Film Quarterly, 39, 3, pp. 174-189

Cardullo, R. (n.d.). 'Selling in American drama, 1946-49: Miller's 'Death of a Salesman', O'Neill's The 'Iceman Cometh', and Williams's A 'Streetcar Named Desire' (Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams)', Explicator, 66, 1, pp. 29-33

McDonough, C. J. (1992). 'Every Fear Hides a Wish: Unstable Masculinity in Mamet's Drama', Theatre Journal, 44, 2, pp. 195-205