Oleanna Essay - Critical Essays

Oleanna, David Mamet

Introduction

Oleanna David Mamet

The following entry presents criticism of Mamet's play Oleanna (1992).

One of the most controversial plays of the 1990s, Oleanna provoked fierce debates about sexual harassment and gender politics. Written during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment scandal, this play about a female student accusing her male professor of sexual impropriety divided audiences between those who were angered by what they perceived as fabricated sexual harassment charges used as a tool to gain power and those who viewed the image of a scheming, manipulative woman as an attack on the right of women to defend themselves from improper sexual advances.

Biographical Information

Mamet was born in Chicago and raised in a Jewish community on the city's south side. After his parents divorced, he lived with his mother in Olympia Fields, a Chicago suburb. As a young man he was a busboy at Second City comedy club and worked at the Hull House Theatre. He attended the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in New York for a year and then enrolled in Goddard College in Vermont, where he studied literature and drama. Mamet taught for one year at Marlboro College in Vermont, where he wrote his first play, Lakeboat (1970), which his students eventually staged. After working at a variety of jobs, Mamet returned to Goddard as a drama instructor, and he wrote an early version of Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974). In 1972 Mamet returned to Chicago and formed the St. Nicholas Company with actor William H. Macy. During the 1970s several of Mamet's plays—including Duck Variations (1972), Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and American Buffalo (1975)—enjoyed successful and critically acclaimed productions in New York City. American Buffalo and Sexual Perversity each won an Obie award for distinguished playwriting. In 1977 Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse married. They had two children together but divorced in 1991. That same year Mamet married Scottish actress Rebecca Pidgeon. Mamet wrote his first screenplay in 1981, a film adaptation of the James Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Throughout the 1980s Mamet wrote and directed numerous films and plays. He won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the New York Drama Critics's Circle Award, and a Tony Award nomination in 1984 for Glengarry Glen Ross, which was originally produced in London in 1983. Mamet has lectured and taught at several universities and colleges, including the University of Chicago, Yale University, New York University, and Columbia University. Mamet's work is often compared to that of English playwright Harold Pinter and Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. One of the few major American playwrights to also find success as a screenwriter, Mamet was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994.

Plot and Major Characters

There are only two characters that appear onstage in Oleanna: John, a university professor, and Carol, his student. Scene I begins with Carol coming to John's office to seek help after receiving a failing grade on a paper. John is busy on the phone with his wife and their real estate agent. He is being considered for tenure and plans to buy a new house once he receives the approval of the Tenure Committee—a mere formality, he believes. John grudgingly agrees to talk to Carol, stating that he is in a hurry. She pleads for him to help her understand his class. She states that the books he assigns (one of which is a textbook he himself has written) and the class discussions are over her head and she can't grasp the subject matter. He condescendingly listens to her plight and interrupts her questions with personal anecdotes and by answering the continually ringing phone. Carol's language is stilted and uncomplicated, and she asks John why he uses large words when vernacular would suffice; he in response becomes more condescending. When Carol finally breaks down and begs him to help her understand, he sympathetically puts his arm around her shoulder to calm her and offers to tutor her. The second scene of the play shows a shifting of the balance of power between John and Carol. Carol has accused John of sexual harassment, jeopardizing the granting of tenure to him. John again begins in a condescending tone and tries to placate Carol by describing her misinterpretation of the events that transpired in their previous meeting. His speech is halting and jumbled and his appearance is disheveled. She, on the other hand, is dressed nicely and her command of the language has improved. She informs him that she is being supported by “The Group,” which is assisting her in her complaint. John cannot dissuade her from continuing the sexual harassment charges, and he grabs her arm to get her attention and keep her from leaving while he pleads his case with her yet again. She screams for him to let go of her and the second scene ends. In the final scene John's appearance is shockingly disheveled and his speech is erratic. Carol is ready to file attempted rape charges against him for his actions in Scene II. She is dressed in an almost manly style and her grasp of language is complete. She offers to drop all charges, but she and the Group have conditions: he must remove certain texts from his lesson plan, including his own book. In an act of helplessness and rage, John begins to beat Carol. In the last moments of the play he stands over her cowering form holding a chair over his head, ready to bring it down on her. He stops short of this final act, puts the chair down, returns to his desk, and begins to shuffle papers while Carol says, “Yes. That's right. … yes. That's right.”

