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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 1999
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 6. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 15
Content Level: (Level 4)

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David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow is one of several successful plays he has written about the business world. Filled with Mamet’s trademark, rapid-fire dialogue, Speed-the-Plow focuses on the ruthless nature of Hollywood and the movie industry. Mamet was familiar with this environment, having written several produced screenplays in the 1980s. The title Speed-the-Plow is derived from an old English farming phrase which was used to confer good luck and a swift and profitable ploughing. Critics and scholars have speculated that Mamet might be comparing Hollywood’s fast pace and profit motivations to this past, for in the play cold business fact wins out over artistry and idealism.

Speed-the-Plow was first produced on Broadway in the Royale Theater, opening on May 3, 1988. The play was a box office success even before opening night, in part because pop star and cultural icon Madonna played the role of Karen, the temporary secretary. Advanced ticket sales exceeded $1 million. To many critics, Madonna’s celebrity made an ironic comment on the play’s action. Like many of Mamet’s plays, Speed-the-Plow highlights men and their complicated relationships. Mamet has been routinely criticized for writing over-simple, objectified female characters over the course of his career, and this play received similar accusations regarding Karen.

Critics gave Speed-the-Plow generally good reviews during its Broadway production. Mamet Page 202  |  Top of Articlehad won the Pulitzer Prize for drama several years earlier for his 1984 play Glengarry Glenn Ross, which also focuses on men in the business world. Many critics saw similarities between Speed-the-Plow and Glengarry Glenn Ross and found the latter superior. Still, most praised Mamet’s use of dialogue and taunt plotting. Critics disagreed on the value of the play in the Mamet canon. Some saw it as a variation of Mamet’s business dramas and therefore unoriginal, while others found deep meaning in the seemingly superficial depiction of two Hollywood producers looking for a big break.


David Mamet was born on November 30, 1947, in Chicago, Illinois, to Bernard Mamet, a labor lawyer, and his wife, Leonore. As a child, Mamet’s parents had high expectations for their son and his younger sister, Lynn. Mamet’s father especially emphasized the importance and potency of language. The family spent hours arguing for the sake of argument, and Mamet learned the subtleties inherent to well-spoken words. This experience had a direct bearing on Mamet’s plays, for he is known as a master of dialogue.

Mamet’s parents divorced when he was eleven, and he subsequently lived with his mother for four years before moving in with his father. At this time, Mamet got his first taste of theater, working backstage and doing bit parts at Chicago’s Hull Theatre. At first Mamet wanted to be an actor, and to this end he studied the craft in New York City’s famous Neighborhood Playhouse with Sanford Meisner. When it became evident that acting was not his true calling, Mamet returned to college (Goddard in Vermont) and began writing. His first full-length play, Camel, was his senior thesis and was performed as a student production.

Mamet continued to write following his graduation. He supported himself with small acting roles as well as working part-time teaching acting at Goddard and Marlboro, another college in Vermont. During this time, he began writing what would become his first hit: 1974’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The play won the Joseph Jefferson Award for the best new Chicago play before it moved to Off-Off Broadway and Off-Broadway productions in New York City. Appraising the New York version of the show, Time named it among the ten best plays of 1976.

Mamet’s next play, American Buffalo, was regarded as an ever bigger smash. As with its predecessor, the play debuted in Chicago. When the production moved to New York City in 1977, however, it went directly to Broadway. Several years later, in 1984, Mamet won the Pulitzer Prize for one of his most well-respected plays, Glengarry Glenn Ross. The story revolves around survival in a dog-eat-dog business environment: real estate. Similarly, Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow(1988) revolves around another cutthroat business: Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Mamet wrote a number of screenplays, many of them adaptations of other’s work, throughout the 1980s and 1990s and he became well-versed in the harsh business of film.

In 1992, Mamet produced one of his most controversial works, Oleanna. The play concerns the unfounded allegations of sexual harassment by a young, female student against a male college professor. Mamet directed the original Broadway production as he had previously done with several of his plays. The playwright also branched out into directing films. He has helmed (as well as written) such motion pictures as House of Games(1987), Things Change(1988), and The Spanish Prisoner(1997); he has also written the screenplays for The Verdict(1982), The Untouchables(1987), The Edge(1998), (with Hilary Henkin) Wag the Dog(1998), and Lansky(1999), among others. By the end of the 1990s, Mamet was regarded as one of the contemporary masters of the dramatic form, an emerging power in Hollywood, and a virtuoso of dialogue.


Scene 1

Speed-the-Plow opens in Bobby Gould’s new office in the morning. Gould, the newly promoted head of production at a movie studio is reading a book when Charlie Fox enters. Fox is very excited about something, but Gould continues to leaf through the book he is reading, making fun of its contents. Gould becomes suspicious when Fox asks if he can “greenlight” (approve) a movie deal, but his fears are quickly abated as Fox elaborates. Fox was visited earlier in the morning by a big movie star, Doug Brown, who is free to do a movie with him based on a prison script that Fox had sent him earlier; the star has given Fox until 10 am tomorrow to come up with a deal. Gould immediately calls his Page 203  |  Top of Articlesuperior, Ross, and while he waits for him to call back, he and Fox discuss the Doug Brown story.

David Mamet David Mamet. Getty Images

Ross calls back and says they will meet in ten minutes. In the meantime, Gould and Fox discuss the script, which is a prison movie/buddy picture, with “action, blood, and a social theme.” Before Fox can ask, Gould assures him that he will get a coproducer credit. Gould thanks Fox for his loyalty because he could have taken the deal elsewhere. They discuss the strategy for the meeting. Gould will do the talking, summarizing the script in one line for Ross. Before they can finish, Ross calls telling Gould that he has to be out of town until tomorrow morning. Fox worries that his option will expire before they can talk to Ross, but Gould assures him they will talk to Ross in time. Fox realizes they are going to be rich, and Gould tells him that they will be very rich. Gould, though, says that money is not everything and people are more important in their business.

