DAVID MAMET 1975
Thorstein Veblen wrote that business wisdom, when reduced to its basest form, frequently resorts to “the judicious use of sabotage”—an idea that David Mamet explores in his American Buffalo. First performed in Chicago in 1975, the play made its way to Broadway in 1977. Although Mamet had already achieved some success with his Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1972) the response to American Buffalo was highly favorable, despite the occasional harsh review. Many critics applauded Mamet’s ability to capture the cadences and ambiguities in everyday American speech: Newsweek’s Jack Kroll, for example, remarked that “Mamet is someone to listen to. He’s that rare bird, an American playwright who’s a language playwright.” Edwin Wilson, writing in the Wall Street Journal, stated that Mamet “has a keen ear for the idiosyncrasies and the humor of everyday speech.” While some critics dismissed American Buffalo (like the New York Daily News’s Douglas Watt) as “a poor excuse for a play” and (like the Christian Science Monitor’s John Beaufort) “too superficial to waste time upon,” most were enthusiastic about Mamet’s look at the ways in which three petty crooks plan to steal a coin collection in the name of “good business.”
Mamet’s plays (and this one is no exception) are radically different from ones written in previous theatrical eras and periods. Characters rarely speak in full sentences and their language (depending on the topic at hand) is often a mix of half-thoughts and obscenities, making the plays—at times—difficult Page 2 | Top of Articleto read. When performed, however, these seemingly inarticulate utterances yield a rhythm found in few other playwrights’ work. “Part of the fascination of the play,” wrote Women’s Wear Daily’s Howard Kissel, lies in “noting how the same banal language takes on different colors as we perceive the changing relationships” between the characters.
The conflict explored by Mamet here is the clash between business and friendship—between a man’s ethics and desire to succeed in a world where so much of the population has subscribed to a shared myth of capitalism. As one character tells his younger friend, “there’s business and there’s friendship”—two worlds which will be combined and then torn apart by the time the play is finished.
When asked by interviewer John Lahr to describe his youth in the New Yorker, Mamet remarked, “My childhood, like many people’s, was not a bundle of laughs. So what? I always skip that part of the biography.” A quick review of his background, however, suggests the means by which Mamet has been able to so accurately depict the anger and idiom of American men. Born in Chicago, Illinois, on November 30, 1947, he was raised in a Jewish neighborhood on the city’s South Side. His father, Bernard Mamet, was a labor attorney and (as Mamet has described him) an “amateur semanticist.” His mother, Lenore Silver, was a teacher. They divorced in 1958 and Mamet moved in with his mother and her new husband—whose violent temper is described in Mamet’s essay, “The Rake.” At the age of fifteen, Mamet returned to live with his father and worked as a busboy at the Second City, Chicago’s famous improvisational theater. Resisting his father’s suggestion that he become an attorney, Mamet left Chicago to study theater and English at Goddard College in Vermont, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1969 (he also studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater from 1968-69).
After a teaching stint at his alma mater, Mamet returned to Chicago, where he worked at a number of different jobs (cab driver, cook, waiter) while trying to begin a career in the theater. After realizing that he was (as he described himself) a “terrible” actor, Mamet focused his artistic energies on play-writing and directing. His first success was Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1972) which was awarded the Joseph Jefferson Award for best new Chicago play of 1975; it was later produced off-Broadway in 1976. American Buffalo (1975) won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best American play and prompted Clive Barnes, of the New York Times, to proclaim of Mamet, “The man can write.”
Since then, Mamet has become a favorite with critics and audiences. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for Glengarry Glen Ross, a searing and satiric look at real estate salesmen based, in part, on his own experience working as a telemarketer peddling worthless land. Speed-the-Plow (1988) caused a stir in the New York theater scene when the pop star Madonna was cast as its female lead, but the play was another success and was nominated (like Glengarry Glen Ross) for an Antionette (“Tony”) Perry Award. Greater controversy was caused by Oleanna (1992), Mamet’s look at sexual harassment: the play culminates in a male professor assaulting a female student who has destroyed his career with sexual allegations. Other works include The Cryptogram (1994) and The Old Neighborhood (1991).
Despite his extensive success with drama, Mamet’s talents are not limited to the theater. His screenplays for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), The Verdict (1982), The Untouchables (1987), Hoffa (1992), The Edge (1997), and Wag the Dog (1998; written with Hilary Henkin) have made him an in-demand presence in the world of major motion pictures. He has also written and directed four films: House of Games (1987), Things Change (1988), Homicide (1991), and the adaptation of his play Oleanna (1994). In addition, he has written collections of essays, a book on directing film, a book on acting, and two novels. Although playwriting is his foremost vocation, Mamet has proven himself to be a versatile and unpredictable force in the American literary scene.
American Buffalo takes place in “Don’s Resale Shop,” a secondhand junk store run by Don Dubrow,
the play’s protagonist. When the play opens, Don is instructing Bob, his young protege, in the art of “good business.” Don offers pointers and advice which Bob accepts and echoes. The two discuss last night’s poker game, held in the shop, and the virtues of Fletcher, a character who is never seen but who embodies all of the values that Don is trying to impart to Bob. Don offers other fatherly advice, such as, “Never skip breakfast,” and, “it wouldn’t kill you to take a vitamin.” Their relationship, like that of a father and son, is thus established.
Their moment of quiet bonding is cut short when Teach, a friend of Don’s, enters the shop and delivers an impassioned harangue about another friend of theirs, Ruthie, who begrudged him a slice of toast at the neighborhood diner that morning. Bob leaves to fetch the two men coffee from the same diner. Like Don, Teach offers his own personal wisdom on the topic of business and the need to keep it separate from friendship. (The “business” discussed in the play is always gambling or robbery.) When Bob returns, he speaks to Don about “the guy” he has been watching and informs him that he saw him put a suitcase in his car. Although Bob has forgotten to bring back Don’s coffee, Don is delighted with Bob’s information and sends him back to the diner to fetch the missing beverage.
Teach is suspicious about Don and Bob’s conversation, and badgers Don into telling him about its subject. Don agrees and explains that a week ago, “the guy” came into the shop and offered him ninety dollars for a buffalo-head nickel that Don had mixed up in random pieces of junk. Deducing that the nickel must be worth much more (since “the guy” made a point of haggling him for the price), Don has decided to steal it back from him—along with any other coins he may have. He has enlisted Bob as his assistant and Bob has been watching “the guy’s” house, which is around the corner from the shop. Later that night, Bob will steal the guy’s coin collection.
Teach, however, decides that he should “go in” instead of Bob, who he calls a “great kid” but also an amateur who will not be able to complete a job as potentially complicated as this. Teach also refers to a past job where Bob, strung out on drugs, used a crowbar to break into a house. Although the details of this past caper are never revealed, the mention of it enrages Don, who tells Teach, “I don’t want you mentioning that.” Don feels that Bob is “trying hard” and that Teach should “leave him alone.” Teach, however, is undaunted and tells Don that “simply as a business proposition” Don “cannot afford to take the chance” of using Bob for the job.
Don starts to waver on his previous stand and Bob returns from the diner. Don tells Bob to “forget about” the “thing.” Bob tells Don he needs fifty dollars, which Don gives him. Although this is not spoken of openly until the end of the play, Bob is asking Don for money to support a drug habit. Bob exits, leaving Don and Teach to plan the robbery, which they do by looking in a guide to coins. (“You got to have a feeling for your subject,” Teach explains.) While discussing how Teach will enter the house, Don becomes nervous about his partner’s lack of preparation and decides to call Fletcher and have him work with them. Teach adamantly refuses, but Don insists that he “wants some depth.” Teach reluctantly agrees and leaves the shop to go take a nap. He will return at 11:00 in order to carry out their criminal plans.
It is 11:15 that evening and Teach has not yet arrived. Don is also unable to reach Fletcher, whose phone line only offers him a busy signal each time it is called. Bob arrives (to the surprise of Don), asks him for more money and then offers him the sale of a buffalo-head nickel that he “got downtown.” His actions here are clearly suspicious, but Don still feels guilty about shutting Bob out from the robbery; he therefore agrees to buy it on the condition that they look up its value in the coin-collector’s guide. Bob, however, will not relinquish the coin and it is at this point that Teach enters, incensed at Bob’s presence. Don scolds him for his tardiness, and Teach convinces Don to give Bob enough money to leave, which he does. Teach wonders about Fletcher’s whereabouts, but Don tells him that Fletcher will arrive because “he said he’d be here.”
