Naked greed, macho posturing: Glengarry or Ireland?


CULTURE SHOCK:WHEN THE OFFICE is ransacked to make it look as if there has been a robbery, no one can make a call, because the phones have been stolen.

All the files that have been taken were in a big cabinet. There’s mention of a typewriter having been taken, too. And $82,000, the amount that one of the dodgy real-estate salesmen has suckered clients into paying for useless land, is still a lot of money. So mobile phones haven’t been invented, computers haven’t come into everyday use and the currency hasn’t been inflated.

But, apart from a mention of a specific year – 1981 – in a context that suggests it was not too long ago, these incidentals are the only things that place David Mamet’s masterpiece Glengarry Glen Ross in the early 1980s.

Otherwise everything about it, the whole world it evokes so vividly, seems exactly contemporary. If anything, the play feels even more immediate than it did in 1983, when I saw Bill Bryden’s original production at the National Theatre in London. As such, it exemplifies the difference between good and bad political drama.

Some of the immediacy is, admittedly, a matter of circumstance. In 1983, when I saw it in London, it was mesmerising but exotic. It reeked of the unseen America – not the heroic America of westerns and cop shows but the hard, driven, merciless and banal life that inhabits harshly lit offices in strip malls on the edge of highways. Its characters (even though they were played by English actors) spoke a decidedly foreign, often incomprehensible language: “Give ’em some stiff. We have a deal or not? Eh? Two sits. The Des Plaines. Both of ’em, six and 10, you can do it . . . six and 10 . . . eight and 11, I don’t give a shit, you set ’em up? All right?”

Since then, of course, this exotic world has become our world too. It is not just the obvious connection to our recent dreamtime: Glengarry deals with conmen selling dodgy real estate that will never be worth what the suckers pay for it. The attitudes, the naked greed, the brash egocentricity, the fragile sense of entitlement, the desperate insecurity behind the macho posturing: all of this became familiar in boomtime Ireland.

In 1983 it would have been impossible to imagine a really good Irish production of the play. Irish actors would have been too rich and lyrical, too desperate to find ways to soften the characters’ hardness. In Doug Hughes’s splendid production at the Gate, in Dublin, almost all the Irish actors slip comfortably into Mamet’s unadorned harshness. They know these people because they now live among us.

Mamet’s language is more familiar, too, not just on the street but in the theatre. Mamet is a big figure for many contemporary Irish male dramatists, from Martin McDonagh to Mark O’Rowe. The rough demotic poetry of banal speech, the broken, elliptical dialogue, the crackle of barely suppressed violence: all have been incorporated into Irish theatrical writing. (It is interesting that the influence of Samuel Beckett filtered through to much of contemporary Irish drama, not directly, or even via the Englishness of Harold Pinter, but by way of his foremost American disciple. Interesting, too, that some Irish playwrights could still learn a lot from Mamet about how to write monologues while retaining dramatic conflict: Mamet is a genius at disguising monologues as dialogue.) It helps, too, that the political context for Glengarry is one that has remained all too familiar ever since. Mamet is vivisecting Ronald Reagan’s US, with its celebration of capitalism red in tooth and claw. The real-estate office of the play is a Hobbesian world, a war of all against all.

It is also a perfect microcosm of what was then a still-emerging culture of self-fulfilling “targets” and “rewards”: the best-performing salesmen get the best “leads” on potential clients, so they perform even better.

That culture didn’t end in the 1980s. On the contrary, it moved from dingy strip-mall offices on the edge of town to bank boardrooms and dealing floors. If the play had been written 20 years later, its most flamboyant character, Richard Roma, would be selling financial derivatives instead of plots of land. But the moral universe would be the same.

In both political and linguistic terms, then, Glengarry has come a lot closer to us than it was when it was written. Apart from these accidents, however, it is the play’s intrinsic strengths that give it this uncanny capacity for urgent immediacy. Glengarry retains its political power, paradoxically, because its politics disappear. They are entirely absorbed into character, language and action. The play is full of rage and disgust and despair. It is outwardly rough, visceral and abrasive. But inwardly it is calm and cool. Behind the spectacular profanity and seething fury is an aesthetic chasteness. Apart from everything else, Glengarry is a masterclass in concentration, economy and restraint. Nothing is overstated or superfluous.

And for this we have Beckett’s influence to thank. One of the great pleasures of the Gate production is to watch the quintessential Beckett actor, Barry McGovern, give such a masterfully wry comic performance.

McGovern’s character has very little dialogue: most of the time he has to listen to other people’s rants. But he knows from Beckett exactly how to inhabit this character’s sly, alert, enigmatic silences. The natural fit reminds us how much Mamet took from Beckett’s aesthetic.

And this reminds us in turn why Glengarry Glen Ross, especially in this eloquent and perfectly paced production, is a useful model for anyone trying to write a play about the state of our own slab of real estate right now. There’s nothing evasive or excessively metaphorical about it. It presents as ugly a picture of a society’s values as any biblical Jeremiah could hope for. But its surface heat belies the coldness of the shaping imagination without which no play will last beyond the circumstances of its creation. It suggests that if you want to create work that continues to burn long after its immediate fuel has been consumed, you have to be cool.

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