The entirety of Mamet’s play is set inside Don’s resale shop. The play begins in the junk shop midmorning. All of the play’s dialogue occurs within the shop, while almost every piece of action (be it getting coffee etc) occurs outside of the shop. The shop serves as the centre of the characters’ plan much the same way that Don himself is the apparent co-ordinator and overwatcher of the operation. From the outset of the play, it is likely clear to the audience (and readers for that matter), that they will not see the execution of the plan, or perhaps that it will never transpire.
Don appears to be the most competent of the three characters on stage. His position as owner of the junk shop gives him a degree of authority over both Bob and Teach. Clearly, however, based upon his occupation and his mannerisms, he is of the same walk of life as Teach. From the very outset of the play, Don acts as a parental figure to the young and inexperienced Bob. In fact, the opening of the pay sees Bob apologizing for a mistake he made, to which Don says he is not mad. Rather, Don expresses his hope that Bob has learned from the experience, so that he will not make it twice. Furthermore, Don seems genuinely concerned with Bob’s health: “Never skip breakfast, Bob”. Furthermore, he even promises to buy vitamins for Bob, who cannot afford them.
Don seems to revere Fletcher, a character who never takes to the stage and is only mentioned as one of the men on the job. While chiding Bob on his mistakes, Don uses Fletcher as an example of a stand-up guy who can do almost anything, and has come to do so through learning by action, as “Action talks and bullshit walks.”
Teach’s initial entrance to the stage marks a staunch shift in tone. Just as Bob and Don are finished talking about eating healthily, Teach enters and says “F*ckin’ Ruthie, F*ckin’ Ruthie, F*ckin’ Ruthie, F*ckin’ Ruthie, F*ckin’ Ruthie.” From this point, Don and Teach disregard Bob while they converse about Grace and Ruthie. Teach dominates the dialogue immediately after his entrance, making clear his dominant personality among the three characters. It is also clear that Teach has strong opinions and is aggressive, as seen in his statement that “They treat me like an a**hole, they are an a**hole…[Pause]…The only way to teach these people is to kill them.”
One interesting tendency of Teach’s is to talk to Don about Bob, while Bob is clearly within earshot onstage. This is initially evident early on:
Teach: And tell him he shouldn’t say anything to Ruthie
Don: He won’t.
Teach: No you’re right, I’m sorry Bob.
Teach acts with the bravado of a confident thief, when in reality he in fact has little clue of what to do. This is seen during Act I when he is planning the robbery. Teach insists that he knows what is valuable and what to take. He pressures Don to leave Bob on the outside of the operation: “Fifty percent of some money is better than ninety percent of some broken toaster that you’re gonna have, you send the kid in.” He also preaches “Knowing what the f*ck you’re talking about.” However, readers soon realize that Don, and Teach especially, do not know the value of anything worth stealing, or for that matter, even have a plan of how to enter the house. When posed with the suggestion to read up on the value of coins to steal, Teach replies annoyed: “Naaa, f*ck the book. What am I going to do, leaf through the book for hours on end? Te important thing is to have an idea.”
Rather ironically, He constantly instructs the others in the ways that “business” is conducted: “A guy can be too loyal,” “Don’t confuse business with pleasure,” “It’s kickass or kissass,” and “You got to have a feeling for your subject” are a few of the many “rules” he recites during the play. Teach subscribes to the notion that free enterprise is “The freedom of the Individual to Embark on Any F*cking Course that he sees fit”.
Bob is Don’s “gopher” and serves him in the dual capacities of coffee-fetcher and surrogate son. While he does listen patiently to all of Don’s lessons on how to “do business,” the audience also learns that he frequently borrows money from him to support a drug habit. Slow-witted and dull, he is not as talkative nor excitable as Don or Teach, but he does remain faithful to Don, even after he is assaulted by Teach on the grounds that he has betrayed their robbery scheme to other thieves. If we assume that the accusations against Bob were in fact false, then Bob is the only character who remains loyal to the others. He is not the least Machiavellian or pragmatic, either due to a gentle nature or a lower intelligence than the others.
In American Buffalo, business is recurring theme. The low-life characters often act in a Machiavellian manner in pursuit of money through business. An example given early on details of a business deal where Fletcher “jewed” Ruthie out of some pig iron. Bob is under the impression that Ruthie was mad at Fletcher because he stole it. However, as Don explains she was angry, but simply because of the nature of the business deal, likely one that was very good for Fletcher only. Don explains “The fact remains that it was business. That’s what business is.” In the play, due to the financial situation of the characters, they seem to be willing to do nearly anything in order to get by. Don describes business as “people taking care of themselves.” He further elaborates that “there’s business and there’s friendship, Bobby.” He summarizes the maxim soon after “There’s lotsa people on this street, Bob, they want this and they want that. Do anything to get it. You don’t have friends this life” Clearly, from the outset of the play it is clear that an keeping an aggressive eye out for oneself is essential to getting by.
Don faces a dilemma in the play, of whether to remain loyal in his promise to Bob, or to pursue a more Business centred method, involving the more professional Fletcher. Teach applies pressure to Don in Act I in order to make this happen.
