David Mamet's 'Glengarry Glen Ross' Speaks to the Price of Success
In Glengarry Glen Ross, an over-the-hill real estate salesman named Shelly Levene is trapped in a Catch-22. He can’t increase his sales with terrible “leads” (potential customers), and all the good ones go to those already pulling in big numbers. He solves this problem by selling Florida land to a couple with suspect credit. Yeah, this doesn’t end well.
David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which opened last month in a new Broadway revival starring Al Pacino as Levene, is one of the modern classics of American theater as well as one of the finest dramas about the price of business and pursuit of success. Mamet shows us wonderfully charged scenes of brass-knuckle negotiating but suggests the deals that really matter are offstage.
Glengarry speaks as directly to the economic anxieties of today as when it opened on Broadway in 1984, at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Then, the play was widely seen by critics as a left-wing attack on a free-market system run amok. In the New York Times, Benedict Nightingale described it as a blistering critique of Wall Street. He boiled its message down to: “Crime is only the logic of business, extended.”
Business is “a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, officeholders,” the top salesman, Ricky Roma (an elegant Bobby Cannavale), tells Levene, lamenting that the men doing the real work like themselves are no longer prized: “We’re a dying breed.” Yet as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that there’s little besides self-interest tying these employees together. Everyone is a con man. Levene’s tragic flaw is that he doesn’t see this. “I wasn’t cut out to be a thief,” he says. “I was cut out to be a salesman.” But in Glengarry, it’s hard to tell the difference.
The new revival turns an ensemble piece into a star vehicle for Pacino, and in doing so, the play loses some of its forceful momentum. It’s a less coherent production than the 2005 revival with Liev Schreiber and Alan Alda and less rollicking than the classic 1992 movie (in which Pacino played the role of Roma and Jack Lemmon starred as Levene). But it’s unorthodox in an interesting way. David Harbour, who plays the middle manager John Williamson, is the standout. He’s the first actor I’ve ever seen make Williamson slightly sympathetic, even vulnerable. And in Pacino’s long pauses and empty gaze, he underlines the futility of being a worker not in control of his fate. Despite Mamet’s unsentimental portrayals of these schemers, there is genuine affection for them leavening his harsh view. The impression one takes away is that these are doomed men trying to survive on their wits, but there is dignity in the struggle. Glengarry Glen Ross is often compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but the fundamental difference is that Mamet shows us in concrete detail the value of work. He lets the audience see salesmen doing their job, and then distinguishes between those who do it well and those who don’t. In fact, as corrupt as the office may be, there is a meritocratic ethos at its core—the most impressive salesman, Roma, is also the most successful. Levene, by contrast, repeats himself, caves in negotiation, lies poorly. It’s easy to have sympathy for him, but hard to conclude that he doesn’t deserve to get paid less than Roma. Look closely enough at this play and you’ll find a belief in the market as well as a critique of it. Like most great dramas or novels, its ideas are far too complicated to fit into a slogan.Mamet, who detailed his political evolution in a 2008 Village Voice article, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal,” has a moralist streak, but at his best, it doesn’t overwhelm his artistic one. Or his respect for deception effectively performed. In his work, he often returns to magic, crime, and theater. In these jobs, lying is part of what you do. It’s an art.
Last month, Mamet delivered the Wriston Lecture, an annual speech sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. At the end of his rambling, droning, somewhat incoherent talk, he opened the floor to questions. A clean-cut young man stood up, introduced himself as an actor, and asked Mamet if he would have come out of the closet as a conservative before he had clout in the industry. Mamet responded immediately: “Of course not.”
The crowd offered muted laughs to this most realistic of messages: better to lie and survive. Of course, in the Mamet worldview, honesty has its place. “Always tell the truth,” Roma advises. “It’s the easiest thing to remember.”