Drama Study: Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet

FRom the pRL / originally written in English / C20TH / North America / usa

“All words are finally nothing because it’s only money that really talks.”

Frank Rich, New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews, 1984.
Glengarry Glen Ross was adapted from his own Pulitzer prize-winning play by David Mamet and directed by John Foley. It tells the story of a group of salesmen working for a dubious real-estate firm. Head office has sent a motivational trainer to buck up their mediocre performances. But he has a shock in store for the men: a new sales competition is being launched. The top prize is a new Cadillac car. But, in a week’s time, anyone who’s not in the top two will be fired. (Caution: contains frequent strong profanity.)


Glengarry Glen Ross, by American playwright David Mamet, was first performed by the Royal National Theatre, in London, England, on September 21st 1983. Critic reviews were overwhelmingly positive and the production played in front of sold-out audiences. It won the Society of West End Theatres Award as best new play. In 1984 the play transferred to America, playing first in Chicago and then on Broadway in New York, where critics also recognized the play as brilliant. Nevertheless, ticket sales were slow and the play initially lost money. However, when it won the Pulitzer Prize, sales increased significantly, and it ran for over 300 performances before the first run of shows closed in 1985.

The play opens in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago. Three pairs of men sit in different booths, eating and talking. They all work for the same real estate sales office across the road. Bit by bit, we discover that there is a sales contest on: the winner of the first prize will receive a Cadillac; second prize a set of steak knives – all the rest of the salesmen will be fired! The second act relocates to the sales office the next morning: it has been ransacked and a set of important “leads” – information about potential buyers – has been stolen. A police detective is there to investigate the burglary and one by one the salesmen are interrogated. It seems that one of them is the prime suspect. Glengarry Glen Ross is a modern morality play, an abrasive attack on rapacious business cultures and a withering depiction of the men whose values are twisted by a world in which they must lie, cheat, and even steal in order to survive.

The major theme of Glengarry Glen Ross is business and capitalism. Mamet never lectures his audience on his personal belief, either to praise nor to condemn the workings of business; instead his play shows us the quintessential truth of life lived according to pure business principles: the salesman strives to survive by his wits in a system that damages and drains his better humanity. In the published play, Mamet includes a quote from the real life business book, ‘Practical Sales Maxim’: “Always Be Closing.” To the men in the play, everything is business – even personal relationships.

IB Learner Profile: Reflective

“We thoughtfully consider the world and our own ideas and experience. We work to understand our strengths and weaknesses in order to support our learning and personal development.”

Many people, including some studying this course, live in comfortable, well-developed circumstances in societies that have adopted capitalism and free market economics. And it’s true that this system has delivered success and wealth to many countries, institutions and individuals. But, how many of us take the time to wonder about the hidden side of capitalism? As you read this play, be reflective about the societies we live in, and about our global economic systems. What is the human cost of the comfort and convenience many of us enjoy?

Lang and Lit Concept: Communication

In Glengarry Glen Ross, language as a means of communication has been twisted. Language is used by (almost) all the characters in the play only as a tool to manipulate potential customers or each other. Deception is at work on every level. We see lying and fantasy as a way of thinking and operating: certainly there is little truth to anything anyone says to anybody, even when it seems to support a friendship or express a philosophy. As you read through the play, think about language as a tool of communication and ask how certain uses of language can hide and conceal the truth.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks).††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

If you are a higher Level student, at some point in your course you must write an essay for assessment. A recurring theme in Mamet’s play is the power of language itself, what can be hidden in speech, and how language both reveals and conceals truth. Every person in the play wants something: but rarely do they say what they want. Instead, they hide their desires behind small-talk, jargon, platitudes, insults, reminiscences and stories. This theme could form the basis for an excellent Higher Level essay, should you choose to write about Glengarry Glen Ross. Lines of inquiry you might pursue include, but are not limited to:

  • In what ways does Roma’s use of language help him shift identity throughout Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet?
  • How do certain characters in Glengarry Glen Ross use language in ways that conceal their true motivations?
  • Compare and contrast Levene and Moss’ use of language in the play Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet.
  • To what extent is David Mamet arguing that language itself is misleading and imprecise in his play Glengarry Glen Ross?
  • Analyse Mamet’s use of jargon and profanity in Glengarry Glen Ross.
  • In what ways are stories and storytelling central concerns of David Mamet in his play Glengarry Glen Ross?
  • Discuss the idea that what is not said is as important as what is said in Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet.

