Welcome to the office. You'll notice a big board on the wall that ranks you in order of sales. If you're on top of the board, you win a car. If you're second, you still have a job. If you're third or fourth, you get fired. Good times.
Competition drives Glengarry Glen Ross forward, and these guys are literally competing against each other for their jobs. If one of them does well, it's bad news for the others, so needless to say, it's tense, y'all. This tension drives the actions and interactions of all the main characters. Add the fact that most of them have an unhealthy obsession with masculinity, and you know that sparks (and words) are going to fly.
Moss accuses Roma of acting like he runs the place because he's #1 on the board. In the world of the play, Roma is justified in his actions.
Williamson doesn't go out and sell, so the salesmen think he is not part of the competition. Williamson, however, sees himself as being in competition with all of them.
If we've learned anything from Glengarry Glen Ross it's that the way to close a sale is to totally manipulate the person you're talking to. Roma, Moss, and Levene all seem to be masters of manipulation—it's how they get people to sign on the dotted line, and it's how they get others to do what they want.
This is one of those plays where just about everyone needs something from someone else, and most of them are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they need. Often times, that involves a healthy dose of lies and manipulation.
Sales = Manipulation.
The two-man scenes in Act 1 are predator versus prey dynamics.
It's one thing to always be looking out for the next big thing or to aim for that next step you want to take in your life or your career, but it's another thing to just be plain dissatisfied. For most of the gents in Glengarry Glen Ross, dissatisfaction is par for the course. Most of them hate their jobs, they hate their bosses, and they hate the fact that they can't find any way out. Even with a smaller character like Lingk, we get a sense that he is unsatisfied with his life.
Dissatisfaction in this play pushes characters to make questionable choices, to turn their backs on other people (or to stab people in the back), all while pushing the drama forward. If everyone were happy and satisfied, the play would be pretty boring.
Moss can't stand the situation he is in, but he probably wouldn't be able to stand any work situation. It's just how he is.
The good leads simply represent a level of respect to Levene that he no longer receives, and the sentiment of respect that getting them conveys matters more than the financial gain they offer.
You want to be #1 on the board, don't you? Or, better yet, you want to be your own boss? Maybe you want to relive those glory days when you were the king around these parts and everybody looked up to you and listened to all your stories. Heck, maybe you just want to make a decision on your own for once in your life.
Everybody in Glengarry Glen Ross wants more out of a life, and it becomes a question of what each of them is willing to do to get it. Ambition drives conflict in this play, and conflict pushes us through from start to finish.
Of all of the salesmen, Aaronow seems to lack ambition the most. He is also the only moral and ethical character.
The contest is designed to spark ambition. They should want to sell more in order to win (or at least keep their jobs), but it ends up crippling the salesmen.
Take note: there is not a single woman in this play. A few women are mentioned, but we know nothing about them other than they are either ignored (Shelly's daughter) or disdained (Lingk's wife) or something to mock (Harriet Nyborg). This play is about men behaving in ways that they think men should behave in.
Manhood is linked to work in Glengarry Glen Ross. If a man is good at his job, he's a good man. If he's not good at his job, well then he might not even be a man at all. There is a contest that basically determines who is the alpha dog in the office, and they all buy into it.
When Lingk's wife is mentioned, she's spoken of as a domineering figure in his life and the one with the power in the family. This seems like a foreign concept to the salesmen.
In this play, if you're good at your job, you're a good man. This means that not getting on the board and not closing isn't simply a sign that you are not selling well, it's also a sign that you have lost a piece of your manhood.
Any time the cops show up, you know we're going to have to get into rules and order just a little. However, this theme goes beyond just breaking the law in this play. There are rules and order of the office—of the business world—and in Glengarry Glen Ross the men are defined by how they relate to these rules.
Roma's status is so ingrained in the office as the top seller that he is able to brush off (and even verbally abuse) the cop. Being top dog at work has perks everywhere.
Shelly truly believes that his big sale will let him get away with stealing the leads. If the sale had been legit, there is a chance that Williamson would have let the robbery slide.
ROMA: What I'm saying, what is our life? (Pause.) It's looking forward or it's looking back. And that's our life. (1.3.38-40)
That choice—to look forward or to look back—rests at the center of Glengarry Glen Ross. In Roma, we find a man who is always looking for the next sale, always on the prowl. In Levene, we find a man whose future is defined by his past, who can only see things in terms of getting back what he once had.
While there are certainly other choices that characters all make throughout the play, it's this one—to be forward focused or constantly glancing backward—that defines them.
For all his talk, Moss isn't willing to make the hard choices. He is not willing to put himself on the line or to put in the work that it takes to go into business for himself.
There is no free will in this play, and all of the characters' choices are dictated by powers bigger than they are.
The "R" word gets dropped pretty early in Glenglarry Glen Ross. Levene explains to Williamson that a man gets a reputation based on how he acts when he's crushing it and how he acts when he's dealing with bad luck. These men are their jobs and they are their reputations—in fact, their reputations are entirely connected to their jobs. The way they work is the way they are perceived.
In this world, your reputation also determines the level of respect you get. It's a tricky game, and if you lose your rep, you lose respect. That's a pretty slippery slope, people.
It's no wonder that with so much riding on reputation, characters are willing to do a lot to protect it or to get it back.
Respect is what leads to Levene's demise—both his desire to regain it, and his refusal to show it to Williamson.
A good reputation is all a man has when he's working for the sale. At least that's what Mamet would lead us to believe. It's like an Aretha Franklin song out there, minus the awesome voice and wall of soul. In order to gain and maintain a reputation in this play, though, characters have to shut off their moral compasses.