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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity David Mamet (b. 1947)

[9072] U.S. Department of the Interior, Map of Chicago, 1970, from the National Atlas of the United States of America, U.S. Geological Survey (1970), courtesy of the General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin.

David Mamet was born on the Jewish south side of Chicago. His plays have been performed throughout the country, in his hometown as well as in New York City, where Mamet studied the Stanislavsky method of acting. He has said that this method made him aware of how “the language we use, its rhythm, actually determines the way we behave, more than the other way around.” It is important, then, for Mamet’s audiences and readers to pay close attention to his use of language.

David Mamet’s language in his plays and films is so distinctive that it is now known as “Mametspeak.” His characters talk through, around, and over each other, sometimes clarifying and sometimes obliterating meaning, and his works have been described as perfect for “people who love words.” In Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he received the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, Mamet tells the story of a desperate man attempting to keep his job in a profession that, for better or worse, has passed him by. The play uses the business of sales as a metaphor for the American condition, as characters jostle for position in an office where there are only so many “leads” to go around. For these men, who have been defined by their work, the end of a career could necessitate a new search for identity in a world that may seem as if it no longer has room for them.

In 1988’s play Speed the Plow, in which Madonna was the original lead actress, Mamet used his experience as a screenwriter to stage a scathing critique of the truth behind Hollywood’s glamorous facade. The film world has nonetheless treated him well. Since beginning his screenwriting career in 1981, Mamet has succeeded equally in films and in theater. Unlike many other writers who have attempted to “go Hollywood,” Mamet has maintained his reputation as a legitimate writer. His film credits include The Untouchables (1987), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), The Edge (1997), and Wag the Dog(1997). Mamet’s plays include The Duck Variations (1972), Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), American Buffalo (1977), and Oleanna (1992).

Teaching Tips

  • One of the best ways to get your students interested in drama is to have them act out scenes for the class. You can choose the scenes or allow the students to pick their own. Remind them to pay close attention to both their vocal performances and their body language. To reinforce the play’s themes, ask them to follow up their dramatic performances with analyses (including close readings) of the scenes that they acted out.
  • Mamet has written many screenplays and many of his plays have been made into films. Choose a scene or two from one of these plays, and ask your students to analyze the characters’ language. You might ask them to come up with a list of characteristics of Mamet’s work that they can compare to Glengarry Glen Ross after they read the play. Also, after the students read Glengarry Glen Ross, you could show a scene from the movie and ask them to compare the reading experience to the viewing experience. What does the film bring to or take from the play?
  • Many students have a hard time engaging with literature if they don’t “like” any of the characters, and Mamet is famous for creating generally unsympathetic characters. Encourage students to find ideas in the text to which they can relate. Or, ask them if Mamet’s representations seem “realistic.” Do the students know people like this? Or, do the students know people who talk like this?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is Glengarry? What is Glen Ross? Why are they important in the play?
  2. Comprehension: What do these characters do for a living? What is “the board”? What are “leads”?
  3. Comprehension: How do the salesmen attempt to deal with James Lingk’s desire to renege on his contract? Why does Roma become so angry with Williamson?
  4. Context: Analyze the play’s first words from Levene to Williamson (or choose another scene) in terms of Thomas Pynchon’s ideas in “Entropy” about “noise” and “leakage.” How much of Levene’s speech is just noise and how much is communication? Is there a difference between the two? Does any language or utterance communicate something? If so, what?
  5. Context: In stories by Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, and other writers in this unit, characters are on the receiving end of ethnic and racial slurs. In this play, David Mamet’s characters are often on the giving end–they actually make the derogatory comments. Why? What is Mamet suggesting about why people participate in and perpetuate stereotyping? For example, if we interpret Moss’s comments about Indians in light of his job insecurity, are they more understandable and/or less offensive? Why or why not?
  6. Context: When James Lingk attempts to cancel his deal, the salesmen are dismissive of his arguments, especially when he mentions his wife’s role in the family’s decision making. Consider their reactions in relation to Toni Cade Bambara’s “Medley,” in which Sweet Pea says that men ignore her while they “conduct business” in her presence. Consider Roma’s comments to Lingk: “You have a life of your own. You have a contract with your wife. You have certain things you do jointly. . . . and there are other things. Those things are yours.” What “things” does Roma suggest are Lingk’s?
  7. Exploration: Figuratively speaking, what does it mean to “get on the board”? Why is it so important to get and stay on the board, and how does Mamet suggest this be accomplished? What are “leads” and how can we get them? Is it possible for people without “leads” to succeed? What is he saying about American values and corporate, financial, and monetary systems? If “sales” are a metaphor for American capitalist society, what is Mamet suggesting about American values, opportunities, and achievements?
  8. Exploration: When Levene crows about his sale to Bruce and Harriet Nyborg, he explains their agreement: “It was like they wilted all at once. . . . they both kind of imperceptibly slumped.” Thus, his victory is their defeat. At what cost has Levene seized his own “opportunity”? Are the Nyborgs sympathetic characters? How, if at all, does your opinion of them change after you learn of their history with salespeople?
  9. Exploration: In the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” because they spend too much time worrying about money, material goods, and worldly achievement. Here, David Mamet tells of twentieth-century desperate men who resort to desperate measures because they are part of the system of “corporate slavery.” Why do you think achievement and financial success are so important to these characters? Also consider the ideas about manhood and masculinity that recur throughout the play, e.g., “It’s not a world of men.” What does it mean to be a man according to these characters and/or according to this text?
  10. Exploration: Compare the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross to Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. Consider how the salesmen in these plays are depicted as archetypal victims and, simultaneously, perpetrators of American capitalism and consumer culture.

Selected Archive Items

[3062] Carl Mydans, House on Laconia Street in a Suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio (1935), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-000658-D]. 
Suburban scene of houses, street, and sidewalk. This is an early example of the type of homogeneous suburban neighborhood that flourished immediately following World War II. The continuation of such development in the later twentieth century led to huge economic, social, and environmental problems resulting from uncontrolled “sprawl”–a term that captures the unreflective reproduction of language, people, and places. Sprawl has been criticized by David Mamet in his plays.

[8479] Anonymous, World War II Posters: What School Teachers and Pupils Should Do During an Air Raid (1942), 
courtesy of the World War II Poster Collection, Northwestern University Library. 
The standardization, homogenization, and regularization in everyday life that spread from the 1950s and 1960s through the present day– from responding to air raid drills, to pledging patriotic support to the government, to embracing the materialism of suburban life–all shape playwright David Mamet’s engagement with American society through his characters’ fierce, yet sometimes comical, use of language.

[9072] U.S. Department of the Interior, Map of Chicago, 1970, from the National Atlas of the United States of America, U.S. Geological Survey (1970), 
courtesy of the General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin. 
Playwright David Mamet experienced Chicago’s postwar economic development, growing up on the Jewish south side of the city. Moving back to Chicago after college, Mamet worked at a real estate agency, an experience that provided the basis for Glengarry Glen Ross. His plays, capturing the potential violence of language and the travails of miscommunication, explore society’s disregard for its most enduring inequities. “What I write about,” says Mamet, “is what I think is missing from our society. And that’s communication on a basic level.”

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6