Gould calls for coffee, but the temp does not know where it is. While they wait for her to bring coffee in, Fox remains jumpy, finally picking up the novel Gould was reading earlier, titled The Bridge; or, Radiation and the Half-Life of Society. A Study of Decay. Fox suggests he make the book into a movie, then jokes that he should do it instead of the Doug Brown picture. Karen, the twentysomething temporary secretary, comes in with the coffee. While Karen is there, Fox and Gould talk about how they have been loyal friends for many years and how they are whores in their business. Gould says that most everything they make is garbage, and Karen asks why that is. The men try to answer, but can only come up with “That’s the way it is.”

Karen says that she does not know what she is supposed to do on her job. Gould says not to do anything but cancel all his appointments until the meeting with Ross, make lunch reservations for him and Fox, and then leave. She goes to the outer office to do these tasks, and Gould tells Fox to leave so he can get some work done. Fox says that he thinks Gould will make moves on Karen. Gould denies this, but after Fox speculates about Karen, Gould says that he thinks she would go out with him. They make a bet for $500 that Gould can get Karen to come to his house and have sex with him. Fox leaves.

After a moment, Karen comes back into Gould’s office. She was unable to get the lunch reservation he wanted, but after Gould starts to point out her mistake, she realizes that she should have mentioned his name. Gould has her sit down and he

explains what happened in the office that morning. Gould offers her the opportunity to do the courtesy read on The Bridge, as long as she gives her report on it to him that night at his house. They also get into a discussion on purity and principles, and Gould admits he wishes he had them. He sends Karen back to make the proper reservations as well as call Fox and inform him that he owes Gould $500.

Scene 2

In Gould’s apartment later that night, Karen is enthusiastically telling Gould about the novel. She explains that the author theorizes that all the radiation around us is sent by God and changes us constantly. Karen says that the novel has changed her. Gould thanks her, telling her that they have made a connection because she has shared this book with him. He offers to help her in the business, and she says that she wants to work on this film. She insists that this novel should be made into a movie, that it is a pearl. Gould does not think anyone will see the film. Karen says the script to Fox’s prison film is not what people want. Gould talks about how everyone wants something from him. Karen tells him that she knows he wants to sleep with her, and she understands him. She tells him she knows that he is frightened. She says she is the answer to his prayers for purity, for the book has enlightened her.

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Scene 3

In Gould’s office the next morning, Fox comes in wanting assurance that they would be co-producers credited above the title. Gould informs him that he is not going to do the Doug Brown film. Fox sarcastically says that he should do the novel instead and ruin his career, then goes on a verbal rampage which ends with him asking Gould if he slept with Karen. Gould avoids the question, saying he will see Ross by himself and will not do the Doug Brown project. Fox points out that he promised him yesterday and that he could have taken the project elsewhere yesterday. When Fox asks, Gould says that he will be greenlighting the novel instead. Fox tells him he cannot make this book and he will lose his job if he does. Gould says that he was up all night thinking, and that he needs to do his job differently. Fox thinks he is totally crazy and says anything he can to convince Gould of this.

Fox finally asks if Karen played a role in his decision. When Gould admits that they talked, Fox is outraged and physically attacks Gould, cursing him. Gould insists that he has not changed his mind. Fox tries to convince him that Karen used her looks to get to him, speculating that she said she understands him. Fox says that she wants something from Gould. Gould tries to counteract his words, but he is not successful. Fox asks Gould to tell him about the novel, but Gould cannot. When Fox goes another verbal rampage, Gould asks him to leave.

Fox wants to ask Karen one question. Fox asks her what they talked about and if they became intimate. Karen is suspicious and answers in vague terms. Finally, Fox asks if she would have slept with Gould if he had not greenlighted her book. She admits that she would not have. Gould is confused as to what he should do until she reminds him that “we have a meeting.” At that point the executive decides to go the safe route and make the prison film with Fox. Gould changes his shirt and has Fox show Karen out. Fox berates her while Gould changes. The two men leave for the meeting. Gould assures Fox that above the title the names will read “Fox and Gould.”


Charlie Fox

Fox is a movie producer who is about forty years of age. As his surname suggests, Fox is a sly, wily character who is above nothing if it means career advancement. He is a man looking for his big break; when he finds it in the form of a possible deal with film star Doug Brown, he fights viciously to keep it. Fox brings the deal to Bobby Gould, a long time friend and business associate. Charlie has a one-day option on the Brown picture and urges Gould to act upon it. When the executive agrees to take the project to his boss, Fox is pleased and believes his fortune is made when Gould assures him a co-producer credit.

As a competitive aside, Fox bets Gould that he cannot get his temporary secretary, Karen, to sleep with him. Fox is chagrined the next day, when Gould tells him that he has decided to produce an adaptation of a book that Karen liked instead of the Brown picture. To ensure his project gets made, Fox literally beats up Gould and verbally assaults him, arguing that Karen was using him. Gould realizes the folly of trying to do something different or artistic in Hollywood. In the end the executive agrees to the safer course of action, and the aggressive Fox gets his movie deal.

Bobby Gould

Bobby is a movie executive, around forty-years-old, and the most central character of the play. Before the action begins, he has just been given a promotion to head of production at a major movie studio. Gould seems to value loyalty. When Charlie Fox drops in and tells him that a big movie star, Doug Brown, has come to him wanting to do a movie deal, Gould immediately arranges a meeting with his boss to get approval on the deal. Fox and Gould also make a bet over whether or not Gould can get his new assistant, Karen, to sleep with him. To that end, the executive gives a her a book for “courtesy read” (essentially a review copy of a book sent to movie studios by the publishers in the hopes of having an adaptation made) and invites her over to his home to report. She finds something of value in it, and convinces him to pursue a film adaptation of the meaningful book instead of the movie with Doug Brown.

The next morning, when Fox arrives for the meeting, Gould has won the bet and tries to get rid of Fox. After Fox berates Gould, physically beating the executive and proving that Karen slept with him only because he decided to go with the book, Gould realizes that the Doug Brown picture is the better, safer choice. By the end of the play, Gould takes Fox to the meeting instead of Karen, for he is unwilling to take chances.

