"Real Classical money": naturalism and Mamet's American Buffalo.
In The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism, Walter Benn Michaels traces the naturalist aesthetic of the novels of Frank Norris to an anxiety over issues of material reality and representation--an anxiety that pervaded the gold-standard debates of the late nineteenth century. Focusing not on the political differences between the "goldbugs" and silver advocates but on their shared fear of an "insubstantial" paper money, Michaels identifies a cultural logic based on the repression of money as free-floating signifier, which expresses itself in various (and always unsuccessful) strategies of escape from the money economy. An aesthetic expression of both the desire for and the impossibility of this escape, naturalism obsesses over the ontological and epistemological questions raised by money, becoming, in Michaels's analysis, "the working out of a set of conflicts between pretty things and curious ones, material and representation, hard money and soft, beast and soul" (173).
The conflicts Michaels traces to anxieties over the production of less materially substantial money have hardly disappeared in the last 100 years, which have seen an acceleration of the process that Georg Simmel, in 1900, already identified as the increasing "spiritualization" of money (198). In the 30 years since Nixon officially ended America's gold fetish, an anxiety over the phenomenological implications of money has informed the public discussion of the runaway inflation of the 1970s, the ballooning of the national debt and the junk-bond crisis that marked the 1980s, and even the Enron-type accounting scandals of the present era--an era that has seen even "insubstantial" paper money replaced by still less substantial electronic forms.
Throughout this period, no writer has more thoroughly investigated these anxieties than David Mamet, whose work for the stage and screen relentlessly revisits the theme of economic life and its relation to moral, ontological, and epistemological issues. In American Buffalo, his earliest full-scale investigation of these themes on the stage and what is usually regarded as his first mature play, Mamet thematizes the anxieties that will inform all his future work. In this play about the planning of a never-to-be-committed robbery by junk shop owner Don Dubrow, his "friend and associate" Walter "Teach" Cole, and his young "gopher" Bob, Mamet dramatizes the attempted escape from the money economy that Michaels locates as the obsession of naturalism--the doomed attempt to "stage the disappearance of money" (Michaels 144). A careful reading of American Buffalo finds what will become the familiar Mamettian conflicts between talk and action, seeming and being, as rooted in the playwright's own complex and often paradoxical relationship with a dramatic and literary naturalism informed by the anxieties of economic life.
Mamet reveals the philosophical dilemmas raised by money as the primary concern of American Buffalo early in the first act, when his protagonist Don gives lessons on business to Bob, lessons that nicely foreground issues central to the "logic of naturalism. "The first of these issues involves what is for many critics the defining theme of literary naturalism: the conflict between one's sense of free will and one's sense of behavior as determined. In discussing Fletcher--the winner of a card game that precedes the action of the play and one of Mamet's many Godot-like characters representing powerful off-stage forces--Don evokes the paradox of human freedom through his own use of the terms skill, talent, and experience. First Don ascribes Fletcher's success at cards to "[s]kill and talent and the balls to arrive at your own conclusions" (4), (1) which implies some mixture of learned experience, innate ability, and independent thinking. Then Don asks Bob rhetorically, "was he born that way or do you think he had to learn it?" Bob dutifully responds "Learn it." Don rewards him with "Goddamn right he did" and further entrenches himself on the side of experience by claiming that "[e]verything that I or Fletcher know we picked up on the street" (6). But just when it appears that Don is firmly on the side of free will and the ability to learn from experience, he muddles the issue again with the first of this play's several definitions of business: "That's all business is ... common sense, experience, and talent." Here the two poles of what is learned (experience) and what is innate (talent) are combined with common sense--that dubious mantra of business rhetoric that somehow denotes something both innate and learned.
On one level, of course, Mamet is commenting on the irrational invocation of both unfettered free will and hard determinism that has always informed the rhetoric of business, and specifically of sales--a theme the playwright would flesh out in his next "business" play, Glengarry Glen Ross. In that play, real estate salesmen invoke "skill" to explain their occasional victories but blame their usual failures on a menu of determining factors: bad leads, a poor economy, bad luck. In the 1992 film based on the play, the philosophical paradox--and naturalist obsession--behind the salesmen's gripes is foregrounded through a message on a chalkboard hanging in the real estate office proclaiming "Salesmen are born not made." The presence of this message turns the salesmen's petty griping into existential horror reminiscent of Willy Loman's search for internal "greatness" in the face of his own and his son Biff's failure in the marketplace. Like Miller's play, Mamet's work takes the salesman as the embodiment of that naturalist preoccupation with the conflict between "beast and soul" that has been an obsession of modern drama at least since Ibsen. In American Buffalo this obsession informs Don's discussion of luck, skill, and talent.
