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Poster for the 1988 Broadway introduction of the play
Written byDavid Mamet
Directed byGregory Mosher
  • Bobby Gould
  • Charlie Fox
  • Karen
Date premiered1988
Place premieredRoyale Theatre, New York City
Original languageEnglish

Speed-the-Plow is a 1988 play by David Mamet that is a satirical dissection of the American movie business. As stated in The Producer's Perspective, "this is a theme Mamet would revisit in his later films Wag the Dog (1997) and State and Main (2000)".[1] As quoted in The Producer's Perspective, Jack Kroll of Newsweek described Speed-the-Plow as "another tone poem by our nation's foremost master of the language of moral epilepsy."[1]

The play sets its context with an epigraph (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?"[2]

Plot summary[edit]

Act I[edit]

The play begins in the office of Hollywood producer Bobby Gould. Gould's longtime associate, Charlie Fox, has arrived with important news: movie star Doug Brown is interested in making a movie Fox had sent his way some time ago. 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. Gould's secretary, Karen, arrives with coffee and the two men chat with her about the movie business.

After Karen leaves, Fox teases Gould that he is attempting to seduce Karen. He 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 tells her about the book he has been giving a "courtesy read". He offers Karen a chance to take part in the process by reading the book and delivering to him her opinion of it to him that night at his home.

Act II[edit]

That night, at Gould's apartment, Karen delivers a glowing report on the book, saying she wants to work on the film adaptation. Gould says that even if the book is good, it won't make a successful Hollywood movie. Karen admonishes him for perpetuating the standard Hollywood formula instead of taking a creative risk. Karen says that she knows Gould invited her to his place in order to sleep with her and starts to seduce him into taking her to bed, and into pitching the book instead of the Doug Brown film.

Act III[edit]

The next morning Fox is back in Gould's office, excited about their upcoming meeting with Ross. Gould surprises Fox with news that instead he is going to be pitching the book, without him. Gould says that he feels the call to "do something which is right". 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 book. With this, Karen's ambitious motives are revealed and Gould wins the bet. Fox throws her off the studio lot and prepares to pitch the Doug Brown film.

Origin and meaning of the title[edit]

The Secret Middle Ages (ISBN 0-7509-2685-6) by Malcolm Jones discusses the origin of the phrase "God Speed the Plow" in a celebration known as Plow Monday and a 14th-century poem:

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

There is an 18th-century English play by Thomas Morton called Speed the Plough, which introduced the character of the prudish Mrs. Grundy.

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.[3]



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 December 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).

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.[4] 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).[5] Raul Esparza was nominated for the 2009 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play.[6] Reviews were positive.[7][8]


It has been produced countless times in regional theaters and schools across the country.

The play was presented at the Remains Theater in 1987 starring William Peterson, the Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles, in February and March 2007. Directed by Geffen artistic director Randall Arney, the cast starred Alicia Silverstone as Karen, Greg Germann as Charlie Fox and Jon Tenney as Bobby Gould.[9]



Hong Kong[edit]

  • In 2017, the production is produced by Dionysus Contemporary Theatre at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts Lyric Theatre. It is directed by Olivia Yan, with the cast of Anthony Wong (Bobby Gould), Jan Lamb (Fox) and Rosa Maria Velasco (Karen), produced by Joyce Cheung. It will be the first time ever that the play has been translated into Chinese and performed in Cantonese.


  • In 2002, Speed The Plow was produced by Det Norske Teatret, Norway's leading state-funded theatre in nynorsk. It is directed by Odd Christian Hagen, with the cast of Reidar Sørensen (Bobby Gould), Nina Woxholt (Fox) and Ingrid Jørgensen (Karen). It was the first time ever that the play was translated to this language. Mamet's brother attended the opening night, bringing his brother's greetings to the cast and crew. The music was composed and performed live by Ole Kristian Wetten.


Madonna in 1987. Her appearance increased ticket sales, leading to the play being moved to a Broadway production.