Act 1 Scene 1

That’s ‘talk’, my friend, that’s ‘talk’. Our job is to sell.

Act 1 is structured like a triptych: the action all takes place in the same Chinese restaurant, with each pair of men seated in separate booths, and is structured in three scenes that mirror each other. In the first duologue, scene 1, two men are engaged in a heated discussion related to real estate sales goals. Shelly Levene, an old salesman, is having a run of bad luck and is trying to convince the real estate office manager, a younger man named John Williamson, to help him by sending a few good sales leads his way.

Mamet sets the tone of desperation that infects the whole play with the first words out of Shelly Levene’s mouth. The sense of panic and frustration are almost palpable as Levene comes as close as his dignity will allow to begging for his job from someone who has never actually sold anything in his life. Levene’s outrage is directed at more than the office manager, rather at life itself, which seems to be pushing him aside to make room for younger men with more vitality and time.

Shelly Levene, played by Jack Lemmon in the 1992 film of Glengarry Glen Ross. You can read the Empire review of this film version here.
office Gossip

In his convoluted and ambiguous dialogue, Mamet is something of a descendant of the absurdist theatre movement of Beckett and Ionesco. Another hallmark of this movement is ‘ambiguity about the past’, a theme evident in the first scene through listening to the character of Levene.

Act 1 Scene 2

And we enslave ourselves. To please. To win some fucking toaster

In a different booth at the same Chinese restaurant, Moss and Aaronow, two other sales representatives from the real estate company, have just finished dinner. They are disgruntled over the injustice of a new sales contest. It’s outrageous to them that their jobs should hinge on some contest and not prior performance or loyalty, especially given the sales volume they each made in the Glen Ross subdivision. Now the pressure is just too great: Aaronow has the bent countenance of a man resigned to a dire fate, while Moss puts up a false bravado. Both men know that the ax could fall on one – or both – of them.

The new pressure for sales is bringing out unsavoury characteristics in the men, prompting them to consider activities that they might never have considered if not faced with imminent job loss. These men are younger than Levene and their pressures are different in that they are still trying to achieve the pinnacle of success that the business world defines for men in their forties. They still have the ‘fire in the belly’ necessary for sales success – but it’s a dog-eat-dog world and they will have to make difficult choices in order to survive.

office Gossip

While most people may not be familiar with the inner workings of a high-pressure real estate sales office, the events surrounding Glengarry Glen Ross in the 1980s (the play was first performed in ’83) certainly made that world seem not only plausible but almost inevitable. The 1980s in American business were a time of corporate takeovers, both friendly and unfriendly, in which those engineering those takeovers reaped personal rewards in the tens of millions of dollars. Frequently, those takeovers were funded by high-yield “junk bonds,” first proposed by Drexel Burnham Lambert executive Michael R. Milkin.

Dave Moss, played by Ed Harris, in the 1992 film of Glengarry Glen Ross. Famous film critic Roger Ebert gives his verdict on the film here.

Learner Portfolio: Alienation and Loneliness

All of the characters in the play suffer alienation from both other people and the world outside the office. For example, they are apparently unfamiliar with the land they sell and refer to it as “crap.” Land – nature – is just a commodity. They are also alienated from their customers, whom they despise, and from each other. Although sometimes they do seem unified (such as in their despising of the unfair system that traps them) whenever it seems that friendship is involved whether with one another or with a customer we soon learn that it is just another scam.

Write a one-two page Learner Portfolio entry about the themes of alienation and loneliness in the play. For a creative challenge, you could choose a character (Aaronow might make a good choice) and write this piece from another point of view.

Act 1 Scene 3

The true reserve that I have is the strength that I have of acting each day without fear.

Rick Roma is talking to Lingk, who is seated one booth over in the same restaurant. He points out a piece of property called Glengarry Highlands on a map of Florida, which he has spread out in front of the man. In this third part of the Chinese restaurant triptych, we get to see – and hear – a master salesman at work, as Roma sets off on a monologue about morality and the illusion of security that human beings create in order to get through their lives.

Roma knows that the land he is trying to sell to Lingk is worthless – so he doesn’t try to sell the land. Instead, he tries to sell Lingk a worldview that will make it more likely for him to buy what Roma is offering: most of the things that people worry about do not happen, so all that anybody has is ‘the moment’. Should any misfortune come along, there is probably enough in your reserve to cover it. However, Roma feels that the ultimate weapon is living without fear to begin with. Roma is using the oldest sales tactic in the book: by removing the emotional obstacles associated with a buyer’s objections, Roma creates a false sense of self-confidence in the of mind of the unsuspecting Lingk.

