Show me the money

Pulitzer Prize- winning play Glengarry Glen Ross’s grasping salesmen are a metaphor of our times, says Padraic Killeen

A masterpiece of modern American drama, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, starts the summer season at Dublin’s Gate theatre this week. Set in a real-estate office where salesmen are pitched in battle to be top dog, the iconic play is a gripping fable about money, machismo, and the destructive impact of capitalism on human dignity. It won Mamet the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1984. This revival features some of Ireland’s finest actors, among them Owen Roe and Denis Conway, and is directed by American Doug Hughes.

Hughes is a 2005 Tony-award winner for the Broadway smash hit Doubt. He is of Irish-American stock. His father, Barnard, was the son of Irish immigrants, and a well-known actor of stage and screen in America. Hughes’s mother, Helen Stenborg, was also an actress. She died last year.

This is Hughes’s first time working in Ireland, but he has been a frequent visitor since his teens. He and his sister, Laura, an actress, holidayed here, and he has fond memories of Dublin when his father was performing there.

“The first time he played here was in a production of You Can’t Take It With You in the Abbey in 1989,” says Hughes. “A few years later, he came back to appear in Hugh Leonard’s Da, which he had done on Broadway and had toured America with in the late 1970s. That was a production in the Olympia with Donal McCann. It was a great pleasure for my father to work with Donal and a great pleasure for me actually to meet him, too. Both those occasions were considered very special engagements for my father, so all the family were airlifted in. We had a great, great Christmas in 1989 in the Shelbourne hotel. It was one of the most memorable Christmases that I can recall.”

As a young man, Hughes made a half-hearted attempt to “flee the family business” when he enrolled to study biology at Harvard, but he set up a small theatre there and a career in directing began. “The idea of the child of two actors becoming a director sounds like a clear case of oedipal revenge,” he says. “But it’s worked out very nicely. And even though it’s a different facet of it, I’m glad I stayed in the family business.”

Mr Hughes is relishing staging Glengarry Glen Ross at the Gate. “It’s a fine monster of a play and an utterly distinct work,” he says. “But doing it here at the Gate, which has such a strong tradition with Samuel Beckett and with Harold Pinter, is interesting because I’ve often thought that you wouldn’t have had Pinter without Beckett and you wouldn’t have had Mamet without Pinter. That little lineage really does make sense.”

Mamet is reputedly as intimidating as some of his hard-talking characters, yet Hughes — who directed a revival of Mamet’s Oleanna in the US a few years ago — has only good things to say about him. “When I was doing Oleanna in LA, we got to spend a little time together and then I saw him again in New York,” he says. “In my experience, he’s been staggeringly supportive and encouraging. In his essays, of course, he writes hilariously and bluntly about the phenomenon of directors but I must say that he’s been very sweet to me. But David is a fierce mind and a fierce man, and it’s that energy that translates to the stage.”

‘Fierce’ is the perfect adjective for Glengarry Glen Ross, a play which takes the relentless grind of the real-estate salesman’s life and builds a bleak and unforgettable parable about human alienation.

“All of us can identify with the difficulty of making a living,” says Hughes. “All of us can identify with the fear that we’re not going to cut it, that we’ll be left behind, that we’ll be the low guy on the board. Mamet makes a kind of poetry of anxiety and we all know that feeling. But, in addition, the play has got a whodunit element, it’s incredibly funny, and it’s suspenseful. It is fantastic entertainment made out of the raw material of real life.”

Mamet’s facility with language is perhaps unrivalled in modern drama and Glengarry Glen Ross is steeped in his hard-bitten idiom. The play is also infamously drenched in swearwords. To get hung up on the latter is to ignore that the truly degrading language in the play is the business-speak that corrodes men from within. “Some of the most cunning things that are said in the play have not at all to do with the famous four-letter words,” says Mr Hughes. “They have to do with brutal but perfectly acceptable language that withers a man when he hears it.”

The world of Glengarry Glen Ross — a world where people are frantically trying to sell houses to other people, where nobody appears to be trustworthy, and where the only thing alleviating the stress of the situation is a liberal bout of ‘effing and blinding’ — is not too unfamiliar to us in modern Ireland. The resonances with the housing bust are relevant, says Mr Hughes.

“I haven’t changed the setting of the play to a ghost estate somewhere in the west, or anything like that,” he says. “But I can’t pretend that the fact that people can be charmed, cajoled, even bullied into making very, very bad investments by men in suits, both in my own country and in the Republic of Ireland, that that phenomenon wasn’t part of the calculus in deciding to do this play at this time.”

Fortunately, neither Mamet nor Mr Hughes are into sermonising and if there are parallels to be drawn between the events in Glengarry Glen Ross and Ireland’s current predicament, the play will not push them too hard. Instead, Hughes says, the resonances can ring for themselves.

“I think an audience smells it the moment a director or an author tries to teach it something,” he says. “I want to give an audience an experience that doesn’t teach them anything. One of my favourite aesthetic statements is by good old WB Yeats. ‘Only that which does not teach, which does not persuade, which does not condescend, which does not explain, is irresistible’.”

Glengarry Glen Ross runs May 24 – Jul 14

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