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Karen is a young woman in her twenties. She is working as a temporary secretary in Gould’s office. Because she is a temp, she does not know where the coffeemaker is nor the right way to make a lunch reservation for Gould. Karen believes in values and principles. She is also naive about the movie business, at least in the other characters’ eyes, because she thinks films should be good. Still, when given an opportunity, she takes it. Gould lets her do a courtesy read on a book and give him a report at his home. Karen’s enthusiasm for the book touches something in Gould, and she convinces him to pursue it as his next project over the Brown picture. Afterwards, Karen admits she slept with Gould only because he greenlighted (approved production of) the book, and the men are convinced that Karen was only using Gould to further her own ambitions.

In contrast to the cutthroat business tactics of Gould and Fox, Karen is the voice of art and reason in the play. While she may have had ulterior motives for sleeping with Gould, it is clear that she believes in high quality and artistry in motion pictures. While it is obvious that Gould and Fox do what they do to serve their own careers and make as much money as possible, Karen’s motives are less clear. She may simply be a corporate climber, but there is also evidence to suggest that her motives are in the service of improving the films made by Hollywood.


Friendship and Loyalty

The two main characters in Speed-the-Plow, Bobby Gould, the new head of production at a major motion picture studio, and Charlie Fox, a producer, have been friends for over twenty years. This friendship is at the center of the play, and their loyalty to each other makes it turn. Gould and Fox began their careers together in the mailroom at a studio and have remained loyal to each other over the years. When Fox unexpectedly gets the twenty-four-hour option to the next Doug Brown movie, Fox takes the project to his old friend Gould. Fox emphasizes that he could have taken the project “across the street,” i.e. to another studio, but his loyalty and friendship compelled him to see Gould first. Gould seizes the opportunity, though his boss will be unavailable until the next morning.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Research the history behind the phrase “speed the plow.” How is the phrase’s meaning related to the themes of Mamet’s play?
  • Compare and contrast Speed-the-Plow with Mamet’s two other “business” plays, American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. What do these plays say about male relationships/friendships?
  • Compare and contrast Speed-the-Plow’s Karen to Carol, the young female student in Mamet’s Oleanna. Both claim to be naive young women, yet both are dishonest about themselves. Explore the psychological implications.
  • Explore the idea of “the culture of success,” a predominant cultural force in the United States in the 1980s, especially in Hollywood. How does this cultural concept affect the actions of each of the characters in the play?

The Gould-Fox friendship then undergoes a test of loyalty. Karen, the temporary secretary, is good-looking, and Fox bets Gould $500 that he cannot get her into bed. To accomplish this end, Gould has Karen do a reader’s report on a novel and visit his home later to discuss her work. Karen does so, and convinces Gould that he would be doing “good” to make the novel into a movie rather than the Doug Brown project. The next morning, when Fox comes back for their meeting with the studio head, he is appalled to find that Gould has forsaken his loyalty and will go with Karen’s project instead of the prison film.

Fox proceeds to do everything he can to make Gould act like a loyal friend and do his project instead. Fox only accomplishes his goal when he proves Karen is not what she seems, using her own words against her. Fox shows that Karen is using Gould to get ahead in Hollywood, while Fox’s motivations are more pure. He has their best interests at heart, and wants to share success with his loyal friend. Fox argues, and Gould ends up agreeing, Page 206  |  Top of Articlethat they have more at stake with each other and that Karen is an outsider and a whore. Speed-the-Plow argues that Friendship between men is more important than a relationship—no matter what the motivation—with a woman like Karen.

Ethics, Honesty, and Idealism

Each of the characters in Speed-the-Plow has his or her own ethical standards. These ethics create conflicts between the characters. Charlie Fox is the simplest character ethically. He has no qualms about calling himself a “whore.” He wants to be successful at any cost and works only for the money, the power, and the prestige. He sees Bobby Gould as his ticket to that end. He is not idealistic about the movie industry in the least. He accepts that movies are a commodity and does not pretend otherwise.

Bobby Gould is much more conflicted and complex. Like Fox, he also admits to being a “whore” and knows that movies are a commodity. He sees the opportunity in the Doug Brown picture, no matter that the plot is a list of movie cliches. But Gould has some latent idealism. When he and Fox discuss how much money they will make off this project, it is Gould who points out that money is not everything. Much of Bobby’s idealism is brought out by Karen. Gould tells her that he wants to do “good” films and that he wants to make a difference. To that end, Gould decides to greenlight the novel, which Karen believes is deeply meaningful, instead of the Doug Brown picture. Though Fox convinces him to do the Brown project by the end of the play, Gould has shown that he has deeper thoughts and motivations.

Karen, the temporary secretary, appears to be the least honest and ethical character. When she is introduced in Scene 1, she appears to be naive and idealistic. She thinks films should be “good” and be meaningful for their audience. Gould gives her an opportunity to do the courtesy read on a novel, and she finds deep meaning in it. She convinces him to do the novel instead of the Doug Brown project. But Fox, quick to spot his own kind, reveals Karen’s true nature. Karen wants to be a part of the Hollywood dealmaking process. Karen admits she slept with Gould only because he agreed to do the novel. Karen also says that she read the script for the Doug Brown project and that is was not very good. This is suspect for a woman who claimed to know nothing about the movie-making world. At a key moment, Karen reminds Gould that “Bob, we have a meeeting.” The “we” shows Gould that Karen has forced herself into the process and has been less than honest about her intentions. What Karen really believes, beyond her own self-service, is never made clear.



Speed-the-Plow is a drama set in contemporary times. Though it is not explicitly stated, the play probably takes place in Los Angeles, the movie industry capital of the world, at a major studio. The action is focused in two settings. Scenes 1 and 3 take place in Bobby Gould’s new office. Because he has just been promoted to the head of production, the office is sparsely furnished with “boxes and painting materials all around,” as the stage directions indicate. The brief Scene 2, where Gould and Karen meet to discuss her report on the novel, is set in Gould’s home. It can be speculated that everything takes place in Gould’s spaces because he is the man who ultimately makes the decisions. Charlie Fox and Karen are at his mercy, and they must try to influence him on his turf.

Karen nearly succeeds in getting her project off the ground because she is invited into Gould’s private life. Fox uses the fact that this is a business deal—and the fact that Karen used sex to further her own ambitions—to his advantage in Scene 3. The office is where business is done, not at home. The spare sets also put Mamet’s rapid-fire, though ultimately simple, dialogue at the forefront of Speed-the-Plow.


