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Using insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the history of sexuality, Holmberg explores the ambiguity that drives male bonding. Personal interviews with Mamet and with the actors who have interpreted his major roles shed light on how and why men bond with each other and complement close analysis of Mamet's texts.




What does friendship mean to American men? A social construct, friendship changes over time. Friendship today differs greatly from friendship in America when Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed shared a bed—a common practice in the nineteenth century. Friendship has a history, a sociology, an anthropology, and a psychology. Since all these disciplines offer insights into the conundrum of male friendship, I reference all of them. Despite different approaches, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists largely agree that in comparison with the past, male friendship has dwindled to a “crisis of connection.”1
Arthur Holmberg

1. Buddy Plays and Buddy Films

Mamet’s signature as playwright,” says Paula Vogel, “is his ability to dramatize men’s fascination with other men.” Buddy films, a staple of Hollywood, exploit this fascination, but they deny it as vigorously as they flaunt it. “In our society,” Vogel continued, “men showing tenderness for other men is taboo.” Taboo because deep male friendship triggers homosexual panic. Mamet has dealt with a broad range of psychological, social, and intellectual issues, but exploring the attraction men feel for other men remains his forte, and unlike the Hollywood product, Mamet has the sang-froid to dramatize this fascination without disavowing it. The central concern in Mamet’s work, writes David Radavich, is the “single-minded quest for lasting, fulfilling male friendship.” The turbulence of male bonding drives Mamet’s plays, and he looks at it without blinkers. No other American playwright has explored the war zone we call male friendship with as sharp a scalpel as Mamet’s. For this reason, Guido Almansi dubbed him the “chronicler... of the stag party.”1
Arthur Holmberg

2. Buddy Cops

In Homicide, a buddy cop film, Bob Gold and Tim Sullivan recapitulate one of the oldest motifs in Western literature: the love between comrades-in-arms. Our first great literary masterpiece, the Epic of Gilgamesh, is a male love poem. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, David and Jonathan, Achilles and Patroclus, Roland and Olivier—the epics of heroic friendship involve two men, fiercely loyal, who embark on a dangerous mission. Willing to die to defend each other, the two warriors prize their friendship above all other relationships, and anthropologists Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow see parallels between these bonds and romantic love. In comparison with the comrade, women, if mentioned, dwindle into insignificance. “Roland does not think about Alde on the battle-field,” writes C. S. Lewis. “The figure of the betrothed is shadowy compared with that of the friend, Oliver. The deepest of worldly emotions in this period is the love of man for man, the mutual love of warriors who die together.” The center of the hero’s life is the comrade and war, not hearth and home.1
Arthur Holmberg

3. Honor among Thieves?

American Buffalo
American Buffalo dramatizes male bonding with a cold but compassionate eye. A fugue for three voices, it begins with a riff on the value of friendship. “Keep clear who your friends are,” Don tells Bobby, “the rest is garbage.”1 Mamet writes that men get together for three reasons—to do business, to bitch, to have fun.2 Buffalo puts all three— business, bitching, and fun—into high relief. The boys shout, fight, and plot a crime. Shifting power dynamics, exploding tempers, and screwball comedy keep the play rolling. But whereas Mamet’s essay celebrates the patterns of male friendship, his play criticizes them. The essay shows men the way Mamet wants them to be, the play the way they are.
Arthur Holmberg

4. The Cycle of Friendship

A Life in the Theatre
The same month American Buffalo opened on Broadway (February 1977), Mamet premiered another teacher-student play, A Life in the Theatre. Like Chekhov’s “Swan Song,” Mamet’s play sends an ironic valentine to the stage. Chekhov’s sketch winks at the despair of a vodka-soaked actor who blames the theater for having destroyed his life. Exploring the relationship between life and art, Chekhov’s little gem blends comedy and pathos. Mamet’s play keeps the equipoise of Chekhov’s mixed emotions—Mamet called his play a “sad comedy about actors”— but his full-length play expands considerably Chekhov’s thematic concerns. Both plays put two men alone on an existential stage with no exit except death.1
Arthur Holmberg

