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Speed-the-Plow (1988) is a play by David Mamet which is a satirical dissection of the American movie business, a theme Mamet would revisit in his later films Wag the Dog (1997) and State and Main (2000).
The play sets its context with an epigram (not to be recited in performance) by William Makepeace Thackeray, from his novel Pendennis, contained in a frontispiece: It starts: "Which is the most reasonable, and does his duty best: he who stands aloof from the struggle of life, calmly contemplating it, or he who descends to the ground, and takes his part in the contest?" The character of Bobby Gould finds himself on both sides of this dilemma, and at times in the play he "stands aloof," and at other times he "takes part" in life's contest, with its moral strictures.
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The play begins in the office of Bobby Gould, who has recently been promoted to head of production at a major Hollywood studio. His job is to find suitable scripts to bring to studio head Richard Ross to be made into big Hollywood movies. His longtime associate, Charlie Fox, has arrived with important news: movie star Doug Brown came to his house that morning interested in making a movie Fox had sent his way some time ago. Gould instantly knows to arrange a meeting with the studio head, wanting to deliver the news personally that such a big star who usually works with a different studio is keen to make a movie with them, which is sure to be a financial success.
Gould thanks Fox for bringing the project to him when he could have gone "across the street" to another studio. Fox says he is loyal to Gould on account of the many years he has worked for him. Word comes back that the studio head is flying to New York City for the day, so they will have to meet with him tomorrow, which could present a problem because Doug Brown wants an answer by 10 o'clock the next morning. Gould assures Fox that it will work out.
Fox is beside himself about the big break he has gotten, which could finally make him a player in Hollywood after years of toiling in obscurity. It could also make him rich. He requests coffee and Gould asks his secretary to get some. As they wait, Gould tells Fox about a book he has been asked to give a "courtesy read" to, meaning that it is not seriously being considered to be made into a film because the author is "an Eastern sissy writer." Gould's secretary, Karen, arrives with the coffee and the two men ebulliently chat with her about the movie business and their experiences related to it. Karen is only temporarily filling in for Gould's regular secretary and is new to the ways of Hollywood. Gould asks her to make lunch reservations for them and she leaves.
After she's gone, Fox comments on the secretary, teasing him about trying to seduce her. Fox thinks that Karen is neither a "floozy" nor an ambitious girl trying to sleep her way up the Hollywood ladder, so it would be hard for Gould to bed her. Gould thinks he can and the two make a five hundred dollar wager to that effect. Fox leaves, soon to be seeing Gould at their lunch appointment.
Karen returns to discuss the lunch reservation. Gould asks her to sit and begins to tell her about the movie business. He tells her about the book he has been giving a "courtesy read." Uncorrupted and naïve, she asks why he is so sure there is no hope for the book. Gould offers Karen a chance to take part in the process by reading the book and delivering to him her opinion of it him that night at his home. As she leaves, Gould asks her to tell Fox that "he owes me five hundred bucks."
That night at Gould's apartment, Karen delivers a glowing report on the book, a story about the apocalyptic effects of radiation. As he is seducing her, Gould speaks warmly toward her, offering to bring her under his wing at the studio. Karen says she wants to work on the film that this book is made into. Gould says that even if the book is good, it won't make a successful Hollywood movie. Karen admonishes him for simply perpetuating the standard Hollywood formula instead of taking a creative risk. When Gould protests, Karen says that she knows Gould invited her to his place in order to sleep with her and aggressively starts to seduce him into taking her to bed, and into pitching the book instead of the Doug Brown film.
The next morning Fox is back in Gould's office, excited about their upcoming meeting with the studio head. Gould surprises Fox with news that instead he is going to be pitching the Radiation book, without him. The passive Fox initially takes the news with good humor, but gradually becomes more and more aggressive. He chides Gould for preparing to throw both of their careers away by pushing a movie the studio will never agree to make. Gould says that he has been awake all night and feels the call to "do something which is right." Fox suspects that Gould spent the night with Karen and that is the reason for his delirium. Gould denies this, but an increasingly enraged Fox physically attacks him and continues his verbal assault until Gould tells him to go.
