Cutting dialogue has always come easily to playwright David Mamet. It’s there from his earliest plays – that rich, swaggering, American vernacular.
When Mamet made it big with Glengarry Glen Ross in 1984, every critic and commentator wrote about the dialogue: new, fresh, hyper-natural, hyper-masculine, rhythmically alive, and, of course, profane.
Glengarry Glen Ross was written by Mamet in 1983 during the severe global recession, but today sits all too easily in our post-GFC, post-subprime mortgage world. Thirty years ago every expletive in the theatre was a detonation and much of Mamet’s sudden fame was simply notoriety about the unrelenting barrage of four-letter words in his early plays.
But those who cared to listen through the noise for the signal caught an authentic sound. That authenticity of language and narrative made Glengarry Glen Ross one of the true masterpieces of modern theatre.
To find out how a group of sleazy Chicago real estate agents managed to alter the face of western theatre, we caught up with the veteran British critic Michael Coveney in London. He explains why Glengarry Glen Ross was hailed both as a game changer, and as an instant classic.
“The thing about Glengarry Glen Ross is that it’s like an autopsy on the ‘American dream’. I think the ‘American dream’ was famously delineated in drama by Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman, and I’ve always thought that David Mamet was the aftermath of that…”.
Coveney describes Glengarry Glen Ross as a “fantastic piece of ensemble theatre that seems to sum it up (capitalism) in a way that no other American play does”.
Mamet has an amazing ability to tap into everyday language. In this case it’s the language of competitive males sparring off against each other; talking over each other; not finishing sentences, and when you read it on the page you have to read it again because it’s so stop-start, and so full of catchphrases. It seems that the Chicago that Mamet grew up in is captured in full force through this play of words.
“Mamet has this fantastic ear, and he creates an idiomatic swing and rhythm,” Coveney says.
“The first time I heard it at the theatre I said, ‘this must be what it was like to hear Pinter and Beckett for the first time’. It’s like jazz. It’s music.
“It’s very rare in the theatre that a writer is just taking the whole language of theatre on to the next stage. Mamet actually created a language, and gave voice to a whole substrata of American life in the corporate and capitalist world. And it’s a huge thing that he did.”
Glengarry Glen Ross is presented by Melbourne Theatre Company
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Season dates: 5 July to 9 August 2014
Tickets: From $60; youth pricing for those under 30 just $33
Bookings: Southbank Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 or mtc.com.au