Power Plays and Linguistic Levels in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’

Glengarry Glen Ross exposes the dark underbelly of a real estate agency in a way that is unexpectedly engaging, suspenseful, and dramatic. In a play about who’s on top and who’s on bottom, the tell-all is in the language.

David Mamet’s grasp on the power of syntactical variance, meta-discourse, and semantic manipulation is awe-inspiring. The characters’ linguistic tendencies reveal a power structure between the men; as a hierarchy develops throughout Act 1, the characters’ roles in the robbery become interpretable and the play’s resolution is coyly foreshadowed. The way we speak–word choice, sentence length, repetition–reveals great depths regarding our identities (ranging from our level of confidence to our degree of conviction).

We will use the film adaptation from the play to highlight and focus on the interactions between Levene and Williamson and Moss and Aaranow, as well as Roma’s relationship with/treatment of Levene and Williamson; by emphasizing these pairs, I will explain how linguistic markers can foreshadow plot development. And finally, the famous “Coffee is for Closers” speech will be used to highlight Blake’s position in the power structure.

Levene–the man who has abashedly fallen from a great height–frequently displays linguistics markers of both uncertainty and authority. Though these qualities may sound inherently antithetical, they work to juxtapose his past notoriety with his current inferiority. Levene was once the best agent in the firm; now, his numbers no longer justify his old nickname– “the machine.” Beginning with uncertainty, Levene frequently uses hedges when conversing with his boss–John Williamson; from statements such as, “All that I’m saying” to rhetorical questions like, “What is that John?” we can see that Levene is withholding full commitment to his propositions (definition of hedging). Asking as opposed to telling conveys hesitance and insecurity. Clarifying one’s convictions (“All that I’m saying”) is a form of hedging that diminishes one’s argument and reveals low self-esteem. Levene knows he is not performing up to par; thus, he cannot risk putting his life on the line with smug phrasing. However, he isn’t so quick to let go of the reputation he once possessed.

As for Levene’s past notoriety, he frequently uses boosters, which are designed to reinforce or emphasize a statement. For example, statements like, “Bad Luck. That’s all it is.” speaks to Levene’s confidence regarding his past. “That’s all it is” is the booster; he responds to his own theory– “bad luck”– with a definitive assurance, as if his answer is the listener’s opinion. He used to be “Shelly. The machine. Levene.” Based on his previous work, the boss must also believe it’s just bad luck…right? It is that simultaneous confidence and insecurity that produces his wavering communication style. Levene is always reaching back to reclaim the status he has lost. If given the opportunity, is it not obvious that he would steal his eminence back? Levene is the perfect culprit: by stealing the leads, he steals back his dignity. It’s not just about the money for Levene, it’s about the reputation. Each line reveals his “trapped” (and rather oxymoronic) predicament; he cannot become what he was but wishes to retain the status of his past (despite current failings).

On the other hand, Williamson’s speech when conversing with Levene is very matter-of-fact; he uses telegraphic sentences to make his points strong and concise. Williamson is the boss. He does not require elaborate phrasing to safeguard his place on the totem pole. From “You didn’t close” to “I have. And my job is to marshal those leads” we see that he is confident in his position. He speaks with a clarity and a concision typical of someone who feels comfortable in his/her shoes. He’s the one to outsmart Levene; his language reveals sincere conviction and intelligence, not a feigned one. Ironically, Williamson’s simplistic linguistic style claims the most respect; he just needs to say it like it is because he’s already impressed the men above him…Williamson’s in charge of the others in the office. Who other than Williamson would be the one to put the pieces together?

Moss is the master of manipulation in Glengarry Glen Ross; he uses his manipulative tactics to scare Aaronow and push suspicions away from himself and on to Aaronow. Unfortunately for Moss–in the end–Aaronow’s demeanor and communicative capacity reveal that though he may be a bumbling fool, he is no thief.

When Moss speaks to Aaronow, he tries to convince Aaronow to steal the leads by exploiting person-oriented and society-oriented manipulation. To explain, he places himself and Aaronow alongside the bottom feeders of society to make Aaranow feel lowly: “And so they kill the goose…and a fuckin’ man, worked all his life …”. He clumps himself and Aaranow with the other hardworking “geese,” drudging day-to-day for a half-decent salary. However, he compares their position in society with Jerry Graff’s. And Jerry Graff is “doing business for himself.” Moss paints a picture of a singular person–on the flip-side of the coin– who is successful and impressive; thus, establishing a vivid and easily digestible depiction of the life Aaranow could possess (if he stole the leads). By individualizing the presentation of a positive light (Graff) and grouping himself and Aaranow when in the negative, Moss paints the robbery as offering a once-in-a-lifetime chance at superiority and a separation from the masses. This form of semantic manipulation is genius and extremely effective; everyone wants to be different, wants to be better than the rest, and Moss capitalizes on that instinctual human desire.

