Required Reading: “American Buffalo” Required Reading: “American Buffalo”
What plays should be considered culturally required reading? What plays that once might have held that honor no longer stack up? In this new... Required Reading: “American Buffalo”

What plays should be considered culturally required reading? What plays that once might have held that honor no longer stack up? In this new series, Cavan Hallman explores touchstone works of theater and their place in today’s world. 


I mentioned to a professor friend that I was reading “American Buffalo” for the first time and the look that crossed his face was the visual equivalent of a “duh.”

“It’s where it all started,” he said.

And I get that, that it’s the thing. The thing where David Mamet invented the thing about things (and ellipses). But a thing that I wonder…

Is primacy an important factor in determining whether or not a play is essential? To advocate for that would be to reduce dramatic criticism to the act of calling “shotgun” in a high school parking lot. If being first mattered that much, then theater-going audiences would be subjected to hundreds of annual productions of “Hamnet” and that big fancy theater in Ashland, Oregon would be built on a healthy supply of comedies by Plautus.

We’re all adults here and should agree that firsties are immaterial.

I make no claim to being a completist. There are gaps everywhere you look in my theatrical knowledge, but I comfort myself with the notion that at least I’m curious, and that truly no one knows everything about anything, except for Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who happens to know everything about everything.

At Columbia College Chicago I took a comparative lit class on the works of Mamet and Sam Shepherd, but somehow the instructor chose to bypass some of the major attractions — “American Buffalo,” “Buried Child” — for roadside oddities like “The Duck Variations” and “La Turista.” Yes, in the early aughts hipsterism was already alive and well in Chicago’s South Loop because the only thing cooler than Being Cool is being obscure.

And I still haven’t gotten around to a lot of The Big Ones. It’s almost exactly fifteen years since I was first introduced to The List, and I still haven’t come anywhere close to finishing the damn thing (not that I really tried).

But it exists…

Waiting…

And sometimes…

“American Buffalo.”

It’s impossible to read “American Buffalo” and ignore the voices of myriad imitators who copped David Mamet’s signature style over the last forty years.

You know.

The thing we already sort of talked about.

The thing with men talking about things. Things they may or may not act upon. But things that will be discussed, nonetheless.

So many things.

Because. They. Are. Men.

Unless we are discussing “Boston Marriage.”

But we are not talking about “Boston Marriage.”

We are talking about men.

And ellipses (so many ellipses …).

“American Buffalo” is the play that propelled David Mamet onto the Broadway stage in the 70’s. The action all happens in a junk shop owned by Donny Dubrow, a gambler and yogurt enthusiast being tended to by Bobby, a simplistic gopher.

Teach arrives at the shop. He’s one of Donny’s gambling buddies, and after unleashing blustery rages both general and specific, Teach proceeds to insinuate himself into Donny and Bobby’s heist plan. The gig is to rip off a former customer who bought a rare buffalo nickel from Donny, getting the better end of the deal. Donny isn’t knowledgeable or passionate about rare coins. The money doesn’t even seem to matter that much. Donny just wants revenge. He wants superiority. He wants to prove he has a big…

It all turns very sour, of course, because this is a play, and it’s Chicago, and it’s Mamet, and when you combine losers with a scheme you might as well be Chekhov introducing a first-act gun.

The climax includes a horrific display of pointless violence, its pointlessness being a big part of the point, and then after some apologies that are as half-baked as the initial robbery plan, the three men return to business as usual, but transformed from the mundane to the chilling.

Shocking no one, it’s a very good play.

The only details that significantly date the text are the prices of the collectibles Donny and his brokedown crew have targeted; but rather than distracting from the story, these have the added benefit of increasing the triviality of the lowlifes’ score. Donny, Bobby, and Teach must be incredibly desperate to risk their livelihoods and lives over a few hundred dollars — although no one can even be certain of what has any value at all. In silences between the shouted macho posturing, the characters and the audience get tiny little glimpses into the stark reality that no one knows anything, not in the world of Donny’s shop, maybe not in our world either.

It makes sense why actors and directors continue to stage this play. The ambiguity to be mined in all those damn ellipses presents artists with the illusion of an abundance of Choices — one of the four major food groups (fewer carbs than Scenery, but less filling than Stakes; there’s also Death). But what is lost in the turkey coma that results from bingeing on actorly decision-making is the truth that even a script written with the dictatorial scoring of an orchestral composer (we’re looking at you Albee) provides a performer with the same number of Choices. Every inflection, gesture, intention … Doing a play for a chance to make Choices makes as much sense as doing a play because it gives you an opportunity to breathe.

