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I Swear to You

  • I Swear To You: Mamet's language in Glengarry Glen Ross

    January 25, 2013

    Posted By: Lauryn Sasso



    From Left: Jay Patterson (Dave Moss) and David Breitbarth (George Aaronow). Levene (Douglas Jones) begs Williamson (Jesse Dornan) for his job.

    Photos by Cliff Roles

    David Mamet’s plays are notable for a variety of signature characteristics, including a propensity for hard-driving characters with noticeably foul vocabularies. His trademark, easily-recognizable style of dialogue has influenced the generation of writers that matured over the last quarter-century, and has become so ingrained into our cultural fabric that it has been given its own moniker – “Mametspeak.” This way of writing has been characterized as cynical and manipulative, but it is also acknowledged to be crafted with precision and intended to inspire a specific effect in listeners. It has earned Mamet a reputation, as journalist Patrick Healy recently wrote in the New York Times, as the “heavyweight of bare-knuckled American playwrights.”

    David Mamet. Photo by David Shankbone.

    Playwrights who employ high doses of profanity in their work, Mamet included, often cite the argument that they are attempting to more accurately reflect the content and rhythms of everyday, “real life,” speech – that the four-letter words are not necessarily included to shock, but instead to portray the characters as possessing more visceral and realistic qualities. But it takes a careful and talented hand to use these words in ways that actually enhance, rather than detract. Arts writer for The Guardian, Lyn Gardner, noted in a 2008 article that “I am getting fed up with the excessive reliance on four-letter words in television, theatre and film. My objections are not so much moral as aesthetic: the once-taboo 'f' and 'c' words are gradually losing their power to shock by promiscuous over-use.” She related an experience of watching a television show whose dialogue was liberally peppered with profanity, saying “my instincts also told me that the writer was falling lazily back on swear words not so much on grounds of realism as in a vain attempt to try and jack up the comic tension…My argument is that four-letter words work best if sparingly used.” Though she also admitted that, “of course, we live in a different world today where swearing in public is commonplace…I am not asking for four-letter words to be banned. I am just suggesting that writers are gradually losing the ability to convey anger, violence or emotional intemperance by any other means than having people say ‘f*#@’ five times a page.”


    Not only is public swearing more common, but an October 2012 article in Forbes mentioned that “studies show swearing can actually be a source of pain relief. When mixed with a bit of humor, a bad word now and then can actually jolt our brains into more expansive, tolerant and creative thinking spaces that make us better problem solvers.” Even Gardner exempts Mamet (and fellow playwright Harold Pinter) from her condemnation of profane dialogue, saying “Mamet's cuss-words in plays like Glengarry Glen Ross are not randomly deployed but are patterned and timed with quasi-musical precision. It's also noticeable that Harold Pinter, who frequently depicts coarse, bullish, masculine milieux makes sparing use of four-letter words: in a play like The Homecoming he creates a sense of mutual rancor through the rancid vivacity of his language.”


    Whether used in moderation or freely flung into every scene of a play, charged language has the potential to be controversial, but it is how we as audience members react that is key. A student at Connecticut’s Fairfield University, responding to an on-campus production of Glengarry Glen Ross earlier this year, took a more philosophical approach to the play’s language as reported in the New York Times. She saw the profanity as symbolic, saying “as a salesman became more corrupt, there was an increase in the profane language used by that character.” The student also commented that she felt the characters’ profanity was intended to convey their degradation. A Fairfield professor, who also acted in the production, approached it from a slightly different angle, saying “we go to plays not just to be entertained, but to learn, and, most deeply, to learn about ourselves.” Wise words, indeed.


    From Left: Ricky Roma (Eric Hissom) and George Aaronow (David Breitbarth). Francisco Rodriguez (Lingk), Eric Hissom (Roma) and Douglas Jones (Levene).

    Photos By Cliff Roles



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