In order to begin some “planning” and “preparation,” Teach attempts to call “the guy” to make sure he is not home, but his nerves and incompetence cause him to keep dialing wrong numbers. Because Fletcher has still not arrived, Teach argues that they should complete the job themselves. Don, always loyal to his friends, wants to wait, but Teach convinces him that Fletcher cannot be trusted by telling a spurious story about Fletcher cheating during the previous night’s poker game. Teach then takes a gun out of his pocket and the two argue over its necessity: Don feels that it is an unnecessary risk but Teach insists that it is a needed precaution.
As the tension between them rises, Bob returns; despite Teach’s wishes, Don lets him in the shop. Bob tells them that Fletcher was mugged and is in the hospital with a broken jaw. Teach does not believe him and suggests to Don that Bob is in league with Ruthie or even Fletcher himself. Teach insists that Bob has gone behind their backs and performed the job with the others. Wanting to be sure he knows all the facts before making any accusations, Don asks Bob to name the hospital into which Fletcher has been admitted. Bob answers, “Masonic. . . I think” and Don calls there to check his story. Bob is nervous and becomes more frightened when he is asked about the buffalo-head nickel; he offers vague explanations for his having it. When Don’s call reaches Masonic hospital and he is told that Fletcher was never admitted, he and Teach interrogate Bob, who insists on the validity of his story and that he just said “Masonic” because he “thought of it.” Teach gives Bob one last chance to be honest and demands that he tell them “what is going on, what is set up,. . . and everything you know.” When Bob proclaims his ignorance, Teach grabs a nearby object and hits him with it on the side of the head. Don looks away and tells Bob, “You brought it on yourself.”
However, Ruthie then calls the shop and tells Don that Fletcher was, in fact, mugged and that he has been admitted to Columbus Hospital—not Masonic. As before, Don verifies this information with a phone call and the story is confirmed. Teach still grills Bob (whose mind becomes more foggy from the assault) about the nickel and gets a new story, specifically, that Bob bought it “in a coin store.” Don, however, is finished with the job and tells Teach to leave the shop. Teach retorts with, “You seek your friends with junkies. You’re a joke on the street, you and him,” causing Don to physically attack him.
During the fracas, Bob gets Don’s attention with a simple statement: “I missed him.” When asked to explain, the two men learn that Bob had never spotted “the guy” that morning and that his entire report about him “leaving with a suitcase” was a lie. They also learn that Bob did buy the nickel in a coin store “for Donny.” This infuriates Teach, who begins smashing the display cases in the shop while proclaiming, “There Is No Law. There Is No Right And Wrong. The World Is Lies. There Is No Friendship.” Finally, he sits down and the three are still. Don sends Teach out to get his car so they can take Bob to the hospital. Bob looks at Don and apologizes for all the trouble he thinks he has caused, but Don tries to comfort him with, “You did real good. . . . That’s all right.”
Bob is Don’s “gopher” and serves him in the dual capacities of coffee-fetcher and surrogate son. While he does listen patiently to all of Don’s lessons on how to “do business,” the audience also learns that he frequently borrows money from him to support a drug habit. Slow-witted and dull, he is not as talkative nor excitable as Don or Teach, but he does remain faithful to Don, even after he is assaulted by Teach on the grounds that he has betrayed their robbery scheme to other thieves.
The owner of Don’s Resale Shop, Don is a seller of junk who plans the robbery which drives the play’s plot. He is the “business associate” of Teach and a father figure to Bob. Early in the play,
he tries to instruct Bob on how to be a “stand-up guy,” a conversation that reveals many of his values and assumptions. Using the never-seen Fletcher as his example, he explains that, to succeed, a man needs “Skill and talent and the balls to arrive at your own conclusions.” According to Don, “Action talks and bullshit walks.” Like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Don believes that he understands exactly what qualities are needed for success in the world of “business:” he tells Bob, “It’s going to happen to you, it’s not going to happen to you, the important thing is can you deal with it and can you learn from it.” Although he appears headstrong when talking to Bob, his own need for lessons in loyalty is exposed when he allows Teach to convince him to cut Bob from the plan.
As his nickname suggests, Teach is a man who sees himself as a guru-like figure, dispensing parcels of wisdom to Don and Bob. He constantly offers platitudes which seek to instruct the others in the ways that “business” is conducted: “A guy can be too loyal,” “Don’t confuse business with pleasure,” “It’s kickass or kissass,” and “You got to have a feeling for your subject” are a few of the many “rules” he recites during the play. Teach subscribes to the notion that free enterprise is “The freedom of the Individual to Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit” in order to “secure his honest chance to make a profit” and that, without such a code, “we’re just savage shitheads in the wilderness.” Like Don, Teach believes himself to be adept in the world of deal-making and business. Yet his circumstances reveal his skills to be unprofitable.
Underneath Teach’s “lessons” runs a current of anger at those who have succeeded in the fields of which he sees himself as an expert. When Don tells him that Ruthie and Fletcher won at last night’s poker game because they are good card players, Teach ascribes their victories to cheating rather than skill. His anger at the world—and at his own meager place in it—culminates in the end of the play, when he smashes the display cases in the junk shop, shouting a new set of “rules:” “There Is No Law. There Is No Right And Wrong. The World Is Lies. There Is No Friendship.”
When American Buffalo opens, Don is lecturing Bob on the importance of committing himself to the “business” deal they have made; Bob is supposed to be watching the target of their robbery but has instead returned to the junk shop. Don tells him, “Action counts. Action talks and bullshit walks.” After Bob apologizes, Don protests, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry. I’m not mad at you.” What the audience learns from this remark is that Don is genuinely interested in helping Bob become more astute in the ways of their own brand of business. He tells him that he should model himself after Fletcher, a “standup guy” and card shark who had to “learn” all he knows about becoming a success. Don impresses upon Bob the importance of attitude and intelligence when confronting the business world: “Everything, Bobby: it’s going to happen to you, it’s not going to happen to you, the important thing is can you deal with it, and can you learn from it.”
Don’s father-figure interest in Bob is implied through the advice he offers him on a number of topics. When he sends Bob to the diner to get coffee, he insists that he buy something for himself, since “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”; later, he urges Bob to take vitamins. His most important lesson, however, is what he tells Bob about friendship: “There’s lotsa people on this street, Bob, they want this and they want that. Do anything to get it. You don’t have friends this life. . . .” The implied end of this sentence—“is worth nothing”—reveals the high value Don places on friendship and people protecting each other from what he calls the “garbage” of the world. As the
play proceeds, Bob is revealed to be a drug addict, frequently asking Don for money to support his habit—which Don “lends” him, preferring not to press him for explanations. By the end of the play, however, Don forsakes his friendship with Bob in the name of business—an action which causes him a great deal of shame, since he knows he has failed to follow his own advice. The last scene of the play shows their relationship being rebuilt and Don trying to make amends for his doubting the strength of Bob’s devotion.
Like Don, Teach seems to hold up friendship as an absolute good. He enters the play cursing Ruthie, a mutual friend, for making a joke when he took a piece of toast off her plate at the diner. Her remark of “Help yourself” causes Teach to rage at her for forgetting all the times he has picked up the check: he tells Don, “All I ever ask (and I would say this to her face) is only she remembers who is who and not to go around with her or Gracie either with this attitude. ‘The Past is Past, and this is Now, and so Fuck You.’” Ruthie’s remark has hurt Teach because she has not lived up to the code of friendship that he assumes he embodies.
However, when Teach sees the chance to make “real classical money” in Don’s robbery scheme, he immediately tries to talk Don into dismissing Bob. Hiding his avarice under the guise of “good business,” Teach convinces Don that Bob, although Don’s friend, is not a good candidate for such an operation: “A guy can be too loyal, Don. Don’t be dense on this. What are we saying here? Business.” When Don does remove Bob from the plan and their plot begins to turn awry, Teach suggests that Bob has betrayed them—a false implication which, nonetheless, is believed by Don until the final scene of the play, when he realizes that it is he who has betrayed Bob in the name of “good business.”
