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American Buffalo and the American Business Ethic

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American Buffalo and the American Business Ethic

Because the American business ethic condones betrayal and disloyalty in the name of capitalism, the characters of American Buffalo act only according to the nature of their given circumstances and societal pressures.

Initially one might think American Buffalo is a straightforward story of three, small-time crooks bungling an easy graft. Don, a junk shop owner, has sold a buffalo-head nickel to a coin collector. Don comes to believe that he was taken advantage of, an act that he insists not only lost him money but insulted his intelligence and capabilities as a business man. Don decides not only to steal back the coin but the gentleman's whole collection, which Don envisions as being quite substantial.

Don enlists the help of a young man, Bob, to whom he acts as a kind of mentor to. However, his other accomplice, Teach, argues against Bob's inclusion in the deal; Don agrees and cuts him out, going back on his word that he had given to his friend. They wait at the store until after nightfall but the robbery never takes place. Bob returns to the store with a buffalo-head nickel to which he admits not having stolen but purchased. Realizing that Bob had also lied about seeing the coin collector returning to his home, Don becomes angry and ashamed at having put his faith in the kid, even though Bob wanted nothing more than to impress his friend. Teach becomes enraged, assaulting the hapless young man and destroying the shop. The societal pressure to acquire material gain and profit in combination with circumstances of limited means, caused them to destroy the one thing they had of any real value--their friendship.

After this play opened, Mamet admitted being angry about business in America. American Buffalo, he argued, "is all about the American ethic of business...About how we excuse all sorts of great and small betrayals and ethical compromises called business." I felt angry about business when I wrote the play."[6] The rabid pursuit of wealth and America's ostentatious display of it is not a new phenomenon. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville writes in his critical essay on the American Republic:

"I know of no other country than America where love of money has such a grip on men's hearts or where stronger scorn is expressed for the theory of the permanent quality of property." [7]

In American Buffalo, the concept of business is more than just the buying and selling of goods and services as a means for one's livelihood, but the fundamental aspect of the characters' whole existence. The audience never sees the characters outside the setting of the shop. Teach and Bob come from the outside world into the play's world of Don's store. Don never leaves his business. Something that is evident to the audience is that for the characters, the outside world is governed by the same moral and ethical rules as the characters' private lives. For Teach, Don and Bobby, life and the American Dream is about constantly jockeying for advantage in the cutthroat world of business, for an edge in pocketing the almighty dollar. This is illustrated when Don reveals that he chose Bob to assist him in robbing the collector and Teach tries to dissuade him so he can take his place:

Don: He's doing good.

Teach: I can see that. Pause But I gotta say something here.

Don: What?

Teach: Only this-and don't think I'm getting at anything-

Don: What?

Teach: Pause Don't send the kid in.

Don: I shouldn't send Bobby in?

Teach: No. (Now, just wait a second.) Let's siddown on this.

What are we saying here? Loyalty. (pg. 33)

Teach automatically attacks Bob's character in a bid to take his place on the job and make a profit. At the end of the play, the subterfuge becomes physical when Teach viciously attacks him then trashes the store. Reminiscent of an episode from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, Teach's assault has similar practical applications--to narrow the playing field in a dog-eat-dog environment. Without competition, Teach has more room and opportunities to succeed and just like animals in the wild, he asserts his dominance over the weaker creatures in the jungle. Tactics like this are common place in a country where society tells its constituents to succeed at all costs.

Part of the characters' penchant for betrayal lies in their envy of what they do not have. In A Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thornstein Velban explains the concept of "pecuniary emulation." In Betrayal and Friendship, Matthew Roudane interprets this concept:

"Velban believed that the individual dwelt in a social world, and that his outward behavior to an extent was defined and accorded value when compared to that of his neighbors. These neighbors, Velban argued, emulated each other, and when-in trying to keep up with the Joneses-they participated in "pecuniary emulation," they accumulated more wealth in order to be financially like(or even better off than) their neighbors." [6]

In this context it is easy to see how Don, Bob, and Teach, three men at the bottom of the economic ladder, can become demoralized enough to double-cross their friends.

In 1990, the richest one percent of American households controlled about forty percent of all wealth. During the Reagan era, shifts in wealth distribution went directly to the top one percent as well. In contrast, the lower and middle class experienced flat or falling growth during the same period of time. [3] This era saw the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, often at the expense of small business owners like Don.

As America entered the 1980's, the country saw an initial drop followed by a steady rise in crime rates until the mid 1990's.[8] This is due in part to the hardships of the economic recession created by the "trickle-down" economics of the Reagan administration and people's willingness to first modify their principles to fit the greater personal need, then rationalize those modifications if they prove contrary to their original moral or ethical codes. Human beings have a natural adaptability to adverse conditions that facilitates their ability to resolve particular moral and ethical dilemmas that would otherwise hinder progress when action must be taken to protect their interests. In combat, most soldiers will not hesitate to provide



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