Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Taking It Back: Crises of Currency in David Mamet's American Buffalo

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Taking It Back: Crises of Currency in David Mamet's American Buffalo

Article excerpt

Buffaloed by the currencies powering America's modern exchange economy, the men in David Mamet's American Buffalo pursue success by plotting a heist and, paradoxically, by plotting to remove money, language, and bodies from circulation. This essay examines how the paradox dramatizes a doubly blind American rage to achieve material success and to escape materiality altogether.


David Mamet's play American Buffalo opens with a problem that turns out to be a problem about openings. Don, the owner of a "resale shop" where the play takes place, is reprimanding his "gopher," Bob, for the latter's failure to tail a coin collector who has recently bought a buffalo nickel from the shop and whose collection Don now intends to steal. Don's opening move in this larcenous scheme has been to charge Bob with the job of staking out the place where the collector lives, a job that entails watching the building's openings. However, as the play opens, Bob reveals that he hasn't been able to watch all the building's openings at once. Apologizing to Don for returning to the junk shop without having spotted his mark, Bob admits that when the collector "didn't come out" the front of the building he left his position to see if the money man might leave from the rear:

    BOB: I just went to the back.
    DON: Why? (Pause.) Why did you do that?
    BOB: 'Cause he wasn't coming out the front. (3)

Oddly enough, Don does not provide unequivocal support for Bob's decision; he doesn't back him up: "Well, Bob, I'm sorry, but this isn't good enough" (3). The open-endedness of the indefinite article "this" makes it difficult to determine why Don appears resistant to the idea of checking the back. Nevertheless, the very indeterminacy of his response suggests that the crisis marking the opening of both Mamet's plot and Don's plot arises from something more complicated than Bob's failure to conduct a successful stakeout. The ambiguity in his statement dramatizes a point that Mamet makes in much of his work: if one assumes a material sign--a word, a story, a piece of money, a piece of junk--is backed by an unambiguous, authoritative standard of significance or value, one is bound to be in trouble; one is bound to be conned. The crisis that Don experiences when Bob calls his attention to the fact that there is an opening in the back suggests that every plot to secure the back tightly opens onto crisis. What makes the behaviour of Mamet's characters tragic is their deep-seated resistance to entertaining, or opening up to, the creative possibilities inherent in such a crisis.

I wish to suggest that American Buffalo repeatedly stages crises involving openings (in physical space, in the human body, in an all-male social unit, in a business deal, in the meaning of a word) in order to dramatize the characters' profound anxiety about how to represent (i.e., articulate and embody) the American Dream, an anxiety that in turn opens onto the crisis-laden philosophical matter of representation itself. Unable to capitalize successfully on the currents powering America's modern exchange economy, Mamet's marginalized businessmen anxiously try to create social and psychological spaces that are sealed off from crisis-producing economies of exchange. Holed up in the cultural desert of Don's junk shop--a business that, by definition, attempts to keep used commodities in circulation--these two-bit entrepreneurs paradoxically display a longing to pull money and language out of circulation, a longing expressed as a desire to take back what has been sold and said. Even as they plan to leave the junk shop to pull a heist, they seem to wish to close themselves up in the shop for good in an effort to isolate mimetic figures that are fully productive, figures that are free from deception or imposture, figures that won't buffalo, figures that are backed by an authoritative standard of significance or value, figures that are as good as gold. …

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