Success and Failure
Don and Teach are small-time gamblers and thieves who constantly spout aphorisms that they think attest to their “business” savvy: “Things are not always what they seem to be,” “You got to keep clear who your friends are,” “Don’t confuse business with pleasure” and “You got to trust your instincts” are only a few of their many saws. Don lectures Bob on “good business” and Teach tells Don that he should exclude Bob from the robbery because “as a business proposition” he “cannot afford” to have someone with his lack of experience break into a house.
Anyone watching the play, however, can see that their theory does not convert into practice. The viewer learns that a poker game took place last night in the shop, where Don “did allright” (very likely a euphemism) and Teach ended the game “Not too good.” When the game is discussed, Teach attributes his loss not to his own lack of skill but to Ruthie’s cheating: “She is not a good cardplayer,” Teach asserts, because her “partner” is always “going to walk around,” presumably to glance at everyone’s cards. (Teach later claims that Fletcher, last night’s winner, cheats as well.) When Teach uses a collector’s guide to quiz Don on what coins they should steal from their future victim’s collection, Don shows his ignorance in this field by guessing that a certain coin is worth $18.60 instead of its actual worth of twenty cents. Later, when Teach tries to call the collector’s house to be sure he is not home, he keeps transposing parts of the phone number, resulting in confusion and frustration instead of the “planning” and “preparation” he desires. Both Don and Teach have fully subscribed to the myths of “business” and how it should be practiced, but both are failures, since all of their knowledge resides in their adages instead of experience.
American Buffalo’s plot is one that relies on implication and innuendo rather than concrete events. When the robbery is being arranged, Don and Teach have agreed to meet Fletcher at the junk shop at 11:00 that night. Bob has been told that he will not be involved and the two would-be criminals are satisfied that their planning will result in a successful “shot.”
However, when Teach enters the shop after 11:15 and finds Bob there, the viewer (like the characters) becomes suspicious. Bob is trying to sell Don a buffalo-head nickel, much like the one they had originally planned to rob before Teach entered the play. Don is furious with Teach’s tardiness, and Teach is equally furious at Bob’s presence in the shop. Their tension grows when Fletcher does not arrive and cannot be reached by phone; Teach then begins insinuating that Bob, Fletcher, and Ruthie have stolen the coins themselves and that Bob has offered to sell the buffalo to Don because he needs some fast money. When Bob tells them that Fletcher was mugged and has been admitted to the hospital with a broken jaw, Don calls the hospital to check his story—and is told that Fletcher was never admitted. Convinced they are being hustled, Teach strikes Bob on the head. Don, Bob’s former protector, mutters, “We didn’t want to do this to you.” The viewer is now completely convinced that Bob has betrayed the two men.
This deception lies not between Bob and the two men, however, but between Mamet and the audience. The playwright leads the viewer to believe that Bob has betrayed Don and Teach and lied about Fletcher’s absence. This is not the case: Ruthie calls Don and tells him the name of a different hospital to which Fletcher was admitted and the viewer learns that Bob did not steal the nickel from the intended victim’s home. Because of their lust for “business” and assumption that everyone else holds these same cynical values, Don and Teach are eventually deceived by their own attitudes. Teach thus ends the play a speechless fool, and Don must then try to heal his friendship with Bob.
American Buffalo takes place in Don’s Resale Shop, a secondhand “antique” store (really a junk store) run by Don Dubrow. Although Mamet’s script never describes the set in any detail, the play’s scenic designers have always made a point of filling the stage with as much junk as possible: Clive Barnes (writing for the New York Times) called the Broadway set “astonishing” and described it as “an agglomeration of trash that must have taken a team of assistants months to acquire.” This same praise was even offered by critics who found fault with the play itself. For example, writing for the Wall Street Journal, Edwin Wilson found the play “not heavy enough” but the set to be a “triumph of clutter.” The set, therefore, serves as a way for a viewer to instantly create some assumptions about the characters, specifically, that they are lower class, small-time “businessmen” who spend their days surrounded by the debris of other people’s success. As Frank Rich of the New York Times stated, the junk shop is a “cage emblematic of the men’s tragic sociological imprisonment.”
However, the setting does more than allow Mamet’s trio a space in which to scheme their robbery; it allows the playwright to highlight the notion that the characters are living in a world of metaphorical “junk.” Throughout the play, Don and Teach give and receive lessons on such topics as honor, capitalism, and friendship—topics which Page 9 | Top of Articleare abandoned and left for “junk” when their robbery plan becomes threatened or when they fear they might miss their chance to make some easy money. Although they profess to have solid codes of “business” ethics, their desire to succeed pushes them into a world of moral “junk.”
The item discussed throughout the play is a buffalo-head nickel that Don sells to a customer for ninety dollars. Deciding that the coin must be worth “five times that” because of the way the customer behaved when buying it, Don plans to rob the coin back from the customer (along with the rest of his coin collection) and sell it to another buyer for more money. Although Don and Teach’s robbery is never executed, the coin remains an almost constant topic of conversation between them. Both view the nickel as a representation of the wealth for which they strive and both are certain that stealing the nickel (and the rest of the guy’s coin collection) will bring them (as Don states), “real classical money.”
Despite the glory they invest in it, however, the coin eventually comes to symbolize the degree to which the two men sacrifice the values in which they seem to so strongly believe at the start of the play. Like the real American buffalo, their friendship, ethics, and trust in each other vanishes—and, again like the real American buffalo, these things vanish due to an increasing fervor for riches and power. The beauty of the buffalo herd and the bonds of friendship are alike in their falling prey to capitalism and Teach’s definition of “free enterprise:” “The freedom. . . of the Individual. . . . To Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit. . . . In order to secure his honest chance to make a profit.” As he tries to explain this to Don, Teach echoes one of Mamet’s authorial concerns: “The country’s founded on this.”
While all playwrights employ dialogue as their primary artistic tool, Mamet is exceptional in that his dialogue often hides—or reveals—a character’s true thoughts or attitudes toward the subject at hand. The dialogue in American Buffalo is representative of Mamet’s work in that it is highly fragmentary, filled with asides and pauses, and captures the rhythms and nuances found in everyday speech. Comparing the play’s dialogue to elevator music, Newsweek’s Jack Kroll noted Mamet’s ability to capture “the dissonant din of people yammering at each other and not connecting.” While the characters do talk to each other, they are just as often talking at each other as well, trying to bluff and sound their partners by using seemingly innocuous phrases. For example, when Teach fears that Don and Bob are concocting a robbery scheme without him, he tries to “nonchalantly” learn about it through a “simple” conversation in which Don does everything to avoid revealing his scheme.
In this conversation, Teach uses words in the same way a person uses a metal-detector on a beach: as the prospector searches for valuable metals, Teach probes his friend’s mind to learn whether or not he has been cheated out of his “shot.” Both Teach and a prospector hope to find something valuable: a nugget of gold or the plan Don has hatched with “the kid.” Don tries to steer him away from the topic by asking him if he has enough money in his meter and being purposefully vague; Mamet’s placement of pauses pinpoint when a character is formulating his next attempt to seek out or conceal information. A reader should also note that the lines in parentheses are meant to mark (according to Mamet), “a slight change of the outlook on the part of the speaker—perhaps a momentary change to a more introspective regard.” While other playwrights offer actors and readers numerous parenthetical adverbs before lines to suggest how they should be said, Mamet asks the actors and readers to consider each speaker’s “conversational goal” and how—using only the most common words—he will try to achieve it. Once this is understood, the inflection and tone of each line should become more clear.
Although written in 1975, American Buffalo premiered on Broadway in 1977, in the midst of a theater season notable for its collection of odd—and, at times, disturbing—array of new characters. The winner of that year’s Pulitzer Prize, Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, concerns the ends of three characters’ lives as they wait for the deaths that their respective terminal illnesses will bring. Albert Innaurato’s The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie examines a frightening mother-son relationship, where the child is filled with food by his mother to compensate for her never having loved him. The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, by Preston Jones, looks at old-school southern racism as seen through a bigoted fraternal Page 10 | Top of Articleorder. John Bishop’s The Trip Back Down follows the slow decline of a racecar driver who attempts to find victory one last time. Ashes by David Rudkin, is a theatrical yet clinical report of a miscarriage. While the season did have its all-out comedies (such as Neil Simon’s California Suite, the musical Annie, and a remake of Volpone titled Sly Fox), the New York scene offered audiences a great amount of dark drama.