Fox agrees to leave, but only after he gets the chance to ask Karen a question. Karen enters and eventually admits to being intimate with Gould the night before. Gould and Karen continue to stand together as a team until Fox gets her to admit that she would not have slept with Gould had he not agreed to green light a movie based on the Radiation book. With this, her ambitious motives are revealed and Gould is in shock. She tries to hold on to the plans they had made, but Fox will not allow it, telling her to leave the studio lot and never come back. As she leaves, Fox throws the Radiation book out the door after her. The play ends with Gould straightened out and ready to pitch the Doug Brown film with Fox.
Origin and meaning of the title
- God spede the plow
- And send us all corne enow
- Our purpose for to mak
- At crow of cok
- Of the plwlete of Sygate
- Be mery and glade
- Wat Goodale this work mad
In George Meredith's novel The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, the young protagonist, running away from home, encounters two peasants discussing their experiences, the Tinker and Speed-the-Plow. Describing them to a relative, he says, "Next, there's a tinker and a ploughman, who think that God is always fighting with the Devil which shall command the kingdoms of the earth. The tinker's for God, and the ploughman--"
In an interview in The Chicago Tribune, Mamet explained the title as follows:
I remembered the saying that you see on a lot of old plates and mugs: 'Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow.' This, I knew, was a play about work and about the end of the world, so 'Speed-the-Plow' was perfect because not only did it mean work, it meant having to plow under and start over again.
Speed-the-Plow premiered on Broadway at the Royale Theatre in a production by the Lincoln Center Theater, opening on May 3, 1988 and closing on Dec 31, 1988 after 279 performances. The cast featured Joe Mantegna (Gould), Ron Silver (Fox) and Madonna (Karen). The play was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play and Best Direction of a Play (Gregory Mosher). Silver won a Tony Award for Best Actor (Play). It has since been produced countless times in regional theaters and schools across the country. A 2006 revival in Los Angeles featured Alicia Silverstone as Karen.
The first Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow, directed by Atlantic Theatre Company artistic director Neil Pepe, began previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on October 3, 2008, with an opening on October 23 in a limited engagement, closing on February 22, 2009. The cast featured Jeremy Piven as Bobby Gould, Raúl Esparza as Charlie Fox, and Elisabeth Moss as Karen. However, Piven left the production over medical issues on December 17. The role of Bobby was played by Norbert Leo Butz (from December 23 through January 11, 2009) and William H. Macy (from January 13 through February 22, 2009). Raul Esparza was nominated for the 2009 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. Reviews were positive.
- In 1989, it was produced at the National Theatre, directed by Gregory Mosher, with Colin Stinton, Alfred Molina and Rebecca Pidgeon.
- In 2000, it was produced at the Duke of York's Theatre with Nathaniel Parker, Neil Morrissey and Gina Bellman.
- In 2008, it was revived at the Old Vic Theatre, starring artistic director Kevin Spacey as Fox, Jeff Goldblum as Gould, and Laura Michelle Kelly as Karen.
- In September 2014, it was performed at the Playhouse Theatre, and was directed by Lindsay Posner, with Nigel Lindsay as Fox, Richard Schiff as Gould, and Lindsay Lohan as Karen.
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Bobby Gould's story is continued in Mamet's one act play Bobby Gould In Hell.
Granta 16 (1985) 167-173 includes Mamet's short story "The Bridge" which is the basis for the novel of the same name in the play.
- The Chicago Tribune, February 19, 1989.
- Gans, Andrew."Jeremy Piven Abruptly Departs Broadway's Speed-the-Plow; Butz Steps In", playbill.com, December 17, 2008
- Gans, Andrew."Macy and Butz Will Succeed Piven in Speed-the-Plow Revival", playbill.com, December 18, 2008
- Als, Hilton (3 November 2008). "The Theatre: Fever Pitch". The New Yorker 84 (35): 116–118. Retrieved 17 April 2009.
- Billington, Michael."Speed-The-Plow",The Guardian, February 13, 2008
- Internet Broadway Database listing, 1988 production
- Internet Broadway Database listing, 2008 production