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Glengarry Glen Ross | Context

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Economy of the Early 1980s

Glengarry Glen Ross is set in the early 1980s—a time in which the country was hampered by two back-to-back economic recessions or downturns. Though rising oil prices were a factor, the recession was mostly spurred by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States. As 1980 dawned, inflation, or the increasing prices of goods and services, was rising rapidly. The dollar didn't have as much buying power as it used to. A gallon of milk cost roughly $0.95 in 1965. In early 1980 that same gallon of milk was priced at $2.37.

With the election of President Ronald Reagan, who served from 1981–99, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, sought to counterinfluence the economy's inflationary spiral. He instituted a monetary policy designed to reverse inflation by increasing interest rates. Higher interest rates mean fewer people and companies can afford to borrow money, which in turn restricts the flow of cash in the economy.

The inflation rate slowed as predicted, but it also caused an increase in unemployment. This was also expected, though unemployment rates were higher than anticipated. Sectors of the economy known for borrowing money to fund new products and projects—like manufacturing and construction—couldn't afford the higher interest rates. Those industries declined, and thousands of people lost their jobs. Blue-collar and low-class white-collar workers were the hardest hit. The manufacturing industry, for example, accounted for 30 percent of the jobs in the United States at the beginning of the 1980s. However, 90 percent of jobs lost in 1982 came from that sector. Nationwide unemployment rose to 10.8 percent.

Money was tight for most people, not just those who had lost their jobs. Home sales—an indicator of economic confidence—plummeted in the early 1980s. Yet most people remained optimistic about their financial futures. In a Gallup survey conducted before the onset of the second phase of the recession in 1981, only 15 percent of respondents thought their financial situations would be worse in a year. Eighteen months later, toward the end of the recession, nearly 41 percent of survey respondents still believed they would be better off financially in a year's time. This gulf between economic reality and perception is what made so many middle-class Americans prime targets for investment property schemes like the one in Glengarry Glen Ross. Not many people had extra money floating around. Those who did liked the idea of investing a little now for a much larger payday later. They believed the economy was going to recover and the value of their property would increase.

Investment Property Schemes

Consumers got part of it right—the economy did eventually recover—though there were inflation scares throughout the mid-1980s. The properties they had purchased, however, rarely increased in value, mostly because they weren't worth much in the first place. Investment property schemes became popular in the 1960s and continue to persist, albeit in different forms. The schemes follow a standard formula: A person, partnership, or other type of company purchases the rights to sell a group of land parcels, which are usually located in places perfect for vacationing or retirement, such as Florida, Hawaii, or Arizona. The salesperson shows the prospective buyer a map of the area and sometimes provides a list of the property's promised features. The names of the properties—Golden Gate Estates, Sky Station, University Highlands, Devonwood—evoke daydream-worthy images of idyllic locations. Customers aren't just buying land—they're purchasing rose-tinted visions of comfort, luxury, and financial security.

The reality of these property schemes is harsh. Located in swamps, deserts, or even on the sides of volcanoes, most of these plots of land have no roads, no amenities, and no plans for future development. Some don't even have a logical space in which to place a house. The customers usually pay more than the land's actual value, so they will lose money if they ever decide to sell. Not that there would be any buyers—without the ability to develop the land, it's nearly worthless. That's why it's crucial for the real estate sales to take place far away from the land itself. Buyers have to be sold on the idea of the land without ever actually seeing the property. Companies involved in these types of property schemes often target blue-collar workers, immigrants, and the elderly—people who may not have the means to travel halfway across the country to investigate their future purchases. People who do eventually visit their properties often walk away completely—they stop making payments and forfeit the money they've already invested. That can lead to lawsuits, legal fees, and even threats of losing any other properties they already own.

The four salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross are well aware of the scam they're running, but they feel like they don't have much choice. Unemployment is on the rise, which means other jobs are hard to come by, and taking a moral stand against dishonest business practices doesn't put food on the table. They are salesmen, so they do what they do best: sell.

  • John Williamson, the office manager, gives the sales representatives their leads, or prospective clients. Lead lists are generated through ads in newspapers and magazines. People mail in coupons to receive a free brochure about a particular property, generally not realizing that they will also be receiving a sales call or visit.
  • The salesman arranges a time to meet with his lead. This is called the sit. During the sit, the salesman pitches the property, which means he talks about it in glowing terms. Pitches can also appeal to a person's financial, emotional, or spiritual needs. Richard Roma, one of the salesmen in the play, uses this tactic to great effect.
  • The most important part of the pitch is the close. That's when the salesman gets his customer to formally agree to the sale. Closing is everything to the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross. They are paid on commission, which means they make money only if they close deals. The amount of money they earn is directly related to how much property they sell—the sale of one property will yield far less income than the sale of six properties at once. In David Mamet's imaginary sales office, salesmen earn 10 percent of the profit from the sale, while the company's owners take the rest.