Major Themes

The most prevalent theme explored in Oleanna is that of power, and critics have identified several representations of power relations in the play. One view holds that the play demonstrates how academia thrives on faculty control of students. This is shown in John's exaggerated use of scholarly words to present an image of knowledge and superiority over his students. John is condescending to Carol, even in the second act when she has leverage against him; he feels he can dissuade her by using his superior ability to reason. Later, when he has lost all superiority and is debased, he lashes out physically, like an unthinking animal, whereas she is calm and her last words are almost a recrimination against him. Another aspect of the use of power in Oleanna concerns male/female relations. John is in the traditionally male position of power and Carol is the female supplicant whom he, at a whim, decides to help. This fuels Carol's anger and feeling of marginality. In the first scene, John doesn't hesitate to let Carol know where she stands in his priorities. He repeatedly cuts her off mid-sentence, he finishes her sentences for her, and, when she is about to reveal her deepest secret, he dismisses her by answering his phone. In the last two scenes he doesn't validate her feelings, only tells her that she misinterpreted them. In the final scene John equates rape with sexual desire rather than physical violence and resorts to objectifying Carol by using a crude epithet, reducing her to just a body part, not a full person. The power of language is another facet of the examination of power in Oleanna. Not only does Carol gain proficiency in language in the course of the play, but she uses her words to accuse John, thereby gaining power over him. For his part, John's power of language diminishes, as his outbursts become less and less effective. In their last two meetings, Carol clearly and calmly discusses the conflict with him and demands his subordination, using the same big words that he used with her in Scene I. John's language deteriorates into fragments and curse words. His final act represents a complete loss of language. Oleanna also delves into the misinterpretation of words and actions. Most reviewers agree that John's behavior in Scene I was not sexually harassing, and believe it was misconstrued by Carol. Mamet explores the effect of this misconception throughout the play, which results in the complete breakdown of communication between John and Carol. Although Carol's last words signify understanding, what she is agreeing with is not clear. In Oleanna Mamet uses language as a tool and a weapon, and leaves it up to the audience to assess how the protagonists use it.

Critical Reception

Critical response to Oleanna is sharply divided. One faction of critics censures Mamet for what they perceive to be a gross simplification of gender relations and harassment suits, while the other defends the play as an important and complex statement about the abuse of power in academic circles. During its debut production, many feminists charged that Mamet unfairly depicted women as manipulative, and protested that the characterization of Carol as devious alienated her from the audience—who often cheered when John started beating her. They also questioned the timing of the play, as it was written during, and appeared just after, the time of the hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, during which former employee Anita Hill charged that Thomas had sexually harassed her. Many felt that the play exploited the deep social and political divisions created by the Hill-Thomas controversy. Detractors contended that as a result of the thorough vilification of Carol's character, women may be less likely to press their own cases of sexual harassment. On the other hand, some commentators claimed that the play is less about sexual harassment than about higher education's prevalent patriarchal mentality and the abuse of power by professors over their students. Another group of reviewers maintained that Carol's character is far from one-dimensional. Through her dialogue, they noted, she gives clues to her troubled background and feelings of marginality. Although many expressed extreme dislike for the play's themes and characterization, most reviewers commended Mamet's use of language to signify power, pointing to John's mastery of language in the beginning of the play set against Carol's mumbling, followed later by John's incoherent sentence fragments and Carol's adept use of vocabulary. These commentators read Oleanna as an effective critique of the interplay of gender, power, and language in modern society.

Principal Works

Lakeboat 1970

Duck Variations 1972

Sexual Perversity in Chicago 1974

American Buffalo 1975

A Life in the Theater 1977

The Water Engine 1977

The Woods 1977

Edmond 1982

Glengarry Glen Ross 1983

Speed-the-Plow 1988

Bobby Gould in Hell 1989

Oleanna 1992

The Cryptogram 1994

Boston Marriage 1999

Dr. Faustus: A Play 2004

A Life in the Theater...

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Criticism: Author Commentary

SOURCE: Mamet, David, and Charlie Rose. “On Theater, Politics and Tragedy.” In David Mamet in Conversation, edited by Leslie Kane, pp. 163-81. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

[In the following interview, which was originally broadcast on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS in November 1994, Mamet discusses his career, elaborates on his reasons for writing Oleanna, and evaluates reactions to the play.]

Mamet's first live televised interview on the “Charlie Rose Show,” hosted by the New York-based cultural commentator, was a rare television appearance and the first of many interviews with Rose. Their wide-ranging discussion of...

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Criticism: Oleanna (1992)

Elaine Showalter (review date 6 November 1992)

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “Acts of Violence: David Mamet and the Language of Men.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4675 (6 November 1992): 16-17.