Several times in Speed-the-Plow, Mamet plays with lines that foreshadow future events in the play. However, the predicted events do not always work out exactly as intended. For example, Gould says that he “don’t fuck people” in Scene 1, yet that is exactly what he does. Though it seems he will betray Fox and not get the Doug Brown picture made as he promised, Gould ends up backing out of his promise to greenlight Karen’s novel. The novel itself is at the center of another example of foreshadowing. In Scene 1, Fox picks up the novel, The Bridge, and says in jest “Why don’t you do it? Make it.” A few lines later he suggests “Instead of Page 207  |  Top of Articleour Doug, Doug Brown’s Buddy film.” Gould agrees with him, also in jest, saying “Yeah, I could do that.”

By the end of Scene 2, however, Karen has actually convinced Gould to do this very thing. In the beginning of Scene 3, Fox repeats this idea, with a clause attached, not knowing what Gould has decided. Fox says, “I were you, I’d do the film on Radiation. That’s the project I would do; and then spend the rest of my life in a packing crate.” Though Fox eventually convinces Gould not to do the novel, this kind of ironic foreshadowing adds texture to the play.


As a playwright, Mamet is often praised by critics for his realistic dialogue. Mamet writes dialogue in a way that reflects how people really talk to each other. Words overlap, people interrupt each other, and sentences are often short and complete with pauses. In Speed-the-Plow, Mamet’s language choices reflect his subject matter. Charlie Fox and Bobby Gould use Hollywood cliches (the buddy picture, for example) and other lingo (greenlighting a picture), to set the tone. Sometimes characters hide behind these cliches. For example, when Karen serves coffee to Fox and Gould, they use more Hollywoodspeak to emphasize their positions of power within the business to the self-described naive woman.


Like much of the 1980s, American society in 1988 was consumed with the ideas of success and image, the bigger the better. By 1988, there were 1.3 million millionaires living in the United States. This number included 50 billionaires. (By comparison, when adjusting for inflation, there were only 180,000 millionaires in the United States in 1972.) Because of an economy that saw vast growth during the 1970s, at least on the upper end of the economic scale, many people wanted to display their newfound wealth with high-end status items. Both Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox in Speed-the-Plow discuss how much money they will make off their deal and what it will get them. During this discussion, Gould says, “We’re going to have to hire someone just to figure out the things we want to buy.” Such greed was typical of the media-enforced images of wealth and success in the 1980s. Television shows celebrated the wealthy lifestyle. One popular televison show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, showed how celebrities and other rich people spent their money and lived their lives. Pop singer/actress/cultural icon Madonna, who played Karen in the original Broadway production of Speed-the-Plow, was a master at manipulating the media and toying with her image while making a big profit.

The attitude that bigger is better spilled over into the arts and mass media. On Broadway, large-scale musicals featured more elaborate sets and large casts. In the publishing world, there were many bidding wars for new novels. Neophyte authors received unheard-of advances on their work. Some of the most popular novels of the era were about the noveau riche and their hedonistic lifestyle. Authors like Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, and Sidney Sheldon sold millions of books that celebrated the glitzy lifestyle.

Similarly, the film industry in the 1980s was concerned with big budgets and even bigger profits. The term “blockbuster movie” was defined by 1980s films like The Empire Strikes Back and Batman. Movies began being marketed and hyped by product tie-ins (such as action figures and soundtracks) released several months before the film itself hit the marketplace. But many of these movies put style and profit before substance. Gould chooses to greenlight the empty Doug Brown movie because it will profitable instead of the “arty” and unknown quantity contained in the novel. Still only a privileged few had enough power to get their movie projects made. Power was consolidated in a few hands, usually producers and studio heads. Mamet depicts Gould as being one of the powerful men in Hollywood whom Fox needs to get his Doug Brown project off the ground.

Hollywood, like many other aspects of society especially in the cultural milieu, was still very male-dominated. Though there were several prominent female film producers, such as Dawn Steel, and many prominent actresses with some clout, Meryl Streep for example, women had a hard time breaking into the industry. At the end of Speed-the-Plow, Fox throws Karen out of the studio. She has no place there in his eyes. The burgeoning feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s lost its way in the 1980s. Though women made some progress in the workplace, their successes were seen as individual triumphs rather than collective steps forward.

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When Speed-the-Plow was first produced on Broadway in 1988, the casting of Madonna in the role of Karen was debated in the press more than the merits of the play itself. Many critics found the play up to Mamet’s high standards. William A. Henry III, reviewing the play in Time, wrote, “Of all American playwrights, Mamet, 40, remains the shrewdest observer of the evil that men do unto each other in the name of buddyhood.” Not all critics were impressed, however. In New York, John Simon stated: “The plot is minimal, barely sufficient to poke fun at Hollywood and show some derision for human nature.” Simon also added, “And when you reduce it to its essentials, it is really only variations on a basic bitter joke.”

Mamet’s use of language is often singled out for praise, and Speed-the-Plow is no exception. Robert Brustein in the New Republic argued, “His ear for language has never been more certain or more subtle, but what distinguishes him from other playwrights with a natural control of the American idiom (Paddy Chayefsky, for example) is the economical way he can advance his plot, develop his characters, and tell his jokes without departing from, or announcing, his strong social-moral purpose.” Newsweek’s Jack Kroll added, “there’s hardly a line in it that isn’t somehow insanely funny or scarily insane.”

Many critics compared Speed-the-Plow to other male-oriented business plays written by Mamet, including 1984’s Glengarry Glen Ross and 1975’s American Buffalo. Speed-the-Plow was often considered the inferior of the three. Brustein paid a back-handed compliment when he wrote, “Speed-the-Plow is the deftest and funniest of Mamet’s works, and the airiest too, since the characters are playing for relatively low stakes. In American Buffalo, Edmond, and Glengarry Glen Ross, men are fighting for their very existence. In Speed-the-Plow they are skirmishing over movie deals and percentages of the gross.” Moira Hudson in the Nation agreed, saying “Speed-the-Plow says nothing about Hollywood that hasn’t already been said many times before, but Mamet manages through his language and timing to breathe life into old cliches. Glengarry Glen Ross a few seasons back was better.”