The 1976-77 season also saw new plays by artists with solid theatrical reputations. Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carre, may have been reminiscent of his earlier work in its evocation of a seedy New Orleans populated with troubled souls, but the show closed after only seven performances. Harold Pinter (a playwright whom Mamet has praised throughout his career) offered puzzled theatergoers No Man’s Land, a play keeping in-tune with other Pinter pieces and their blend of reality and absurdity.
Despite the intensity of the season, however, few audiences and critics were prepared for the brutality and verbal violence of American Buffalo. While other plays offered studies of bisexuality (Albert Innaurato’s Gemini), insanity (Pavel Kohout’s Poor Murderer) and wife-swapping (Michael Stewart and Cy Coleman’s Love My Wife), Mamet’s play proved to be the most shocking, primarily due to its unadulterated use of obscenity. Writing in The Best Plays of 1976-1977, Otis L. Guernsey Jr. stated that Mamet “has mastered a verbal instrument of high quality,” but Guernsey also felt that the playwright uses this instrument “to shock and alienate his audience with some of the foulest language ever heard on a stage.” Thus, despite the fact that its plot is a relatively common one found in many genres, American Buffalo gained a certain notoriety for its use of honest street-talk; while this may not have been surprising in the cinema (Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Exorcist were all recent blockbusters that made great use of visual and verbal obscenity), many people still felt that the content of drama would remain more “refined.” Since then, the theater world has largely accepted playwrights’ use of “foul language,” but in 1977 the shock was felt among audiences and critics.
While Mamet’s current reputation as an important American playwright is established and secure, American Buffalo was the first of his plays to receive intense critical attention. The play premiered on Broadway in February of 1977 (following its successful 1975 debut in Chicago) to reviews ranging as wide as the characters’ emotional highs and lows in the play itself. Clive Barnes, writing for the New York Times, stated that although this play marked Mamet’s first trip to Broadway, “It will hardly be his last,” for “This man can write.” Like Barnes, other admirers of the play called attention to Mamet’s ability to recreate the rhythms of everyday speech heard in the conversations of his lowbrow characters. Likening the play to a “jam session for jazz musicians,” Women’s Wear Daily’s Howard Kissel wrote that the “fascination” of the play lies in “noting how the same banal language takes on different colors as we perceive the changing relationships” of the characters. Similarly, Edwin Wilson (writing in the Wall Street Journal,) stated that “the language, though limited, is extremely accurate” and that Mamet “has a keen ear for the idiosyncrasies and humor of everyday speech.” Perhaps the greatest praise came from Newsweek’s Kroll, who likened Mamet to British playwright Harold Pinter (The Homecoming) but with his artistic ear “tuned to an American frequency.”
Several reviewers, however, were shocked by Mamet’s use of obscenity. For example, Time’s Christopher Porterfield described Mamet’s dialogue as “forlornly eloquent” and praised his “infallible ear for the cadences of loneliness and fear,” but the critic also remarked that Mamet “revels a bit too much in this scatology and blasphemy.” He further suggested that if Mamet were to “Delete the most common four-letter Anglo-Saxonism from the script. . . his drama might last only one hour instead of two.” John Beaufort, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, called the play “excessively foul-mouthed” and remarked that its content (like its language) smacked of “gratuitous sensationalism.” (These charges against Mamet’s dialogue were renewed when his Glengarry Glen Ross premiered in 1983.)
Like their opinions of Mamet’s idiom, critics were also divided in their perception of American Buffalo’s themes and reflection of contemporary American life. For example, Irving Wardle, writing in the London Times, stated that a viewer “would have to be tone deaf to miss the music, irony and virtuosity” of Mamet’s dialogue—but followed this compliment by describing the play as a “suffocating tedium” where the characters are “at a Page 11 | Top of Articlestandstill.” The National Broadcasting Company’s (NBC) Leonard Probst complained that “the center of the play is missing”; The Daily News stated that Mamet “promises much more than [he] delivers” and labeled his work “a poor excuse for a play.” The Wall Street Journal’s Wilson wrote that Mamet’s characters exist in a vacuum and that they “are too rooted in their own junk, in their own pathetic schemes, in their own fake philosophy to speak for others.”
But these critics were not the only voices responding to Mamet’s study in anger and shady business—several others praised Mamet for creating an almost allegorical tale of capitalism’s dark side. Michael Billington, writing in the British Guardian, called American Buffalo a “deeply political play” and one that “makes its points about society through the way people actually behave.” Directly contradicting Wilson’s remarks, Victoria Radin (of the Observer,) praised Mamet’s ability to show the characters “without patronage and with respect and even love for these little people” who “resemble the little person in all of us.”
American Buffalo’s reputation has grown since its first performances. Now regarded as one of Mamet’s most representative works, the play is still studied and discussed by scholars of modern American drama. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Patricia Lewis and Terry Browne suggested that the play epitomizes Mamet’s style, since it “does not rely on external plot or movement” and offers a “subtle development of character created out of inner movement and conflict.” In his essay, “David Mamet: The Plays, 1972-1980,” Stephen H. Gale remarked that although the play is “not sufficiently developed or epic enough to be as convincing as it might be,” it is an important example of Mamet’s career-long study of relationships. Perry Luckett, in Magill’s Critical Survey of Drama, called American Buffalo an “excellent example” of Mamet’s “facility for urban speech” and ability to detail “the subtle manifestations of competition, trade, and the drive to acquire that he believes have nearly overwhelmed America.”
While critics have disagreed about American Buffalo’s relevance and weight, most concur with Kissel, who could be describing many Mamet plays when he writes, “Generally in the theater the relationship between language and action is oversimplified—here the distance between the two is stimulating.”
Moran is an educator specializing in literature and drama. In this essay, he examines the ways in which Mamet’s play explores the characters’ beliefs in “The God of Business.”
William Butler Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” ends with the speaker stating that, since he cannot find a theme for his art, he must delve more deeply into his own experience to seek one: “Now that my ladder’s gone,/I must lie down where all the ladders start,/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” Like the speaker of Yeats’s poem, the characters in David Mamet’s American Buffalo are searching for satisfaction which they are sure will bring meaning to their lives in the form of financial success. And, again like the speaker of “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the three men all lose hope that they will ever find it: their “ladders” of friendship and their shared myth of capitalism are systematically stripped away, until they are left pitiful, dejected, and lying like dogs in the “foul rag-and-bone shop” of their hearts.
To hint at the values and assumptions of the three men inhabiting the “foul rag-and-bone shop” of Don Dubrow’s Resale Shop, Mamet’s play contains an epigraph: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord./He is peeling down the alley in a black and yellow Ford.” These lines (attributed by Mamet to a “folk tune”) equate God with the automobile—one of the foremost symbols of American capitalism and consumerism. Although the characters do not dress in expensive suits or carry briefcases, Mamet uses them to illustrate the ways in which members of the proletariat (lower class) have fully ingested and accepted the myths of American capitalism; as the play progresses, the characters are seen (in various ways) bowing down to the “God of Business.” This God, which dictates the way these petty thieves behave, allows them to excuse any betrayals or underhandedness in His name.
By the end of the play, however, the God becomes an angry one, as vengeful as any imagined by Jonathan Edwards (an eighteenth century theologian who spoke frequently of God’s wrath toward sinners), and extracts a terrible payment. “Business” is an easy label to use in sugar-coating all kinds of deception, but if the God is invoked too often, He will demand great sacrifices from His
believers. As “Don’s Resale Shop” is a euphemism for “Don’s Junk Store,” “Good Business” is a euphemism employed by the characters to, as Mamet has described in an essay for the London Times, “suspend an ethical sense and adopt in its stead a popular accepted mythology and use that to assuage [their] consciences like everyone else is doing.” What the play specifically examines is the way that one man—Don—becomes an acolyte of the God of Business to the point where he almost loses the one thing that gives his life human (rather than financial) meaning: his relationship with Bob.
