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.