Arts & Entertainment, Writing

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.

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


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...

About the Instructor

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.

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David Mamet

The Pulitzer Prize winner teaches you everything he's learned across 26 video lessons on dramatic writing.

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