It is three days before the Broadway opening of David Mamet’s new play, Glengarry Glen Ross, one day before the critics—“crickets,” he calls them—start to come, and there is nothing for the playwright to do but wait and wait, attend previews every night, listen to his friend and director Gregory Mosher give notes that half the actors can’t bear to hear anymore, stop off after the show at Charlies’, across the street from the Golden Theatre, for a Jameson’s with a glass of water on the side. Mosher says that he and Mamet are now “taking alcohol intravenously,” and Mamet cracks that he is going to ask to have barber chairs installed in Charlies’ so that he and Mosher can just sit back, relax, and have liquor poured down their throats.
“Insanity,” says Mamet, standing on the sidewalk after tonight’s preview, “is settling in.” He does not seem to be coming unglued—he is wearing a buff-colored hat, perched on his head, that looks like the one Art Carney wore in The Honeymooners and is puffing on a cigar. The cigar, though, has been gnawed and is on its way to becoming seriously unraveled.
Glengarry Glen Ross was voted best play of the 1982–83 London season by the Society of West End Theatres after its run at the Cottesloe, and the current production got raves for its run at the Goodman Theatre, in Chicago. But apart from the recent success of American Buffalo, Mamet has not had good luck on Broadway—the first Broadway production of Buffalo, starring Robert Duvall, had only a brief run, as did The Water Engine. Reviews of Mamet’s recent plays, including The Woods, Edmond, and The Lone Canoe, have been mixed. Lately, Mamet has gotten more attention for his screenplays—The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Verdict.
Mamet, fiercely loyal to this cast, never considered replacing it with “stars” to give the Broadway production glamour.
Perhaps this is in part why Mamet, 36, has been so intimately involved with this production. He attended almost all of the London and Chicago rehearsals. He helped cast the Chicago production (the New York cast is the same, save for Lane Smith as Lingk); he has known and worked with three of the seven actors in the show for at least ten years.
Mamet, fiercely loyal to this cast, never considered replacing it with “stars” to give the Broadway production glamour. He and Mosher, 35 (who has directed seven of Mamet’s plays), have insisted on absolute control over the production, including everything from posters to radio ads (which Mamet wrote) to latecomer policy (tardy folk are not sealed until intermission).
But why take a chance on Broadway? “Well, hell, you know,” Mamet says, “we’re doing American theater, with American actors. It belongs on Broadway.” A few days later, most reviewers second the motion; the Times’s Frank Rich says that Mamet “makes all-American music—hot jazz and wounding blues.”
Like several of Mamet’s other plays, Glengarry Glen Ross is about business, that quintessential American subject, and its message is none too ambiguous: The system is foul at the core, debasing its participants until they are little more than their appetites—for money, power, a rung up on the Darwinian ladder.
“A man’s his job.” says one of the five salesmen in Glengarry, who hustle at selling patches of land (including not-yet developed “developments” Glengarry Highlands and Glen Ross Farms) in Florida, and so it is: From the first lines of the play (“John… John… John. Okay. John. John, Look: The Glengarry Highlands leads, you’re sending Roma out…. All that I’m saying, that you’re wasting leads… put a closer on the job”), the salesmen have no subject other than their scam.
The airless office where they work,with its gray cement-block walls, aged watercooler and filing cabinets, and yellowing venetian blinds, has as its sole decorative touch two postcards tacked to one wall; there are no photographs, even of wives or girlfriends or children. If they have any life other than real estate, we do not find out about it; all other matters are beside the point, When Shelly (Robert Prosky). who has been suffering from a bad streak, makes a sale, he suddenly swells as big as a blowfish: Aaronow (Mike Nussbaum) is as abject as Eeyore. “I’m no f—–g good,” he whimpers to Richard Roma (Joe Mantegna). “You had a bad month.” says Roma, “you’re a good man,” Aaronow replies. “I am?”
As always with Mamet. the language is lean and lyrical, foul and funny, full of his by now familiar twisted syntax (“You haven’t got a contract to get stolen or so forth”), pauses, and pithy insults (“guy couldn’t find his fuckin’ couch the living room”).
Four days before the opening, Mamet is in Sardi’s eating endive salad with his fingers and drinking cup after cup of tea and talking about the genesis of his play. He has a thick, broad-shouldered torso (he wrestled in high school, and still does, and broke his nose once playing football). He wears a black shirt, black tie, and black sport coat with tiny white flecks, and except for several reminders written in ink on his thumb he looks very natty. His manner is coiled, caustic, funny, slightly guarded. It makes sense that he is, as friends report, a formidable poker player, and that he has an extensive collection of antique knives.
“The business of America is business,” says Mamet. “We’re a nation of entrepreneurs.” He wanted to write a play, he says, “about those guys you see on planes. They all sit together, and you can never understand what they’re talking about, and they all have these papers filled with columns and figures. They’re all named Bob. And when they laugh. it’s ‘Ha ha!’—this imitation laugh.”