Closely related to this theme, and also an obsession of both the boardroom and the stage, is the naturalist conflict Michaels identifies between "material and representation." This pervades American Buffalo--and Mamet's entire opus--in the form of a preoccupation with the distinction, or the lack of one, between talk and action. This distinction is much commented on by critics of Mamet. (2) Thomas King notes that another of Don's business lessons for Bob, that "[a]ction talks and bullshit walks" (4), is another way of saying that action talks and talk acts--that action is talk and talk is action. This seeming paradox is a central truth in the work of both the playwright and the salesman: for both, action takes the form of words. "Conflict may be the heart of dramatic action," notes King, "but the heart of conflict is talk" (539). That Don is both aware of and troubled by this paradox is clear in the way he tries repeatedly to control the talk of other characters in the play. When Teach, in an attempt to replace Bob as Don's accomplice in the planned robbery, subtly refers to Bob's heroin addiction, Don interjects, "I don't want you mentioning that," and a few lines later, "I don't want that talk" (34). In the second act there are two more instances of Don's trying to limit the talk of Teach. When Teach, now trying to eliminate Fletcher from the robbery, tells Don he's "full of shit," Don responds "Don't tell me that" and "I don't want that talk" (74). Again, when Teach tells Don near the end of the play that Fletcher cheats at cards, Don responds, "You're telling me this?... I don't want to hear it" (80). Don rightly fears the talk of Teach. These instances of Don's trying to limit what other characters say demonstrate Don's understanding of talk as action, as that which creates reality rather than merely representing or referring to a reality outside that talk.
If Don's fear of certain kinds of talk can be explained by his being, after all, a salesman and a businessman--one who understands talk as action--more difficult to explain is Don's relation to that which constitutes the very essence of his profession: buying and selling. Nowhere in the play do we see this salesman sell anything. In fact, the one item we are told of his selling--the buffalo nickel whose sale precedes the action of the play--Don spends the entire play trying to get back. The motive for this planned robbery is not pecuniary, as C.W.E. Bigsby has pointed out (72). A perceived loss of honor, rather than any desire for money, is what motivates Don. In fact, when Teach brings up the issue of the value of the different coins the two imagine to be in their would-be victim's possession, Don is not interested, and insists "First off, I want that nickel back": though "it's only a fuck in' nickel," he wants it back and does not seem to care what the man's other coins may be worth (45).
Unsurprisingly, Don's seemingly strange aversion to buying and selling are reflected in his language. In the first act, Don's refusal to use the words buy or sell in situations that seem to call for them is difficult to ignore. He sends Bob to "get" (not buy) some coffee and yogurt (12). When Bob answers Don's suggestion that he take vitamins with the hard economic fact that he "can't afford" vitamins, which are "expensive," Don says oddly, "Don't worry about it. You should just take em" (9), as if money were no object. When Bob asks, "You'll buy some for me?" Don replies, "I'll get you some." Similarly, when Don later pays Bob for spotting the coin collector, he speaks of it not as a payment but as a gift: "I'm giving you twenty-five" (43). Even in his telling of the transaction between himself and the coin buyer, Don seems unwilling or unable to speak of buying or selling. The buyer "takes" the nickel, he "takes me off my coin" (31). When Don does once use a form of the verb buy, he does so in a paradoxical way: the man, he says, "bought the buffalo off me" (31). His use of off rather than the more conventional from implies a number of things: a personal relationship between Don and his merchandise (though Don admits he did not even know the nickel was in his case before the buyer discovered it), a view of the purchase as a kind of theft, and even a view of the purchase as the lifting of a burden from Don. Don, apparently, can only bring himself to speak of exchange as gift or theft, not as purchase. (3)