Christian Slater plays Ricky Roma in the London Playhouse, 2017. Read the Guardian review of this production here.
office gossip

The work of David Mamet is a direct descendant of the work of Harold Pinter, a British playwright who stated that: ‘words are not the vessels of meaning but rather tools used by the characters to conceal the truth and attack others.’ Mamet often points to politicians who would speak pleasing platitudes to conceal their true intentions. Moments in American history when seemingly innocuous statements have been used as weapons in civil disputes include those used by McCarthy, Nixon, and Clinton. Why not research these examples?

Learner Portfolio: That American Myth

In an interview with Upstart Film Collective, David Mamet said: “the national culture is founded very much on the idea of strive and succeed. Your extremity is my opportunity. That’s what forms the basis of our economic life, and this is what forms the rest of our lives. That American myth: the idea of something out of nothing. And this also affects the spirit of the individual. It’s very divisive. One feels one can only succeed at the cost of someone else. Economic life in America is a lottery. Everyone’s got an equal chance, but only one guy is going to get to the top. “The more I have the less you have.” So one can only succeed at the cost of, the failure of, another.”

Write a Learner Portfolio entry about the portrayal of the American Dream in Glengarry Glen Ross. In what ways does Mamet take-on, or take-down, what he refers to as ‘that American myth’? Refer to the presentation and dialogue of at least two different characters from Act 1 of the play in this piece of writing.

Act 2.1

Always tell the truth. It’s the easiest thing to remember.

The real estate office has been broken into overnight. The men arrive for work the next day to find Williamson and Aaronow milling about with a police detective nearby. Sensing immediately what has happened, Roma demands to know if the contracts are safe. He had secured Lingk’s signature yesterday. Williamson confirms that the contract was safely delivered to the bank last night. Roma is over the top now, elated to know that he has won the contest and the new Cadillac is his. However, the police detective wants to interview all of the men one by one. It soon transpires that one of them must have burgled the office.

office Gossip

Mamet based the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross to some extent on the men with whom he had worked for a year in a dubious real estate office in Chicago. He admired their ability to live by their wits and their dynamic addiction to what they did. He found them amazing. That does not mean that he approves of what they do. He later wrote: “The desire to manipulate, to treat one’s colleagues as servants, reveals a deep sense of personal worthlessness: as if one’s personal thoughts, choices, and insights could not bear reflection, let alone a reasoned mutual examination.”

Did Aaronow break into the office for Moss? Don Warrington plays the dupe in the London Playhouse, 2017.

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages taken from Glengarry Glen Ross; as this is a play the literary form is ‘drama’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.

Act 2.2

That’s cold calling. I don’t even know their name. I’m selling them something they don’t even want.

After Moss stalks out, Levene boasts about a large sale he made last night. When Williamson enters, he attacks the office manager, telling him he has no “balls” and belittling him for having never been a salesman. Roma spots Lingk coming into the building and smells trouble. He and Levene quickly go into an improvised scene with Levene playing a rich investor. Lingk is there because his wife insisted he cancel the contract. Roma stalls him saying that he has to get Levene to the airport. He further states that he has a prior obligation and that he will talk to Lingk on the following Monday.

Williamson, trying to be helpful, tells Lingk that his check has already been cashed. Lingk leaves after apologizing profoundly to Roma for having to back out of the deal. Seething with rage, Roma screams at Williamson for ruining his deal.

Scott Sparrow plays uptight company man Williamson in The Theatre Royal, Bath (2019). You can read the review of this production here.
office gossip

Upon its first run of performances in 1983- 85, virtually all of the critics commented extensively on Mamet’s use of language, not only to create tension and define character, but also as a sort of musical poetry: “hot jazz and wounding blues,” as Frank Rich, critic for the New York Times put it. Even those few critics who were lukewarm about the play as a whole appreciated the distinctive, powerful language. Critics also appreciated the savage, scalding comedy of the play.

Learner Portfolio: Lingk’s Wife

Glengarry Glen Ross depicts a world of men and men’s relationships; there are only two females who are even mentioned in the play: Lingk’s wife and Levene’s daughter. In this scene, Lingk’s wife has forced Lingk to confront Roma and cancel his contract. Roma commiserates with him and, seemingly at least, wants to talk to him ‘man-to-man’ about his problems. Eventually, Lingk does cancel the contract with apologies for having ‘betrayed’ Roma, a choice of word that suggests how successful Roma’s ‘seduction’ of Lingk in Act 1 must have been.