The opening scene of the play establishes Don and Bob’s relationship, which initially mirrors that of a teacher and student. Scolding Bob for not watching the house of the man they intend to rob, Don tells him “You don’t come in until you do a thing” and that “Action counts.” Bob keeps offering excuses until Don states, “I’m not mad at you.” While a viewer may find this surprising due to the tone of Don’s reprimands, a further conversation reveals that Don is genuinely interested in Bob’s future and ability to operate in their low-class world of business: he tells Bob, “If you want to do business,” then excuses “are not good enough.” Bob must have “skill and talent and the balls” to arrive at his “own conclusions,” or he will never succeed. Don invokes the God of Business in the form of Fletcher, an offstage gambler and minor business deity who embodies all of the values Don wants to impart to Bob: “You take him and put him down in some strange town with just a nickel in his pocket, and by nightfall he’ll have that town by the balls. This is not talk, Bob, this is action.”
According to Don, Fletcher “was not born that way,” but he had to “learn” how to be a success, and this idea—that open eyes and intelligence will lead to financial success—is the crux of Don’s myth and lesson: “Everything, Bobby: it’s going to happen to you, it’s not going to happen to you, the important thing is can you deal with it, and can you learn from it.” (While Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times that their relationship “may be homosexual,” this seems both unlikely and irrelevant to the issue of friendship sacrificed for business that Mamet explores.) Unlike one based on business, Page 13 | Top of Articletheir relationship offers returns not financial but emotional: Don offers Bob the idea that he can be a success and Bob offers Don his devotion and discipleship. Together, they mimic a father-son relationship that each of them is lacking in his life outside the junk shop.
When Teach enters the shop, however, the mood of the play changes from one of quiet bonding to one of fury. His opening harangue about a begrudged piece of toast reflects his ideas about friendship and its attendant duties:
So Grace and Ruthie’s having breakfast, and they’re done. Plates . . . crusts of stuff all over . . . so on. Down I sit. ‘Hi, hi.’ I take a piece of toast off Grace’s plate . . . and she goes ‘Help yourself.’ Help myself. I should help myself to a piece of toast it’s four slices for a quarter. I should have a nickel every time we’re over at the game, I pop for coffee . . . cigarettes . . . a sweet roll, never say a word. . . . But to have that shithead turn, in one breath, every fucking sweet roll that I ever ate with them into ground glass (I’m wondering were they eating it and thinking ‘This guy’s an idiot to blow a fucking quarter on his friends). . . this hurts me, Don. This hurts me in a way I don’t know what the fuck to do.
As with Don and Bob, Teach sees friendship as a form of give-and-take between its participants but with an important difference: Teach bases it not on emotional grounds, but material ones. While arguing about a piece of toast may seem trivial, Teach’s monologue illustrates the degree to which he believes that friendship is a means of sharing things rather than emotions—a characteristic that will resurface later, when he convinces Don to cut Bob from the robbery plan. Ironically, Teach complains that there “is not one loyal bone in that bitch’s body,” but later convinces Don to be disloyal to Bob so that Teach can become part of the robbery plot.
Teach’s name reflects his assumptions about himself and what he sees as his knowledge of human nature and business. Throughout the play, he offers dozens of aphorisms that he uses to boost his own self-image. When looking through the coin collector’s guide, he tells Don that there is “one thing” that makes “all the difference in the world. . . . Knowing what the fuck you’re talking about. And it’s so rare, Don. So rare.” His lament for the stupidity of the world, of course, naturally excludes himself as a part of it. Unlike the lessons of Don, which are carried out in practice until Teach begins to (as Don calls it) “poison” his mind, Teach’s lessons are hollow and reflect his understanding not of real business, but the myth of American capitalism. “You got to have a feeling for your subject,” “It’s kickass or kissass,” and “You want it run right, be there” may be theoretically true but are never practiced by Teach, whose legitimate “job” (if he even has one) is never alluded to by any of the characters. And almost as if to answer the charge of, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich,” Teach has a stockpile of excuses for his low-class status, including the assertion that his companions cheat while playing cards. One of his most ludicrous excuses is voiced when he hears Don tell him how much old antiques are worth: he mutters, “If I kept the stuff I threw out. . . I would be a wealthy man today. I would be cruising on some European yacht.” Don simply replies with an “Uh-huh,” for he knows that despite all of the noise he makes, Teach is a junk shop Polonius (a wise counselor from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet,) and an negative example of the “action talks and bullshit walks” philosophy.
While Teach’s adages may be empty, he is flamboyant and convincing, and it is his skill as an orator that begins to corrupt Don, leading him to accept Teach’s dictums. Although Don claims to know the difference between “talk” and “action,” he, too, has enough greed within him to begin believing Teach’s ideas; the card game that took place the night before in the junk shop serves as the perfect metaphor for the way that Teach and Don begin to interact. Poker is a game combining business and friendship: one plays with his comrades but the ultimate goal is to win their money. The rewards are not emotional, but financial, and these are won by the means of being unfriendly: bluffing, being secretive, and even cheating. Although Teach is a friend of Don’s and obviously has some sort of shared past with him, he employs cardplaying skills—rather than sincerity—to edge his way into Don’s plan and ultimately make him forsake Bob. Like Shakespeare’s King Duncan (in Macbeth) who states, “There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face” only to later be assassinated by the traitorous Macbeth, Don is adept at offering advice but less able to apply it to his own practices. This is especially true given that Don sees Bob—not himself—as the one in need of guidance.
Don is also not as distant from Teach as he might think. When telling the story of “the guy” who entered the shop and bought the nickel for ninety dollars, he brags of his business acumen, saying, “he tells me he’ll go fifty dollars for the nickel. . . . So I tell him (get this), ‘Not a chance.’” He then tells Teach that the buyer’s behavior suggested “it’s worth five times that” and then begins
to focus more on the buyer’s personality rather than his wallet: “The next day back he comes and he goes through the whole bit again. He looks at this, he looks at that. . .. And he tells me he’s the guy was in here yesterday and bought the buffalo off me and do I have some other articles of interest. . . . And so I tell him, ‘Not offhand. . . .’ He leaves his card, I’m s’posed to call him anything crops up. . . . He comes in here like I’m his fucking doorman. . . . He takes me off my coin and will I call him if I find another one. . . .Doing me this favor by just coming in my shop.” Don’s depiction of the buyer as a pompous con-artist who “takes him off” allows him to justify—to himself and to Teach—that the buyer deserves to be robbed. Rather than accept his lack of business sense, Don (like Teach) blames another for his being taken as a rube. Not stealing back the coin would simply be bad business.
It is this fear of being untrue to the God of Business that causes Don to accept Teach’s terms. Although he insists that Bob is a “good kid” and deserves a “shot” at the robbery, Don is swayed by the siren song of Teach’s capitalistic rhetoric: “A guy can be too loyal,” Teach tells him. “Don’t be dense on this.” Urging Don not to “confuse business with pleasure,” Teach begins a rapid-fire assault on Don’s desire to remain faithful to Bob and brings up an incident when Bob had obviously failed them: “We both know what we’re saying here. We both know we’re talking about some job needs more than the kid’s gonna skin-pop go in there with a crowbar.” Still faithful to Bob, Don becomes enraged at Teach’s insinuation of Bob’s drug use and states, “I don’t want you mentioning that. . . . You know how I feel on that.” When Teach offers an apology, Don remarks, “I don’t want that talk only, Teach. You understand?. . . That’s the only thing.” Although he is firm in his protection of his ward, Don is already beginning to see the upcoming job as one in which business, not friendship, will have to be considered.
Teach remains undaunted: “All I’m saying, the job is beyond him. Where’s the shame in this? This is not jacks, we get to go home we give everything back. Huh?. . . You take care of him, fine. (Now this is loyalty.) But Bobby’s got his own best interests, too. And you cannot afford (and simply as a business proposition) you cannot afford to take the chance.” When Don asks for a moment to consider this new idea, Teach becomes angry and resorts to sarcasm: “You don’t even know what the thing is on this. Where he lives. They got alarms?. . . And what if (God forbid) the guy walks in? Somebody’s nervous, whacks him with a table lamp—you wanna get touchy—and you can take your ninety dollars from the nickel shove it up your ass—the good it did you—and you wanna know why?. .. Because you didn’t take the time to go first-class.” Anyone sharing Don’s belief in the “black and yellow Ford” of the American Dream would naturally want to “go first-class,” and therefore Don agrees to cut Bob from the deal. When he informs Bob of his decision, Don gives him fifty dollars, which the viewer and Teach assume is for drugs but which Don feels too shameful to confront, since he had previously insisted to Teach that “the fucking kid’s clean. He’s trying hard, he’s working hard.” Thus, in a moment of guilt, Don has effectively paid off his conscience in order to follow Teach’s ideals of business.