Is there a relation between Don's sensitivity to talk and his repression of money (or at least of buying and selling)? A clue may lie in a strange thing Don says about rare coins. When Bob, who in the second act is trying to sell a different buffalo nickel to Don, suggests that some discontinued coins are worth a lot of money, Don answers that such coins are "[f]reak oddities of nature" (61). The odd implication of this statement, of course, is that money is somehow natural. The idea--the fantasy--of natural money is perhaps the most important feature of the logic of naturalism. In his analysis of the arguments put forth by the goldbugs and the silver men during the gold-standard controversy, Michaels notes that for all their political differences, the two camps shared a tendency to see precious metals as "nature embodied" (147). In their rejection of greenbacks, both the gold and the silver men rejected what they saw as an unnatural and therefore inadequate currency in favor of one with intrinsic value. Unlike paper money, which stood for a value located elsewhere, the "natural" money of the precious metal was seen as containing in itself the value it signified--the metal, unlike paper money, is what it represents. Of course, Michaels points out, such "natural" money is in fact no money at all, for in a "natural" economy where the units of money were also the value they referred to, all money exchanges would also be barter exchanges. "The assertion that money exists in nature," Michaels notes, "is thus identical to the assertion that money doesn't exist at all" (148). Both the goldbugs and the silver men, therefore, were engaged in "a failed attempt to withdraw from the money economy, failed because in a money economy, the power of money to buy can never be denied" (140). The existence of a money economy, like the existence of language, requires an acceptance of signification--an agreement that one thing may stand for another. The repression of money, the attempt to escape the money economy, is the expression of an anxiety concerning the capacity of signifiers to mislead. By implying that money is natural, Don expresses a wish that money and the epistemological and ontological uncertainty it carries did not exist--that, despite the advice he gives Bob to the contrary, things would be what they seem.
Or is Don's wish that, as Teach says to Bob in the first act, "[t]hings are what they are" (39)? Teach makes this enigmatic comment during an attempt to convince Don that he, Teach, not Bob, is the right man to pull off the robbery. This con involves a strange demonstration of Bob's supposed ignorance, which begins with Teach's asking Bob a deceptively innocent question about the weather: does Bob think it will rain? When Bob's answer, understandably, expresses some uncertainty, Teach implies that this somehow shows Bob's ignorance (38). This is because the weather forecast, like so many things for Teach, is self-evident. When Don asks Teach earlier in the first act if he thinks it will rain, Teach responds absurdly, "Yeah. I do. Later" (20). When Don questions Teach's certainty on this point Teach replies, "Well, look at it" (20). The weather, for Teach, is self-evident; if Bob does not know if it will rain he simply is not seeing what is right in front of his nose.
The next part of Teach's con to discredit Bob takes the form of a question about an object in Don's shop, which Don has just explained to Teach is a device used for draining the blood from a dead pig. When Bob obviously does not know what the device is (despite his protests that he does know what it is--he is beginning to catch on to Teach's game), Teach imparts the wisdom that things are what they are. At first glance this seems like a refutation of the advice Don gives Bob earlier in the first act: "Things are not always what they seem" (8). But Teach is not saying that things are what they seem; he is saying they are what they are. In this formulation, seeming itself is denied, in keeping with what unfolds in the course of the play as Teach's total denial of signification. For Teach, as we will see, there is the real and there is language or talk, and the two rarely if ever have anything to do with one another.
Repeatedly in Mamet's work, the most deceptive character is the one who espouses just this view of perception as uncomplicated and knowledge as totally transparent. In the 1987 film House of Games, the con man Mike (Joe Mantegna) tantalizes the psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) with the notion of the "tell," a physical tic that supposedly reveals when a card player is bluffing (15). Similarly, in the 1994 play The Cryptogram, Del, who has deceived the other two characters, declares early in the first act that "a human being [...] cannot conceal himself." When the child John asks for more explanation, Del begins, in true Teach fashion, "Well, hell, look at it" (5). Likewise in the screenplay for The Spanish Prisoner (1997), Julian "Jimmy" Dell (Steve Martin) espouses a similar faith in the self-evident nature of observable reality: "People aren't that complicated, Joe. Good people, bad people ... they generally look like what they are" (46). Of course, Del, Mike, and Julian Dell all turn out to be dangerous and amoral masters of deception. Like these other works, American Buffalo invites us to criticize Teach's position that things are what they are as a kind of confidence game perpetrated, in this case, on Don, a character deeply suspicious of appearances and desperate for solid foundations.