Mamet's Style

David Mamet is known for his distinctive style of dialogue and his use of theatrical minimalism. Minimalism, when used in reference to Mamet's works, doesn't necessarily mean a bare stage and minimal costuming. It's more about the style of Mamet's writing and how he intends the actors to approach the material. The script of Glengarry Glen Ross, like nearly all of Mamet's plays, includes very little description about the setting, the props and scenery, and the characters themselves. There aren't any stage directions to guide actors in their movements or inflections—those choices are left to the discretion of the director and cast members. When Mamet serves as the director—as he has done for several Hollywood films—he encourages his actors to also take a minimalist approach to the interpretation of their characters. This can mean anything from removing the emphasis from a particular word or scaling back a furious rant into a cold but calm monologue. He is interested in "doing more with less," essentially reining in outward drama and emotion to reveal the inner turmoil felt by his characters.

Everything the actors and audience need to know about a character can be found in the performer's dialogue. Mamet is famous for what is now called Mamet Speak or Mametian dialogue. Rhythmic, punchy, and constructed just so, the words Mamet writes for his characters are both poetic and realistic. The conversations his characters have on stage sound like something one would overhear in a restaurant or in line at the bank, but with an almost melodic syncopation that separates it from the way one talks to their friends or family. Mamet counts out syllabic beats as he writes, sometimes rewriting during rehearsal to make lines fit into his prescribed meter. Every repeated word, every interruption, and every pause is accounted for, and Mamet makes sure his actors know improvisation will not be tolerated. The meaning of his work is not found just in his words but in the way he puts them together. It is for this reason that several critics and scholars have referred to his style as "street poetry." Mamet Speak is also characterized by fast-paced, expletive-laden dialogue riddled with interruptions and sentences that trail off into nothingness. On their own a particular character's lines might seem meaningless, which in turn makes the character seem one-dimensional. When the character's lines are presented as part of a dialogue, however, the character suddenly comes to life. Mamet's words are far more impactful in the context of back-and-forth conversations between two or more characters. The exchanges give the audience glimpses of the hopes, fears, and struggles of Mamet's often impassioned people. In a Mamet play words, not physical movements, create the action on stage.

Glengarry Glen Ross and Death of a Salesmen

Glengarry Glen Ross is frequently compared to another famous play about a beleaguered salesman: American playwright Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which was first produced in 1949. Both plays were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and both are ostensibly about the unhappiness associated with the pursuit of the American dream, as well as the dangers of capitalism. Yet there are striking differences between the two.

Miller (1915–2005) created Willy Loman as the tragic hero of Death of a Salesman, while no one in David Mamet's play can easily be classified as hero or villain. Mamet's characters just are who they are, and it's up to the audience to decide how they should be perceived. Since Loman is never seen selling anything, Miller is left with the task of telling the audience what it's like to be a salesman. Mamet actually portrays the salesman–customer interaction between Richard Roma and James Lingk (Act 1, Scene 3 and Act 2). Even in these interchanges, Mamet does not hand-deliver meaning to the audience; instead he expects audience members to extract their own understanding from the conversations. That's in part because Mamet doesn't have a solution for the problems raised by the private ownership in capitalism. Unlike Miller, who thought government-run socialism was a better alternative, Mamet has no agenda to push. Instead he dramatizes the struggles of living in a capitalistic society as a means of sparking conversation and thought.

Glengarry at the Movies

The film version of Glengarry Glen Ross was released in 1992. Written by David Mamet, it strongly resembles the original source material, at times word for word. However, Mamet rearranged Act 1, interlacing the act's three scenes to alternate the action between pairs of characters. The most striking difference between the stage and film versions of the play is a new scene written specifically for the screen. In the first few minutes of the movie a new character, Blake (played by Alec Baldwin), arrives at the office to give the salesmen a pep talk that more closely resembles scathing criticism. Blake lays out the rules of the sales contest while verbally emasculating the sales team, particularly Dave Moss.

This change sets the tone for the rest of the movie, presents the problem the salesmen face, and shows the audience exactly how high the stakes are. It also gives the audience a sense of the four salesmen they just met. Moss, at first angry and defiant, becomes cowed when he learns how successful Blake is. Shelly Levene is alternately bewildered and infuriated by Blake's vicious attacks, but George Aaronow doesn't say a single word—he doesn't even look at Blake. The only salesman not in the room is Richard Roma, who, as the top seller in the office, doesn't need the "pep talk," nor would he allow anyone—even someone sent by Mitch and Murray—to talk to him that way. Blake's seven-minute monologue helps the audience become more invested in the fate of each salesman by making them sympathetic characters right off the bat. This is a departure from Mamet's stage style—he generally prefers to show, not tell, the audience what's going on. Movie audiences are far less patient than those in the theater, however, and perhaps less willing to piece together snippets of information to formulate their own impression of the action. Mamet needed a way to capture their attention immediately, and Blake was the answer. This new scene is so effective, in fact, that one of its lines has become synonymous with both the film version and the play, though it is only mentioned in the former. Blake's harsh declaration, "Coffee's for closers," is nowhere to be found in the stage script.

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