However, Aaranow is a fearful and simple man. When Moss is trying to manipulate him, he frequently asks for clarification: he often asks one word or simple “W-questions” like “Who?” and “What…”. If he can barely comprehend Moss’s elaborate story and theft plan, how is he expected to steal the leads? From this conversation that occurs early on, readers learn that Aaranow does not possess the capacity to steal the leads–mentally or emotionally. Thus, though Aaranow was very clever in his attempt to make Aaranow feel “guilty by association just from discussing the theft” (to paraphrase Moss), Aaronow’s nerves in the office post-robbery are interpreted as just that: nerves. Anybody else asking questions and appearing nervous would have been blamed and accused on the spot; however, that’s just Aaronow’s character. If he wasn’t nervous, that would have been suspicious.

Roma is the only character that speaks to Williamson and insistently uses profanity: “Don’t fuck with me, fella. I’m talking about a fucking Cadillac car that you owe me.” When Williamson responds defensively with, “They didn’t get your contracts. I filed it before I Left,” Roma says, “They didn’t get my contracts.” Profanity followed by telegraphic phrasing is indicative of power. Profanity is tied to fearlessness; telegraphic phrasing (as seen when Williamson speaks to Levene) reveals conviction. Roma is currently the most successful agent at the firm; he is the new Levene. The most fascinating aspect of Roma’s speech is that it retains the markers of notoriety seen in Levene’s speech, without the markers of inferiority. The difference: he knows Williamson can’t rid of him and walks with his nose in the air. However, admiring the man that once stood in his shoes, his language reveals a high level of respect when talking about or to Levene.

When speaking of or to Levene, Roma virtually becomes a child talking about Captain America. It’s as if Levene is the master and he is the apprentice. Roma says to Levene: “I said, The Machine, there’s a man I would work with. There’s a man…” You know?” Roma admires Levene so much so that the cocksure temperament he holds with the other agents dissipates; he admires Levene because he sees himself in Levene. But the question is: does it grow from a place of fear or respect? Maybe Roma sees his future self in Levene. Roma knows that he will one day be reaching back for his past glory. Roma is just Levene in his prime. Thus, Roma speaks to Williamson with a cocksure dignity; however, speaks to Levene from a place of compassion…for his future self. It’s rather sad when processed.

PUT THAT COFFEE DOWN. COFFEE IS FOR CLOSERS ONLY.” With a stoic expression and an unwavering gaze, Alec Baldwin delivers a speech only in the movie (a moment amiss in the original play). This speech is designed to whip the others into shape; sent in by Mitch and Murray, Blake’s famous line is addressed directly to Levene. Accidental? Of course not. Levene’s apathetic attitude towards Blake is unacceptable; therefore, Blake demands the respect…from the one man who barely has any left for himself. How about that for a self-righteous power move? Furthermore, from consistently dropping the “f-bomb” to persisting that the others’ concerns/conditions are all shit, he enters with the confidence of someone important. This self-reassurance is a genius linguistic tactic. Getting people to listen is rarely about having something to say; but rather, often about saying it as if it matters. Tone and demeanor go a long way. I mean…Nixon will forever be the bumbling fool sticking up peace signs. But I digress. Not only is Levene the one to receive Blake’s initial change in tone (to a more aggressive one), Roma is absent during this speech.

Roma is absent because he is Levene before the fall from glory! He would be the one man confident enough to put this Blake bastard in his place. If Roma was in the room, it would be mutiny: the others would rise to support Roma, and Blake would lose any power he may have previously retained. Mamet’s cleverness is unquestionably awe-inspiring; the combination of Levene and Blake’s standoff with Roma’s absence couldn’t be more genius: Mamet plays with Blake’s character in a way that simultaneously strengthens the similarity and divergence between Levene and Roma; and thus, strongly hints at where the play will end.

Conclusion Highlight

ROMA: Has no reason to steal the leads.
MOSS: The master of semantic manipulation who wouldn’t be caught red handed; however, could not convince an easy target.
AARANOW: The questioning scaredy-cat too fearful and simple-minded to successfully steal the leads.
LEVENE: The perfect culprit. Lost notoriety. Shame. Desire to be the best…again.
WILLIAMSON: The fast-talking man on top destined to come out ahead in the end.
BLAKE: A short appearance but a telling one; he highlights the significance of Levene and Roma as a pair and as individuals.

Joshua Lezmi

Joshua Lezmi-a recent graduate of the University of Rochester- double majored in English and Brain and Cognitive Science. He works as a Contributing Writer/Editor for the Monologue Blogger and writes for the culture section. When he’s not watching movies or frequenting plays, he enjoys reading and writing poetry.

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