Teach's statement that things are what they are also marks an important distinction between himself and Don. Whereas Don is troubled by the ambiguities involved in signification--whether that signification is in the form of talk or money--Teach seems to view all signs as completely divorced from reality. When Don, in the first act, tries to reassure Teach by telling him it is "all right" that Bob told Ruth about Teach's anger toward her despite Teach's asking him not to, Teach responds, "Everything's all right to someone" (21). Just a few lines later, Teach, who seems to exist on a diet of bacon and coffee, tries to convince Don that yogurt (Don's favorite food) is bad for one's health. When Don disagrees, Teach again falls back on his own theory of relativity: "Each one his own opinion"--as if the health value of a particular food were wholly a matter of opinion, impossible to be decided on any kind of factual basis (21).
Teach thus seems to espouse the following two positions: first, that we have easy access to an essential, self-evident reality (just look at it); and second, that language is a system of endless signification with no meaningful relation to any reality. This makes him the perfect antagonist for Don. Teach's language games and endless subterfuges play on Don's worst fear: the lack of an essential, "hard" reality, a lack he associates with both money and language. At the same time, Teach's insistence on a self-evident, extralingual, essential reality tantalizes Don. In the manner of Mamet's other con men, Teach both seduces and confuses Don with the message that all is what it is, transparently and extralingually knowable, and that nothing is what it seems. When Don disagrees with Teach's assertion that he (Don) treats Bob as more than a business associate, Teach says, "In your mind you don't, but the things, I'm saying, that you actually go do for him. This is fantastic" (34). Don's subjective view of his own relationship with Bobby is one thing, Teach holds, and the reality of that relationship another thing entirely. Near the end of the second act, when Don tells Teach that he does not like Teach's showing up late, Teach responds, "Then don't like it, then. Let's do this. Let's everybody get a writ. I got a case. You got a case" (64). For Teach, apparently, everyone has his or her own, equally valid (or invalid) interpretation of the facts. Even the time, he claims, is uncertain: "And so who knows precisely what time it is offhand? Jerks on the radio? The phone broad?" (64).
In the absence of a "hard" truth, Teach attempts to coerce Don and Bob into making decisions that benefit Teach, and he does this through language. Both Don and Teach recognize the inherent ambiguity of language, but whereas Don fears this ambiguity as an obstacle to the truth, Teach welcomes it as a means to attain power. Ultimately it does not seem to matter to Teach that language is divorced from the real, for Teach's goal is not to know but to manipulate. If Don is sensitive to what language can do, the speech acts that concern him are those that could poison his paternal relationship to Bob or smear the reputation of Fletcher, for whom he has great respect (Teach's talk threatens both, and Don attempts to prevent both by limiting that talk). Teach, conversely, is concerned only about speech acts that either extend or limit his power. In this and other respects, Teach resembles Ben in Miller's Death of a Salesman. Ben professes a fondness for "hard" reality, for things you can "lay your hand on" (360); Teach relentlessly appeals to "facts," to "the way things are" (85). Just as Ben is impatient with Willy's penchant for talk, Teach tells Don, "I can sit here and tell you this, I can tell you that, I can tell you any fucking thing you care to mention, but what is the point?" (79). Both Ben and Teach, moreover, represent a kind of amorality. Ben famously advises Biff to "never fight fair with a stranger" (49), and according to Teach, "you make your own right and wrong" (52).
While Teach convinces (for a time) the other characters of the play that they are essentially trapped inside their own consciousness, he claims for himself a kind of magical ability to gain direct access to objective reality. Twice in the play Teach alarms Don and Bob by claiming to see a police car going slowly by the store. The other characters simply take his word for the car's existence, and he lets them know when the car has passed (29, 85). This nicely symbolizes the implicit message of Teach's con game: all you can know is your own subjective reality; I, on the other hand, deal in facts. Trust me, and I'll let you know what's really going on out there. "A fact," Teach tells Don, "stands by itself. And we must face the facts and act on them" (75). A few lines later, Teach announces, "I am a businessman, I am here to do business, I am here to face facts" (83). But only Teach, apparently, has access to these facts: "You live in a world of your own, Don" (80). When Teach shows up in the last act with a gun, and Don says "I don't like it," Teach responds, "Don't look at it," as if things we don't like don't exist if we don't see them. But then Teach says he needs the gun because of "[t]he light of things as they are," and again "[b]ecause of the way things are" (85). This argument is interrupted by the second of Teach's supposed sightings of a police car outside the store. We are all trapped inside a system of endless signification in which meaning is always deferred, implies Teach; oh, and by the way, I know what's really going on out there.