[In the following excerpt, Showalter characterizes Oleanna as lopsided and misogynist and finds the female character a one-dimensional rendering of a woman.]

By all counts, this should be a championship season for the playwright David Mamet. The movie version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross, opened to rave reviews and a prediction of an Oscar for Jack Lemmon; there's great anticipation of another movie, Hoffa, for which he wrote the screenplay, and which is expected to garner...

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Gerald Weales (review date 4 December 1992)

SOURCE: Weales, Gerald. “Gender Wars: Oleanna & Desdemona.Commonweal 119, no. 21 (4 December 1992): 15, 20.

[In the following excerpt, Weales commends the actors and Mamet's direction of Oleanna and briefly discusses the play's controversial issues.]

The characters in David Mamet's Oleanna have names—John and Carol—but they might as well have been called professor and student or man and woman or accused and accuser, or simply victim 1 and victim 2. Judging by the conversations I overheard as I left the Orpheum Theater, the play is going to stir up a dollop of controversy. Depending on where one stands, John is either a...

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Daniel Mufson (review date 1993)

SOURCE: Mufson, Daniel. “Sexual Perversity in Viragos.” Theater 24, no. 1 (1993): 111-13.

[In the following appraisal, Mufson surveys critical response to Mamet's Oleanna.]

In his October 12, 1992, New Republic column, Robert Brustein wrote, “Controversy makes stars of artists for all the wrong reasons, distracting our attention from debates that should be more aesthetic than political.” This comment, typical of Brustein's oft-stated contempt for “activist plays,” becomes more complicated given his role as coproducer of David Mamet's Oleanna, which, from its premiere at the American Repertory Theatre last May to its run in New York this past...

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Alisa Solomon (review date 2 November 1993)

SOURCE: Solomon, Alisa. “He Said/He Said.” Village Voice 38, no. 44 (2 November 1993): 110, 115.

[In the following review, Solomon questions the moral perspective of Oleanna and the negative view it takes regarding women and sexual abuse.]

First of all, it's cheap: two actors, one simple set, no technical effects. Second, it has raked in profits from commercial productions in New York, on tour, and in London. Does it need any other qualification to be a favorite choice for nonprofit regional seasons?

But these practical, even cynical calculations are not the reasons artistic directors give to explain why David Mamet's Oleanna, going...

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Marc Silverstein (essay date May 1995)

SOURCE: Silverstein, Marc. “‘We're Just Human’: Oleanna and Cultural Crisis.” South Atlantic Review 60, no. 2 (May 1995): 103-20.

[In the following essay, Silverstein presents Oleanna as socially conservative, stressing that while Mamet strives for basic humanism, the play actually champions conformity and isolates otherness as deviant.]

The perennial critical question of how to evaluate the misogynistic overtones of David Mamet's work has been raised with renewed urgency by the controversy surrounding the commercial (and largely critical) success of Oleanna.1Oleanna concerns a female student's rather tenuous charge of...

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Alain Piette (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Piette, Alain. “The Devil's Advocate: David Mamet's Oleanna and Political Correctness.” In Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, pp. 173-87. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

[In the following essay, Piette maintains that in Oleanna Mamet explores how “political correctness” can deprive language of its power to communicate and inform.]

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

Old proverb

Ever since his work for the stage first received critical attention, most noticeably with Jack Kroll's 1977...

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Thomas H. Goggans (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Goggans, Thomas H. “Laying Blame: Gender and Subtext in David Mamet's Oleanna.Modern Drama 40, no. 4 (winter 1997): 433-41.

[In the following essay, Goggans investigates small hints in Oleanna that can provide background information about Carol's past and thereby help explain her seemingly inconsistent and irrational behavior.]

The Bitch Set Him Up”—that's what Daniel Mufson thought the working title of Oleanna could have been, after he appraised the critical responses to the play's 1992 New York production, adding that “one can expect few other reactions when Carol is such a viper.”1 Mamet's presentation...

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Sandra Tomc (essay date May 1997)

SOURCE: Tomc, Sandra. “David Mamet's Oleanna and the Way of the Flesh.” Essays in Theatre/Etudes Théâtrales 15, no. 2 (May 1997): 163-75.

[In the following essay, Tomc explores the tension between the “conventionalism” of Mamet's views on performance art and the controversial nature of Oleanna.]

In On Directing Film, David Mamet takes issue with countercultural theatre, performance art, and film for their cultivation of controversy. These art genres resort to provocation, he believes, because they have abandoned the principles of “story.” “It is our nature to want to make sense of … events—we can't help it. The human mind would make...

