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The stage version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross offers a far more expansive example of postmodernism than the film adaptation Mamet constructed from his source material. Which is kind of weird considering that arguably the most postmodern character in the film is that guy who can neither stop talking nor closing played by Alec Baldwin. Spoiler alert: that guy is not a character in the stage play. Not even as an unseen character only mentioned and never seen. Does not exist within the carefully designed postmodern universe of fragmented narrative and fractured perspective that characterizes Mamet’s high-octane stage presentation of the cutthroat word of salesman who must always be closing.
Audiences are forced to confront conventional expectations being shattered a postmodernist critique of the capitalist system they have been spoon-fed to accept as beyond question right from the beginning. A play with multiple characters tends to situate those characters within a short period of time by having them interact in a multiplicity of situations. Glengarry Glen Ross demands audience interaction calling for higher critical thought by creating an entire Act One that is really just a series of seemingly unconnected little psychodramas between unconnected characters. In fact, the only element tying the individual scenes of Act One together is the Chinese restaurant in which those scenes all take place.
Mamet factures the narrative in an unsettling way in which the audience really has absolutely no choice but to enter into the structural foundation themselves. Why is the playwright showing us these people? What do the conversations we are witnessing have to do with each other? Do they eventually intersect or interact? From the moment the second scene starts, any audience member hoping to reach an understanding of what Mamet is attempting to suggest must become complicit in tying together the disparate and disconnected nature of Act One. As if that weren’t enough of a defining element of postmodern drama, Mamet then pushes things to the next level by obliterating all expectations of the continuation of a fragmented narrative verging on the experimental if not necessarily the avant-garde. In other words, once the audience has done half the work of connecting the dots laid out for them in the first act, they are thrown wholesale into an utterly conventional structure in Act Two in which all those characters come together in exactly the way one expected them to from the beginning.
The question thus becomes one of why? Why is Act Two so conventional when Act One defies much of the conventions of modern theater? Why reveal these characters as disconnected from each other only to connect them together in the second act? Not just connect them together, but connect them together in what turns out to be one of the most traditional and old-fashioned of all plot devices: the crime mystery? For that is exactly what Act Two of Glengarry Glen Ross becomes: a mystery of who stole the money.
Surprisingly, the answer lies entirely within the thematic concerns of postmodernism. Act One essentially becomes a canvas upon which Mamet paints a series of portraits isolated from each other that together reveal the business of high-pressure cold sales as an ideal metaphor for the larger meaning and failure of capitalism. The sales game is a dehumanizing experience for both the salesperson and their target. The gamesmanship of pressure selling is one that alienates both sides from each other while appearing to bring them together for a common purpose. That is the essence of capitalism, but that essence only comes into sharp relief due precisely to the shockingly mundane plot device which serves as the foundation for Act Two.
Capitalism itself is ultimately indicted by the events that take place on the stage during a production of Glengarry Glen Ross. No matter what the specifics or the level of exchange or the persons involved in the relations of production, the capitalist mentality ultimately turns every narrative into a crime story.
Speech as Mode of Action
David Mamet is famous for his attention to detail in dialogue. All the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross have very specific speech patterns. Words are often left out of sentences, and the grammar, though rarely "proper," always makes intuitive sense. For example, Mamet will have a character say "should of" instead of the grammatically correct "should have," because, first and foremost, Mamet is trying to reflect the way he believes his characters would actually talk. Moreover, Mamet believes that the way people speak influences the way they behave, rather than vice versa. Every comma, every stutter, every emphasis—note that single syllables are often placed in italics—in the play is as Mamet expects it to be performed. The stage directions, however, are so sparse as to be nearly nonexistent. Mamet does not specify how the set looks and almost never specifies what the characters' physical actions may be. Furthermore, at times in Act Two, with characters coming in and out of Williamson's office, Mamet is even ambiguous about who is or is not onstage at certain moments. These physical details are irrelevant to the drama that Mamet is creating, which is all in the talking.
Characters' ability to speak persuasively determines their fate in Mamet's world. Roma is a breathtakingly smooth talker, able to come up with lies and philosophies as quickly as the words can leave his mouth. His continued business success is never in doubt. Levene, on the other hand, is a disastrously poor persuader. We see from his first line—in which he stammers out seven words and pauses before he can even begin his sentence—that he is not well suited to sales. Levene makes desperate pleas throughout the play, yet nearly every argument he makes seems to make things worse for him. Moss and Aaronow, the other two salesmen in the play, fall somewhere in the middle: Moss does not have anything approaching Roma's suavity, but he does have a brute aggression with his words that could conceivably overpower a customer; Aaronow, though meek, at least does not exude desperation the way that Levene does.
Success and Failure
Glengarry Glen Ross is a scathing attack on American business practices. The only characters in the play whom we do not witness in some attempt to steal from, cheat, or trick one of the others are Aaronow and Lingk—both extremely meek men who, it is implied, do not have much chance at great success. The sales office of the play serves as a microcosm of capitalist culture: as the top man gets a Cadillac and the bottom man gets fired, every man must not only work for his own success but also hope for—or actively engineer—his coworkers' failure.
The top salesman on the board—at this point, Roma—is also entitled to the best leads. Success, then, is rewarded with further opportunity for success, while failure is punished with the guarantee of further failure. The system is brutal and compassionless. Levene grasps at anything that might help him appear successful, but his guise is unfortunately transparent, which only makes him appear like a greater failure. Like a man flailing in quicksand, Levene's struggle to evade failure at all costs ends up hastening his professional demise. At the play's climax, Levene asks Williamson why Williamson is going to report him to the police, and Williamson responds, "Because I don't like you." This response is borne partly of Levene's having recently insulted Williamson, but it is also because Levene has been emitting an air of failure from the start of the play, and Williamson, a businessman himself, has been trained to fear and hate failure.
More main ideas from Glengarry Glen Ross