By thus divorcing material from representation, Teach embodies the anxiety associated with money that is a major component of the logic of naturalism. In The Philosophy of Money, Simmel noted that money undergoes a process of "spiritualization" over time, as ever less substantial materials function as money: gold, then coins, then paper money, and so on. The move from precious metals to greenbacks prompted an anxiety in the goldbugs and silver men about the conflict between material and representation, an anxiety that informs the discourse of naturalism. Marc Shell notes that in the evolution from "the electrum money of ancient Lydia" to "the electric money of contemporary America" (1), the "face value" of money bears an increasingly arbitrary relation to the material it is made of, a fact that throughout history has "precipitated awareness of quandaries about the relationship between face value (intellectual currency) and substantial value (material currency)." Teach thus appears as an avatar of this awareness of the arbitrary relationship between material and representation.
As we have seen, Don would escape the money economy whose paradoxes Teach embodies. In addition to Don's fear of talk, his repression of money, and his attempt to view money as natural, there are two more factors worth considering in this regard: the planning of the robbery and that titular nickel.
The planned robbery might at first seem to take the money economy as a given. The play opens with Don's advice to Bob concerning the ethics of business, the gist of which is to keep things impersonal. While Don tells Bob that "there's business and there's friendship," essentially his advice is to treat all relationships like business relationships. Don demonstrates this attitude in his manner toward Bob. When the latter offers an apology for failing to keep track of the coin buyer's movements, Don replies, "Don't tell me you're sorry. I'm not mad at you" (4). Again, when Bob thanks Don for offering to get him some vitamins, Don's response reflects a cold focus on utility rather than anything like friendship: "Don't thank me ... I just can't use you in here like a zombie" (9). When Bob then offers yet another explanation for his failure, Don responds, "I don't care. Do you see? Do you see what I'm getting at?" What Don is "getting at" seems to be that in business, all relationships should be governed by a coolly detached self-interest. We might see this as the corrupting of personal relationships by the "business values" to which Teach claims allegiance. But then consider that the planning of the robbery, which might seem prompted by these "values," at the same time manifests Don's rejection of the alienated, impersonal world of the money economy. Teach tries to remind Don that the man's buying the nickel was "just business," but Don takes it personally. Simmel recognized that the cool detachment that Don seems unable to attain was necessary for an economic life where individuals must be able to calmly bid on what they desire instead of simply taking it. Robbery, conversely, is characterized by "pure subjectivity in the change of ownership," as is the giving of gifts (98). This helps explain why, in what Simmel calls primitive societies, robbery has sometimes been considered more honorable than exchange, since it involves a personal involvement and a good deal of risk on the part of the robber. In this sense, Don's desire to get his nickel back through robbery, clearly motivated by a sense of injured honor rather than a desire for money, constitutes a rejection of the alienating world of economic exchange. The planned robbery itself, then, represents yet another attempt at escaping the money economy.
Finally, Don's failed attempt to stage the disappearance of money is represented by the titular nickel whose sale incites the talk/action of American Buffalo. As a unit of currency that transforms into a work of art--Don refers to it as "real Classical money" (36)--the buffalo nickel is a powerful symbol of both the desire for and the impossibility of escape from the money economy. Once valued, like all circulating currency, not for what it materially is but for the value it represents, the now-discontinued buffalo nickel becomes a collector's item and so reenters the realm of material things: whereas one normal, circulating nickel is as good as another, each buffalo nickel is one of a kind, its value varying widely according to its date, condition, and other factors. But while in this sense the nickel seems to escape the money economy, it also reenters that economy as a commodity whose value can be fixed to a certain degree and listed in the blue book Don shows to Teach in the second act. This failure to escape the money economy is not particular to rare coins, of course. Any antique object or work of art that becomes desired not for what it either does or represents but for what it materially is embodies this same fantasy of escape, with the same predictable results: the object is lifted high above the base marketplace and priced accordingly. Today, the popular TV program Antiques Road Show reenacts this process ten times an hour for viewers who, perhaps, gain a comforting sense of control by witnessing a reenactment of the origins of the money economy--a kind of Freudian fort-da game in which commodities seem to escape, then reenter, the money economy repeatedly. (4)
Don's attempt to deny the money economy helps explain his refusal to recognize the actual price of either the buffalo nickel he sold or the one Bob brings him at the end of act 2. Once he sells the first nickel for $90, Don speculates that it must be worth more than that, though he admits he does not know for sure. But although Don has a blue book of coin prices, he does not seem willing to consult it. When Teach suggests they consult the book to learn the prices of other coins their mark may have in his possession, Don claims that "All the values aren't current" (47), and the book only "gives you a general idea" (48). His anxiety about fixing the price of the first buffalo nickel, even within a "general idea," is evident again in his negotiations with Bob over a second buffalo nickel in act 2. When Bob suggests that they can refer to the book to ascertain the price of the coin, Don demurs: "Well, no. What I'm saying, the book is like an indicator" (61).
