Exposing the Downside of the American Dream: Upward Social Mobility,
Crime, and Questionable (Business) Ethics in Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street
In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.
—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (72)
You’re on a roll, kid. Enjoy it while it lasts, ‘cause it never does.
—Lou Mannheim, Wall Street
Oliver Stone’s Wall Street could hardly have been released at a more suitable time than in December 1987—two months after the stock market crash also known as Black Monday occurred (G. Thompson 107). It is this coincidence that made Stone’s film, whose filming had already finished in July, almost prophetic in that it forecast the negative results of greed, even though Wall Street does not end with a stock market crash (Riordan 248). David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross, on the other hand, was less closely linked to current events when it premiered in 1983 (Mamet 9), but it certainly paints a similarly gloomy picture of the business world. Therefore, both works—despite their entirely different settings in a brokerage firm and a real estate office—are connected by their fierce criticism of American business in the 1980s. In this paper, I argue that both Wall Street and Glengarry Glen Ross not only criticize 1980s business in America, but also expose the downside of the American Dream of success for everybody based on one’s own ability through their deconstruction of the myth of upward social mobility, their depiction of crime as omnipresent in the business world, and their characters’ questionable ethics. Indeed, both works portray upward mobility as only temporary by making their central characters, Bud Fox and Shelly Levene, lose the higher social positions they have achieved at the end of the plot when they are arrested for their crimes. In other words, these two characters are punished for their own stupidity in a “world of thieves” like the one Hunter S. Thompson describes in the above quote from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and their success does not last, fulfilling Lou Mannheim’s prophecy from Wall Street. Fox’s and Levene’s punishment, however, clearly differentiates them from their employers, who are apparently never punished for their own crimes. Such a great significance attached to crime in Wall Street and Glengarry Glen Ross, then, indicates the distorted business ethics in both works that also influence interpersonal relationships and thus extend far beyond the business world.
MOVING UP ON THE BOARD: THE MYTH OF UPWARD MOBILITY
The dream of success and the belief in upward social mobility associated with this success have been a core element of the American Dream for decades, although it took them a while to develop into their current form, as scholar Jim Cullen notes in his comprehensive history of the American Dream (59-60). Indeed, early dreams of upward mobility for all citizens can already be found in the writings of Benjamin Franklin, “the exemplary American go-getter and self-made man,” from the 18th century, and they were continued in the well-known novels of Horatio Alger, Jr. in the 19th century, which frequently depicted the characters’ rise “from rags to riches” (Freese 110-111). In the 1930s, this dream of social mobility was again emphasized in James Truslow Adams’ The Epic of America, which posits that the American Dream is not so much a dream of material wealth as it is “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (404).
If one looks at the way Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street deal with the state of this dream in the 1980s, however, it soon becomes apparent that it had turned into a mere illusion by that decade, for there is no opportunity for permanent social advancement in the inherently static social structures both works present.
This view of Glengarry Glen Ross as dispelling the myth of success and upward mobility is also reflected in much of the criticism, for instance in Nasser’s and Duarte’s article “The Myth of Success in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.” As these authors argue, the characters’ belief in success in the play “make[s] them all, with no exceptions, losers from the start” (117; emphasis in original). The characters’ struggle, however, seems almost futile due to the “mechanistic structure of the company” that insures those on top stay on top, as Jonathan S. Cullick rightly points out (24). It is thus crucial to look in more detail into the play’s depiction of upward social mobility as seriously hampered.
Much of the conversation and action in Glengarry Glen Ross revolves around the real estate company’s sales board, which displays the current ranking of the salesmen and is part of a contest whose winner is promised a Cadillac. Although this may at first sound like a bonus for the most successful employee, it turns out to be a fierce battle between the salesmen that Moss aptly describes in scene two: “‘I got to close this fucker, or I don’t eat lunch,’ ‘or I don’t win the Cadillac ….’ We fuckin’ work too hard. You work too hard” (30; emphasis in original). The sales battle, as it is described in the passage above, becomes a battle for survival above anything else, for the salesmen desperately need to “close” real estate deals if they want to earn a living.
Therefore, the sales board’s meaning obviously extends far beyond the question of winning a Cadillac, a prize that seems to be an almost obscene gesture in the face of the more serious problems the salesmen must deal with. Indeed, one may read the role of the board in Glengarry Glen Ross as symbolic of the larger social issue of upward mobility, interpreting the Cadillac as a sign of comparatively high social status. Consequently, Levene’s struggle to improve his position on the sales board turns into an example of an individual trying very hard to advance to a higher social stratum. This social advancement, however, is made nearly impossible by the real estate office’s policy explained by Williamson: “I’m given a policy. My job is to do that. What I’m told. That’s it. You, wait a second, anybody falls below a certain mark I’m not permitted to give them the premium leads” (19; emphasis in original). In other words, Mamet apparently reminds his audience of the mechanisms in place in American society that insure those at the top of the hierarchy retain their position, while at the same time those trying to move upward are prevented from doing so. The vicious cycle entrapping Levene thus serves as a criticism of what sociology commonly refers to as “social reproduction” (“Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction”), and it is as hard to overcome as this larger social phenomenon as well. Still, Levene’s situation is more than just a vicious cycle because it also serves as an example Mamet uses to expose the dream of upward mobility as a myth. In the first scene of the play, Levene miserably begs Williamson for the premium leads and, when that fails, even tries to bribe him, yet only manages to get “something off the other list” (Mamet 27), the list of less promising possible customers. Levene’s arrival at the office with the words “get the chalk ! I closed ‘em! I closed the cocksucker” (63; emphasis in original) in part two of Glengarry Glen Ross then causes the audience to believe he has finally regained his old strength as a salesman. Soon after Levene announces this success, however, its true nature is revealed by Williamson: “The people are insane.
- Quote paper
- Master of Arts Patrick Wedekind (Author), 2011, Exposing the Downside of the American Dream. Upward Social Mobility, Crime, and Questionable (Business) Ethics in Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" and Stone's "Wall Street", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/320906