It would have been a blast to see John Savage and Robert Duvall’s choices square off in the Broadway premiere. It probably would have been an equally good night out just watching them do two hours of contentless scene work, like the final showing of a fantasy Meisner class, populated by all the famous folks everyone claims they’d “pay to hear read the phone book.”

Mamet’s play is better than a classroom exercise, of course — it’s a really good play — but ambiguity is not enough to make it essential. In fact, ambiguity is one reason that American Buffalo will be exiting The List.  

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Even as I have made the transition from student to teacher, the concept of Required Reading has always kind of rankled me. Is it fair to brand someone a philistine just because he hasn’t read “The Duchess of Malfi?”

Confession: I haven’t read “The Duchess of Malfi.”

When someone casually insists “You HAVE to see this, read that, hear whatever…,” what I’d call Culturally Required Reading, opposed to homework, I get even more frustrated. I have this deep-seated Pavlovian response to call shenanigans on any and all proclamations of “must.” If this hasn’t definitively made me a bad student, it has at least made me a difficult one.

Shortly after enrolling at Columbia College Chicago, the great and deservedly-beloved Sheldon Patinkin gave me a copy of The List — there was a big box of them in the office.

The List is titled “PLAYS YOU SHOULD HAVE READ BY NOW.”

It’s written just like that, all caps.

The List is dated July 31, 1995.

The List includes 285 plays.

A brief disclaimer below the date reads: “Actually it would be more realistic to say that these are plays you should know, so start reading.”

“… It would be more realistic …”

Realistic … Sheldon was part of the birth of The Second City, so … Jokes.

Allegedly there was only a single member of the Columbia faculty, a big-brained unicorn named Kathleen Perkins, who had actually read or seen the entirety of The List (forget about the open-admissions autodidact eighteen-year-olds entering the South Loop back in the early aughts). Those of us who wanted to have our academic boundaries pushed, not just artistic boundaries and chemical ones, sought Kathleen out because if you weren’t going to make the sacrifices necessary to conquer The List, then the least you could do was make a 9 am pilgrimage to the Theater Building for a text analysis class with the one person who had succeeded — education by osmosis.

Columbia’s open admissions policy is now gone. Sadly, Sheldon is gone too. But The List remains as a reminder of all the work I should have been doing instead of playing MarioKart and listening to thrift store records.

According to The List…

There are 285 plays you should know, but only two were written after 1990.

There are 285 plays you should know, but only twenty-three were written by people of color.

There are 285 plays you should know, but only twenty were written by women.

Theater is changing in America, but the literature is staying the same. It is old. It is white. It is male.

The time has come to re-evaluate the canon of Required Reading, working through The List one play at a time, starting with some of the crater-sized gaps in my own literary knowledge.

Some plays will stay, some will be replaced.

What I won’t be doing is questioning the good intentions of The List’s creators. I’m grateful for the education and educators in my life. Instead, I hope to provoke a dialogue regarding the past, present, and future of dramatic literature.

Some questions that I hope to eventually explore:

“Therese Raquin”: Why?

Is it right that Shakespeare can have almost as many essential texts as the entirety of all women, ever? (The answer, clearly, is “no.”)

Why is Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” the only musical libretto, a savage predator stalking the sun-shiniest creature on the theatrical savannah?

Speaking of savage…

(And ellipses …)

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According to Gregory Mosher, director of the “American Buffalo” premiere at the Goodman, the play is “American drama’s funniest, most vicious attack on the ethos of Big Business and the price that it exacts upon the human soul.” Set aside for a moment the difficulty in equating a junk shop/fence/hub-for-vague-illegal-activities with “Big Business,” and there’s an even bigger disconnect between directorial interpretation and the script: to understand that a price is exacted upon the human soul, doesn’t there need to be a tangible loss? If that’s the case, then what are the consequences of Donny, Teach, and Bobby’s bad behavior? I imagine an ideal production of the play, where the quietly apologetic resolution is suffused with dread, maybe even terror. Unfortunately, a director could just as easily steer the production astray. It’s easy to imagine a staging by a local Chamber of Commerce, assuring their association of small business owners that any and all methods of violence, misogyny, and abuse are permissible as long as it is done in pursuit of profit.