This comment occurs when Bob returns ostensibly to offer Don a second buffalo nickel that he says he "found" (59). Left deeply suspicious by the verbal manipulations of Teach in the first act, Don tries to get at the real reason Bob has returned to the shop. He does not see that the coin is only a pretext for what Bob is really after: the reestablishment of the bond of affection between himself and Don, which, as he perceives, has been broken by the manipulative Teach. It is "talk" of the sort Teach despises that Bob is after--"talk" in the sense of conversation whose real subject is the establishment of warm relations between the speakers, not the ostensible subject of the negotiation encoded in that speech. Now deeply distrustful, Don cannot see this. He ascribes a manipulative motive to everything Bob says. When Bob mentions that he saw Grace and Ruthie (the offstage female characters with whom Teach is feuding throughout the play) at the diner, Don goes on the attack: "What the fuck does that mean?" (60). Bobby responds, "I didn't mean anything." Then Don and Bob enter into a rather strange sort of negotiation. Don repeatedly asks to see the nickel, but Bob seems not to want to show it to him, offering instead to tell him about it: "I can tell you what it is," Bob says twice (60, 61). When Don suggests they look up the value of the coin in the blue book (which he previously seemed unwilling to do), Bob insists "the book don't mean shit" (62). Then Don finally seems to understand something: "Look, we're human beings. We can talk, we can negotiate, we can this ... you need money? What do you need?" This marks a shift away from a concern for discovering whether Bob is telling the truth toward a concern for what Bob needs. Teach then arrives to offer a kind of "last temptation" to Don, but this attempt at verbal manipulation is ultimately a desperate failure. Predictably, Teach works to exacerbate Don's deep-seated fear of ambiguity, and once again the symbol of that ambiguity is money: the second buffalo nickel brought by Bob. But this nickel is also the emblem of Bob's love and respect for Don: Bob, bleeding from the ear as a result of Teach's savagely hitting him with an object from Don's shop near the play's climax, finally admits he bought the nickel for Don with his own money. He acted out of love and respect for Don, motives for which Teach has no room in his worldview: "You people," he tells Don and Bob, "make my flesh crawl" (100).
Unlike Don and Bob, Teach never understands talk as "just talk"--an attempt to be friendly, to establish community. In the first act, Don's seemingly innocent question about how Teach did in the poker game the night before is interpreted by Teach as a kind of attack. Don has to explain "I'm just saying ... for talk" (14). Similarly, when Don tries to engage in friendly chitchat about the weather, Teach takes his questions very seriously (20). Teach can only understand talk as manipulative, useful in getting others to act in a certain way. This is why he is so shocked to learn at the end of the play that all the planning he and Don have done in the course of the day was based on a lie: Bob had claimed that he saw the coin buyer (their intended victim) with a suitcase, apparently leaving on a trip, but finally he reveals that he did not.
Ironically, while it is Don who is so troubled throughout the play by the capacity of words (and money) to conceal, distort, and defer meaning, Teach is the one who explodes when Bob's lie is revealed: "There Is No Law. There Is No Right And Wrong. The World Is Lies. Every Fucking Thing [...] Every God-forsaken Thing [...] We all live like cavemen" (103). One supposes that it is not the lie per se that so shakes Teach but what he sees as its unselfishness: Bob had nothing to gain from it except the love and respect of Don. And Teach's worldview, we learn earlier in the play, is that civilization is essentially held together by self-interest. In one of the most quoted passages from any of Mamet's plays, Teach defines "free enterprise," that lynchpin of American culture, as "The freedom ... Of the individual ... To embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit ... In order to secure his honest chance to make a profit" (72-73). "Without this," Teach concludes, "we're just savage shitheads in the wilderness ... sitting around some vicious campfire" (73). The self-interested civilization Teach envisions--the civilization of laissez-faire capitalism (5) and the depersonalized exchange described by Simmel--is threatened, Teach perceives, by the selflessness of Bobby. Moreover, Teach finds himself finally the victim of his own con. The very solipsism in which he tries to entrap Don--the view of the world as an endless language game completely divorced from the real--becomes finally Teach's own prison: "There is nothing out there," Teach proclaims as he tears Don's shop apart, "I fuck myself" (104).