Loyalty is another major theme present in American Buffalo. It acts as a somewhat countervailing force to that of business. The play’s strongest loyalty is the clearly caring relationship between Bob and Don, who acts as a mentor of sorts. Bob’s running of errands, such as getting coffee at the Riverside re-enforce the idea that he is loyal to Don, out of respect and gratitude. There is a clear sense that Bob listens to every word that Don has to say. This may be related to the fact that Don is a [perhaps] somewhat successful business owner. Therefore, his loyalty may draw from a desire to emulate Don.
If Bob exemplifies loyalty in the play, then Teach represents his treacherous, Machiavellian antithesis. Teach does exhibit loyalty to Don, but it is not clear if this emerges from a friendship, or merely as a “business” venture. Early in the play, Teach expresses his opinion of business and friendship: “Let’s just keep the two apart, and maybe we can deal with each other like human beings.” Teach implores this maxim when he persuades Don to not send Bob in on the job, arguing that Bob is just a kid who had no experience, and is only there because of Don’s loyalty to him.
As we find out, Don maintains a loyalty to Bob, despite the fact that Bob is a recovering drug addict. In fact, he dislikes the mention of it “I don’t want you mentioning that.”
At the opening of American Buffalo, Don is lecturing Bob on the importance of committing himself to the “business” deal they have made; Bob is supposed to be watching the target of their robbery but has instead returned to the junk shop. Don tells him, “Action counts. Action talks and bullshit walks.” After Bob apologizes, Don protests, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry, I’m not mad at you.” What the audience learns from this remark is that Don is genuinely interested in helping Bob become more astute in the ways of their own brand of business. He tells him that he should model himself after Fletcher, a “standup guy” and card shark who had to “learn” all he knows about becoming a success. Don impresses upon Bob the importance of attitude and intelligence when confronting the business world: “Everything, Bobby: it’s going to happen to you, it’s not going to happen to you, the important thing is can you deal with it, and can you learn from it.”
Don’s father-figure interest in Bob is implied through the advice he offers him on a number of topics. When he sends Bob to the diner to get coffee, he insists that he buy something for himself, since “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”; later, he urges Bob to take vitamins. His most important lesson, however, is what he tells Bob about friendship: “There’s lotsa people on this street, Bob, they want this and they want that. Do anything to get it. You don’t have friends this life… ” The implied end of this sentence—”is worth nothing”—reveals the high value Don places on friendship and people protecting each other from what he calls the “garbage” of the world. As the play proceeds, Bob is revealed to be a drug addict, frequently asking Don for money to support his habit—which Don “lends” him, preferring not to press him for explanations. By the end of the play, however, Don forsakes his friendship with Bob in the name of business—an action which causes him a great deal of shame, since he knows he has failed to follow his own advice. The last scene of the play shows their relationship being rebuilt and Don trying to make amends for his doubting the strength of Bob’s devotion.
Like Don, Teach seems to hold up friendship as an absolute good. He enters the play cursing Ruthie, a mutual friend, for making a joke when he took a piece of toast off her plate at the diner. Her remark of “Help yourself” causes Teach to rage at her for forgetting all the times he has picked up the check: he tells Don, “All I ever ask (and I would say this to her face) is only she remembers who is who and not to go around with her or Gracie either with this attitude. ‘The Past is Past, and this is Now, and so F*ck You.'” Ruthie’s remark has hurt Teach because she has not lived up to the code of friendship that he assumes he embodies.
However, when Teach sees the chance to make “real classical money” in Don’s robbery scheme, he immediately tries to talk Don into dismissing Bob. Hiding his avarice under the guise of “good business,” Teach convinces Don that Bob, although Don’s friend, is not a good candidate for such an operation: “A guy can be too loyal, Don. Don’t be dense on this. What are we saying here? Business.” When Don does remove Bob from the plan and their plot begins to turn awry, Teach suggests that Bob has betrayed them—a false implication which, nonetheless, is believed by Don until the final scene of the play, when he realizes that it is he who has betrayed Bob in the name of “good business.”
Success and Failure
Don and Teach are small-time gamblers and thieves who constantly spout aphorisms that they think attest to their “business” savvy: “Things are not always what they seem to be,” “You got to keep clear who your friends are,” “Don’t confuse business with pleasure” and “You got to trust your instincts” are only a few of their many saws. Don lectures Bob on “good business” and Teach tells Don that he should exclude Bob from the robbery because “as a business proposition” he “cannot afford” to have someone with his lack of experience break into a house.
Anyone watching the play, however, can see that their theory does not convert into practice. The viewer learns that a poker game took place last night in the shop, where Don “did allright” (very likely a euphemism) and Teach ended the game “Not too good.” When the game is discussed, Teach attributes his loss not to his own lack of skill but to Ruthie’s cheating: “She is not a good cardplayer,” Teach asserts, because her “partner” is always “going to walk around,” presumably to glance at everyone’s cards. (Teach later claims that Fletcher, last night’s winner, cheats as well.) When Teach uses a collector’s guide to quiz Don on what coins they should steal from their future victim’s collection, Don shows his ignorance in this field by guessing that a certain coin is worth $18.60 instead of its actual worth of twenty cents. Later, when Teach tries to call the collector’s house to be sure he is not home, he keeps transposing parts of the phone number
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