David Mamet and the
Deceptions of American Myths

by Andrew Schenker


This article was originally obtained from http://www.bcsd.org/BHS/english/mag97/papers/mamet.htm. You can access the Brighton School District Web Page by clicking here.

Many people in today's society are plagued with feelings of inadequacy and confusion. Unable to face these feelings, they often choose instead to hide behind a series of lies. These lies soon come to take on the epic proportions of myths and begin to establish themselves in the form of common rituals. When these deceitful myths and rituals have come to be accepted as the truth, they begin to preclude any chance of fulfillment from the lives of their believers. Playwright and essayist David Mamet has devoted his artistic life to the study of these myths which he holds have "a tremendous capacity to destroy our lives" (Dean 55).

The myths that establish themselves in the minds of Mamet's characters, often through the influence of the mass media, have turned them into victims of a corrupt society. Mamet has often quoted the French writer Voltaire, saying, "words were invented to hide feelings" (qtd. in Bigsby 48). Indeed, the language of his characters, often noted for its strong obscenities, is Mamet's most effective device for revealing this victimization, as the characters hide their insecurities behind the prescribed myths of society (Hall 217).

David Mamet has said that his "sex life was ruined by the popular media" (Dean 55). In order to illustrate how this could happen, he wrote the play Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The two male characters in the play, Danny and Bernie, think of women purely in sexual terms. Bernie, in particular, has taken on the persona of a swinging womanizer, and teaches his sexist attitudes to his younger friend, Danny. Bernie spends his time frequenting bars, looking for women, and bragging of made-up affairs to Danny. Mamet shows us Bernie at work, trying to pick up a woman named Joan at a bar. Bernie gives a false name and occupation for himself and comes on with a smooth approach. After Joan rejects him, telling him that he is not "sexually attractive" (16), Bernie continues to cling to his fantasy approach, an important part of his act, and begins to insult Joan (Dean 74). Bernie is unable to understand the workings of the female mind. He hides behind his super-stud approach, unable to accept his numerous rejections. His rage at society for ruining his sex life, is instead directed at women, as he formulates his derogatory attitude (Novick 360):

"The main thing, Dan... The main thing about broads... Is... The Way to Get Laid is to Treat 'Em Like Shit (17)."

Mamet makes it clear where these damaging stereotypes come from. He pictures Bernie in his apartment, watching T.V. at three o'clock in the morning. Although Bernie is watching a religious ad, supposedly upholding sacred values, the ad speaks of the common goal of "getting laid" and "moistening the old wick" (19).

Danny is surrounded daily by Bernie as the two file together at the office or get drunk at each other's apartments. It is impossible for Danny to avoid falling victim to Bernie's destructive influence. Thus, Mamet shows how easy it is for someone who is lucky enough to enter into a relationship, as Danny does with fellow Chicago-dweller Deborah Solomon, to end up entirely unsatisfied. Danny has little idea how to carry on a successful relationship. As Mamet suggests, he has been brainwashed by myths about macho male sexuality. He tells Deborah he loves her because it is expected of him; however, it is clear that the two share little love throughout their nine-week relationship. Inevitably the relationship comes to an end, as Danny has nothing more to say to Deborah than, "I love your breasts" (42). After the messy breakup, Danny returns to hanging out with Bernie and dissecting the anatomy of various women. As Mamet later noted, "men will waste their time in pursuit of the utterly useless simply because their peers are all doing it" (Freaks 22). By the end of the play, Danny has begun further to reflect Bernie's influence, adopting a directly abusive attitude towards all women. The dialogue ends with Danny calling out to an imaginary woman at the beach who has rejected him. "Deaf bitch," he yells (55).

Looking to extend his study of myths to other areas of society, Mamet next turned his social commentary to a study of the falsities which predominate in the business world. The result, his critically acclaimed play American Buffalo, concerns the exploits of two vulgar, working-class citizens who plot to steal valuable coins and cut a third partner out of the deal. Mamet intends his characters to be representative of lower-class corporate employees (Gale 214). Mamet has said of the society satirized by this play that it is a "society with only one bottom line: How much money you make" (Carroll 32). The characters in the play serve as representatives of the human race, struggling in order to survive against the falsehoods of the American myth (MacNicholas 66). They still believe in the opportunity to improve their lot in the world beyond where society has placed them and are prepared to set aside their morals to achieve these results. They find easy justification for these actions through the myths of business and competition. Mamet has said that "the ethics of the business community is that you can be as predatory as you want within a structured environment" (Carroll 33). Because they feel unfairly disadvantaged by society, the play's characters hold that they are justified in using whatever methods are necessary to improve their standing in the world. Only money is of importance to them. This value system eventually causes them to turn on each other, as each tries to win a bigger share for himself. By the end of the play, the characters have accomplished nothing. The only significant actions in the play occur when one of the characters, in a violent rage of frustration, destroys Don's junk shop, where the play takes place, and seriously injures another character. Nothing is more American, though, than this emphasis on free enterprise and personal gain, regardless of cost, as is made clear in a key dialogue from the play:

Teach: You know what is 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...The country's founded on this... (Buffalo 57-58).

Thus Teach represents what Mamet knows has become of American capitalism. "We excuse all sorts of great and small betrayals and ethical compromises called business," Mamet said (Gale 214). This is a theme he would continue to explore throughout his career.

