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Oleanna Essay Power

Theatre Topics 10.1 (2000) 39-52

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Framing the Classroom:
Pedagogy, Power, Oleanna

Stanton B. Garner, Jr.


Oleanna and Cultural Conflict

I open this essay with an admission: I have never been a fan of Oleanna. When I first heard about the play in early 1992, I was apprehensive. Given the problematic attitudes toward women in plays such as SexualPerversityinChicago, AmericanBuffalo, and Speed-the-Plow--and the strident masculine poses of both the playwright and his dramatic characters--David Mamet seemed an odd figure to address a topic as politically and ideologically complex as sexual harassment. Would Oleanna replicate the male vantage points of Mamet's work as a whole? There were warnings that it might. Longtime Mamet actor and close friend W. H. Macy, who originated the role of John, commented on the role in a TheaterWeek interview: "I think he's a fella who's gotten bollixed up in a world where the rules are changing and he doesn't know how to keep up. And boy, can I identify with that. I don't know what's going on with women." Macy, who had been reading Robert Bly's Iron John and other books from the men's movement, suggested: "Men are going to have to go through some sort of a revolution the way that women did in the 1960s and 1970s. We have got to define ourselves and we have got to stand up for ourselves" (Simpson 21).

Even given these apprehensions, I wasn't prepared for my reaction when I saw the New York production. As audience members cheered John's violence toward Carol in the play's closing sequence, I felt (and continue to feel, seven years later) that the play was harnessing outrage to a gender politics that it does little to question. That the audience of Oleanna is led to frame the play's earlier interactions in terms of Carol's manifestly outrageous behavior in acts 2 and 3 leaves her character and the positions she represents targeted in unfair and ultimately reactionary ways. As John refuses to sign his name to Carol's list of "objectionable" books, he rises to the heroic rhetoric of John Proctor in the final act of Arthur Miller's The Crucible: "I've got a book with my name on it. And my son will see that book someday" (Mamet 76). 1 For her part, Carol becomes the play's Abigail, scapegoated and demonized for behavior that, in the end, speaks more to misogynistic cultural stereotypes than to psychological credibility. In his essay "'We're Just Human': Oleanna and Cultural Crisis," Marc Silverstein analyzes the play's concluding act of violence (John beats Carol while calling her a "vicious little bitch" and a "little cunt," Mamet 79): [End Page 39]

That the beating answers an insistent desire the play generates in certain audiences is suggested by the ease with which some of its spectators forget the distinction between actress and character. Leaving the theatre after a performance, Mary McCann, the second actress to play the student in Mamet's own Off-Broadway production, encountered shouts of "bitch" of such intensity that she ran back into the theatre for safety. (103)

Others have raised these issues; indeed, the fury of the debate that Oleanna occasioned in the press and the academic community is in many ways as remarkable a phenomenon as the play itself. 2 Alisa Solomon called Oleanna "Mamet's twisted little play . . . an act of name-calling meant to provoke--and especially to provoke feminists" (104). Branding it "one of the nastiest contraptions to sputter down the pike in some time," Jeremy Gerard accused Mamet of stacking the deck against Carol "with stunning ferocity" (76). Jan Stuart characterized it as "less a play than a registry of complaints . . . one man's reactionary protest" (356), and Daniel Mufson suggested that "Oleanna's working title could have been The Bitch Set Him Up" (11). On the other side, John Lahr called the play "powerful, exciting" and praised it for risking "the bracingly unfashionable...

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Alluding to the Clarence Thomas controversy, the play seems to be criticizing the society's over adherence to political correctness and commenting on the prevalent use of feminism as a form of manipulation during that time. Feminism is portrayed negatively in this play through the depiction of Carol as a radical and manipulative character. John is certainly arrogant and not likable, but many things he said can actually be interpreted differently. His words and actions are taken out of the context of that particular situation and conversation and interpreted in the worst possible way. For instance, when he said "I like you" to Carol, under that context he is only trying to show kindness and reassure Carol who appears to be very frustrated. Yet when taken out of the context and strictly examined with the guidelines of what is politically correct, it could be interpreted as inappropriate. It can be concluded that Mamet is unsupportive of such social phenomenon where a political movement can be manipulated to serve one's own agenda.

The most obvious theme in Oleanna is the constant struggle for power between men and women, and also between those with less power and those with more power. At the beginning, Carol as a female student is defenseless against John and has almost no power. John has title, money, and is in charge both in his own household and at a societal level. In this sense, John's power and authority as male professor is absolute. However, there is also power in Carol's apparent weakness. Ironically, Carol's power also lies in the fact that she is a woman. She understands how to manipulate her weak position in order to take advantage of John. She knows that the tenure board will protect the weak and be in favor of her due to the feminist movement during that time, so she charges John of sexual harassment and rape simply because she can. In the end, when John is stripped of his powers (his job, his house), he resorts to physical power by assaulting Carol. In conclusion, sometimes power is not absolute, and even weakness can be manipulated to become power.

Language in used in this play to represent power. As evident from the change in language patterns used by the characters, it can be seen that eloquent speech and advanced vocabulary represent power. In Act One, Carol is portrayed as nervous, desperate, uncertain, and almost idiotic, thus her speech includes many pauses and ellipsis and she uses very simple sentences and vocabularies. Carol is also unable to comprehend advanced words used by John such as “paradigm” and “transpire” at the beginning. John, on the other hand, is fluent in speech and uses higher level scholarly vocabularies, demonstrating his confidence and authority over Carol as a male professor. However, as Carol gains slowly power over John in Act Two and Three, her sentences become more complex and her vocabulary level escalated. John's speech in turn deteriorated into broken sentences, and in the end, into angry outbursts and derogatory terms as he loses the power he once held.

Throughout the play, Carol and John's conversations are frequently interrupted, and they constantly seem to be unable to understand each other. At the beginning, Carol does not understand John's teachings and his use of vocabulary. Then later, John does not understand why Carol accused him for sexual harassment and offensive speech. The failure to understand and communicate without interruptions and misconceptions highlights the communication barriers between the characters, to demonstrate not only the distinction between student and professor, but more importantly the disparity between man and woman. Due to their difference in gender and status, there is a lack of concern and empathy for each other; they cannot stand in the shoes of each other to understand things from another perspective. While Carol thinks that she is fighting for a righteous cause against arrogant and patriarchal men like John, John thinks that he should have power and control over Carol as a social superior. This thus shows the antagonism between the genders as they each pursue seemingly incompatible goals.

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