From David Mamet's MasterClass

Case Study: Structuring the Plot - American Buffalo

David discusses the history of <span style="font-style:italic">American Buffalo</span> and delves into its plot, teaching you the symbolism of the eponymous coin and how the narrative speaks to viewers on a deeply human level.

Topics include: Three Uses of the Knife: The Buffalo Nickel, Plot and the Human Experience


David discusses the history of <span style="font-style:italic">American Buffalo</span> and delves into its plot, teaching you the symbolism of the eponymous coin and how the narrative speaks to viewers on a deeply human level.

Topics include: Three Uses of the Knife: The Buffalo Nickel, Plot and the Human Experience

David Mamet

Teaches Dramatic Writing

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We're going to talk about dramatic structure now, as applied to one of my plays, and it might be-- I have to ask your patience because they pay me to write them, but they don't pay me to read them. So I wrote this play a long time ago. So I'll see if I can remember it. I'll do my best. It's called American Buffalo. So American Buffalo was done on Broadway. First we did it in Chicago, then we did it off, off, off-Broadway. Then we did it on Broadway with Robert Duvall and Kenny McMillan, John Savage, it was a great production. The opening night party was at Sardi's restaurant, which was then a theatrical tradition. It may still be. Sardi's used to be a speakeasy in the 20s and then it was taken over and run as a wonderful restaurant. And it was the theatrical restaurant. It still may be. So the tradition was all the backers of the play and the friends came to Sardi's for the opening night. And so my dad and my stepmother-- they're from Chicago. My dad was a labor lawyer, and a depression baby, and in the army in World War II, and an immigrant kid. A very tough guy, a wonderful guy. And we're sitting around and the reviews of this play come in. No one's ever heard of me. No one knows who the hell I am. The reviews come in-- about six papers, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News, and the Brooklyn whatever the hell, and the Newark Ledger, blah, blah. And they're all genius reviews and everyone's very morose. And my dad says, these are great reviews. Why is everybody so morose? So the producer says, they aren't morose. They're just anxious. And he says, why are you anxious? These reviews are great. They say, we're waiting for the New York Times review. So he says, well, wait a second. These reviews are great. What difference does the New York Times make? So the producer said, well, it makes all the difference in the world. The play will stand or fall based on the New York Times review. So my dad thinks for a second. He says, wait a second. He says, the guy who writes this review at the New York Times, how much money you think he makes? So the producer says, well, he probably makes like $35,000 a year. It was a while ago. My dad said, and what did play cost to mount? And the guy says, well, I think it cost about $700,000. My dad says are you crazy? So that was the Chicago answer, right, and I've often had time to think about it, and admire his wisdom because there are very few things in his life that aren't rigged, and I'm thankful for both of them. So American Buffalo is about a bunch of guys in a junk shop and it's a tragedy. That means people have more or less good intentions, and they end up ruining each other in a way that they could not foresee, but that at the end of the play is revealed as inevitable, and at the same time, surprising. So we start off the play over here. And there are these guys in a...

Write great drama

David Mamet sat in on a poker game full of thieves and left with the inspiration for American Buffalo. Now, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of Glengarry Glen Ross takes you through his process for turning life’s strangest moments into dramatic art. In his writing class, he’ll teach you the rules of drama, the nuances of dialogue, and the skills to develop your own voice and create your masterpiece.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Great, please find more film writers, I will sign up.

I'm always fighting against my resistance and my motivation. This class has helped me......go through the door on the left marked "No Admittance" Thank you for sharing yourself and your no nonsense approach Mr Mamet. This class means more than you know.

I am not a playwright but the lessons about "walking through the door", not letting anyone or anything stop you from doing what you want to do, dong something every day for your art and for your business are valuable and so well stated from David Mamet's heart.

Thanks, David, for sharing with us great stories and cutting through the bullshit. You've inspired me to get back to work.


Xenia P.

This is where I get lost. What's the hero's journey from A to B in American Buffalo? Is B the robbery, or is B teaching the kid?

Ellis M.

France gave us ‘Ellen Delhomme’, say the subtitles. DM stated in an earlier lesson that he thinks French films suck (not verbatim) but DM does pay attention to its stars - however, he mentions Alain Delon, not Ellen. Just a little heads up to Alain.


From lesson 10 going forward, I have no doubt this class is going to get better

Bruce M.

Sorry for the low score. I keep falling asleep during this chapter. I know it's my fault. Mamet is brilliant. It's probably what I need to work on the most with my work.


That is so interesting! It is completely true that at 7 minutes into the "start time" of a play, the audience quiets down, and then a minute or three later, they start up again if the play has not yet started.

Dina H. I just watched this, it makes sense now :)

Robert Lewis H.

The seven minute thing is interesting. They say we make some major life change every 7 years (approx). Mid life crisis.....around 49 (7x7). Go figure! Seven deadly Sins...Magnificent 7... 7 Dwarfs...007... :-)

Stephanie G.

I love a teacher that breaks it down...simple terms...not being pompous or condescending..AWESOME!!

Mia S.

"This is the hard-wiring of the human being around the campfire. Every seven minutes, you want to look a little bit around and keep talking, every 20 minutes or so you want to talk a little bit longer pause. When you go to the theater, you'll see this happen. Most theater, the curtain, if it's called for 8, it'll go up at 8:07. At 8:07 - you can set your stopwatch by it - the audience stops talking, they just naturally quiet down. If the play doesn't start, they'll start talking again. Three acts, more of less, make a whole play: that's the traditional three-act structure. Some of my plays are written in a long one-act structure, and some of them are written in two-act structure. The reason for that is, I think, just because - I don't know any better, that's just how it occurred to me at the time. Michelangelo's statue of David, they said, 'My god, how did you do that?' And he said, 'I just looked at this block of marble and I cut away everything that wasn't David.' I grew up like everyone else listening to that, thinking, 'My god, that's brilliant' - until I realized, what he was really saying was, 'Buzz off.'"

Mia S.

"Structure is very important. I think a lot about structure, and about our greatest Western philosopher: Daffy Duck asked the essential question of philosophy, which is, 'Say, what's going on here anyways?' The question of structure - why does the structure exist? Why do we have scenes which are approximately seven minutes long, structured into acts which are approximately a half an hour long, acts structured into a play which is approximately an hour and a half long? The answer goes back to the campfire. It's built into - we're hard-wired, as human beings, that every seven minutes, approximately, we stop and we take a little look around, because that goes back to the caveman days. If you think about it, that's the length of a comedy skit, it's also the length of the time between commercials on a television show. It's not an accident. They've written the scene - unconsciously, nonetheless - because that's the amount of time we need for that, before we start to look around. Every 20 minutes, which is approximately three of those seven-minute intervals, we take a longer look around, and conversation stops. In fact, our friends, the French - 20 minutes after the hour, they say an angel passes. If you think about it - you watch it, you'll see it in your daily lives. At 20 minutes after the hour and 20 minutes before the hour, there's a longer pause in the conversation. Why did the pause occur there? Because most things start on the hour - most events, dinners, dates, most of them start on the hour. 20 minutes after that, there's a pause and the conversation just dies. The same thing is true 20 minutes later."