Throughout the second half of the semester we have considered literary representations of postwar America that move toward and exemplify postmodern critiques of mainstream conformist values of this era, from conventional gender roles and sexuality to racist, sexist and heterosexist social structures and institutions. In various ways, all of the authors we have read (Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, and David Mamet), deconstruct and expose the underside of self-confident, conformist American prosperity in this era, and parody or revise traditional literary techniques in order to do so.
Early in our readings, with Lowell and Ginsberg and Plath, we encountered a new frankness about mental illness even among members of privileged classes, suggesting that all is not well with the status quo, and that resistance to conformity–not fitting in–can contribute to mental illness.
In Pynchon, we encountered deep skepticism about our capacity to make sense of the complexities of contemporary life, except through conspiracy theories or with a newly limited sense of self. In Ginsberg, Morrison, and Mamet, we encounter critiques of racist and sexist social structures and profound questions about the health and viability of the traditional nuclear family, democracy and the capitalist system.
Though the degree of postmodern experiment varies in these texts, we can see them all as deconstructing grand narratives and insisting on indeterminacy, sometimes with a darkly humorous skepticism as well as pathos.
Our last postmodern reading is Glengarry Glen Ross, a play by one of the most talented American playwrights of the postwar era. If at all possible, try to watch the film this week, as well as reading the play. It’s quite captivating.
David Mamet was raised in a Jewish neighborhood on the South Side of and in a suburb. His mother was a school teacher, his father a labor lawyer. Both sides of his family came to Chicago in the 1920s, as immigrants from Eastern Europe. Mamet began acting as a child. His parents divorced before he reached adolescence. He studied at Goddard College in Vermont and worked at odd jobs afterward, including a period in the merchant marines. His first play, Lakeboat, was staged in 1970 in Vermont. He returned to Chicago in 1973, where his plays Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo were produced and won several awards. He moved on to the New York theatre scene, began writing screenplays in the ‘80s, and moved to New England in 1991.His screenplays include Glengarry Glen Ross (which won the Pulitzer Prize as a play), House of Games, and Oleanna. He also wrote the screenplays for The Untouchables, Hoffa, Malcolm X, and Wag the Dog. He has also written for television (e.g., The Unit).
Mamet has a keen ear for colloquial idiom and dialogue, and a deep interest in constructions of masculinity and competition within capitalism. In his article, “ ‘Always Be Closing’: Competition and Discourse of Closure in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross,” Jonathan Cullick argues that, “In Mamet’s real estate office, the most powerful commodity is not land; it is language.” He divides the language used in the play and film into two types of discourse: “communal” and “competitive.” He defines communal as “transactional, comprised of speech acts that communicate and invite responses. It is a language of mediation, negotiation, and cooperation-an open discourse” (23). Competitive discourse is “adversarial, the language of manipulation, deception, and self-interest” (23). Obviously Roma is the most effective user of competitive discourse, but he doesn’t use it all the time, and it’s interesting to think about why.
In your blog response, address questions 1 and 2 and your choice of question 3 or 4 (so a total of three questions).
- When do characters use competitive discourse, when to they use communal, and why?
- When are the characters acting? What other roles are they playing? When are they being “themselves”? From their behavior, can we define the codes of masculinity they follow?
- Who, in the end, is playing by the office rules? What are the rules, anyway, for success in the real estate office? How are they defined?
- If we were to call this play (and film) postmodern, what grand narratives are being deconstructed? How? In what other ways does it seem postmodern?