Glengarry Glen Ross - The Characters and Plot

Biography of the Playwright:

David Mamet was born on November 30th, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois. He is arguably one of the best living playwrights, and his literary work extends well beyond the stage. He has written over twenty screenplays (including one of my favorite films in the crime genre: The Untouchables), several novels, and hundreds of essays. He has also directed several of his films, including Oleanna and The Spanish Prisoner.

According to Contemporary Authors Online, Mamet's professional life in the theater began as a busboy at The Second City. Before his literary career took hold, he also worked in "a canning plant, a truck factory, at a real estate agency, and as a window washer, office cleaner, and taxi driver" (Contemporary Authors Online). Such life experiences no doubt influenced Mamet's impeccable skill at realistic dialogue that is vulgar yet vibrant. And the play that embodies his visceral style the most is his 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Glengarry Glen Ross.

Glengarry Glen Ross Synopsis:

This two act play by David Mamet depicts the seldom seen life of high-pressure real estate salesmen. We witness the men hustle others (and fool themselves) as they try to make an honest living using every deceitful tactics they can muster.

Act One takes place in a Chinese Restaurant. Three different scenes convey three different relationships:

  • Salesman and boss/manager
  • Salesman and salesman
  • Salesman and potential client

Act Two takes place at the office, the next day. The office has been ransacked. Money, contracts, and premium leads have been stolen, probably by one of the salesman.


Spoiler alert: As I discuss the details of these characters, I will be spoiling some of the surprises in the play.

You may want to watch or read Glengarry Glen Ross before continuing.

Ricky Roma: A salesman in his early 40s. He is currently on a hot streak, recently closing enough deals to win the company's monthly contest. He is currently the top salesman. He has a certain level of respect for older salesman and their classic techniques. He disdains management, especially when they get in the way of his deal making ability. He is very charismatic and persuasive.

James Lingk: A quiet, gullible man who decides to buy property from Roma. The next day, under strict orders from his wife, Lingk returns to Roma in hopes of cancelling the check. Roma, naturally, tries to swindle Lingk back to his side; however, the ransacked office and a slip-up by the manager scare Lingk away and the deal is blown.

John Williamson: The sales manager. He is in charge of the office and responsible for the contracts. Therefore, when the office is burglarized his job is on the line. With the help of Detective Baylen, he is intent on finding out who ripped them off. During Act One, he listens to Shelly demand (and then plead for) premium leads. He acts as though he doesn't have the power to grant Shelly the leads. However, when the older man offers a percentage of his income, Williamson is willing to negotiate.

All of the salesman display various levels of animosity toward Williamson, but he is most loathed by Dave Moss.

Dave Moss: A disgruntled salesman in his 50s. In Scene Two of Act One, Moss vents with a co-worker (George Aaronow) regarding the dismal state of sales. He also reveals his prejudice regarding Polish and East Indian customers. He considers them "deadbeats." As their conversation continues, Moss complains about his company, contrasting it to a better business model run by a rival company. Finally, Moss reveals his plan to steal the leads, sell them to the competition, and then go to work for a new company. He wants Aaronow to break into the office for him, and if Aaronow refuses Moss threatens to pin the crime on him anyway.

George Aaronow: Another salesman in his 50s. Notice how the older salesmen aren't doing so well financially?

This trend continues with Aaronow, although he isn't as bitter as Moss or as desperate as Shelly Levene. Aaronow's role in the story is mainly to build suspense. Will he willingly join Moss in his plan to rob the office? Will he steal the leads for himself? Will he tell the manager and the authorites what he knows? For the most part, Aaronow keeps his mouth shut and does his best to mind his own business.

Shelly Levene: A salesman in his fifties. Although he did well in the distant past (his nickname was "Levene the Machine"), his sales have plummeted in recent years. He believes that he has not sold any properties because of an unlucky streak, and because his manager, John Williamson, has not given him any of the "premium leads." He mentions needing money to take care of his daughter. (Note: the film adds more detail about Shelly's daughter, indicating that she needs money in order to receive hospital care.)

In contrast to the confident Roma, Levene is on the verge of desperation. By the end of the play, the audience learns that Levene is one of the men responsible for the burglary.

In the play's final moments, Roma is inviting Shelly to hang out with him at the restaurant, hoping to hear some stories of the old days. Here, it seems Roma is genuinely fond of the old timer. However, as soon as Roma realizes that Shelly is about to be arrested, he demands half of Shelly's commissions.

Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross:

The film version features the world's cruelest motivational speaker, masterfully portrayed by Alec Baldwin. His intense, scare-tactic monologue is not included in the original play; however, because of the cult-hit status of the film, many regional theaters add the material Mamet adapted into the screenplay.

Quotes from Glengarry Glen Ross:

Here are a few of the best lines from Alec Baldwin's monologue in the film version:

"As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired."

"You know why, Mister? 'Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an eighty thousand dollar BMW. That's my name."

"Coffee's for closers only."