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Arts & Entertainment

Case Study: Structuring the Plot - American Buffalo

David Mamet

Lesson time 21:30 min

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.

David Mamet
Teaches Dramatic Writing
The Pulitzer Prize winner teaches you everything he's learned across 26 video lessons on 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.

I learned a lot about dialogue and the way people speak, and to give a person/character an objective even within conversations was something I hadn't thought of before.

Mamet is a master---story teller, philosopher, playwright. He speaks rhythmically and rarely breaks stride. He poses a question, rephrases that, poses a conventional answer and responds in the opposite. All beautifully presented.

Why tell the truth when writing my stories? How not to be ashamed of failing. How to find stories for my clan and present properly for them.

Fear of the process reduced, optimism rising. Keep it simple. For me, don't overthink it. He has same self-doubts, but he just keeps doing it. I'm enriched by having taken this Master Course.


Quendrith J.

Okay Mr. Mamet - "things which can't be taught but must be learned." Wow. Wrote this poem for my Aunt who died 6/11 during this lesson. TY The Grief Eater by Her Niece I am Dolly Madison today under the bed. I am the Shower to Shower in the creases. I am the cassette tapes of favorite shows stacked on the wooden stairs. But I am not here, I am not her, But she is me, she is memory, that is. Dolly Madison is a cake of grief. Shower to Shower has no body to powder now. Cassette tapes unwatched, unspooled. I am not here, I am with her. But she is not me, she is memory. # # #

Tolga C.

Othello from Shakespeare is very good. So the antagonist Iago (in Germany Jago) in this case is a replacement of the god given fate in antique tragedies, right? I conclude, that determined situations or fully developed characters or the confrontation of both is a good source for a tragedy. I struggle a little bit with the structure of Ohtello, it appears a little bit unusual to me... So this lesson wants to tell us, that movies can share plots like plays in the 17th century or even with antique dramas? Or is this a good example to focus on plot and how it changes to the end of act two? So or so, I liked this lesson. But as usual I have more questions, then answers again - what is not a bad thing, I guess. :-D

Rosemary D.

Your teaching style is so upbeat I was not expecting the plot/story to American Buffalo. Even as I was reading it dragged me right up to the end of the story without knowing.


I saw this play on Broadway with Al Pacino as Teach and Dominic Chianiasi as Donny. Good play, but the dialogue was hard to follow at times.

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 :)