In Don's asking what Bob wants for the second coin, trying to establish an agreed-upon price based on the desires of the two negotiating parties, Thomas King reads the play's last word on the epistemological questions Mamet raises: "Look, we're human beings. We can talk, we can negotiate" (62). Through Don's seeking not the objective value of the coin but a value that would satisfy Bob's needs, King notes, the play "teaches its audience that language is action in that its practical effect is more important than its referent" (545). The splitting of talk into action on the one hand and "just talk," or meaningless chitchat, on the other--a division that occurs throughout Mamet's work--is itself the reenactment of what Michaels identifies as the result of the anxiety over money at the heart of the logic of naturalism. By this logic, money must either be only paper and nothing else, or else it must somehow magically become the thing that it purports to represent. Thus such logic excludes the possibility of a paper money that signifies an agreed-upon value. The work of art, by the same logic, must either be a self-contained formal entity--the modernist flat canvas or the self-referential modern poem or play--or else it becomes the thing it purports to represent, as in the case of the method actor who strives not to imitate but to recreate a reality "from the inside" on the stage, or the naturalistic scene designer who uses not facsimiles but actual furnishings.
As in his work, in his critical statements Mamet seems sometimes circumscribed by, sometimes at war with the logic of naturalism. His conflicted relationship with Stanislavski's theories of acting and the American "method" constitute one example. Sometimes claiming he owes nearly everything to his reading of Stanislavski, Mamet nevertheless says in a 1997 interview that the actor who claims to conjure real emotions on stage is "lying" since "[t]here's nothing anyone can do to control his or her emotions" (qtd. in Kane 205). In the same breath, Mamet denies the importance of "technique" to an actor, claiming he'd rather watch an enthusiastic beginner than a seasoned professional concerned with technique, and exhorts young actors to get on stage early so that they may begin mastering their craft (203-04). It is possible that to some degree, Mamet is taking on the con-man persona that so enthralls his artistic imagination. Nonetheless, his contradictory statements about an actor's natural ability and his need to master his craft, his calling for an "organic" theatre even as he distrusts emotion, resemble Don Dubrow's contradictory statements on skill and talent. Mamet, like Don, seems ensnared in the logic of naturalism.
Mamet's views on the relationship between the written text of the play and its performance are also deeply involved in this logic. Mamet says that "the text reveals itself to the audience through the juxtaposition of the uninflected words, which the author wrote, and the moment-to-moment truthfulness of the actor" (qtd. in Kane 202), and while this seems to suggest that meaning is created through a collaboration between playwright and actor, Mamet also insists "I don't want to hear some actor's good ideas. I and you and everyone [...] has the capacity to go to a library and understand what the author meant" (202). The fantasy here of the author's meaning unproblematically encased within the text, stable, unchanging, self-evident, is the naturalist fantasy of a world where things are what they seem, where money is the value it represents. It is the repression of the inherent ambiguity of signs. Of course, Mamet wants it both ways. The text's stable meaning is married in performance to the actor's contribution: "the immediacy of the moment,[...] the organic moment-to-moment, back and forth, the Ping-Pong game of the unforeseen" (202). The metaphor is a strange but telling one: a playwright more comfortable with the vagaries to which his work is subject on the stage might have compared it, perhaps, to a game of billiards with its myriad possibilities. The back-and-forth, relatively contained "Ping-Pong game of the unforeseen" is by contrast both a recognition and a denial of these vagaries.
