American Buffalo is “Profane Poetry”

 “Loyalty is fine, but this is business.”
-Walter “Teach” Cole, American Buffalo

I LOVE Theater. There is simply nothing that can beat LIVE stage acting for me… I LOVE sitting as in the front as possible and immerse myself in the play in the most intimate way possible. The energy actors put into acting every single day for weeks — and twice a day on Wednesdays and Saturdays, at least on Broadway — is beyond admirable!

I am sure everyone has her special way of enjoying a play, and mine is knowing as much as possible about the play before I go and see it for the BEST theater experience. I don’t want to concentrate on understanding the play once I take my seat; instead, I want to know “what’s going on” beforehand, and so I can just sit back, relax and SAVOUR the experience. Even for plays that I have read or seen before on stage or in film, I love to refresh my memory about the plot, characters and conversations before I go and take my seat in the theater.

American Buffalo is no exception.

Well, it is, in fact, an exception, in two different ways. Firstly, it’s really SPECIAL than everything else I have seen to date — and I have seen a lot — just because my favorite actor is headlining it! And, he is bringing the great John Goodman, and the young rising star Tom Sturridge with him, too!

source: YouTube screen shot
Damian’s “Teach” Look, source: YouTube screen shot

Secondly, American Buffalo is special because it makes more sense when heard than read — thanks to the way David Mamet wrote the play to make mundane and profane conversations poetic.

Mamet wrote American Buffalo in “iambic pentameter.” I know… Here’s a quick 101: An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (for example: de-lay). In case you are not familiar, stressed syllables are pronounced slightly louder, for a slightly longer duration, and at a slightly higher pitch than unstressed syllables. Pent means five and so a line of “iambic pentameter” consists of five iambs — essentially five sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables — giving a certain rhythm to the conversations.

Here’s an iambic pentameter from American Buffalo:

“It makes no earthly difference in the world.”

With the stressed syllables highlighted, it looks like this:

It MAKES no EARTH-ly DIFF-erence IN the WORLD.

SeattleRep website explains: “Mamet’s plays usually contain terse dialogue that is chock-full of profanity. At first it might seem as if anyone could master Mamet speak just by spewing curse words, but Zachary Simonson, who plays Bobby, pointed out that the language in American Buffalo is actually very precise and measured. “There’s a term called ‘profane poetry’ which very well describes what’s going on,” he said. He explained that many lines are written in iambic pentameter, the same verse meter that Shakespeare used. These carefully crafted lines lend a rhythm to the dialogue that implies a variety of emotions as it fluctuates throughout the play. “I don’t know that I’ve ever done anything that’s this rich before,” said Zach.

Now on to the story without giving too much away…

American Buffalo has “blue-collar desperation” at the heart of its story. It is about guys that never really make it. The three characters, Don, Teach and Bobby, more or less, span three generations — Don (John Goodman) is an older man, Bobby (Tom Sturridge) the young kid, and “Teach” (Damian Lewis) the middle-aged. They are not necessarily family; but they ARE, in a sense, three generations living the exact same life.

These guys are not the part of the REAL game. They, in Damian Lewis’ words, “desperately long for a shot at their slice of the American dream.”

They, in fact, long to be a part of the game at the expense of losing the only valuable possession they may have in life.

Their friendship.

Having one’s share of the American Dream happens through hard work, right choices, and a little bit of luck… Teach, Don and Bobby have not been able to get there… We don’t know if they worked hard ever… They probably did not make the right choices… And, they, I am sure as hell, did not have much luck, either. The play, in this context of three men hoping to make it, questions where “friendship” ends and “business” begins — how they do let money take power over their friendship — and makes us think about how big business and its “values” have changed the core “American values” held dearly for the longest time.

The play opens and closes at Don’s junk shop — attesting to the fact that these guys are “all talk and no action.” They are ALWAYS in the shop… well, talking! Even though Don advises young Bobby “action talks, bullshit walks” what he himself does is… just… talk — at least when he is not playing cards! And, it seems Bobby takes after his mentor 🙂

Don sells a “buffalo nickel” to a customer for 90 bucks and soon after suspects that the nickel is actually worth much more than that… And, he starts planning with young Bobby to take back what is his and some more from that customer…

Enters Walter “Teach” Cole, a friend, in the middle of their conversation. “Teach” is the perfect depiction of blue-collar desperation. He is aggressive and ambitious, he preaches to others about how to conduct “business” — so is “Teach” — but he is, in fact, rather clueless about how to go about “business.”

Teach’s first lines give us the man he is: “Fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie, fuckin’ Ruthie.” Here is yet another tool Mamet uses to intensify the impact a line has on the audience: repetition.

Teach is pissed off.

First, with his friends who treated him “like an asshole.” Teach says “the only way to teach these people is to kill them.” He has some deep-down brewing fury that it seems Teach can turn violent any moment. Look at the pic below with Damian Lewis in character — he looks scary 🙂


Teach is pissed off with his decisions in life: “If I kept the stuff that I threw out… I would be a wealthy man today. I would be cruising on some European yacht.” He would most probably not be cruising on some European yacht. But he has to hold on to a justification for not having been able to make it… And, maybe it’s wrong choices — if only he had kept the stuff he threw out… or the stuff his dad had kept in his desk drawer…

With guys that have made it: “Fuckin’ fruits…”

Teach talks, in fact, lectures on friendship and loyalty… but then when he notices there is some “business” cooking between Don and Bobby, he does not lose a moment in saying “Loyalty is fine. But, this is business” and gives his best shot in replacing Bobby on the job!

source: BBC Radio 4
Teach and Don in the junk shop, source: BBC Radio 4

Teach and Don start planning their BIG SHOT at making it… However, as I have already highlighted, they just talk and take no real action. The second act, in particular, attests to the inertia in the two men… as Don and Teach wait for their co-conspirator, Fletcher, to show up — it is almost waiting for Godot 🙂 — who never shows up… and you sort of feel, maybe they hope that he does not show up anyway… And… The FUNNIEST part is the reason why Fletcher does NEVER show up — I don’t want to give it away, but if you are not familiar with the play, you will fall in love with Mamet’s brilliance in use of irony… You can listen a brief BBC4 radio interview with John Goodman here in which hear a glimpse of Teach and Don planning their grand scheme and see a couple of rehearsal pics here to get you right in the mood for American Buffalo 🙂

At the end of the day, what our three amigos have in life is their friendship and not much else. By choosing “business” over “friendship” these guys are now at the brink of losing their most valuable possession…

Gregory Mosher, who directed the first production of American Buffalo in 1976, writes in the foreword to a 1976 edition book: “There’s more to the play than words, of course, because there was more on Mamet’s mind than a linguistic parlor trick. Like some bastard offspring of Oswald Spengler and Elaine May, American Buffalo popped out, full grown, as the American drama’s funniest, most vicious attack on the ethos of Big Business and the price that it exacts upon the human soul. As Dave might say, “Hey, somebody had to do it.”

Absolutely! And, somebody had to stage it… for our times! Thank you, Damian Lewis and Daniel Evans, for coming up with this BRILLIANT idea and BEST OF LUCK to the entire cast and crew with the production!

Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

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