Despite flaws, critics generally agree that Mamet writes challenging texts for actors. The Nation’s Hudson claimed, “Mamet is an actor’s playwright, creating a language which is less simply overheard and recorded whole-cloth then boiled down, crafted and reassembled to create an intense, hyperrealistic theatrical experience.” Nearly every critic found the original Broadway production performances of Joe Mantegna as Bobby Gould and Ron Silver as Charlie Fox flawless. Simon in New York said that the actors “play off each other dizzingly and dazzingly as they flesh out—or, rather, sound out—the potential of the script, which depends almost indecently on the skill of its interpreters.”

More controversial was the role of Karen and the woman who played her in that original production, the popstar Madonna. Many critics debated if the character of Karen was well-written to begin with. Hudson stated in the Nation that “Madonna’s line readings are less deft than Mantegna’s (or Silver’s).... Still, she isn’t all bad—or if she is, it’s hard to tell: The part she’s been given is by far the least convincing of the three.... It is difficult to believe that someone as naive as Karen would actually be working in the movie business, and its just as difficult to believe someone like Bobby would be so easily swayed by her, despite her undeniable attractions.”

Some critics thought Madonna’s performance had merit. Time’s Henry wrote: “Madonna’s awkward, indecisive characterization seems calculated to ... sustain suspense by keeping the audience from reaching conclusions. Thus the question ‘Can she act?’ cannot be answered. The shrewdness in her performance is clear, but so, alas, is her thinking process: she lacks ease and naturalness.” Kroll in Newsweek added, “She doesn’t yet have the vocal horsepower, the sparks, and cylinders to drive Mamet’s syncopated dialogue. But she has the seductive ambiguity that makes Karen the play’s catalytic force.... Who better than Madonna—Virgin, Material Girl—to give embodiment to the conundrum at the heart of David Mamet’s scathingly comic play?”

Other critics were much less kind. The New Republic’s Brustein acknowledged Madonna’s importance as a pop star, but wrote, “Her performance is becomingly unshowy, but her modesty subdues her.... [She] gives a new dimension to the meaning of the word ‘flat’.” He concluded, “Her celebrity was bound to attract the wrong kind of attention to the play.” John Simon in New York argued that “she is more of a temporary hindrance whenever she is on.”

In September 1988, when the entire original cast left the production, several critics found the

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A scene from the original Broadway production of Speed-the-Plow: Joe Mantegna as Gould, Madonna as Karen, and Ron Silver as Fox; Madonnas presence in the production was controversial and often generated more publicity than the play itself A scene from the original Broadway production of Speed-the-Plow: Joe Mantegna as Gould, Madonna as Karen, and Ron Silver as Fox; Madonna’s presence in the production was controversial and often generated more publicity than the play itself

new cast, which included a professional actress in the role of Karen, inferior in their interpretation of the play. Frank Rich in the New York Times wrote, “the deep, shudder-inducing chill of the original production is gone.” Rich went on to comment on Felicity Huffman, who took over the role of Karen. He wrote, “Mrs. Huffman’s skillful performance is in most details similar to Madonna’s ... yet less effective.... Madonna’s awkardness and, yes, star presence, added essential elements of mystery and eroticism to a character who doesn’t reveal her true, shocking hand (and power over powerful men) until late in the play.” Simon, who had earlier dismissed Madonna’s performance, said, “though each of the trio is good, and Felicity Huffman surely better than Madonna, the work suffers.”


A. Petrusso

In this essay, Petrusso discusses the complicated role of Karen in Speed-the-Plow, particularly the manner in which she exemplifies the problematic nature of female characters in Mamet’s plays.

Many critics have noted that David Mamet does not write strong female characters. Indeed, many of his best plays, including American Buffalo and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross, do not feature women at all. One critic, the Nation’s Moira Hudson, writing on the original New York production of Speed-the-Plow, observed: “Mamet’s parts for women have never been the equal of his parts for men: Women in his plays always seem to function more as plot elements, as sources of complications than as rounded, living characters.” Many reviewers of the play have agreed that the character of Karen works in this fashion but are divided over the merits of drawing her as such. Critics such as Hudson find Karen unbelievable while others believe that the assistant’s enigmatic nature is very powerful. By looking at Karen and her role within the play, it becomes obvious that both arguments have merit. Ultimately, though, Karen is a weak caricature of a woman. Mamet condemns Karen for her ambitions, while the two male characters—who have far more suspicious values (though more power)

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • Glengarry Glen Ross, a play that Mamet wrote in 1977, is a drama which also concerns men and their relationships in the business world. The play shows the lengths men will go to achieve success.
  • The Last Tycoon, an unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and first published in 1941, explores Hollywood and relationships formed within the industry.
  • The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, a biography written by Dennis MacDougal, discusses the life of a Hollywood executive. The book includes insights into Hollywood business relationships.
  • Circus of Ambition: The Culture of Wealth and Power in the Eighties, a nonfiction book by John Taylor published in 1998, is a collection of essays discussing the rich and the culture of success, including Hollywood.
  • Oleanna, a play by David Mamet first produced in 1992, is a drama which concerns Carol, a young female university student who, like Karen in Speed-the-Plow, is also an enigma. The play focuses on a sexual harassment charge she brings against a male professor.

—are allowed to flourish in their rapacious environment.

Karen is by far the smallest role in Speed-the-Plow; this is brought into greater relief given the fact that the play is a three-character piece. Most of the text concerns the wheeling and dealing between Charlie Fox and Bobby Gould, the veteran Hollywood hustlers. Gould is the new head of production at a major movie studio; Fox is a producer with a twenty- four-hour option on a movie deal with a big, bankable star. Karen is merely the temporary secretary, filling in for Gould’s usual assistant who is ill. Karen is not very competent in her position. Even before she is seen on stage in Scene 1, Gould is shown talking with her on the phone, helping her find the coffee machine.