Finally, just as the logic of naturalism compels American Buffalo, it guides Mamet's view of business itself. American Buffalo, like Glengarry Glen Ross, is obviously critical of aspects of American business. But Mamet has also extolled the virtues of business. In his 2002 book-length reflection on his life in Vermont, South of the Northeast Kingdom, Mamet seems drawn to a way of doing business that he associates with the values of both his adopted New England community and the Jewish heritage that has become an increasingly vital component of his identity in recent years. In contrast to the corporate model, the negotiating process of "the souk--indeed, of the antiques store, the auction, the farmers' market--is, finally, a mutual interrogation: a dialectic intended to reveal the truth" (91). In Mamet's version of "doing business," what he calls the "self-respecting self-interest of the bazaar," the very components of economic life that so troubled the goldbugs and silver men--the indeterminacy of the sign, the negotiability of all prices, the unavoidable difference between face value and material value--are accepted, and perhaps even necessary, elements of the search for the truth. (6)
In the hands of this playwright, business becomes a kind of sacrament. While Mamet seems to revel in teasing out the inherent contradictions of both economic life and its aesthetic manifestation in the naturalist theatre, he also seeks ultimately not to criticize but to justify business and economic exchange. Ultimately American Buffalo seeks to justify both the money economy and the language economy by showing both as problematic but necessary systems of signification, and systems not inherently antithetical to the establishment of community between the male characters. Don, like all of us, must learn to accept the inherent ambiguity of the sign, and love and trust others in the face of it.
1. In all quotations from American Buffalo, the italics and capitals are Mamet's.
2. For criticism focusing on the talk/action distinction in Mamet's work, see especially King, Worster, and Dean. Piette makes the point that "most of these critics argued that the three characters in the play engage in sterile logorrhea instead of proceeding with the planned robbery precisely because, for them, talk is action" (92).
3. As a salesman, and more specifically a junk shop owner who seems averse to selling anything in his possession, Don resembles a character from a work synonymous with literary naturalism: Norris's McTeague. In that novel, the junk shop owner Zerkow is described as "a man who accumulates, but never disburses" merchandise, making his shop in effect "the last abiding-place, the almshouse, of such articles as had outlived their usefulness" (qtd. in Michaels 153). Don similarly seems to accumulate but never disburse his junk. As a salesman with an aversion to buying and selling, Don, like Zerkow, emerges as a powerful embodiment of the naturalist repression of money.
4. Freud describes a game he witnessed his grandson play (12-17). The boy would cast a wooden toy away from him, then pull it back by a string that was attached. Freud interpreted the sounds the boy made as fort (gone) and da (here) and hypothesized that he was dealing with his inability to control the presence or absence of his mother by controlling the presence or absence of the toy.
5. For a more thorough exploration of the subject of laissez-faire capitalism in American Buffalo, see Callens.
6. Paraphrasing a former Vermont governor's book Justice in the Mountains, Mamet explains that "Business is business,[...] and parties do business at arm's length, but there is, as part of the mountain ethos, a clear line between sharp practice and fraud. One may embellish and distract, but one may not lie" (South 78). Mamet goes on to associate this "Yankee" business ethic with a Jewish one, as he rescues the otherwise anti-Semitic term "rug merchant," translating what was once "seen as a non-Western (that is, a suspect, an unclean) way of doing business" into one ethically preferable to corporate capitalism, where all the power is on the side of the corporation, virtually none on the side of the buyer. Unlike that of corporate capitalism, this way of doing business happens in "a market unmoored by published and (seemingly) immutable prices" (90). Here, the "Western concept of Scout's Honor"--itself, for Mamet, a lie intended to benefit those with power--is "supplanted by the no-fault understanding that each side will do business in its own best interest--and, therefore, that truth-in-utterance may neither be coerced nor enforced" (91).
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Callens, Johan. "Mr. Smith Goes to Chicago: Playing Out Mamet's Critique of Capitalism in American Buffalo." European Journal of American Culture 19.1 (2000): 17-29.
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______, dir. The Spanish Prisoner. Perf. Campbell Scott, Steve Martin, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Ben Gazzara. Sony, 1997.
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Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin, 1977.
Piette, Alain. "The Flexing of Muscles and Tongues: Thug Rituals and Rhetoric in David Mamet's American Buffalo." Crucible of Cultures: Anglophone Drama at the Dawn of a New Millennium. Ed. Marc Manfort and Franca Bellarsi. Brussels: P.I.E.-Peter Lund, 2002. 91-100.
Shell, Marc. Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.
Simmel, Georg. The Philosophy of Money. Trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. Ed. David Frisby. London: Routledge, 1990.
Worster, David. "How to Do Things with Salesmen: David Mamet's Speech-Act Play." David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross: Text and Performance. Ed. Leslie Kane. New York: Garland, 1996. 63-79.
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|Title Annotation:||David Mamet|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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