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Montana Katz (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Katz, Montana. “Truth or Consequences: Mamet's Oleanna in the Real World.” In The Erotics of Institution, edited by Regina Barreca and Deborah Denenholz Morse, pp. 156-65. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1997.

[In the following essay, Katz claims that Mamet's depiction of sexual harassment, the search for truth, and gender relations in Oleanna does not effectively translate into real-life situations and actually reinforces stereotypes of female aggression.]

David Mamet's play Oleanna hit the stage in the aftermath of the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1992-93. With so much coverage during and after the...

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Carla J. McDonough (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: McDonough, Carla J. “David Mamet: The Search for Masculine Space.” In Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama, pp. 94-8. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1997.

[In the following excerpt, McDonough contends that Mamet's one-dimensional rendering of Carol in Oleanna reinforces male distrust and resentment of women in the workplace and academia.]

The hysterical fear of women and the feminine that pervades the world of Mamet's plays makes hardly surprising his portrait of Carol in Oleanna. Touted by many reviewers, and certainly by advertisers, as a brilliant exposé of sexual harassment, this 1992 play...

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Richard Badenhausen (essay date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Badenhausen, Richard. “The Modern Academy Raging in the Dark: Misreading Mamet's Political Incorrectness in Oleanna.College Literature 25, no. 3 (fall 1998): 1-19.

[In the following essay, Badenhausen explores the breakdown of language and understanding between teacher and student in Oleanna. Badenhausen appraises John's inability and unwillingness to effectively educate and listen to Carol, and draws parallels between this situation and real events that happen in academic circles.]

In discussing the 1992 debut of David Mamet's Oleanna, audiences and critics tended to highlight two features of the play: its indictment of political...

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Jean Jacques Weber (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Weber, Jean Jacques. “Three Models of Power in David Mamet's Oleanna.” In Exploring the Language of Drama: From Text to Context, Edited by Jonathan Culpepper, Mick Short, and Peter Verdonk, pp. 112-27. New York: Routledge, 1998.

[In the following essay, Weber explores the interaction of the “social context” and the “cognitive context” in Oleanna.]

INTRODUCTION

Oleanna is David Mamet's recent and highly controversial intervention in the political correctness debate. It stages a confrontation between a male professor, John, and his female student, Carol. John is about to be granted tenure and, on the strength of...

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Thomas E. Porter (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Porter, Thomas E. “Postmodernism and Violence in Mamet's Oleanna.Modern Drama 43, no. 1 (spring 2000): 13-31.

[In the following essay, Porter examines how the gender, education, class, and viewpoint differences between John and Carol inexorably lead to their failure to reach true communication and eventually result in violence.]

La déconstruction, c'est l'Amérique.

—Jacques Derrida1

Among the many surprises in David Mamet's controversial play Oleanna, the most shocking is perhaps the professor's violent attack on his student. This sudden eruption is...

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Robert Skloot (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Skloot, Robert. “Oleanna, or, The Play of Pedagogy.” In Gender and Genre: Essays on David Mamet, edited by Christopher C. Hudgins and Leslie Kane, pp. 95-107. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

[In the following essay, Skloot assesses Oleanna as a play about the educational system's custom of pitting the power and inflexibility of the teacher against the insecurity and marginalization of the student and one possible outcome if these roles are reversed.]

“Teaching is a performative act.”

bell hooks

“That is how they educate us. By osmosis!”...

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Kellie Bean (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Bean, Kellie. “A Few Good Men: Collusion and Violence in Oleanna.” In Gender and Genre: Essays on David Mamet, edited by Christopher C. Hudgins and Leslie Kane, pp. 109-23. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

[In the following essay, Bean argues that, rather than depicting gender conflicts, Oleanna portrays a clash between John and the Tenure Committee, in which Carol “suffers the violence inspired by the power struggles between men.”]

Although David Mamet's Oleanna (1992) concerns itself with the issue of sexual harassment, criticism of the play has experienced a kind of backlash against interpretations focusing on gender politics. Such...

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Ira B. Nadel (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Nadel, Ira B. “The Playwright as Director: Pinter's Oleanna.The Pinter Review: Annual Essays (2002): 121-28.

[In the following essay, Nadel describes the differences in tone and action between Mamet's original 1992 production of Oleanna and Harold Pinter's London production the following year.]

I am walking slowly in a dense jungle.

Bridget in Pinter's Moonlight

David Mamet's Oleanna touched an American nerve when it premiered at the Hasty Pudding Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. in May 1992 and in New York where it opened the following October. Reaction to the...

(The entire section is 3623 words.)