The men also reduce Karen’s character by commenting on her appearance. Fox says “Cute broad, the new broad.” They only consider her in the most superficial manner. When she does finally bring them coffee, the Fox and Gould talk about how they are “old whores” and their long-standing friendship. They also discuss how powerful they are and will be when the movie deal is made. In many ways the discussion is a verbal display of their importance in front of Karen. It both puts her in her position as a lesser and works to impress her, like two male peacocks flouting their plumage during a mating ritual.

Gould and Fox continue to toy with Karen. Gould tells her she can go home after serving them coffee, canceling all his appointments, and making lunch reservations. After she leaves to do these tasks, Fox immediately begins to needle Gould about Karen. Gould decides to make a $500 bet with Fox “That I can get her on a date, that I can get her to my house, that I can screw her.” After Fox leaves, Karen’s incompetence brings her back into Gould’s office. Karen could not get reservations at the restaurant Gould wanted. Karen quickly realizes her mistake: she did not mention Gould’s name when she was making the reservation. This reveals a problematic error in the persona Karen has chosen to present to Gould. First, how does one make a reservation without giving the name of the party who will using it? Second, it implies that Karen is somehow deeper because she might be hiding something. That is, she deliberately made the mistake so as to hide her true nature, that of a career-conscious, ambitious woman.

At this juncture, Karen begins to repeatedly call herself naive when talking to Gould, perhaps consciously Page 211  |  Top of Articlereinforcing her status as a lesser to the man. This gives her some unexpected power, as Gould begin to believes that she is a green, helpless girl. There is no reason to believe otherwise. Karen services his ego by telling him that this job is allowing her to think in a business fashion. She politely listens to him describe some aspects of the business to her. While Gould is using this opportunity to win his bet, Karen is learning good deal about how business in Hollywood is accomplished. Gould looks at Karen only as an object when he offers her the opportunity to give a reader’s report on a novel about radiation and the end of the world—even though the book has been deemed inappropriate for a film; he is using the “assignment” as an excuse to get her over to his house.

In the brief second scene (in Gould’s apartment), Karen is the dominate force as she describes the book to Gould. Karen’s appraisal of the novel does not make much sense, though she says it left her feeling “empowered” (a telling adjective regarding her rising status). She talks about how much the book touched her, but the dialogue as written by Mamet reveals little of who Karen really is. The scene illustrates her ambitions when Gould offers to help her get a job at the studio, and Karen says that she wants to work on the film adaptation of the novel. Karen continues to sound—in her own words—naive. She tells Gould “it would be so important to me, to be there. To help. If you could just help me with that. And, seriously, I’ll get coffee, I don’t care.” Gould is slightly taken aback, but Karen continues to press the issue. Like Fox, she sees her opportunity and aggressively pursues it.

A key revelation occurs in Scene 2 when Karen reveals that she has read the script that Fox wants to use for his Doug Brown project. Someone as unaware of Hollywood practices—as Karen claims to be—would have no idea how to get her hands on such a script. Fox did not bring the script into the office, so Karen obviously found out about the Fox project and procured the script through means of her own. Not only does this illustrate the depth of her wiles, it indicates that her work assignment to Gould was no random act. In having Karen disclose a knowledge of the script, Mamet hints at the considerable calculation that has gone into Karen’s association with Gould: it becomes clear that she sought out the temporary assistant position with the express purpose of getting her foot in the door.

Karen also knows how to play the sex card. She tells Gould, “I knew what the deal was. I know you

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wanted to sleep with me. You’re right, I came anyway; you’re right.” Karen proceeds to turn the tables on Gould, trying to reinforce their status as equals. She describes them both as people who need companionship and love. She says they have both been bad. She tells him that she is the answer to his prayers. And based on the discussions between Gould and Fox at the beginning of Scene 3, she appears to have succeeded.

The next morning, when Scene 3 takes place, Gould has decided to go with Karen’s project instead of Fox’s. Fox is appalled and immediately blames Karen, though he has no direct reason to believe it has anything to do with her. When Fox finds out it is because of her, he emphasizes their friendship and how Karen is an outsider. Fox asks at one point, “What is she, a witch?” Later, Fox says, “A beautiful and ambitious woman comes to town. Why? Why does anyone come here? Everyone wants power. How do we get it? Work. How do they get it? Sex. The End. She’s different. Nobody’s different. The broad wants power she trades on the one thing she’s got, her looks, get into a position of authority—through you. She lured you in.” Fox emphasizes Karen’s difference, the fact that she is a woman and therefore cannot “work” to get success, to try to persuade Gould to change his mind.

Fox spends most of the scene cutting down Karen, her ambitions, and her project. He wants Gould to see her as a user rather than a savior. To salvage his project, Fox asks one question of Karen. Fox forces Karen to admit that she would not have become intimate with Gould if he had not agreed to make the radiation novel into a film. Gould cannot believe it. He says, “Oh, God, now I’m lost.” Fox Page 212  |  Top of Articleknows he has a leg up, and when Karen tries to save herself by saying “Bob. Bob, we have the opportunity,” Fox goes in for the kill. The “we” is important here. It implies that Karen and Gould are linked, to the exclusion of Fox. Fox breaks that down when he says, “I know who he is, who are you? Some broad from the Temporary Pool. A Tight pussy wrapped around Ambition. That’s who you are, Pal.” Again, Fox focus on Karen’s sex to bring her down. Gould is still uncertain, however, about his decision, and Karen and Fox say anything to get him to go their respective ways. But when Karen says, “Bob, we have a meeting,” the issue is decided for him. Karen is only interested in getting her film made. The men regroup and go to the meeting together, effectively killing Karen’s deal in favor of Fox’s film. Fox tells Karen to leave the studio and never come back again.

Hudson’s observation was correct: Karen is the plot complication in Speed-the-Plow. She is the source of jeopardy in terms of the “right” script being made, and she forces the other characters, primarily Gould, to question their values. Karen is not a fully drawn, realistic character but an excuse for the other characters to show off their maleness and power. Karen talks about values but in a superficial, manipulative fashion—despite hints that she may have altruistic intentions for her film. Any values she does have (idealism, for example) are condemned by Mamet. By having Karen sleep with Gould to get ahead, Mamet reinforces the idea that this is the only way for a woman to be successful in the business environment. The idea of her starting out in the mailroom, as Gould and Fox did, is never even considered—she wants to enter the business at the top. Thus, Karen is a series of contradictions that seem designed to make her enigmatic, but these contradictions serve the plot, not the character herself. Her potential to be anything more is never realized by Mamet.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Moira Hodgson

Proclaiming that “nobody in theater today has a better ear for the language of American business than David Mamet,” Hodgson goes on to praise the realism, energy, and vitality of Speed-the-Plow.