Mamet had also met these men years ago. When he was in his early twenties and living in Chicago, he spent a year working in a real-estate office as an assistant office manager—“one of those offices,” he says, “on the way to the airport,” and one of those companies for which “you hear an ad on television that says, ‘Interested in the Arizona way of life? No salesman will call,’ and the next thing that happens is that a salesman calls.
“I loved those guys. They made my life interesting for a year.”
Mamet remembers their particular patois—its slipperiness and polish and power. “They all use words to influence actions. They build what’s called a line of affirmatives. A customer is never allowed to say no: ‘You’d like to make money, wouldn’t you?’ they say. Another great trick is not answering objections: ‘That’s an excellent point. Let’s talk about that later.’ ”
Every trick imaginable gets used in Glengarry—and, as Mamet says, “not only to sell land. Everybody is always selling to everybody”: the precious leads, offers to participate in an office burglary and in endless in-house conspiracies.
“He’s played cards with some guys you’d never want to meet,” says W. H. Macy, a friend who has acted in several Mamet plays.
When he finished the play, last year, Mamet says, he found he had a first act composed of three brief, two-character scenes (a form that is vintage Mamet) and a second act “out of a thirties well-made play, a kind of homage to Sidney Kingsley.” Mamet felt a “wooziness” about whether these two disparate halves would add up to a whole. So he sent the play to his friend Harold Pinter, who soothed his fears entirely, he says, by telling him that “the only thing it needed was to be produced” and gave it, in turn, to Peter Hall, at the National Theatre, who put together the first London production. “Otherwise,” says Mamet, “it would have stayed in the bottom of my trunk for a million years.”
For the rehearsals in Chicago, Mamet and Mosher invited salespeople to come and speak to the actors. “The Fuller Brush lady was great,” says Mamet, “The whole pitch was reduced to a science. They’re very fond of slogans: ‘Plan your work and work your plan.’ Everything moves toward the close.” Mosher recalls the visit of an I.B.M. salesman who improvised selling a piece of land to actor Joe Mantegna. Mr. Mantegna, would you be interested in making a substantial amount of money? asked the salesman. Mantegna said he had only six minutes. Whereupon the salesman “sold” the property to a spellbound Mantegna not long after hit six minutes were up, flabbergasting the actor and the rest of the cast.
Perhaps it is not a total coincidence that Mamet once lived in the kind of development in which Glengarry’s hucksters are selling stakes. Following his parents’ divorce, when he was ten, Mamet moved with his mother and sister from the north side of Chicago to a spanking new development called Olympia Fields. He stayed only briefly—“two years, that was enough”—but the very idea of the place seems to gall him still. He refers to it simply as “hell.”
“We lived in a model home” so small, he says, pointing to a table for two in Sardi’s, “it makes this table look like fucking Switzerland. There was nothing to do. I was fourteen years old, I was trying to get into trouble.” He longed, he says, to escape the repressive bourgeoisie. “I am very happy to be part of that august group now, but not when I was fourteen.”
He escaped through theater. His uncle was director of broadcasting for the Chicago Board of Rabbis, so the teenage Mamet acted in “one of those religious TV shows that are on at six o’clock in the morning, you know, with titles like Thank God It’s Purim.’” More important, he worked onstage and off at the Hull House, a community theater that, says Mamet, marked the beginning of the innovative theater scene that has since flourished in Chicago. He was also a busboy at Second City.
A poor student Mamet somehow managed to graduate from Chicago’s progressive, prestigious Francis Parker school and got accepted at Goddard College, in Vermont, where he “never opened a book,” and instead spent all of his time studying acting and working in the college theater. He left for the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, and returned to his alma matar to teach acting, forming a theater group with students and writing his first plays so that “they would have something to perform.” Several core members of the group founded the St. Nicholas Theatre, in Chicago. Its premiere productions of The Duck Variations, American Buffalo, and The Water Engine helped to make David Mamet famous.
“We worked twelve hours a day. It was a great education. No wonder,” he says, that he and his actor and director friends who worked in several small Chicago theaters “are rising to some sort of manhood and womanhood. We’ve paid a price.”
Aside from a life in the theater, Mamet’s other escape from the repressive bourgeoisie has been a fondness for stalking the grubbier thickets of the urban jungle. He worked as a waiter in a gay restaurant, and as a caption writer for Oui magazine (“I got paid for sitting all day looking at pictures of naked women and making up lies about them”). American Buffalo, according to friends, is based on the people in a Chicago resale shop where Mamet used to hang out and play poker. “He’s played cards with some guys you’d never want to meet,” says W. H. Macy, a friend who has acted in several Mamet plays.
“Didn’t your mother tell you to have something to fall back on?” Mamet says, addressing a student in an N.Y.U. acting class. “Mine did. Had I listened to her I would be writing advertising copy today.