Study the interactions between Roma and Lingk in Act 2, especially the lines in which the characters discuss Lingk’s wife. What do these lines reveal about her as a person and about her relationship with her husband? How does the language of these lines reveal the sexism and misogyny of men like Roma? To what extent do you think that Lingk’s wife, while never being seen onstage, is actually a more powerful character than the men care to admit? Write a Learner Portfolio entry about the character of Lingk’s wife.

Act 2.3

You’ve got a big mouth, and now I’m going to show you an even bigger one.

At the end of the play, Mamet masterfully draws together all his themes, plot strands and clues to reveal who ransacked the office and burgled the leads. Was it Moss, the man who first proposed the idea in the Chinese restaurant? Did Aaronow allow himself to be duped into committing the crime? Could it even have been an inside job pulled by Williamson, trying to pin the blame onto one of the salesmen who constantly belittle and insult him? Mamet doesn’t keep us in suspense for long as, at the end of the play, the culprit betrays himself with his very own words…

office gossip

David Mamet had the perfect grounding to be a playwright. In his autobiography, Writing in Restaurants, Mamet remembered how, as a boy, when discussing with his parents over dinner, his father would always wait until he found exactly the right word to express his ideas before continuing his meal.


Historically, a rogues’ gallery was a collection of photographs of known criminals used by the police to identify suspects. Nowadays, the traditional rogues’ gallery has been replaced by modern computer databases. However, a second meaning of the word has become more prevalent: ‘a collection of people notable for their disreputable qualities or characteristics.’

Work in pairs or threes to create a ‘Rogues’ Gallery’ of the characters from Glengarry Glen Ross. Accompany the mugshots of different characters with notes about who they are, their defining characteristics, and key quotations or defining moment in the play. Display your work or add it to your Learner Portfolio.

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to Glengarry Glen Ross, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2 compare and contrast skills)..

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. “Fear of failure is our main motivation to act.” Discuss this statement with reference to works you have studied.
  2. Explore the importance of trust in literary works you have studied.
  3. In the literary works you have studied, discuss the means as well as the effectiveness with which power or authority is exercised.
  4. Works of literature can often function as social commentary. Discuss with reference to literary works you have studied.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length (20 marks).

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Now you have studied the whole play, if you are a Higher Level student, you might like to turn your thoughts to the essay that all Higher Level students must write. In this unit, you learned about several aspects of dramatic writing, stagecraft and even encountered one or two ideas about theatre and performance. For those who are interested, you could use these concepts as the starting point for an essay about Glengarry Glen Ross. You might like to consider one of these questions, although you may have your own ideas as well:

  • To what extent are unseen figures, or characters who remain off-stage, crucial in David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross?
  • How important are the two settings (restaurant and office) to the themes and concerns of Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet?
  • Analyse David Mamet’s use of language to explain why the stage directions in his play Glengarry Glen Ross are so economical.
  • Although the setting of the play is incredibly tight, to what extent does Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet give you an insight into the off-stage world at the time it was written?
  • Discuss whether Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet is a comedy or a tragedy.
  • In what ways is gendered language so important to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross?
  • How is the theme of duplicity developed so powerfully in the play Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet?
  • Is the office robbery more than a simple plot device in Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course) students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Glengarry Glen Ross could be an excellent text to talk about in your oral assessment. The themes of capitalism, deception, alienation and loneliness, language, and the American Dream are rich and lend themselves well to creating the Global Issue which will form the core of your talk. Now you have finished reading and studying the play, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the play, include your ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

  • Field of Inquiry: Art, Imagination and Creativity
  • Global Issue: the power of language to lead and mislead
  • Possible Pairings (Lit course: if you are following the Literature-only course, you must pair a text originally written in English with a translated work): The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
  • Possible Pairings (Lang and Lit): Lucky Strike adverts; Singapore Military Recruitment Posters; Dilbert by Scott Adams; HSBC adverts.

Throughout the play, David Mamet reveals the power of language to obfuscate, hide intentions and conceal the truth about situations and events. Characters rarely say what they believe, and are quick to use jargon, profanity and make-believe to get what they want.

During Act 2, Levene viciously attacks Williamson for lacking the ‘balls’ to be a man. Mamet’s play contains only male characters and the stage reeks of latent violence, anger, aggression and competitiveness. Even before the term became commonly used, it can be argued that Mamet – despite his admiration for the way the men can think on their feet and use their wits to survive – represents ‘toxic masculinity’ in all its forms.


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