"Oleanna" by David Mamet

I was already familiar with this play. A number of years ago I just happened to catch author David Mamet’s film of his controversial play starring William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt. I was blown away by it at the time and found it a very interesting statement, considering the changing nature of the culture at the time. However, I always wanted to read it. The written play differs little - if at all - from the film version but seeing it and reading it are two completely different experiences. For example, Mamet’s dialogue, when read, can be confusing, since the two main characters - a college professor named John and his student, Carol - often talk past, around, and over one another. Hearing the dialogue, it works rather well. Reading it, however can be a bit of a chore. However, once one gets the rhythm of the dialogue, you become immersed in the story - which is in and of itself, highly ambiguous and sometimes frustrating - but in a good way. It’s going to make you think and that’s what great drama is supposed to do. 

 

At the time of the play’s initial performances, many critics saw a connection to the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and it’s easy to see how this may have inspired the idea behind this play. However, I believe it was much more. The early/mid 1990s, when the play was written, was a time when “Political Correctness” on campus began to rear its head (ugly or otherwise depends on one’s point of view). I know at the time, I had a sour taste in my mouth over the issue of political correctness, although sometimes valid points were made both for and against it. Oleanna reads much the same way: the characters are who they are and it is ambiguous, the author not taking one side nor the other, allowing the reader/audience to discuss the issues and make up their own minds over issues such as power, class, gender and the purpose of higher education.  At first, the focus is on the professor John, who is on the phone with his wife discussing the new house they had just purchased. John is up for tenure and he looks forward to his privileged position and new life tenure will afford him. Sitting in his office is his student Carol, a seemingly, at first, confused, nervous young woman who is having a hard time understanding the point of her class (which is hinted at as being about education). She is there to discuss her grade and her paper with John, who doesn’t think too highly of his young student’s work. John does come off as pompous and patronizing toward Carol and at first, the reader’s sympathies are clearly in Carol’s corner. You feel for her - being that it is indicated that she is of a different socio-economic class and had to work very hard to be admitted to what appears to be a prestigious private college. John agrees to help her, by offering her to come to his office alone and work together to help improve her grade and her chances of passing the class. 

 

By the second act, the reader learns that Carol is perhaps a little more crafty than she initially appears to be, that she has an agenda of her own. She makes accusations against John to the tenure committee which puts tenure - and his job - in serious jeopardy. Accusations of classism, sexism and sexual harassment, which stuns the professor. He desperately tries to talk things out with Carol, who little by little reveals that perhaps her initial reason for coming in to seeing him was a ruse all along. The language is vague, ambiguous, but on close reading, one can see where Carol is coming from, whether or not the reader will agree with her point of view. A massive miscommunication occurs and seemingly innocent comments are taken out of context or completely misunderstood (or are they deliberately distorted in an attempt to ruin John?) John does try hard to understand Carol’s point of view (to the extent that he even begins to doubt himself) but a careless - though innocent - move on his part escalates the rising tension between them and the explosiveness of the situation he finds himself in with her. 

 

By the third act, one realizes that both are right and both are wrong. John, with his continued patronizing language and behavior and Carol - with her references to her “group” as well as offering to retract her serious accusations so long as the professor agrees to “remove certain books from the curriculum” - including his own - that one begins to see that the whole situation becomes more a struggle for power - Professor vs. Student; Student vs. Institution; Man vs. Woman -  than it is for true understanding. The ending is explosive and of course, ambiguous, which is of course the point of the entire play: how language can often be vague, ambiguous, open to interpretation, and how rigid points of view can often have disastrous and unnecessary consequences. In the end the play can be seen as a rant against Political Correctness or it can be seen as an exploration into the ambiguity of language or it can be seen as a simple struggle for power against long time institutions - academic or otherwise. However you interpret this play, you will be thinking about it and it will generate heated discussion. Highly recommended. 

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