Once again I am covering a play that is on the M.A. list, but one that I did not choose myself. Glengarry Glen Ross is a play that has also been made into a movie starring a good amount of Hollywood Heavyweights such as Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, and Kevin Spacey. If you do choose this play for your exam, I highly recommend you see a production of it, or at least the movie, as, like most plays, it was meant to be seen and not necessarily read. Also, because of the plays pacing and rhythm that has become to be known as distinctly Mamet, it is actually quite difficult to read.
Mamet did not write in the Theater of the Absurd as Harold Pinter did with The Homecoming. Mamet’s plays have been viewed as realism as it is possible to relate to the characters, despite the language being somewhat exaggerated and the pacing of the dialogue far more intense while still maintaining a sort of poetic form. With Pinter, the characters were almost completely unpredictable, and it was difficult to know what their motives were. With Glengarry Glen Ross, it is clear that these are desperate men just trying to make a living.
Profanity and lots of it. Not really a theme as much as it is a literary device on Mamet’s part. There really is no need to go into it…if you read or see the play, you’ll encounter it. The use of it is intentional, brutal, aggressive, and in your face, just like the characters.
The way Mamet uses the language in general is brilliant in its simplicity. You can tell who is speaking by the dialogue. All characters use ellipses, but in different ways. You can immediately tell by the first page that Levene is someone who is generally struggling – to communicate, to sell, and to live. Williamson is always in control. He pauses, thinks before he speaks, is always calm, and always has a point, while many of the others are just talking. Aaronow is too weak to communicate his own ideas, and can only seem to repeat everyone else’s.
All of them, with the exception of Baylen, the detective, are always trying to sell something: Levene tries to sell Williamson on the idea of giving him the good leads even though he isn’t that great of a salesman; Moss tries to sell Aaronow on the idea of stealing the leads and making some real money for the both of them; Roma attempts (and almost succeeds) is selling Lingk a piece of property down in Florida; and the Roma oddly takes the place that Levene held at the beginning of the play in trying to sell Williamson in giving him the good leads, thus leading to the idea that Levene is what Roma will be in about ten years.
Another theme is the Neurosis of Masculinity. All of them want to be the top dog. They are all hunting, but instead of hunting in a pack, they are each going solo and turning on each other. In this scenario, Williamson would be the symbolic female of the group as he is the only one is on salary and has no need to hunt, instead, he lives off of the collected revenue of everyone else. Williamson can also represent women in the workplace and how men react when they are forced to deal with this new sort of competition. Even Lingk, who is not a salesman but a potential customer, wants to be a top dog like Roma. Even after he realizes he has been betrayed, he is the one who apologizes and states that it is his wife that doesn’t want to buy the property.
Two solid quotes on the issue of manliness in this play: 1. P. 75 Levene: A man’s his job and you’re fucked at yours (interestingly enough, so is he); 2. P. 20 Leven: Now I’m a good man (meaning not necessarily a moral man, but good at being a man).
This play has also been viewed as both capitalism without mercy, and capitalism gone awry.
It also seems to address that eternal question: How much of life is free will, and how much of it do we have absolutely control over? Is there such a thing as free will, or is some unknown entity pulling the strings all of the time? Levene seems to believe in luck and streaks, while Roma believes in making his own luck, and he is the one who is currently the successful salesman. So who is right? What do you do with the hand you’re dealt?
Bill Bryden, the director of play at the National Theater, described Glengarry Glen Ross as “a way of explaining Nixon’s America through seven of its citizens.” This play first premiered on stage in 1983, which is of course well after Nixon’s America. However, the 1980s were the “me” decade and the men in this play are definitely looking after themselves and no one else.
The 1960s saw the creation of the Peace Corps. There was also John F. Kennedy’s altruism and the famous “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” In the 1970s, the economy went south, the Vietnam War was over (and we lost), and Jimmy Carter is mocked for his attitude of self-sacrifice. Enter the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan emphasizes trickle down economics, the central idea of which I will very loosely summarize to mean that if you look out for your self and do well, everything else below you will fall into place. Also the age of excess and of never having enough. This is the America that these seven men are attempting to survive in.
This play has also been considered a sequel to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman because here are four salesmen (plus Williamson) with very little hope, nothing left, nothing to grasp at, and get you get the sense that even for the ones that are doing well (like Roma), the success is short-lived and they all eventually end up like Levene.
So, for all of you Mamet enthusiasts, I hope this was at least somewhat helpful. This play was definitely easier for me to grasp that The Homecoming, but I can’t say that helped me like it any better. I do appreciate what Mamet has done here, but I probably need to at least see it performed before I can say that I “get it.”