5. Comrades in Competition

Glengarry Glen Ross
Glengarry Glen Ross consecrated Mamet the Molière of male masochism. Like The Misanthrope or George Dandin, Glenngarry is savage and funny and cruel. Part Kingsley, part Hecht and MacArthur, the play is genuine, pure Mamet. With his knack for mixing comedy with vitriol, Mamet shows us fear in a handful of laughter. Although comparisons with Death of a Salesman come up regularly, Glengarry’s contrasting tones share more with Babbitt than with Miller’s elegy. Mamet called the play a “gang comedy,” and what a gang: Dead End kids who have grown up and now sell real estate rather than pick pockets. Slightly more legal, real estate is also more lucrative, and even though the kids don business suits, they remain thieves.1
Arthur Holmberg

6. Friends without Benefits

Sexual Perversity in Chicago
If the sizzle of erotic fantasy sells real estate in Glengarry, in Sexual Perversity the sizzle binds Danny to Bernie. Talking dirty is an adolescent male ritual. To bond with each other, Moss and Aarnonow grouse about their job. Bernie and Danny grouse about broads. Danny looks up to Bernie as a champion stud. By soaking up Bernie’s tales of epic fornication, Danny hopes to learn the score. Testosterone raging, the buddies pass the day spinning sexual yarns, ogling babes, critiquing porn. In addition to being a mechanism of male bonding, all three habits reinforce a masculine self-image. Bernie and Danny fancy themselves gourmets of female flesh. “Tits and Ass. Tits and Ass. Tits and Ass. Blah de Bloo. Blah de Bloo. Blah de Bloo.” This refrain runs through their baby talk.1
Arthur Holmberg

7. Is It Legal?

In 3 Uses of the Knife Mamet writes that “the conscious mind cannot create art” (49). Like post-Inferno Strindberg, Mamet defines theater as a dream:
We respond to a drama to that extent to which it corresponds to our dream life.
The life of the play is the life of the unconscious, the protagonist represents ourselves, and the main action of the play constitutes the subject of the dream.
In dreams we do not seek answers which our conscious (rational) mind is capable of supplying, we seek answers to those questions which the conscious mind is incompetent to deal with.... Only if the question posed is one whose complexity and depth renders it unsusceptible to rational examination does the dramatic treatment seem to us appropriate, and the dramatic solution become enlightening. (Writing in Restaurants 8–9)
By exploring the unknown self, therefore, theater reveals what the conscious mind conceals, what reason finds unreasonable.
Arthur Holmberg

8. The Dialog of Life

The Duck Variations
While proliferating the signifiers of masculinity, Mamet’s plays simultaneously blur erotic boundaries in a deconstruction of sexuality. Romance makes explicit what many Mamet works dramatize implicitly: eros can play a part in male attraction and attachment. But friendship and erotic desire are not one and the same. Although eros and philia share elements in common, they are not commensurate. Libido, to use Freud’s term, may bring friends together, but libido— sublimated, repressed, or alive and kicking—does not exhaust the meanings of friendship.
Arthur Holmberg

9. Climbing Plato’s Ladder

Edmond, Mamet’s most provocative work, dramatizes the search for friendship. The opening throws us into an Orphic world. A man consults a fortune-teller. He says almost nothing. She says plenty, but what she says is unclear:
FORTUNE-TELLER: If things are predetermined surely they must manifest themselves. When we look back—as we look back—we see that we could never have done otherwise than as we did.... What we see reflects (more than what is) what is to be.... You are not where you belong.... The world seems to be crumbling around us.... And you are unsure what your place is. To what extent you are cause and to what an effect....1
The palm reader’s incantation raises three points: the world is falling apart, Edmond is not where he should be, and free will set against predetermination (“cause” opposed to “effect”). Free will versus predetermination has been the bete noire of Western philosophy. Dress the question up in whatever language one likes—philosophical or theological, biological or sociological, psychological or legal—it continues to plague us. At stake is the question of responsibility. If we are not free, if God or the stars or biology or the environment determines what we do, who can hold us responsible? The play begins with “if.” It is in the subjunctive mode.
Arthur Holmberg


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