David Mamet was born in Chicago in 1947. He attended Goddard College in Vermont, and there discovered his passion for theater. He trained as an actor under the famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner, whose emphasis on practical, outward techniques—rather than "method" internalization—influenced Mamet's philosophy of acting as well as his writing. After college, Mamet held a number of unglamorous jobs: he drove a taxi, cleaned offices, and worked at a truck factory and a canning plant. In 1969 he got a job as an office manager at a real estate sales office. The position was the inspiration for Williamson's job in Glengarry Glen Ross, and the other salesmen Mamet observed in the office would later serve as the basis for the play's other characters.
Mamet returned to Vermont to teach acting, first at Marlboro College and then at his alma mater, Goddard College, where one of his students, actor William H. Macy, went on to become Mamet's frequent collaborator. Around this time, Mamet started writing plays and putting them on with his students. In 1972, he returned to Chicago and founded a small theater company. His play Sexual Perversity in Chicago achieved some local notoriety in 1973. Some critics embraced it, but others were put off by its incessant profanity—a feature that has since become somewhat of a Mamet trademark. A few early critics came to the conclusion that Mamet infused his use of slang with musicality. This early characterization of Mamet as a "sound poet" has gained momentum since, remaining the dominant theme of critical work on Mamet, occasionally at the expense of critical attention to the moral issues that Mamet's plays address.
In 1977, Mamet made it to Broadway with his first great success, American Buffalo. The play, which brought Mamet to national attention, centers on two small time crooks planning a robbery, and explores many of the same themes of business and loyalty that Mamet would revisit in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Glengarry Glen Ross premiered in London in 1983, and its American premiere followed in Chicago in 1984. It was a tremendous success, and remains Mamet's most celebrated play. Because of its treatment of the lives of salesmen, it drew many comparisons to the Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman. Whereas Miller's play used the thankless drudgery of the sales profession as fodder for tragedy, however, Mamet's take on the subject thirty- five years later is far more savage. Death of a Salesman eulogizes the death of the American Dream; Glengarry Glen Ross takes this death as a given and uses it as a starting point for deeper social criticism.
A successful film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by James Foley, was released in 1992. Mamet himself took on the task of adapting the screenplay and making it more "cinematic," with interesting results. Some plot elements (such as what exactly the problem is with Levene's daughter) and concepts that are only hinted at in the play are explored more fully in the film. Of course, this is by no means to say that the film represents a more complete vision—it is, rather, an alternate form, interesting to compare side by side with the text of the play.
In recent years, Mamet has become a prolific artist in multiple media. He still continues to write, and occasionally direct, theater. Now he is also a novelist (his first novel The Village, was published in 1995), and a film director (his first film House of Games, which explored the world of con artists, a persistent theme throughout Mamet's oeuvre, was released in 1987). He has also written several books of essays, some of which address his approaches to writing and directing.