Rebirth of Reason


Glengarry Glen Ross: A David Mamet Word Play
by Edward W. Younkins

David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross, is about the struggles of four shady small-time salesmen in a small branch of a larger real estate company located in Chicago. Taking place over two business days, the play portrays the dog-eat-dog world of real estate and the ends ruthless salesmen will go to in order to sell overpriced and undesirable land to uninterested and reluctant potential buyers. The cutthroat conniving salesmen resort to trickery, bribery, deceit, lying, and theft. This dark play successfully illustrates the social Darwinistic nature of the shady world of real estate in a big city and the Darwinian rules of the desperate salesmen’s game. The title of the play refers to two unattractive and overvalued parcels of Florida land—Glengarry Heights and Glen Ross Farms. Mamet’s play was also made into a fine 1992 film which incorporated two additional scenes.

The author, Mamet, had worked for a year in a Chicago real estate office where he observed salesmen’s noble but often pathetic efforts to sell unwanted real estate. There he heard the coarse and vulgar language that depicted the high pressure felt by the agents. Mamet had first-hand experience of both the desperation and exhilaration of the salesmen’s calling. He knew how they talked and incorporated much obscene and unprofessional language into the play’s dialogue. Abrasive and pungent language is shown to constitute the jargon of the salesmen’s trade. Such language also measures and connotes the intensity of the salesmen’s quests.

Mamet shows how hucksters use language to con customers and each other. He employs sporadic conversations and erratic speech patterns to convey their thoughts and personalities. Mamet illustrates that language is a con man’s tool and that conversation can be used to persuade, convince, and lie. His characters use language and storytelling in order to survive in their dismal and dreary situations and to exalt that survival. Mamet’s characters define themselves through their language and discourse. Each character’s ability or inability to sell is essential to his identity and relationships to the others.

The original play is set in two locations—a rundown Chinese restaurant across the street from the shabby real estate office, and the dingy office itself. The appearance of both the restaurant and the office sets us up for the darkness, gloom, and sense of despair of the salesmen themselves. The three scenes of Act I take place in the restaurant, and Act II entirely takes place the following day in the office. The film version is fairly true to the play with two scenes added. One scene shows one of the salesmen making an unsuccessful sales call at someone’s home. The other scene effectively adds a new character who threatens the salesmen at the beginning of the screenplay version. Blake (played by Alec Baldwin), a slick troubleshooter from downtown, is sent to shake up the salesmen.

The very first scene of the film version is valuable by making explicit much of what is subsequently illustrated, explained, or implied in the succeeding events of the play. The film begins with an emergency meeting in the shabby real estate office. Blake, a tough emissary sent by downtown bosses Mitch and Murray, delivers a “pep talk” to the salesmen. He tells the salesmen that they are all fired and that the only way to get their jobs back is to close enough deals in the sales contest he is instituting. Blake is arrogant, pompous, and takes pleasure in demeaning the salesmen. He delivers his talk in unprofessional, negative, and vulgar language. He cracks the whip by pitting the salesmen against each other in a sales contest. They will be fired unless they get “on the board.” There is an ever-present chalkboard in the front of the office that consistently reminds them of the contest at all times—it is literally in their faces.

Blake informs them that the winner will get a Cadillac, the second place finisher will receive a set of steak knives, and the rest of them will be fired. He says that each of them will be given two leads by Williamson, the office manager, and that they had until the next morning to turn them into sales. The salesmen know that the leads are old and worthless and two of them, Dave Moss and Shelly Levene complain that they are old leads. Blake’s attempts to “teach” the salesmen how to sell merely amount to repeating two acronyms—ABC (Always Be Closing) and AIDA (Attention, Interest, Decision, and Action).

The first scene in Act I of the play shows Shelly “the Machine” Levene attempting to persuade John Williamson, the sales manager, to give him some of the premium leads locked up in the office. Williamson has 500 good Glengarry leads that are only to be distributed to “closers.” The desperate and despairing Levene pleads, brags, flatters, bullies, and attempts to bribe the office manager in order to obtain the leads. Levene tries to bribe Williamson by offering him fifty dollars for every lead plus 20 percent of the profit made. The unsympathetic, heartless, and impassive office manager says he wants his money up front.