By 1983, David Mamet had established himself as a talented and successful playwright. After meeting with much success, he decided to re-visit the themes of American Buffalo and come up with a further indictment of the American capitalist system. The result was the highly renowned play Glengarry Glen Ross. The play's characters, corrupt real-estate salesmen, are caught up in the rituals of their business. The salesmen are under heavy pressure to make sales in order to keep their jobs. Unseen bosses Mitch and Murray have issued the men a sales ultimatum, in which the top salesman wins a Cadillac and the bottom salesmen get fired. The dialogue of the characters, thoroughly vulgar, reveals clearly the frustration they are feeling: "What the fuck, what bus did you get off of, we're here to fucking sell," (Ross 19) salesmen Shelly Levene exclaims as he tries to make a plea with the office manager to secretly sell him some "leads." "Leads," referred to throughout the play, are the names of prospects provided to the salesmen. The men constantly compete with one another to get the best ones (Kaufman 30). Elsewhere in the play, more corrupt action occurs, as two other salesmen plot to break into the building and steal a choice set of leads. Like the crooks in American Buffalo, money is of primary importance to the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross, as they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the ritual of selling worthless real estate to unsuspecting customers. The interaction between the characters is entirely devoid of sensitivity. The only time the play addresses such topics as loneliness and romance is during part of a prefabricated sales pitch (Rich 220). When Shelly Levene closes an unexpected deal towards the end of the play, he gets caught up in the excitement, "recounting the crude ritual of a contract closing," as one critic put it, "as if it were a grand religious rite" (Rich 220). As Levene reveals to a fellow salesman how he tricked a family into buying some bottom-line real estate, it becomes clear how important the deceitful rituals are to the salesmen. "It was great," Levene says in ecstasy. "It was like they wilted all at once.... They, I swear to God, they both kind of imperceptibly slumped... It was so fucking solemn" (Ross 74). The only way these salesmen can succeed is by ignoring honest means of doing business and taking the rules into their own hands. Mamet argues, though, that the real people at fault are the unseen Mitch and Murray, who have forced the salesmen to put aside their morals throughout their careers in order to get ahead in the cutthroat business world. Mitch and Murray's demagoguery represents an increasingly large influence on society today, which has forced many businessmen, like the salesmen in this play, to become dependent on old-fashioned and highly immoral rituals.

Mamet realizes the strong effect that myths have on all of American society. In his collection of essays, Some Freaks, these myths have spread further; the entire nation hides behind them. The essay "Corruption" comments on the Iran-Contra scandal and President Reagan's involvement. "President Reagan said: The record seems to say that I traded arms for hostages, but in my heart I did not" (Freaks 92). Reagan, thus, positions himself above the rest of society, by allowing his heart's desire to rule a nation. He has put his faith in common myths about the absolutism of power, and has fallen victim to dangerous corruption. Mamet considers this to be "the ultimate corruption, the megalomania brought about by power" (Freaks 92-93). Reagan's inability to resist the temptations of power is not a rare phenomenon. Many others have found themselves tracing similar patterns of corruption and placing their beliefs in similar myths. Mamet compares Reagan's actions to those of corrupt parents who create fear in a child only to provide themselves as the sole protection against it. Reagan is, in effect, saying "If you want to remain a child, if you want to enjoy the privilege of life without fear, do not judge me. If you deign to judge me, I will withhold my protection" (Freaks 93). Our society has become irrevocably corrupted as people accept without question the myth of absolute power. Many fail to recognize this myth, even as they subscribe to it themselves: "We may have spanked children, or humiliated students, or lied to those in our care-and while we were committing those corrupt acts, may have assured ourselves that we were acting for some higher good," Mamet informs us (Freaks 94). In another essay, "Liberty," Mamet gives further reason for America's moral decay. By refusing to provide aid to Central American Refugees and to actively participate in other humanitarian causes, America is "resting on its laurels" as a wise "Old Nation." "'We need not do good,' we are saying, 'because we are good. Everybody loves us, and the things which we do are... good because we do them'" (Freaks 105). As a result of withholding liberty, America has come to love power instead. Mamet has carefully observed the decaying of the world as a result of America's falling back on old myths of moral superiority and its refusal to take any action to prove it: "We see the trappings of our age around us: an economy based on waste, the moral and economic cost of maintaining a standing army, immigration policies used as a political tool" (Freaks 106). As a nation, America must regain its love of liberty, and become, once again, an important nation, and not merely a powerful one.

All of Mamet's works show the use of these myths and rituals and their prevalence throughout society. Mamet illustrates clearly to the reader the elaborate ways in which people employ these systems of lies to avoid facing their personal shortcomings. In the end, he suggests that only when the myths are put aside and people come face to face at last with reality, can the problems of our society and the world begin to be solved.


Works Cited

Barnes, Clive "Mamet's 'Glengarry': A Play to See and Cherish."

New York Post. March 26, 1984. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 34, 1985.

Bigsby, C.W.E. David Mamet. London: Metheun, 1985.

Carroll, Dennis David Mamet. Houndmills: MacMillan, 1987.

Dean, Anne David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson, 1990. Gale, Steven H. "David Mamet: The Plays 1972-1980" Essays on Contemporary American Drama 1981.

Hall, Sharon K. "David Mamet" Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 34, 1985.

Kaufman, Stanley "Deaths of Salesmen" The New Republic. October 26, 1992, 30.

MacNicholas, John, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981.

Mamet, David American Buffalo. New York: Samuel French 1975.

_____. Glengarry Glen Ross. New York: Grove Press 1982.

_____. Sexual Perversity in Chicago. New York: Samuel French 1977.

_____. Some Freaks. New York: Viking 1989.

Rich, Frank "A Mamet Play 'Glengarry Glen Ross'" The New York Times. March 26, 1984, Sec. C: 12. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 34, 1985.

Copyright 1997, Brighton High School English Department.


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