Like so many fictional crime-capers, however, the plan falls apart once everything is set in place and it is through this turning awry of the scheme that Mamet intensifies the previous Act’s examination of business and friendship. Act Two begins at 11:15 that evening and Don is anxious over the fact that both Teach and Fletcher are missing. When Bob arrives, however, with a buffalo-head nickel to sell to Don, he becomes momentarily suspicious: he asks Bob if he saw Fletcher or Teach at the diner and Bob responds, “No. Ruth and Gracie was there for a minute.” Don’s reply—“What the fuck does that mean?”—hints at his fear of being swindled. When Teach enters, Don forces him to bear the brunt of his nervousness and scolds him for his tardiness. Teach, however, is annoyed at Bob’s presence and fears that Don has weakened his commitment to their now-shared ideals; he asks Don where Bob got the nickel and implies, through his pauses, that all is not as it should be:
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TEACH: And what was Bob doing here?
DON: He told you. He wanted to sell me the nickel.
TEACH: That’s why he came here?
TEACH: To sell you the buffalo?
TEACH: Where did he get it?
DON: I think from some guy.
TEACH: Who? Pause.
DON: I don’t know. Pause.
TEACH: Where’s Fletcher?
DON: I don’t know. He’ll show up.
Although Don has already displayed a slight suspicion about the coin, he refuses to mention this to Teach for fear of betraying Bob. But since Teach is not as soft-spoken or loyal to anything except his God, he again (as he did in Act One) attempts to make Don have “the balls to face some facts” and offers his own interpretation of events: “You better wake up, Don, right now, or things are going to fall around your head, and you are going to turn around to find he’s took the joint off by himself.” Don still clings, however, to the shreds of loyalty and friendship left in his heart—until Teach begins working him from a different angle, explaining that Fletcher cheats at cards. The viewer knows that this story is false, but Don, in his anxious state, begins believing it because Teach is able to answer each of his protests against it: when Don asks him why he never exposed Fletcher as a cheat, Teach replies, “It’s not my responsibility to cause bloodshed. I am not your keeper. You want to face facts, okay.” Don is at his weakest here and again refuses to accept the notion that he may have been a dupe for another “business associate.” And because he senses this about Don, Teach begins a fresh assault on all of the values that Don has tried to uphold for the entire play:
I don’t fuck with my friends, Don. I don’t fuck with my business associates. I am a businessman, I am here to do business, I am here to face facts.
(Will you open your eyes?. . .) The kid comes in here, he has got a certain coin, it’s like the one you used to have . . . the guy you brought in doesn’t show, we don’t know where he is. (Pause)
Something comes down, some guy gets his house took off. (Pause)
Fletcher, he’s not showing up. All right. Let’s say I don’t know why. Let’s say you don’t know why. But I know that we’re both better off. We are better off, Don.
Like Othello, Don has been convinced by the “plausibility” of one who plays upon his most secret fears, and while Teach is no Iago (the villain in Shakespeare’s Othello, who turns the title character against his wife), he is able to use language to transform the opinions and previously-held values of his “superior.” Earlier in the Act, Teach defines “free enterprise” as “The freedom . . . of the Individual. . . . To Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit. . . . In order to secure his chance to make a profit.” Here, Teach is a hell-for-leather caricature of capitalism, “embarking” on a “course” founded on innuendo and insinuation in order to “make a profit,” disregarding Don’s concerns over loyalty to Fletcher and protection of Bob.
Teach, however, does not exist in a vacuum, and in order to demonstrate the prevalence and ubiquity of his mythology, Mamet engages in a daring theatrical maneuver at the climax of his play. When Bob returns to tell Don that Fletcher was mugged and is in the hospital with a broken jaw, Teach insists that he is lying and Don—now unable to trust anyone except the man who has been filling him with half-truths for the last half hour—calls the hospital to verify the story. When he is told that Fletcher was not admitted, he and Teach begin grilling Bob about the nickel and Fletcher’s absence. The audience is completely convinced at this point that Fletcher, Bob, and possibly Grace and Ruthie have plotted against Don and Teach. Bob can offer no answers to any of their questions and Teach finally is possessed by the God of Business, punishing he whom has doubted His powers:
TEACH: I want you to tell us here and now (and for your own protection) what is going on, what is set up. . . where Fletcher is . . . and everything you know.
DON: (sotto voce) I can’t believe this.
BOB: I don’t know anything.
TEACH: You don’t, huh?
DON: Tell him what you know, Bob.
BOB: I don’t know it, Donnie. Grace and Ruthie . . .
TEACH: (grabs a nearby object and hits Bob viciously on the side of the head.) Grace and Ruthie up your ass, you shithead; you don’t fuck with us, I’ll kick your fucking head in.
Although a viewer would not condone Teach’s action here, he can certainly appreciate his frustration at being betrayed. Even Don, Bob’s former protector, states to Bob, “You brought it on yourself.”
But this is the moment where the entire play finds its meaning and where Mamet lays down his winning hand: Ruthie then calls and says that Fletcher was admitted to the hospital—which is verified when Don calls a different hospital from the one he had tried before. Bob then tells the men, ‘I missed him”—which they discover means that he never
saw the buyer leave his house on a vacation earlier that day, as he reported. Bob made up the story to win back the good graces of Don, after he scolded him that morning for abandoning his post. Furthermore (and unbelievable as it may seem), he did buy the buffalo-head nickel “in a coin store,” as he originally claimed, “For Donny.” The very fact that the audience is shocked by these revelations reveals the degree to which they—like Teach and Don—have accepted the myth of business, for if a viewer of the play assumes that Bob has been lying, he can see just how much the notion of the “dog eat dog” world has affected his attitudes and assumptions. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you.”
Teach’s response to this revelation is a physical manifestation of his intellectual and moral outrage. Brandishing a dead-pig-sticker he toyed with earlier in the play, he begins smashing everything in the shop, proclaiming a series of newfound adages. Unlike his earlier ones, however, these are formed from his own despair and humiliation at discovering that his myth of the God of Business is just that—a myth: “My Whole Cocksucking Life. The Whole Entire World. There Is No Law. There Is No Right And Wrong. The World Is Lies. There Is No Friendship. Every Fucking Thing. Every God-forsaken Thing.” He continues his ranting and ultimately concludes that, although he is “out there every day,” there is “nothing out there.” The “nothing” here is the emptiness of his own rhetoric and all of his accepted wisdom. Earlier he preaches to Don that without the ideals of free enterprise, “We’re just savage shitheads in the wilderness.” Now, however, he knows that his God of Business is an invention and that, when all of the aphorisms are laid bare, “We all live like the cavemen.” He exits the play apologizing to Don for wrecking his shop and wearing a paper hat that he makes to protect himself from the rain. Despite his former beliefs and convictions, he is now (in his comical cap) the dunce of his own myth.
While Don waits for Teach to return with his car so they can take Bob to the hospital, he and Bob resume the quiet conversational tone which was interrupted by Teach. Bob is apologetic and repeatedly says, “I’m sorry. I fucked up.” But rather than return to his stance from the beginning of the play, Don consoles him with, “No. You did real good. . . . That’s all right. . . That’s all right.” Don knows that he should have taken his own advice, such as when he told Bob, “Things are not always what they seem to be” and that he must now try to heal Page 17 | Top of Articlethe physical and emotional wounds caused by his forsaking friendship for the God of Business. As Mamet said in the New Theatre Quarterly, Don “undergoes recognition in reversal—realizing that all this comes out of his vanity, that because he abdicated a moral position for one moment in favor of some monetary gain, he has let anarchy into his life and has come close to killing the thing he loves.” Don has almost left his friend to the same fate as the real American buffalo, which moved in herds of their own comrades but whom were also destroyed by the wave of capitalism and Teacher-defined “free enterprise” that swept the country. He is back in the “foul rag-and-bone shop” of his heart and must now rebuild his friendship with Bob if he is ever to find another “ladder” again. The “black and yellow Ford” has crashed, leaving the three men staring at the wreckage.
Source: Daniel Moran, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Jack V. Barbera
Barbera argues in this essay that, despite characters who lack true intellect, Mamet’s play is a work of high intellectual content that adroitly chronicles a facet of American existence.