“I’m a pedagogue by nature; my wife says I can’t burp without quoting Aristotle,” says Mamet. Teaching “is what I’m best at” On this Saturday morning he is giving a lecture on acting to a group of about 60 undergraduates. He and Bill Macy rotate the lectures. Everyone gets an A, but only twenty or so students will be selected to attend the six-week summer acting school that Mamet and a few friends run in Montpelier, Vermont.
“That’s why people love my new play,” Mamet told his N.Y.U. students. “Because I finally had the will to write a second act.”
In the classroom, he is dynamic, inspirational, a little scary (“You people are no longer welcome!” he tells two late-comers, showing them the door. He has taught acting for years, in Chicago, New York, Vermont, and it is a cause for him; he will discourse on the subject in class and out of it. Acting, he tells his students today, has nothing to do with emotion but with action—“stick to the action” he tells them over and over. Acting is not about “doing Lear by smelling the coffee cup,” referring to sense memory and other exercises espoused by the Method proponents. He calls his method “practicable aesthetics,” and says it is based on the later writings of Stanislavsky and on techniques Sanford Meisner developed at the Neighborhood Playhouse.
Mamet’s message to the students is as much about how to conduct themselves offstage as on. He cautions them against acting in student productions (“You’re not fit to act yet”), talks about developing good work habits and a “will” in all things. Some of what he has to say is a bit vogue, but it is passionate and rousing, and the students give him a hearty round of applause. One understands why Elaine May, a friend of Mamet’s, has called his Vermont students “acting Moonies.”
One also sees why his gift for teaching has, as some colleagues suggest, hindered him from being an entirely successful director (he has directed a number of plays, including several of his own, and says he wants to direct his own screenplays).
The call to action, to face facts and proceed with life, fills Mamet’s plays as well. In Glengarry, Richard Roma dazzles a customer with a patter that critics hove seen as slick sophistry, amoral at best (“I do those things which seem correct lo me today …. Acting each day without fear”).
The speech, in fact, is similar to one of Teach’s in American Buffalo (“We must face the facts and act on them”) and to a declaration by the eponymous hero of Edmond, who invites a woman to “change [her] life” with him (and, unstrung before this incident, stabs her when she refuses). Mamet says he feels Roma’s speech is “inspirational—it’s classic Stoic philosophy.” The problem his protagonists face, of course, is that they live in a world where the impulse to act is perverted to the most self-destructive ends. Says Arvin Brown, who directed the most recent production of American Buffalo, “David told me once that he felt [the petty thieves in the play] were ‘trying to be excellent men.’ But the society hasn’t offered them any context to be excellent in.” Mamet, he says, “admires” these characters.
Mamet is sitting in Charlie’s with some friends—Voice critic Michael Feingold, Tim Crouse (Mamet is married to his sister, actress Lindsay Crouse), Crouse’s wife, and a few others—and he is telling a story. “I took my daughter to the zoo today, and we’re standing in front of the anaconda cage looking at this anaconda. And this guy is standing next to me, and he says, ‘I’ve got one of these at home.’ and he takes a picture out of hit wallet of him and his whole family holding this anaconda.” Then the man told Mamet what he fed the anaconda: “pre-dead chickens,” Mamet beams, and repeats the phrase. It is of course Mamet’s gift at spinning just this kind of loopy language that has gotten him more attention than anything else. “Every syllable is counted.” says Mosher. “You can tee him in the back of the theater during rehearsals, counting out iambs.” Yet Mamet, who has been criticized for favoring “episodic” plays with wonderful dialogue but skimpy story lines, seems more and more interested in “the well-made play—with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
“That’s why people love my new play,” he had told his N.Y.U. students. “Because I finally had the will to write a second act. I wrote a million episodic plays, I can write them with my left hand. So what? Who cares? Fortunately, I got sick of it before [the audience] did.” The imperative of structure and story was driven home to him, he says, when writing movies: “What matters is keeping people in their seats.”
Mamet is full of what his friend actor Colin Stinton calls “righteous indignation.” He speaks to groups and writes frequently for The Dramatists Guild Quarterly on various subjects that irk him. But if Mamet is, as Macy says, “pretty sure of himself,” he is perhaps less so than he once was. Friends credit the softening to Lindsay Crouse. whom he fell in love with while watching her performance in Slap Shot, and married in 1979. They have a daughter who is 22 months old. “Lindsay has been really wonderful for him,” says Macy. “He quotes her all the time. She kind of opened him up to the idea of people having a different point of view [from his].” “He’s bigger, he’s richer,” says Mosher. The Mamets split their time between Vermont and an apartment downtown.
Mamet is at work on a three-act play he has been laboring over for years and has written a screenplay—exposing “small-town America”—with Elaine May, on whom he has a platonic crush (“I would run off to Argentina with her, would she but have me and could I but get her on the phone”). Meanwhile, the old-fashioned moralist indulges in some old-fashioned positivism. “By Jove and by jiminy, maybe there are grown men and women trying to bring a tradition back,” he says of Broadway. “Kopit’s play is coming, and Rabe’s, and Stoppard’s is here. This stuff is not chopped liver.”