The play’s satire is too easy to miss. In fact, the enterprising theatrical defender of Enterprise-itself might even point to Mamet’s 2008 emergence as a political neo-conservative as supporting evidence for this dangerous interpretation of “American Buffalo.” The play becomes Reagan’s misuse of “Born in the USA,” it becomes George W. Bush versus John Mellencamp, becomes Donald Trump versus… everyone.

So “American Buffalo” leaves The List, and in the process helps us become less old, less white, less male. It is replaced by “Topdog/Underdog,” which also concerns men doing men’s things. And there are pauses. Because… men.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ masterwork has other commonalities with “American Buffalo.” They equally bathe the reader in a personalized and electric language that elevates street vernacular into the realm of the poetic. They both climax with acts of inevitable violence that somehow still manage to shock.

Mos Def (L) as Booth and Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln in the Public Theater production of Topdog/Underdog

Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” is a 2002 Pulitzer prize winner about two brothers named Lincoln and Booth — their parents thought it was funny — eking out a life on the fringes of society. They share a squalid one-room apartment while the younger brother, Booth, tries to reinvent himself as a three-card monte dealer. The older Lincoln gave up the same hustle years ago, despite his skills, and now spends his days dying over and over again as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in a shooting gallery. Both men are poor. Both are black, and their struggles for any tangible proof of dominance, evidence of being Topdog, ultimately manifests in murder.

The three-card monte conceit provides Parks’ play with a layered and intriguing central metaphor, and its execution gives the play a structural unity that ultimately makes it an essential work.

Almost everyone knows that three-card monte is a scam. It cannot be won. If this column provides any public service, it will be this: three-card monte is a scam. It cannot be won.

The first scene of “Topdog …” shows Booth in a private moment, practicing his hustler’s patter. There’s a subtle promise here — that the audience will learn through the course of the play the secret behind the scam. Just like Booth, the observer’s desire to understand grows exponentially as time passes. Because Lincoln has that knowledge, the older brother will always be Topdog to Booth’s Underdog, no matter how low Lincoln’s personal fortunes falter. When the secret to three-card monte is ultimately denied to the audience, just as it is to Booth, it makes his murderous rage something from which it is much more difficult to detach.

The show begins with the spiel. We are drawn into the game. Whether or not we know it, we cannot win. This is the play. This is the game. It’s a philosophy that plays out in the relationship between the mark and the hustlers; it plays out between Booth and Lincoln; it plays out between author and audience.

“American Buffalo” lacks this same structural glue. Let’s suppose that Lajos Egri is right in suggesting that every drama is an expression of belief. Mamet’s play might be saying to us that it is impossible to understand the meaning of anything: friendships, values, objects, events, words. The playwright’s best-wielded tool for this purpose is the ellipse, an unfinished thought known only to the character not speaking it, hiding away some form of the truth. Maybe “American Buffalo” is a foul-mouthed proto-”Seinfeld,” an ode to nothingness.

If that’s the case, then the text again fails to be the standard-bearer, this time eclipsed by “The Bald Soprano,” which systematically displays and dismantles every aspect of Aristotelian drama, starting with plot, then moving on to character, language, and so on. “The Bald Soprano” is thorough and unmatched in its exploration of the meaningless. If Mamet’s play were to merit continued inclusion in the new canon, it wouldn’t be as an example of Existential Absurdism.

“Topdog/Underdog” combines fine-tuned structural unity with poetic language, insight into family, masculinity, race, and American history, and caps it off with an incredibly powerful emotional catharsis as the curtain falls. This incredible catharsis is achieved even as the play introduces one final searing ambiguity: is Booth crying over the loss of his brother, or is he crying over the loss of the one chance he had to learn the secret of the shell game? Parks’ play proves itself beyond worthy as a List addition.

Welcome to the club, Suzan-Lori Parks. You have joined a community that might not yet deserve you.

But we promise to keep working on it.

The List (1995): American Buffalo by David Mamet

The List (2017): Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks

Cavan Hallman Contributor

Cavan Hallman makes theater and watches NBA basketball. His plays have been performed in Ireland, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and on tour for the last seventeen years as writer/director for Chicago’s Windy City Players.

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