David Mamet, currently an associate director of Chicago’s Goodman Theater, was born in Chicago in 1947 and grew up on the city’s South Side. He attributes his sense of dramatic rhythm in part to a job during his high-school years as busboy at Second City, the famous Chicago improvisational cabaret. After several years in New England attending college and working at various theaters as a house manager and actor, Mamet returned to his native city and a series of odd jobs which included a stint teaching theater classes at the University of Chicago. Some of his plays were staged at small Chicago theaters during the early ‘70’s—including the St. Nicholas Theater of which Mamet was a founding member and first artistic director. The title of my essay is a pun on the title of a play for which Mamet received the Joseph Jefferson Award (best new Chicago play) in 1974, and later an Obie Award, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. So there is some reason to associate him with that city! It is the setting of many of his plays, including the one I shall examine here. For American Buffalo Mamet again received an Obie, and it was named the best play in 1977 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.
I say the setting of American Buffalo is Chicago, but in the text of the play the scene specified is
“Don’s Resale Shop. A junkshop,” and the city is not mentioned. There are telltale signs of locale however. The traveler from New York to Chicago still encounters verbal differences: “soda” becomes “pop,” for example, and “bun” becomes “sweet roll.” So a Manhattan audience attending American Buffalo knows Teach is not from the Big Apple when he vividly complains: “But to have that shithead turn, in one breath, every fucking sweet roll that I ever ate with them into ground glass . .. this hurts me, Don.” And a Chicago audience, when it hears a passing reference to “Lake Shore Drive,” knows the setting is, as it were, the neighborhood. A sophisticated Chicago audience also recognizes the allusion in the following bit of dialogue:
TEACH: (. . . Indicating objects on the counter) What’re these?
DON: They’re from 1933.
TEACH: From the thing?
DON: Yeah. (Pause) . . .
TEACH: They got that much of it around?
DON: Shit yes. (It’s not that long ago.) The thing,
it ran two years, and they had (I don’t know) all kinds of people every year they’re buying everything that they can lay their hands on that they’re going to take it back to Buffalo to give it, you know, to their aunt, and it mounts up.
The “thing” that ran two years was the 1933 World’s Fair held in Chicago in celebration of the city’s 100th anniversary. Although it took place during the Great Depression, the Century of Progress Exposition was so popular it was held over for another year and attracted 100 million people.
Aside from the few specifically Chicago allusions in American Buffalo, Don’s Resale Shop could be located in any number of large American cities. What is important is not Chicago, but a particular kind of urban American subculture—urban because one does not imagine a character like Teach, his staccato manner, in rural Kansas, say, or Mississippi. And one is more likely to imagine a junkie like Bobby in an urban setting. But it is the characters’ street language which is worth examining for a moment, because it has stirred controversy among the critics. Gordon Rogoff concluded that, “With friends like [Mamet] . . . words don’t need enemies,” and Brendan Gill wrote of the play’s “tiresome small talk,” which attempts “in vain to perform the office of eloquence. . . .” Jack Kroll, however, praised the “kind of verbal cubism” in which Mamet’s characters speak, saying the playwright “is someone to listen to . . . an American playwright who’s a language playwright” and who is “the first playwright to create a formal and moral shape out of the undeleted expletives of our foul-mouthed time.”
I find myself in tune with Kroll. In any assessment of American Buffalo Mamet’s use of language must be regarded as an achievement. If the vocabulary of men such as Bobby, Teach and Donny is impoverished, Mamet’s rendering of it reminds us that vocabulary is only one of the resources of language. Teach does have an eloquence when expressing his sense that he has been abused. Galled by Grace and Ruthie, he tells Don:
Only (and I tell you this, Don). Only, and I’m not, I don’t think, casting anything on anyone: from the mouth of a Southern bulldyke asshole ingrate of a vicious nowhere cunt can this trash come.
This sentence, so politely diffident at first, lets fall its invective in a rain of hammering trochees. It is marvelous invective, more vivid than that in James Stephens’s “A Glass of Beer,” and ironic to boot, for in the most vulgar language Teach has denounced as “trash” Grace’s sarcastic remark, “‘Help yourself.’” Teach is constantly undercutting himself this way, as when he says, again referring to Grace and Ruthie, “The only way to teach these people is to kill them.” In Act 2, Don does not want him to take a gun on a robbery, and Teach replies that of course the gun is not needed:
Only that it makes me comfortable, okay? It helps me to relax. So, God forbid, something inevitable occurs. . . .
The urban nature of the language in American Buffalo is a matter not just of its street vulgarity, or expressions such as “skin-pop” and “He takes me off my coin . . .,” but also of an abbreviation characteristic of urban pace. One of my Mississippi students told me she had a job in Manhattan which required her to answer the telephone saying, “Hello, this is so-and-so of the such-and-such company.” A typical caller responded,’ I like your accent honey, but could you speed it up?” Teach telescopes “probably” into “Prolly,” and utters such staccato sentences as: “He don’t got the address the guy?”, and, “I’m not the hotel, I stepped out for coffee, I’ll be back one minute.” Such elliptic expression is a matter not of Mamet’s invention, but of his ear for how some of us speak these days. On the Dick Cavett ETV show (Mamet appeared on November 29, 1979 and January 16, 1980), Mamet mentioned entering an elevator and hearing a woman say, “Lovely weather, aren’t we?”
Besides the play’s language, a second critical issue which has resulted in opposing assessments of American Buffalo is that of its content, or lack of it. Gill complained, in the review I have already mentioned, that the play provides the meager and familiar message “that life, rotten as it is, is all we have.” And in a review in America, Catharine Hughes found that what happens in the play “too often seems much ado about very little.” Before I proceed with a defense of American Buffalo as being of intellectual interest, and as going beyond the “message” Gill found in it, a capsule of the plot seems in order.
In his late forties, Don Dubrow is conversing with the much younger Bob about a man Bob is supposed to watch. Four major motifs emerge from their conversation: friendship, looking out for oneself, business, and being knowledgeable. Teach enters Don’s junkshop and, while Bob is getting coffee, learns of Don’s plan to rob the man Bob has been watching. After the man spotted a buffalo-head nickel in Don’s shop and purchased it for ninety dollars, Don concluded it must be worth much more and that the man must have other valuable coins. Teach talks Don into cutting him in on the robbery, and convinces him Bobby is too young and, as a junkie, too unreliable to be part of it. That night the plan goes awry and Teach, in anger and frustration, “hits BOB viciously on the side of the head.” This unjust attack stirs Don against Teach, and restores the solicitude toward Bobby we noticed in Don at the start of the play. Even in this low-life ambiance, in effect, there is some decency. Though all three characters are losers, the friendship between Don and Bobby is something of worth.
It is in the relationships, tensions and contradictions in the patter of Don and Teach, concerning the motifs I mentioned, that the “content” of this play resides. Take the motif of business. Don tells Bobby that in business deals intentions are not good enough: “Action talks and bullshit walks.” And a bit later he defines business as “common sense, experience, and talent.” This soon turns into, “People taking care of themselves.” But if business is looking out for oneself, what is the relation between business and friendship? In passing, Don and Bobby have been discussing a business deal between Fletch and Ruthie. It seems that Fletch purchased some pig iron from Ruthie and made such a profit on it that Ruthie felt cheated. Was it unfair of Fletch to profit so much from a friend? Don, who defends Fletch, saying, “That’s what business is,” and “there’s business and there’s friendship, Bobby . . .”, goes on to say, “what you got to do is keep clear who your friends are, and who treated you like what.” But that is clearly what Ruthie has done, and that is why she is angry with Fletch and feels he stole from her. Later we learn that when Don imagines the nickel he sold for ninety dollars must be worth much more, he feels he was robbed—so much for “That’s what business is.” Contradictions and elaborations on “business” continue through the play. A funny definition of free enterprise will stand as a last example:
TEACH: You know what is free enterprise?
DON: No. What?
TEACH: The freedom . . .
DON: . . . yeah?
TEACH: Of the Individual. . .
DON: . . . yeah?
TEACH: To Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit.
DON: Uh-huh . . .
TEACH: In order to secure his honest chance to make a profit. Am I so out of line on this?
DON: No. . . .
TEACH: The country’s founded on this, Don. You know this.