The original play (1988) earned mostly positive reviews,[16] while reviews for Madonna's acting ranged from mixed to positive.[17][18][19] Theater critic Michael Kuchwara praised Mamet's play saying "absolutely on target, demolishing the egomaniacs who decide what reaches the silver screen".[20] Commenting on Madonna's theatre debut, Ron Givens from Entertainment Weekly labeled it as a "very respectable Broadway debut", while Frank Rich from The New York Times complimented her "intelligent, scrupulously disciplined comic acting."[21] In a negative review, UPI critic described "She is rigid, almost as though she is terrified to be on stage".[22] Reviews centralized in Madonna also "left little space for considering the implications of the play itself".[23]


The play debuted with a notable mass media attention, described by academic journal Modern Drama as a "rare phenomenon" for a straight play by an important American playwright, largely helped by Madonna's role.[23] Due to her "highly publicized" stage role,[24] every night after the show, a throng of Madonna fans would encircle the backstage exits of the theater.[25] Although in Hollywood on Stage (2013), Kimball King recalls, "this choice also begs the question of spectator's primary intent: To see Madonna or engage with Mamet's play".[26]

The casting of Madonna effected a sell out of Lincoln Theatre venue and a transfer to a large theatre in Broadway,[26] elevating the entire production to a "new level".[25] Although Winship commented "The production has a cheap look that is out of line with most Lincoln Center Theater productions".[22] Madonna's appearance reportedly helped its box-office sales; the play sold a record number of advance tickets for six consecutive months, exceeding $1 million in ticket sales.[19][16] After Madonna left the show's cast, ticket demand decreased drastically.[27] In retrospect, Ron Silver claimed, he was thankful for all the hype that was generated by Madonna's appearance in the play. If it were not for Madonna's name, ticket sales might not have been great enough for the play to move to a Broadway theater, and he might never have a Tony award.[25]

Related works[edit]

Bobby Gould's story is continued in Mamet's one act play Bobby Gould in Hell.[28][29]

In a review of Arthur Kopit's 1989 play Bone-the-Fish, New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow wrote that it "could be regarded as Mr. Kopit's response to David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow. In fact, the plays share much more than two hyphens. Mr. Kopit asks how far a film director will go in demeaning himself in quest of work."[30]

Mamet's short story "The Bridge", which is the basis for the novel of the same name in the play, was published in the literary magazine Granta in 1985.[31][32]

David Ives' one-act play Speed the Play, first produced in 1992 by the Chicago, Illinois-based Strawdog Theatre Company, is a parody of Speed-the-Plow.[33]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Original Broadway production[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
1988 Drama Desk Awards Outstanding Play David Mamet Nominated
Outstanding Director of a Play Gregory Mosher Nominated
Outstanding Actor in a Play Ron Silver Won
Joe Mantegna Nominated
Tony Awards Best Play David Mamet Nominated
Best Direction of a Play Gregory Mosher Nominated
Best Actor in a Play Ron Silver Won

2008 Broadway Revival[edit]

Year Award Category Nominee Result
2009 Drama Desk Awards Outstanding Actor in a Play Raúl Esparza Nominated
Tony Award Best Actor in a Play Nominated