Nobody in theater today has a better ear for the language of American business than David Mamet. Relentlessly on the make, his characters are not captains of industry but con men on the fringes of society, trying to batter down the doors of the bank with the only weapon at their disposal—their heads. Sometimes they succeed and fill their pockets, and sometimes they just give themselves colossal headaches. Without exception though, their language is vulgar and funny and charges the air with explosive energy.

In Speed-the-Plow, Mamet’s latest play, directed by Gregory Mosher at the Royale Theatre, the subject is Hollywood. Bobby (Joe Mantegna) and Charlie (Ron Silver) have been friends for twenty years, ever since they started out together in a corporate mail room. Now Bobby is head of production at a major studio and Charlie is a producer who comes to him with a twenty-four-hour option on a “prison buddy” story starring (or directed by, it’s not clear) the immensely bankable “Doug Brown.” Bobby, snowed under a deskful of boring manuscripts—including one about radiation and the end of the world by an “Eastern sissy writer”—is delirious at the prospect. “Is there such a thing as a good film that loses money?” he asks rhetorically. “That’s what we are in business to do—to make the thing that everyone saw last year!” The only problem is that Ross the Boss, whose approval Bobby needs to green-light a picture over $10 million, is flying to New York City on the company jet and won’t be available until 10 o’clock the next morning. This is cutting Charlie’s twenty-four-hour option a bit fine.

Mantegna and Silver, draped in off-white suits that look tailored by Bijan of Beverly Hills, are both excellent as two cynical hustlers about to hit the jackpot. (Mantegna’s character, the one holding down a regular job, wears his suit with sneakers, no tie and no socks.) “It’s lonely at the top,” says Bobby ironically. “Yeah,” agrees Charlie, “but it ain’t crowded.” Mamet captures the vernacular perfectly, littering the play with industry expressions and his signature repetitive phrases. It has often been observed that Mamet is a poor-man’s Pinter, and it is true that the staccato exchanges are easy to mimic and at times threaten to turn cloying. But the two main actors’ line readings are deft and point up the fact that Mamet is an actor’s playwright, creating a language which is less simply overheard and recorded whole-cloth than boiled down, crafted and reassembled to create an intense, hyperrealistic theatrical experience. This, after all, is what art is all about.

That being said, the play is far from perfect. Its flaws center chiefly on its third character, Bobby’s Page 213  |  Top of Articletemporary secretary (played by Madonna). Karen is a semi-naif who can’t find the coffee machine and doesn’t even know how to drop her boss’s name when booking him a table at a fashionable restaurant. As the first act closes, Charlie says, “She’s neither dumb enough or ambitious enough,” and bets Bobby $500 she’ll never go to bed with him. Accepting this challenge, Bobby shows Karen the sissy-writer’s radiation novel; he asks her to give it a “courtesy read” and to file a report on it at his house later that evening.

The brief second scene takes place in Bobby’s living room, sparsely furnished with pink curtains, a Turkish rug on the sofa and a Mexican chest which opens into a bar. Karen appeals to Bobby’s vestigial noble instincts and convinces him that the movie he should pitch to Ross the Boss is not the exploitative prison buddy picture but the radiation picture. The fact that this scene drags terribly and that Madonna’s line readings are less deft than Mantegna’s (or Silver’s) has something to do with her talent as a stage actress. Still, she isn’t all that bad—or if she is, it’s hard to tell: The part she’s been given is by far the least convincing of the three. Mamet’s parts for women have never been the equal of his parts for men: Women in his plays always seem to function more as plot elements, as sources of complication rather than as rounded, living characters. It is difficult to believe that someone as naive as Karen would actually be working in the movie business, and it’s just as difficult to believe that someone like Bobby would be so easily swayed by her, despite her undeniable attractions. (It is also difficult to watch Karen and not keep remembering it’s actually Madonna.)

With the second act, and the return of Ron Silver, things go into high gear. When Charlie learns be is about to be screwed out of the chance of a lifetime, that his option on Doug Brown will expire through no fault of his own, his despair and desperation become palpable and even highly moving. All at once his beard grows unkempt and his natty suit seems to wrinkle up as if he’s slept in it. Realizing he has only five or ten minutes to salvage his chances, he becomes a caged animal, lashing out with every argument at his disposal. When Bobby says he’s going to green-light the radiation book because he believes in it, Charlie replies, “I believe in the Yellow Pages, Bob, but I don’t want to film it.” He asks Bobby to tell him what the novel is actually about, and when Bobby hesitates, he says, “If you can’t put it to me in one sentence they can’t

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put it in TV Guide.” Our sympathies go out to him because he is totally vulnerable, a two-bit hustler who knows it and isn’t afraid to face himself. The prison buddy film is garbage, but what matters above all is loyalty and friendship. Bobby has broken his word.

Speed-the-Plow says nothing about Hollywood that hasn’t already been said many times before, but Mamet manages through his language and timing to breathe life into old clichés. Glengarry Glen Ross a few seasons back was better, but there is likely to be little else on Broadway this season with his new play’s energy.

Source: Moira Hodgson, review of Speed-the-Plow in the Nation, Vol. 246, no. 24, June 18, 1988, pp. 874–75.

Gerald Weales

In this essay, Weales reviews Speed-the-Plow, comparing it to Mamet’s other works. While he found the play mean-spirited and often ugly, the critic admits his appreciation for the playwright’s facility with dialogue.