Levene, a great salesman in the past, needs money to pay for his sick daughter’s medical bills. As a tragic figure who boasts about his past accomplishments, Levene brings to mind the character Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman. Viewed by Williamson as expendable, Shelly, the worn-out sagging old timer, has been on a losing streak not having made a sale in months. Levene attributes his misfortunes on the economy and the lack of quality leads that Williamson gives him. He views Williamson as a naïve, incompetent, sadistic, and bureaucratic young man with no sales experience.

Williamson takes orders from Mitch and Murray, the downtown sales bosses. The uncharismatic and ruthless sales manager resorts to fear and intimidation and is not respected by the salesmen. They despise both Williamson and the system under which they work. Lacking in leadership skills, the spineless Williamson is a stooge for the main office downtown who has never had to live by his wits as a salesman on the front line.

In scene two of Act I, Dave Moss and George Aaronsow are at the Chinese restaurant engaging in a conversation about the unfairness of the distribution of the leads. They are offended by the company’s disrespect for its employees. In order to get the good leads one had to make sales and in order to make sales one needed to have the good leads. The angry and ruthless Moss shares his idea of stealing the leads and selling them to a former colleague and current competitor, Jerry Graff, who is in business for himself. The bitter, intimidating, and aggressive Moss wants the timid, reserved, and soft-spoken Aaronsow to break into the office and steal the leads. Moss informs Aaronsow that even if he did not participate in the robbery he would still be an accessory before the fact because he had talked to Moss about the robbery plot—for the salesmen it appears that talking implies action. He tells Aaronsow that if he breaks in himself he will name Aaronsow as an accomplice.

Ricky Roma, the star of the sales force, is also at the Chinese restaurant. Roma is a subtle, smooth, instinctual, and informal salesman who does not need a list of hot prospects to make sales—for him every person is a potential customer—even bar strangers. Roma is able to improvise according to his sense of each occasion. He works magic on potential customers by avoiding the hard sell and by getting the potential clients to trust him. Roma has the knack of persuading customers to purchase what they neither need nor want. He knows how to use language (often vulgar) to sell his point. He expertly employs language to engage prospective buyers in small talk, thereby placing them at ease. The charming Roma thinks out of the box and uses his finesse to manipulate his target. Roma’s sales acumen embodies the art of selling. He knows how to get the potential customer to trust him. Of course, he does not really care about the customer but he has the ability to make the customer believe that he cares.

At the bar in the Chinese restaurant, Roma spots James Lingk and identifies him as a great target. Observing Roma in action permits us to experience vicariously the salesman’s thrill of the chase. He shows us how talk can transfer needs from the salesman to the potential customer and power from the potential customer to the salesman. Realizing that Lingk does not believe he enjoys or is in control of his life, Roma engages in a philosophical monologue in which he talks about the meaning of life, risk-taking, and seizing the moment. Roma plays to Lingk’s insecurities.

Approaching Lingk as a friend, Roma talks about opportunities and questions the idea of morality. Creating a comfortable setting for Lingk, Ricky uses vulgar language to proclaim the absence of absolute morality in the world and the responsibility of each person to be the master of his own fate. Roma never stops talking, suggests outrageous and extravagant opportunities, and gets Lingk to actually believe that he is his own man. The ace huckster gets Lingk to buy land that he can’t afford. Roma does not even consider if he is doing anything wrong—he just does his job the best way that he knows how to do it.

Act II takes place the following morning at the shabby real estate office which consists of four desks, a coffee pot, the chalkboard, and a couple of windows. The office is disheveled and the leads, telephones, and some contracts had been stolen.

Williamson and Aaronsow are in the outer office and Moss is being interrogated by a police detective named Baylen. When they arrive, both Roma and Levene believe that they have closed deals from the night before but their deals have not really been closed. Moss emerges from the inner office and is outraged by the way that the detective has treated him. The hot-headed Moss hears Levene raving about his successful deal and storms out. Moss’s anger appears to be a charade to make him look to be uninvolved in the office break-in.

Shelly is heartened by his successful sale. When he enters the office he thinks that he is the new leader in the competition. Levene boasts about the $80,000 plus sale he made the previous night to Bruce and Harriett Nyborg. The self-secure Ricky Roma congratulates the sagging old-timer on the sale. When he hears about the robbery, Ricky is concerned about whether or not his deal from the night before has been processed.