  1. ^ a b Davenport, Kent. "Speed-the-Plow". The Producer's Perspective. Retrieved January 28, 2019.
  2. ^ Thackeray, William Makepeace (1910) [1848–1850]. "Frontispiece". Pendennis. Volume 2. Everyman's Library No. 426. London; New York: J. M. Dent & Sons; E. P. Dutton & Co. Retrieved January 28, 2019.
  3. ^ Christiansen, Richard (February 19, 1989). "The 'Plow' Boy". Chicago Tribune. Arts Page 18 Section 13. Retrieved January 28, 2019.
  4. ^ Gans, Andrew (December 17, 2008). "Jeremy Piven Abruptly Departs Broadway's Speed-the-Plow; Butz Steps In". Playbill. Archived from the original on December 20, 2008.
  5. ^ Gans, Andrew (December 18, 2008). "Macy and Butz Will Succeed Piven in Speed-the-Plow Revival". Playbill.
  6. ^ "The Tony Award Nominees - TonyAwards.com - The American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards® - Official Website by IBM". TonyAwards.com. June 7, 2015. Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  7. ^ Als, Hilton (November 3, 2008). "The Theatre: Fever Pitch". The New Yorker. Vol. 84, no. 35. pp. 116–118. Retrieved April 17, 2009.
  8. ^ Scott, Rachel (November 10, 2009). "Speed the Plow: the dark hollywood dilemma". PLANK Magazine. Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  9. ^ Hernandez, Ernio (February 7, 2007). "Silverstone, Germann and Tenney Open in L.A. 'Speed-the-Plow' Feb. 7". Playbill. New York City: Playbill, Inc.
  10. ^ "Stones Upends Plow at Duke of York's, 21 Aug". whatsonstage.com. July 26, 2000.
  11. ^ Dalglish, Darren (July 6, 2000). "Review. 'Speed the Plow'". londontheatrearchive.co.uk.
  12. ^ Billington, Michael (February 13, 2008). "Speed-The-Plow". The Guardian. London, England. Retrieved January 28, 2019.
  13. ^ Benedict, David (October 3, 2014). "Theater Review: 'Speed-the-Plow' Starring Lindsay Lohan". Variety. Los Angeles, California: Penske Media Corporation.
  14. ^ Wiegand, Chris (October 3, 2014). "Lindsay Lohan in Speed-the-Plow: What the critics said". The Guardian. London, England. Retrieved June 30, 2020.
  15. ^ "Speed-the-Plow".
  16. ^ a b Taraborrelli, J. Randy (2018). Madonna: An Intimate Biography of an Icon at Sixty. Pan Macmillan. ISBN 978-1509842797. Retrieved October 1, 2023 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ Wolf, Matt (May 27, 2022). Associated Press (ed.). "Madonna's debut on London stage: -- pretty (thin)". South Coast Today. Retrieved October 1, 2023.
  18. ^ Sexton, Adam (1993). "4. Step into the Spotlight". Desperately Seeking Madonna: in Search of The Meaning of The World's Most Famous Woman. Delta. p. 8. ISBN 0385306881. Retrieved August 29, 2022 – via Archive.org.
  19. ^ a b Koopmans, Andy (2002). "Troubles and Triumphs". Madonna: People in the News. New York City: Lucent Books. p. 69. ISBN 1590181387. Retrieved February 4, 2022 – via Archive.org.
  20. ^ Sullivan, Dan (May 7, 1988). "Madonna Panned and Mamet Praised for 'Speed-the-Plow'". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on October 5, 2023. Retrieved October 5, 2023.
  21. ^ Givens, Ron (May 11, 1990). "Madonna's discography". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved October 4, 2023.
  22. ^ a b Winship, Frederick M. (May 6, 1988). UPI (ed.). "Madonna's Premiere In 'Speed-The-Plow' Furrows The Brow". Deseret News. Retrieved October 5, 2023.
  23. ^ a b Stafford, Tony (March 1993). "Speed-the-Plow and Speed the Plough: The Work of the Earth". Modern Drama. 36 (1). University of Toronto Press: 38–47. doi:10.3138/md.36.1.38. Retrieved October 1, 2023.
  24. ^ Thompson, Clifford (2020). Contemporary World Musicians. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1135939618. Retrieved October 1, 2023 – via Google Books.
  25. ^ a b c Bego, Mark (2000). "Who's that Girl?". Madonna: Blonde Ambition. Cooper Square Press. pp. 204–207. ISBN 0815410514. Retrieved October 1, 2023 – via Archive.org.
  26. ^ a b King, Kimball (2013). "Staging Hollywood, Selling Out". Hollywood on Stage: Playwrights Evaluate the Culture Industry. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1136525674. Retrieved October 1, 2023 – via Google Books.
  27. ^ Davis, Sharon (2012). 80s Chart-Toppers: Every Chart-Topper Tells a Story. Mainstream Publishing. ISBN 978-1780574110. Retrieved October 1, 2023 – via Google Books.
  28. ^ Simon, John (December 18, 1989). "Beelzebubee". New York. Vol. 22, no. 50. New York City: New York Media. p. 105. ISSN 0028-7369.
  29. ^ Mamet, David (August 24, 1991). Bobby Gould In Hell. New York City: Samuel French. ISBN 9780573692543. Retrieved October 25, 2015.
  30. ^ Gussow, Mel (April 5, 1989). "Review/Theater; A 3-Day Immersion in New Plays". The New York Times. New York City.
  31. ^ Brantley, Ben (October 24, 2008). "Theater Review. Do You Speak Hollywood?". The New York Times. New York City.
  32. ^ Mamet, David (1985). "'The Bridge". Granta. No. 16. London, England: The Book Service. pp. 167–173. Retrieved October 25, 2015.
  33. ^ Langer, Adam (July 30, 1992). "Speed the Play". The Chicago Reader. Chicago, Illinois: Sun-Times Media Group. Retrieved June 26, 2022.

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