Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

A synopsis, history, reviews and criticism of the play by David Mamet


PLOT SYNOPSIS

David Mamet's 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross, follows the lives of four unethical Chicago real estate agents who are prepared to go to any lengths (legal or illegal) to unload undesirable real estate on unwilling prospective buyers. The play is partly based on Mamet's experiences working in a Chicago real estate office during the late 1960s.

As the play opens, it becomes clear that one of the agents, Shelly Levene, is in a major slump and hasn't closed a sale in quite some time. Desperate for money, and fully aware that his job is on the line if he doesn't turn things around soon, Levene tries to convince the office manager, John Williamson, to give him some of the good leads, the "Glengarry leads", names of promising prospective buyers rather than the dregs he has been forced to work with. Williamson adamantly refuses until Levene stoops to bribery. Williamson agrees to sell Levene some of the prime leads, but wants cash in advance--something Levene doesn't have.

Meanwhile, two other agents, Dave Moss and George Aaronow, are complaining about the pressure management is putting on them to close sales. Moss suggests that they should strike back by stealing all the Glengarry leads and selling them to a rival real estate agency. Aaronow wants no part of this plan, but Moss convinces him that he is already an accomplice, simply because he listened to the idea.

A fourth agent, Ricky Roma, is having a bit more success than his co-workers. He masterfully plays on the insecurities of a middle-aged man named James Lingk, persuading him that if he doesn't do something adventurous with his life, he will regret it on his deathbed. Inspired by Roma's confidence and virility, Lingk is ready to do just about anything by the time the salesman produces his real estate brochures.

As the second act opens, we learn that someone has broken into the office and stolen just about everything, including the Glengarry leads. Williamson calls in a police detective who interrogates everyone. In the midst of this scene, Levene bursts into the office, deliriously happy because he has finally closed a sale on a large plot of land to a couple named Nyborg. In his delirium, he hardly notices that the office is in shambles. A very nervous James Lingk soon appears too, looking for Ricky Roma. His wife, apparently, has scolded him and demanded that he cancel the sales contract he signed earlier. Under Illinois law, he can cancel the contract anytime within 72 hours, but Roma tries to stall him. Finally, realizing he has been had, Lingk leaves to seek help from the state Attorney General's office.

Meanwhile, Williamson, based largely on their earlier conversation, decides that Levene, desperate to make a sale, must be the one who broke into the office and stole the leads. Confronted, Levene admits pathetically that he and Moss are the thieves. He again offers to bribe Williamson, to give him the money from the Nyborg sale. Williamson scoffs at this and informs Levene that the Nyborgs are just a crazy old couple who have no money and just enjoy talking to salesmen. He has been feeding Levene worthless leads like the Nyborgs for months simply because he doesn't like him.

As Roma emerges from his turn in the interrogation room, Williamson exits to tell the detectives he has discovered the thieves. Roma, oblivious to this development but realizing that things are collapsing here, proposes to Levene that they should start their own partnership. Levene smiles sadly at this, fully aware that the detectives are about to arrest him.

PRODUCTION HISTORY

Glengarry Glen Ross premiered on September 21, 1983 at the Cottlesloe Theatre of the Royal National Theatre in London. The production was directed by Bill Bryden and featured the following cast:

  • SHELLY LEVENE: Derek Newark
  • JOHN WILLIAMSON: Karl Johnson
  • DAVE MOSS: Trevor Ray
  • GEORGE AARONOW: James Grant
  • RICHARD ROMA: Jack Shepherd
  • JAMES LINGK: Tony Haygarth
  • BAYLEN: John Tams

Glengarry Glen Ross had its U.S. premiere on February 6, 1984, at the Goodman Theatre of the Arts Institute of Chicago. The production was directed by Gregory Mosher and featured the following cast.

  • SHELLY LEVENE: Robert Prosky
  • JOHN WILLIAMSON: J. T. Walsh
  • DAVE MOSS: James Tolkan
  • GEORGE AARONOW: Mike Nussbaum
  • RICHARD ROMA: Joe Mantegna
  • JAMES LINGK: William L. Petersen
  • BAYLEN: Jack Wallace

On March 25, 1984, this production moved to the John Golden Theatre on Broadway. Lane Smith replaced William L. Peterson as James Lingk in the Broadway production. The play enjoyed a run of 378 productions and received numerous Tony Award nominations, including those for the director (Mosher) and actors (Prosky and Mantegna), with Mantegna winning in the Best Featured Actor category.

