Brass Balls: Masculine Communication and the Discourse of Capitalism in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross

By Greenbaum, Andrea | The Journal of Men's Studies, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Brass Balls: Masculine Communication and the Discourse of Capitalism in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross


Greenbaum, Andrea, The Journal of Men's Studies


Key Words: David Mamet, masculinity, language, capitalism, competition, individualism, Glengarry Glen Ross

   Teach: You know what free enterprise is?

   Don: No what?

   Teach: The freedom ...

   Don: ... Yeah?

   Teach: Of the Individual ...

   Don: ... Yeah

   Teach: To Embark on Any Fucking Course that he sees fit. (Mamet, 1982, pp.
   72-73)

In the 1992 film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet creates a new character for his screenplay adaptation of his 1989 play; an expensively dressed, Rolex-wearing executive (played by Alec Baldwin) stops by the real estate office as a henchman for the unseen, but often referred--to bosses, Murray and Mitch. The unnamed executive informs the men about the contest Murray and Mitch have devised: The top salesman will win a Cadillac; second prize is a set of steak knives; "third prize is you're fired" (Tokofsky, 1993). Baldwin, his character described as a "human steak knife" (Corliss, 1992, p. 84), then removes from his expensive briefcase a pair of oversized, dangling brass balls and holds them suggestively in front of his crotch. His message is clear: to be a successful salesman, you must have the "balls" to be ruthless, cunning, competitive, and aggressive. Anything less, the character taunts, and you "can't play in a man's game" (Tokofsky, 1993).

In that singular visual moment in the film, Mamet instantly conjoins masculinity with capitalism,(1) and Mamet himself has described Glengarry as a "gang comedy about men, work, and unbridled competition" (Kane, 1992, p. 256). The addition of the Baldwin character to the screenplay further implicates this fusion between masculinity and capitalism, and is made manifest in the film by Mamet's refusal to allow the executive to possess a novel identity, a name. When the salesmen ask the executive his name, he vituperatively responds, "Fuck you, that's my name" (Tokofsky, 1993). The absence of his name does not, as one would assume, indicate invisibility, but the contrary--ubiquity. Mamet uses the executive as a metonymic figure, a stock character, whose "balls" are the true measure, the sole indicator, of his economic success--the paradigmatic American male success-object. The correlative between the composition of American masculinity, which is often structured around the mythos of individualism ("Hurray for me, and the hell with you," Roudane, 1986a, p. 74), is also the miasma of the American Dream myth. Mamet contends that:

   The national culture is founded very much on the idea to strive and
   succeed. Instead of rising with the masses one should rise from the masses.
   Your extremity is my opportunity. That's what forms the basis of our
   economic life, and this is what forms the rest of our lives. That American
   myth. The idea of something out of nothing. (Roudane, 1986b, p. 36)

The plot of Glengarry revolves around that American Dream myth: unseen capitalist bosses pit four real estate salesmen against each other. At stake is their jobs, and since these men define themselves according to their place on the sales "board," what transpires is a desperate struggle for these men to retain not simply their sales positions, but their sense of masculine identity.

This essay will explore Mamet's absorption with the American Dream myth in Glengarry, and his "fascination with the male tribe" (Friedman, 1985, p. 40). And while Glengarry Glen Ross has been the subject of much analysis, to date there has been scant critical examination of the purely masculine elements that permeate the play. With the exception of Hersh Zeifman's (1992) article, "Phallus in Wonderland: Machismo and Business in David Mamet's American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross," which itself only presents a cursory view of masculinity as it relates to business, and Carla J. McDonough's (1992) "Every Fear Hides a Wish: Unstable Masculinity in Mamet's Drama," there has been no direct extensive criticism addressing the overt parallel between masculinity and capitalism, and the means by which Mamet's characters, who are constituted by the demands of capitalism, use language as a source for domination and manipulation. …

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