Of course the individuals in this case see fit to embark on robbery. Part of Mamet’s intent in American Buffalo is to expose the shoddiness of the American business ethic by having his low-lives transparently voice it. He said as much in an interview with Richard Gottlieb:
“The play is about the American ethic of business,” he said. “About how we excuse all sorts of great and small betrayals and ethical compromises called business. . . . There’s really no difference between the lumpenproletariat and stockbrokers or corporate lawyers who are the lackeys of business,” Mr. Mamet went on. “Part of the American myth is that a difference exists, that at a certain point vicious behavior becomes laudable. [New York Times, January 15, 1978].”
Mamet got the idea of an identical ethical perversity existing at both ends of the urban economic spectrum from Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929)—the American sociologist, economist, satirist, and sometime Chicagoan. In considering the relation between Veblen’s thought and American Buffalo, one should start with Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). His theory of the leisure class is related to his theory of business enterprise in that Veblen saw businessmen as involved with the pecuniary and predatory interests of ownership, rather than with the industrial and social interests of production. Teach is a good example of a Veblen “lower-class delinquent,” and Veblen’s ideas of emulation, and of the snob appeal of what is obsolete, are relevant to the play—the latter, especially, as it applies to collecting rare coins and World’s Fair memorabilia.
That Mamet is justified in expecting an audience to accept his play’s small-time criminals as representative of American businessmen is arguable. One way of understanding the play’s title mainly applies to them as members of a marginal class of society. In a review of the play for the Nation, Harold Clurman wrote: “Look at the face of the coin, as reproduced on the show’s playbill. The buffalo looks stunned, baffled, dejected, ready for slaughter. The animal is antiquated, and the would-be robbers are a mess. The combination is symbolic.” Don and Teach and Bobby are as antiquated and out-of-it as the American buffalo or bison (successful American businessmen may or may not be ethical, but they are not marginal). We must admit that Don and Teach and Bobby are dumb. They are not even streetwise, though Don and Teach may think they are. Fletch probably is streetwise—consider the pig-iron deal, or the fact that he won at cards in the game in which Don and Teach lost. They admire and resent his success, and feel they have been cheated. They are envious of anyone who is knowledgeable and successful, such as the man who purchased the coin. Knowledge, an important motif in the play, is the key here. “One thing. Makes all the difference in the world,” says Teach. And when Don asks, “What?”, he replies,“Knowing what the fuck you’re talking about. And it’s so rare, Don. So rare.” Of course Teach does not know what he is talking about, as we learn in the routines about which coins are valuable, where the man would keep his coins, how to get into his house, and what to do about a safe.
This contradiction leads us to the other way of understanding the title, a way which applies to the characters as representatives of the business class as well as representatives of a class of urban marginal crooks. For “buffalo” read the slang verb “to intimidate.” It is because he does not know anything that Teach must try to buffalo Don. And it is common for businessmen to buffalo the public: “The windfall profits tax will dry up America’s oil,” and “If you don’t buy this laxative no one will love you.” Fletch evidently can buffalo successfully; Standard Oil can; Teach cannot (aside from Don, who buys his line, “Send Bobby in and you’ll wind up with a broken toaster”). But to buffalo is as American as to bake an apple pie. Notions of the American way—democracy and free enterprise—become corrupted when they enter the look-out-for-number-one rationalizations of crooks and unethical businessmen. Down-and-outs in a democracy may feel they have been cheated because “all men should be equal.” Knowledge creates divisions among people, divisions of power and wealth, but such divisions can seem undemocratic, un-American. So robbing and cheating are attempts to restore justice. Or, “In America one is free to make a fortune for himself” turns into Teach’s definition of free enterprise. My modest conclusion is that in satirizing such corrupt notions Mamet has written a play of intellectual content.
Source: Jack V. Barbera, “Ethical Perversity in America: Some Observations on David Mamet’s American Buffalo” in Modern Drama, Volume XXIV, no. 3, 1981, pp. 270-75.
While finding Mamet’s knack for dialogue admirable, critic Rogoff complains that Mamet’s play apes crime films from the 1940s and 1950s without the benefit of those dramas’ clever storylines. Rogoff acknowledges that Mamet achieves his dramatic goals—although those goals are too modest for the critic’s tastes.
David Mamet is apparently listening to America’s lower class. The news he brings back in his new play, American Buffalo (at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway), is that Americans living on the dark underside of small business and petty crookery speak of macho frustrations almost entirely in four-letter words. If the news doesn’t seem new or persuasive, that may be because we have heard more antiseptic versions of it on big and little screens, where—with a little soap in their mouths—American Buffalo’s trio of charmless deadbeats would be more at home.
Robert Duvall’s Walter Cole (known as Teacher) is the latest in a long line of Stanley Kowalskis trying to mimic the language they think businessmen use. Some of the linguistic turns are cleverly heard: Teacher-Kowalskis do like to say words like averse, deviate, instance; and they love to talk about planning, preparation, business propositions, and facing facts. Duvall’s performance has as much body in it as it does dirty English, but it is more an expert impersonation of an archetype than an enactment of an authentic event.
How could it be otherwise? Mamet is imitating a hundred Bogart, Cagney, Robinson, and Brando movies, and he’s not bad at the job. His dialogue has some of the vivacity missing from those movies. They were better at plot, however; and they didn’t always treat Bogart and company like dummies. In The Maltese Falcon, Wilmer wasn’t bright, but he had dignity. Mamet patronizes his trio: he is out to kill and get laughs. Modest ambitions, modestly achieved.
Source: Gordon Rogoff, “Albee and Mamet: The War of the Words” in Saturday Review, Volume 4, no. 13, April 2, 1977, pp. 37.
Barnes, Clive. “Stage: Skilled ‘American Buffalo’” in the New York Times, February 17, 1977.
Beaufort, John. Review of American Buffalo in the Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 1977.
Billington, Michael. Review of American Buffalo in the Guardian, June 29, 1978.
Gale, Stephen H. “David Mamet: The Plays, 1972-1980” in Essays on Contemporary American Drama, Max Huber, 1981, pp. 207-23.
Guernsey, Otis L. Jr., Editor. The Best Plays of 1976-1977, Dodd, Mead, 1977, p. 14.
Jones, Nesta and Steven Dykes. File on Mamet, Methuen Drama, 1991, pp. 20-29.
Kissel, Howard. Review of American Buffalo in Women’s Wear Daily, February 17, 1977.
Kroll, Jack. “The Muzak Man” in Newsweek, February 28, 1977.
Lahr, John. “Fortress Mamet” in the New Yorker, November 17, 1997, pp. 70-82.
Lewis, Patricia and Terry Browne. “David Mamet” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth Century American Dramatists, Gale (Detroit), 1981, pp. 63-70.
Luckett, Perry. “David Mamet” in Magill’s Critical Survey of Drama: Volume 3, Salem Press, 1985, pp. 1234-37.
Mamet, David. American Buffalo, Grove, 1976.
Mamet, David. Passage from interview in New Theatre Quarterly, February 1988.
Mamet, David. Interview in the London Times, June 19, 1978.
Porterfield, Christopher. “David Mamet’s Bond of Futility” in Time, February 28, 1977.
Probst, Leonard. Review of American Buffalo for NBC-TV, February 16, 1977.
Wardle, Irving. Review of American Buffalo, in the London Times, June 29, 1978.
Watt, Douglas. “Stuck in a Junk Shop” in the Daily News, February 17, 1977.
Wilson, Edwin. “A Phlegmatic American Buffalo” in the Wall Street Journal, February 23, 1977.
Bigsby, C. W. E. and Christopher Bigsby. Modern American Drama: 1945-1990, Cambridge, 1992.
This book offers a survey of American theatrical trends since World War II.
Dean, Anne. David Mamet: Language As Dramatic Action, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.
This book offers an overview of Mamet’s career, including analysis on such famous works as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross.
Kernan, Alvin B., Editor. The Modern American Theater, Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Although Mamet is not examined in this collection of essays, Kernan’s introductory essay is an overview of American theater containing several points that could easily be applied to Mamet’s work.
Mamet, David. True and False: Common Sense for the Actor, Pantheon Books, 1997.
This short book is Mamet’s guide to acting, which may prove useful when trying to imagine how scenes in his work are meant to be performed.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692800011