"Speed-the-Plow" Plot Summary and Study Guide

David Mamet's Critique of Movie Industry

Speed the Plow. David Mamet. Playhouse Theater. London. Sept 2014.
Speed the Plow. David Mamet. Playhouse Theater. London. Sept 2014. Flickr user Sarah_Ackerman

Speed-the-Plow is a play written by David Mamet. It is comprised of three lengthy scenes involving the corporate dreams and strategies of Hollywood executives. The original Broadway production of Speed-the-Plow opened on May 3rd, 1988. It starred Joe Mantegna as Bobby Gould, Ron Silver as Charlie Fox, and (making her Broadway debut) pop-icon Madonna as Karen.

What does the title "Speed-the-Plow" mean?

The title is derived from a phrase in a 15th-century work-song, "God speed the plough." It was a prayer for prosperity and productivity.

Plot Summary of Scene One:

Speed-the-Plow begins with the introduction of Bobby Gould, a recently promoted Hollywood executive. Charlie Fox is a business colleague (ranking below Gould) who brings in a movie script that is connected to a hit-making director. During the first scene, the two men gush about how successful they will become, all thanks to the script option. (The screenplay is a stereotypically violent prison/action movie.)

Gould makes a call to his boss. The boss is out of town but will be back the next morning and Gould guarantees that the deal will be approved and that Fox and Gould will get a producer credit. While they discuss the mutual hardships of their early days together, they also mingle with Karen, a temporary receptionist.

When Karen is out of the office, Fox wagers that Gould won't be able to seduce Karen. Gould takes the challenge, offended by the idea that Karen would be attracted to his position at the studio, but incapable of loving him as a person.

After Fox leaves the office, Gould encourages Karen to become more goal-oriented. He gives her a book to read and asks her to stop by his house and provide a review. The book is titled The Bridge or, Radiation and the Half-Life of Society. Gould has only glanced at it, but he already knows that it is a pretentious attempt at intellectual art, unsuitable for a movie, especially a movie at his studio.

Karen agrees to meet him later in the evening, and the scene ends with Gould convinced that he will win his bet with Fox.

Plot Summary of Scene Two:

The second scene of Speed-the-Plow takes place entirely in Gould's apartment. It opens with Karen passionately reading from the "Radiation book." She claims that the book is profound and important; it has changed her life and taken away all fear.

Gould tries to explain how the book would fail as a film. He explains that his job is not to create art but to create a marketable product. Karen continues to persuade, however, as her conversation becomes more personal. She states that Gould does not have to be afraid anymore; he does not have to lie about his intentions.

In her scene-closing monolog, Karen says:

KAREN: You asked me to read the book. I read the book. Do you know what it says? It says that you were put here to make stories people need to see. To make them less afraid. It says in spite of our transgressions - that we could do something. Which would bring us alive. So that we needn't feel ashamed.

By the end of her monolog, it is apparent that Gould has fallen for her, and that she spends the night with him.

Plot Summary of Scene Three:

The final scene of Speed-the-Plow returns to Gould's office.

It's the morning after. Fox enters and begins to scheme about their upcoming meeting with the boss. Gould calmly states that he will not be green-lighting the prison script. Instead, he plans to make the "Radiation book." Fox does not take him seriously at first, but when he finally realizes that Gould is serious, Fox becomes furious.

Fox argues that Gould has gone insane and that the source of his madness is Karen. It seems that during the previous evening (before, after or during love-making) Karen has convinced Gould that the book is a beautiful work of art that must be adapted into a film. Gould believes that green-lighting the "Radiation book" is the right thing to do.

Fox becomes so angry that he punches Gould twice. He demands that Gould tells the story of the book in one sentence, but because the book is so complex (or so convoluted) Gould is unable to explain the story.

Then, when Karen enters, he demands that she answers a question:

FOX: My question: you answer me frankly, as I know you will: you came to his house with the preconception, you wanted him to greenlight the book.


FOX: If he had said "no," would you have gone to bed with him?

When Karen admits that she would not have had sex with Gould if he did not agree to produce the book, Gould is flung into despair. He feels lost, as though everyone wants a piece of him, everyone wants to leech off of his success. When Karen tries to persuade him by saying "Bob, we have a meeting," Gould realizes that she has been manipulating him. Karen doesn't even care about the book; she just wanted a chance to quickly move up the Hollywood food chain.

Gould exits to his washroom, leaving Fox to promptly fire her. In fact, he does more than fire her, he threatens: "You ever come on the lot again, I'm going to have you killed." As she exits, he throws the "Radiation book" after her. When Gould re-enters the scene, he is glum. Fox tries to cheer him up, talking about the future and the movie that they will soon be producing.

The last lines of the play:

FOX: Well, so we learn a lesson. But we aren't here to "pine," Bob, we aren't here to mope. What are we here to do (pause) Bob? After everything is said and done. What are we put on earth to do?

GOULD: We're here to make a movie.

FOX: Whose name goes above the title?

GOULD: Fox and Gould.

FOX: Then how bad can life be?

And so, Speed-the-Plow ends with Gould realizing that most, perhaps all, people will desire him for his power. Some, like Fox, will do it openly and blatantly. Others, like Karen, will try to deceive him. Fox's final line asks Gould to look on the bright side, but since their movie products seem shallow and overtly commercial, it seems that there is little satisfaction to Gould's successful career.