James Lingk enters the office to renege on the deal he made with Roma. His wife does not approve of it. Knowing that he has three business days to change his mind, he wants to make certain that the contract has not yet been filed and that his check has not been cashed. Roma informs Lingh that neither event has occurred and that there is plenty of time to back out of the deal if he really wants to do so. Roma suggests that he and Lingk meet on Monday to discuss the situation knowing that by then it will be too late to cancel the deal.

Roma teams up with Levene to make it appear that Roma has an important satisfied client, a senior vice-president of American Express, who has bought property from Roma and who has to be rushed immediately to the airport. Roma and Levene improvise to mislead and manipulate the tearful, pathetic customer who came to the office to demand a refund. Ricky admires Shelly for his spontaneous ability to cleverly play their con game. He only had to give Levene a few cues regarding how to proceed.

Williamson emerges from his office to ruin Roma and Levene’s team effort. The inexperienced office manager misreads the situation. He mistakenly thinks that Lingh is upset by the disorder of the office and reassures Lingh that the deal has gone through despite the robbery and that the contract has been processed and the check has been deposited the night before. At that point, Lingk realizes that he is being scammed. He leaves upset proclaiming that he is going to report Roma to the Attorney General.

Roma blows up and is furious with Williamson for sabotaging the deal. Levene joins Roma in berating and vilifying the office manager. After Roma goes in for questioning by Officer Baylen, Levene gets himself into serious trouble by telling Williamson that he should not have lied about having processed the deal and having cashed the check. Everyone knows that it was the office manager’s policy to nightly take the checks to the bank and to file the contracts. As luck would have it, the previous night Williamson failed to do so. The only way Shelly could have known that was if he had been in the office the night before. Williamson is thereby tipped off that Levene was the guilty party who had robbed the office.

The office manager knows that Levene is guilty. Levene attempts to deny the crime but eventually folds, admits his guilt (and that of Moss), begs for mercy, and attempts to bribe Williamson. He admits to selling the leads to Graff. To add to Levene’s woes, Williamson tells Levine that the Nyborg’s check is no good and that they are a crazy old couple who simply like to talk to salesmen. He had purposely given Shelly the worst possible leads. Levene asks Williamson why he is reporting him to the police and the office manager responds, “Because I don’t like you.” Levene had begun the day with pride believing that he had made a major sale but he certainly did not end the day that way.

Roma exits the interrogation, praises Levene, and attempts to convince Levene into being his partner so that he can share in the commission. Williamson has revealed Levene and Moss as the thieves to the detective. Shelly goes in to confess to Baylen just as Ricky is telling Levene how much he admires him. There is no closure at the end of the play. The selling goes on as we observe Ricky heading back to the Chinese restaurant.

Mamet’s character-centered play portrays a passionate, dismal, brutal world in which all of the characters are tragic figures. One moment a salesman praises a colleague and the next moment he betrays him. Teamwork is only evident among the salesmen when they conspire to bamboozle a customer or to steal from the company. The salesmen attempt to sound confident when they are on the phone but they are actually haunted by despair and desperation. They talk to make a living and most of the time they try to hide the truth. They appear to be addicted to what they do and exhibit the desire to manipulate. The main purpose of their talking is to claim power over others or to withhold power from them. They lie that they are in town for only a few hours, that there are only a few lots left, and so on. Playing roles and living by their wits seem to come naturally for these salesmen. We could say that the characters themselves are, in fact, actors.

The reader might wonder if these salesmen are naturally deceitful scam-artists who are attracted to their profession or if their organizational climate requires them to act the way they do. There is no loyalty or trust by or to the organization. The salesmen are driven by the bosses to participate in a dog-eat-dog cutthroat competition. Leadership, if any, is boss-centered and Theory X oriented. The salesmen are not mentored. There is no goal clarification or participation and the employees are in no way empowered. They fear punishment and the only motivation provided is negation—the chance to keep their jobs. A leader should be able to motivate his subordinates through the joint formulation of goals and the facilitation of the attainment of their goals. The organization has no people-centered practices or policies. There is no talk about providing value to the customers.

This play can be looked at as a description of a new kind of American salesmanship, a detective story with a surprise ending, and as a dogfight for power, domination, and survival. The excellent film adaptation includes a fine ensemble cast: Ricky (Al Pacino), Shelly (Jack Lemmon), Blake (Alec Baldwin), Dave (Ed Harris), George (Alan Arkin), John (Kevin Spacey), and James (Jonathan Pryce).

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