In Thomas Morton’s Speed the Plough(1800), the most famous character is Mrs. Grundy, whose name became a synonym for British respectability, and she never appears at all. In David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, the most pervasive character is also offstage: the American movie audience. As in Morton’s play, where characters are constantly guessing what Mrs. Grundy would think, Mamet’s Hollywood hacks, who have their commercial credibility rather than their reputations to lose, assume that they know what will bring the moviegoers to the boxoffice: what brought them there last week. Their

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low estimate of the public is confirmed by the weekly listing of movie grosses; in the most recent Friday the Thirteenth topped Beetlejuice. Anyone for Rambo III?

Mamet’s up-from-the-mailroom dealers are rough diamonds—zircons, at least—who know each other so well that they can overlap one another’s speeches, communicate in reiterated platitudes decorated with sometimes elegant obscenity. Bobby Gould (Joe Mantegna) has just become head of production at what we are to accept as a major studio and Charlie Fox (Ron Silver), who comes to him on his first day in power, has snagged a bankable star for a buddy movie he is trying to peddle. They agree to join forces, go onward and upward with the sellable schlock, but the path of true greed never runs smooth. Enter the woman, for that is the way it is with buddy movies and has been at least since Gunga Din. Speed-the-Plow is a Mamet variation on the buddy movie. His best plays {American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross) are set in male enclaves, and Sexual Perversity in Chicago follows the buddy formula in its story. So does Speed-the-Plow. After the requisite feminine interruption, the two men go off together to face the studio head—like Flagg and Quirt hurrying to the front in What Price Glory?—and the woman is tossed aside.

If there is a difficulty in Speed-the-Plow, it lies with the woman in the case. It is not, as some reviewers have insisted, because Madonna is playing Karen. Her performance is not as flashily free as those of Mategna and Silver, but she does a creditable job with a character who—unlike Bobby and Charlie—is never clearly defined. At first she seems to be the dumb secretary stereotype, too dense to find the coffee machine, but at this stage she may be only a reflection of Bobby’s attitude toward women. He accepts Charlie’s bet that the he cannot seduce her. In her big scene in Act II, having read and presumably been won over by the book on nuclear destruction that Bobby asked her to give “a courtesy read,” she persuades him to present it to the studio head rather than the buddy script. She does so not by arguments, but by sleeping with him. In the last act, she has a new authority, a taste of power that leads her to the plural pronoun (“we have a meeting”), but if she were just another ambitious broad, as Charlie insists, she would not answer his direct question as she does, admitting that she only went to bed with Bobby to get the film made. That revelation frees Bobby, of his flirtation with art and social conscience and sends him back to his true calling as a junk merchant.

It is possible that Mamet intends Karen as an innocent for whom the true heart of Hollywood is as elusive as the coffee machine—just the person to be taken in by the “Eastern wimp” author’s pretentious book. It sounds like the kind of work which fondles the annihilation of the world while it whimpers its dessicated whisper of hope. There is a marvelous moment in which Karen tries to use the book to resnare Bobby after he allies himself again with Charlie. She reads a ponderous paragraph and then, faced with defeat, insists that that is not the passage she has in mind and keeps flipping the pages hopelessly. Mamet seems to be using the book and Karen’s naive embrace of it as a matter for satire, but there is a problem there too. Reviewers tended to describe the book as an “anti-radiation” novel, but it is called Radiation and, from what we hear of the argument, the author is using radiation and Mamet uses decay and decadence in his essays in Writing in Restaurants, as a necessary destructive stage to revitalization. Mamet’s theory of decadence seems to me fair game for the satirist, but I am not sure that he is Bernard Shaw enough to guy his own ideas for the sake of the play.

Whether Karen’s projected movie is a joke or a serious option for Hollywood or a comic suggestion that serious options are possible, it is rejected. Greed and vulgarity triumph. Yet Mamet has more in mind than a ritual chiding of Hollywood venality. In a group interview in the New York Times(May 16), Madonna called the play a metaphor: “it’s not just about Hollywood. It’s about life.” Silver modified her metaphor by suggesting that this was still another of Mamet’s examinations of American business: “You show me one person in business who decides to do something that’s good if the sacrifice is their quarterly statement.” The Mamet point of view is clear enough, but the play’s successful borrowing of the buddy plot muddies the social Page 215  |  Top of Articletheme. Bobby and Charlie are a reprehensible pair (each would sacrifice the other for an edge up), but Mategna and Silver give them so much energy, so much chutzpah, so much tacky charm that we find ourselves roofing for Bobby’s return to chicanery. Maybe that is the point. Maybe the target is not Hollywood, not American business, but the audience itself.

Source: Gerald Weales, “Rough Diamonds” in Commonweal, Vol. CXV, no. 12, June 17, 1988, p. 371.


Brustein, Robert. Review of Speed-the-Plow in the New Republic, June 6, 1988, p. 29.

Henry, William A. III. “Madonna Comes to Broadway” in Time, May 16, 1988, pp. 98–99.

Hodgson, Moira. Review of Speed-the-Plow in the Nation, June 18, 1988, pp. 874–75.

Kroll, Jack. “The Terrors of Tinseltown” in Newsweek, in May 16, 1988, pp. 82–83.

Mamet, David. Speed-the-Plow, Grove Press, 1987.

Rich, Frank. “’Plow’ and ‘Butterfly’: New Leads, New Light” in the New York Times, September 23, 1988, p. C3.

Simon, John. Review of Speed-the-Plow in New York, October 3, 1988, p. 79.

Simon, John. “Word Power” in New York, May 16, 1988, p. 106.


Dean, Anne. David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.

This book discusses the role of language in Mamet’s plays.

Lahr, John. “Profile: Fortress Mamet” in the New Yorker, November 17, 1997, pp., 70-82.

This biographical article gives a sweeping synopsis of Mamet’s life and work.

London, Todd. “Mamet vs. Mamet: He’s Playwright, Director, Theorist—and His Own Worst Enemy” in American Theatre, July-August, 1996, p. 18.

This article discusses Mamet’s extraordinary use of language in his plays and contrasts this aspect of his work with his persona as director of his own plays.

Mamet, David. The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions, Random House, 1992.

This book contains a series of autobiographical essays.

Staples, Brent. “Mamet’s House of Word Games” in the New York Times, May 29, 1988, pp. B1, B24.

This article discusses Mamet’s extraordinary ear for language and how it affects dialogue in his plays.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693100023