The award-winning 1992 film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by James Foley, featured the following cast:

  • SHELLY LEVENE: Jack Lemmon
  • JOHN WILLIAMSON: Kevin Spacey
  • DAVE MOSS: Ed Harris
  • GEORGE AARONOW: Alan Arkin
  • RICHARD ROMA: Al Pacino
  • JAMES LINGK: Jonathan Pryce
  • BLAKE: Alec Baldwin

On May 1, 2005, a Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, under the direction of Joe Mantello. The production won 2005 Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play and Best Featured Actor (Liev Schreiber). The opening night cast was as follows:

  • RICHARD ROMA: Liev Schreiber
  • SHELLY LEVENE: Alan Alda
  • JOHN WILLIAMSON: Frederick Weller
  • DAVE MOSS: Gordon Clapp
  • GEORGE AARONOW: Jeffrey Tambor
  • JAMES LINGK: Tom Wopat
  • BAYLEN: Jordan Lage

REVIEWS AND CRITICISM

Mr. Mamet's talent for burying layers of meaning into simple, precisely distilled, idiomatic language--a talent that can only be compared to Harold Pinter's--is not the sum of Glengarry Glen Ross. This may well be the most accomplished play its author has yet given us. As Mr. Mamet's command of dialogue has now reached its most dazzling pitch, so has his matery of theatrical form. Beneath the raucous, seemingly inane surface of Glengarry, one finds not only feelings but a detective story with a surprise ending.

FRANK RICH, The New York Times Book of Broadway

There is a glib, breathtaking momentum in the speech rhythms that Mamet has devised for this pathetic flotsam of the capitalist system. As they talk of the deals and leads and contracts, their conversation is charged with resentment, anger and frustration of failurs.

MILTON SHULMAN, London Standard, Sep. 22, 1983

Mamet ... creates a compelling, complex work structured on language, but Glengarry Glen Ross remains a creation, part scatological poetry, part intellectual exercise with a well-defined sociopolitical objective. Mamet's language in Glengarry Glen Ross has an air of authenticity but, curiously, also a feel of language existing for the sake of its sound as much as for its meaning.

DAVID KENNEDY SAUER, "The Marxist Child's Play of Mamet's Tough Guys..."

Glengarry Glen Ross is filled with the spiralling obscenity and comic bluster of real-estate salesmen caught off-guard; yet underneath that there is fear and desperation. Mamet says that he admires his characters' pragmatic individualism, but to me the piece comes across as a chillingly funny indictment of a world in which you are what you sell.

MICHAEL BILLINGTON, London Guardian, Sep. 22, 1983

Glengarry Glen Ross, which was hailed at its premiere in London as the best play of the season before it was embraced by the Broadway critics, is neither a valid social drama nor an intelligent satirical comedy--if only because its characters are exaggerated stereotypes. Admittedly, such caricature can be commercially rewarding.

LEO SAUVAGE, New Leader, Apr. 16, 1984

The trouble is that the author enjoys his characters too much, that he revels in their brazen, agile crookedness. This strikes me as reprehensible, immoral. It would be all right in a totally cynical work such as Volpone, where the victims are merely inept versions of the villains; but the dupe in Glengarry is a pathetic nonentity, which makes the others monsters.

JOHN SIMON, New York Magazine, Apr. 9, 1984

The premise upon which Glengarry Glen Ross is based is, in a way, a paradigm of capitalism. The company's bosses have organized a sales competition in which the salesman with the highest "grosses"--financial profit--wins a Cadillac and is automatically guaranteed the best "leads" ... the runners-up win a set of steak knives, and the losers are sacked. That the successful salesman is given the best leads while the runners-up are forced to accept inferior leads from the "B" list or are even dismissed, underlines the unfairness of a system that penalizes those who are weak and needy but rewards those who least need such support.

ANNE DEAN, David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action

Glengarry Glen Ross has been said to evoke Death of a Salesman in its exploration of the failure of the success myth. Interestingly enough, the main concern of Willy Loman was to be "well-liked" or accepted in masculine society ... but in Glengarry, the well-liked motif is rejected for a ruthlessness that Ricki Roma, the top salesman, epitomizes. Roma gains other characters' confidence or liking only so that he can use them for business ends.... His only desire is to be top salesman, because it is the position that gives him power and identity, rather than the admiration of others that Willy Loman desired.

CARLA J. MACDONOUGH, Staging Masculinity

Glengarry Glen Ross offers a portrait of a battle for survival, a Darwinian struggle in which the salesmen offer a dream of possibility.

ALAIN PIETTE, "The 1980s," The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet

The homosocial world of American business so wickedly critiqued in American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross becomes Mamet's theatrical "Phallus in Wonderland": a topsy-turvy world in which all values are inverted by characters who think with their crotch.

HERSH ZEIFMAN, "Phallus in Wonderland"

Mamet ... may espouse no political creed, demand no particular change. His observation may seem dispassionate. But he does not quite accept that the world of _Glengarry Glen Ross_ is fixed and unalterable. He sees the loss. He laments the waste. He knows things could and should be otherwise.

BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE, The Cambridge Companion to David Mamet

Glengarry Glen Ross, carving characters and conflicts out of language, is a play with real muscle: here, after all the pieces we have half-heartedly approved because the mentioned "important" issues as if mentioning were the same as dealing with. Glengarry Glen Ross mentions nothing, but in its depiction of a driven, conscienceless world it implies a great deal.

ROBERT CUSHMAN, London Observer, Sep. 25, 1983

To me the play is about a society with only one bottom line: How much money you make.

DAVID MAMET, Modern Dramatists

Back to David Mamet