One of the most disturbing and arresting characterizations of the American movie business, Speed-the-Plow is, at heart, a whimsical satire or, as Jack Kroll of Newsweek characterized it, “another tone poem by our nation’s foremost master of the language of moral epilepsy.”
The play, by David Mamet, sets its context with an epigram by William Makepeace Thackeray, from his novel Pendennis: “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?”
This ringing query drives much of the action and drama in this spellbinding play. The character of Bobby Gould finds himself on both sides of this dilemma. At times he stands aloof and at other times he takes part in life’s contest.
As the first act opens, we are introduced to Gould, who has recently been promoted to head of production at a major Hollywood studio. His job is to find suitable scripts that can be made into big Hollywood movies. His cohort, Charlie Fox, comes calling with news that movie star Doug Brown came to his house that morning interested in making a movie Fox had sent his way.
From there the narrative twists and turns in a male bravado sort of way. There are wagers. There are temps. There are seductions. There are beliefs. There are questions. And the answers come slowly and slyly. Still, a fundamental truth gets revealed.
The epigram from Pendennis is, technically speaking, not part of the play. It does however provide a powerful moral lesson as we consider its conclusion:
But the earth, where our feet are, is the work of the same Power as the immeasurable blue yonder, in which the future lies into which we would peer. Who ordered sickness, ordered poverty, failure, success – to this man a foremost place, to the other a nameless struggle with the crowd – to that a shameful fall, or paralyzed limb or sudden accident – to each some work upon the ground he stands on, until he is laid beneath it.