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Glengarry Glen Ross | Study Guide

David Mamet

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Glengarry Glen Ross | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



John Williamson and Shelly Levene share a booth at a Chinese restaurant. Levene, an investment property salesman, is trying to convince the office manager, Williamson, to supply him with better sales leads. Only the best salesmen in their office get the best leads. Levene insists he's a better "closer" than the leading salesman in the office, Richard Roma, even though he hasn't closed any of his last four leads. He blames his lack of success on bad luck, but Williamson isn't interested in Levene's excuses. He says Levene has to get some sales listed on the office sales leaderboard before he can have any premium leads. Levene counters he'll never be able to achieve that if he keeps getting the "dreck" Williamson is giving him.

The longer Levene argues, the more desperate he becomes. "I NEED A SHOT," he yells at Williamson, but Williamson isn't moved until Levene promises to give him 20 percent of all his sales plus $50 (approximately $125, adjusted for inflation) per lead. Williamson agrees to give Levene two good leads, but he wants the cash now. Levene doesn't have it. Williamson backs out of the deal, leading Levene to beg, bargain, and eventually settle for something from the "B" list all within a matter of moments. Levene apologizes for his rude behavior. The two men get up from the table, and Levene announces he left his wallet at the hotel.


Glengarry Glen Ross takes place in Chicago in the early 1980s. Shelly Levene, Dave Moss, George Aaronow, and Richard Roma all sell investment properties for an unseen duo named Mitch and Murray. Mitch and Murray work at a separate downtown location, while the four salesmen and John Williamson, the office manager, work out of a small office—presumably on the city's outskirts. Mitch and Murray are currently holding an office sales contest. The first-place winner gets a new Cadillac; second place is worth a set of steak knives. The salesmen who come in third and fourth lose their jobs. Williamson keeps track of team members' sales on a leaderboard for everyone to see. The leaderboard is a big problem for Levene. He's been with Mitch and Murray longer than the other sales representatives, and he was their top performer for many years. Now he's at the bottom and he's getting terrible leads—the names of people who are interested in learning more about investment property. He is especially desperate for money because of a dire situation with his daughter, which is never fully explained.

Knowing this backstory is extremely helpful in understanding the events and conversations that take place in Glengarry Glen Ross, but David Mamet does not indulge his audience with background information via character exposition. Instead he plunges first-time readers and audience members straight into an argument already in progress. This technique has two effects: it grips the audience's attention while setting the mood of dark, frenetic desperation. Not laying out all the facts at the beginning of the play makes the audience want to learn more about who is onstage and why they are there.

Though the play shifts focus between several characters, Levene, as the focus of the beginning of Act 1 and the end of Act 2, is considered to be the play's main character. A salesman past his prime, he allows his desperation to be on display as he blames his lack of sales success on bad luck but attributes his successes to innate skill. "You want to throw that away, John?" he asks Williamson. Though he is currently struggling to get a sale entered on the office leaderboard, Levene continues to follow the salesmen's maxim—"always be closing." In this case he's selling himself to Williamson so he can get good leads and keep his job. Just as he would try to persuade a client, he makes flimsy promises to Williamson, embellishing the truth and overlooking the realities of the situation.

Williamson, however, has worked with salesmen for years. He knows their tricks, and he knows most of what they say is just "talk" devoid of fact. He isn't easily swayed by their pleading or their explosive tempers. As office manager it's clear he rules the sales team according to his personal whims. Since he controls the leads, he essentially has the salesmen's livelihoods in his hands. He decides who gets the leads with the greatest potential for resulting in a sale and who's stuck with "dreck." The salesmen are paid on commission, which means they don't take home anything if they don't make any sales. If he wants people to fail, he can ensure they do. His refusal to help Levene isn't just company policy—it's a conscious choice to impede Levene's chances of success. There are no clear-cut villains in Glengarry Glen Ross, but Williamson can be considered one of the play's antagonists.
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