Glengarry Glen Ross (1984)
by David Mamet (b. 1947)
David Mamet does one of the essential things that humanity refuses to do, and must, if we are to avoid the disastrous future unfolding before us each day—he looks reality in the face and speaks courageously of what he sees. “[He] is at least three things: one of our best playwrights, one of our most intriguing thinkers and one of our most prolific writers.”[i] David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross is about real estate salesmen driven by the security energy center of their respective false-self survival strategies. The director, Marco Barricelli, observes that: “The situation that we’re facing now in this country, there’s certainly a large part of that can be traced back to greed. Your [American] status is related and inseparable from your value [identity] as a businessman.[ii]
What is Mamet’s goal in writing this play? “The larger framework of the piece wants to unmask the darker side of business. These guys are caught up in a system [worldview] as much as they are guilty of bad behavior. It is a play about the disordered pursuit of the almighty dollar (capitalism) in the name of a corroded American Dream (material wealth as our defining moment).”[iii]
A play or indeed any individual or collective does not exist independent of its context. The universal context of humanity is P-B but there are sub-narratives within P-B. “Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in 1980 and in 1981, he began a series of tax and spending cuts. Reagan, with the counsel of his economic advisor, David Stockman, put the top tax bracket from 70% down to 50% and then down again to 28%. These cuts were part of the ‘trickle down’ theory of economics or ‘Reaganomics’ which were perceived to benefit the wealthy and then ‘trickle down’ to the middle and lower classes. The perception is that the top income earners would invest more into the business infrastructure and equity markets, thereby creating more jobs for the rest of the population. Reagan signed Social Security legislation that delayed cost-of-living payments and increased payroll deductions.”[iv]
The “trickle down” theory of capitalism is an expression of the sensation center of the false self, the fear-driven belief that there is only so much material wealth available and therefore each person must compete to get their share which means “as much as possible.” As we know, this paradigm is part of an unsustainable worldview. “[The] national debt had quadrupled at the end of Reagan’s terms; unemployment rose to more than 12 million in the U.S.”[v]
Our story drives our identity, so we are not surprised to see a direct connection between the dog-eat-dog world of “capitalism” and the self concepts or identities of Mamet’s characters. In this play Mamet exposes the men behind their personas. “[He] lets us see a desperate loneliness and absence of self-worth.”[vi] These men are working on their sensation center needs seeking affection and esteem and they do not have much of anything to give each other. The system (their “story”) has reduced their identities to that of animals in a vicious jungle. “[They] are trapped in a universal nightmare from which there is no happy way out. It is whatever it is.”[vii] “For salesmen, selling is not just their job but a persona; it is who and what they are. ‘A man’s his job,’ says Levene, which suggests he has become a mere extension of his livelihood and the world outside the office has ceased to exist.”[viii]
The third element in the equation that defines reality is human behavior. Context drives identity and identity drives behavior. “Deception and illusion are at work on every level. Lying and fantasy is a way of thinking and operating as there seems to be little truth to anything anyone says to anybody. ‘The salesmen are seen as living in an illusory world,’ says critic Tony Stafford, ‘creating a phony reality and using false appearances as a sales technique so that in the long run they deny their own reality, their client’s reality, and the reality of the real world.”[ix]
In Glengarry Glen Ross, another behavior is obvious and that is the pursuit of power or at least what seems to be power. “Behind the foul-mouthed incessantly macho bravado lies a desperate bluster, a show of power by men who are only too aware of the powerlessness. They may live by victimizing their colleagues and clients, but the most abject victims of their trade are themselves. Thus, they have become emotionally distanced from a society in which they can no longer communicate or be heard. Because his characters are frustrated in social inter-action, they resort to outbursts of obscenity and profanity.”[x]
What has become “Mametspeak” is a very lyrical language, almost musical in its various qualities. “The rhythms are slick, fast and syncopated, like a drum solo. Mamet sets out to tell the truth in his plays and we hear it in the fear, panic and desolation of the salesmen’s arias and duets.”[xi]
What does Mamet say his goal as a playwright is? “What I write about is what I think is missing from our society. And that’s communication on a basic level. We’re all here to undergo a communion, to find out what the hell is going on in this world.”[xii]
“Mamet finds loneliness to be typical of contemporary America. Most of his plays depict the dilemma of a people inundated with media messages, crowded into physical contact with others in urban communities, yet incapable of connecting with one another. His characters often manipulate [the power energy center of the false self] and prey upon each other, generally isolating or destroying themselves in the process. To a great degree, Mamet blames the modern business ethic [security energy center of the false self] for this dilemma, since people take their cues from the success-oriented, manipulative, sometimes merciless methods of American business. Mamet is certainly not original in this criticism, but he does have a keen perception of how this ethical perversity carries over into private relationships. His work details the subtle manifestations of competition, trade, and the drive to acquire that he believes have nearly overwhelmed America.”[xiii]
The illusion of the Other forms the basis for a key aspect of many of Mamet’s characters. “Generally speaking, all of Mamet’s works reveal his facility for urban speech, his satiric view of media-oriented, commercialized life, and his belief that ‘under all this very cynical vision is a crying need for human contact in a bad, bad world.’”[xiv] However, in his plays, when that human contact is made it is all too often people projecting their dark and destructive shadows onto each other.
P-B, what Mamet might call “cultural conditioning,” is the focus of Mamet’s explanation for the human condition. “People must shed their cultural conditioning in order to cast off the neurotic drive for fame and power which appears to govern the contemporary world, and they must seek to build honest, intimate human relationships in order to achieve personal fulfillment.”[xv] But how are we going to do this? Good question!
[i] Drake, Sylvie. “Laying it all Bare.” Applause. Oct.-Nov. 2008, page 16.
[ii] Bornstein, Lisa. “‘Glengarry’ hits close to home in these economic hard times.” Rocky Mountain News. October 18, 2008, page 7.
[iii] Drake, op. cit., page 16.
[iv] Inside/Out. Glengarry Glen Ross. Denver Center Theatre Company, 2007, page 5.
[vi] Drake, op. cit., page 16.
[viii] Inside/Out, op. cit., page 6.
[x] Ibid., page 12.
[xii] Drake, op. cit., page 17.
[xiii] Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Critical Survey of Drama. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Salem Press, 1985, page 1235.
[xiv] Ibid., page 1237.
[xv] Ibid., page 1243.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.