Elaine Showalter (review date 6 November 1992)

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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 more Oscar nominations for its star, Jack Nicholson; his latest book of essays, The Cabin, is about to be published; and his new play, Oleanna, takes a controversial plunge into the raging rapids of the American debate over sexual harassment, political correctness and academic elitism.

A disciple of Stanislavsky and the Method, the master of a rough, spare, often very funny dialogue that draws on the American urban vernacular, Mamet has been associated with the rise of a number of distinctive actors, including Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Mantegna and Ron Silver. With his last play, Speed-the-Plow, which cleverly cast Madonna in the role of a secretary to a cut-throat Hollywood producer, he had a Broadway commercial success satirizing Los Angeles players; and he has done some interesting, although flawed work as a film director, most notably in the offbeat Jewish cop film, Homicide, and the confidence sting, House of Games. Mamet currently enjoys a reputation as a serious intellectual, an American Pinter, a worthy successor to Miller, Williams and O'Neill. He has plans to direct Hamlet later this year, and he invokes Aristotle (and Mel Blanc) in discussions of Oleanna. In a deeply respectful chapter of his recent book, Modern American Drama, C. W. E. Bigsby calls Mamet an outsider who has “produced a series of plays which seem to add up to an excoriating assault on American values”.

Yet it has always been hard to determine where Mamet's excoriation of American macho, commercial, competitive American values begins and where his delight in their cultural forms leaves off. Not only in comparison to the epic range of passionate younger playwrights like Tony Kushner, Anna Deveare Smith and Howard Korder, but also in contrast to the surprising depth of old dogs like Clint Eastwood, whose new film, Unforgiven, relentlessly deconstructs the cherished frontier mythology of American gunslingers, Mamet's stylized minimalism seems repetitive, stale and unevolved. Trying out new roles has not taught him new tricks; his attitudes are beginning to look like prejudices, while his techniques are starting to sound like shticks.

It's in Oleanna (subtitled “A Power Play”), where the Mamet techniques are stretched to cover larger and more complex social issues, that the limitations of his talent become clear. There are two programme graphics for Oleanna; one shows a seated man with a target on his chest, the other a targeted woman. He is John (William H. Macy), a middle-aged professor who has just been recommended for tenure, and is in the process of buying a house, a premise which allows Mamet to make more real-estate gags and to interject some amusing one-sided phone conversations. She is Carol (Rebecca Pidgeon), a failing student who comes to his office, ostensibly to argue about her grade on a paper. Sexless and childlike in a baggy dress worn over two pairs of long underwear, Carol anxiously protests that she has not understood anything of John's lectures, and not a word of his book. At first preoccupied, self-centred and harsh, John gradually is moved by (and identifies with) her desperation, her hopeless incomprehension, her slavish note-taking, her sense of being stupid and out-of-place; he offers to wipe her failing grades from the slate, and to tutor her in his office. Recklessly, he promises her an A in the course, and in answer to her persistent, wide-eyed questions, confides that he too had difficulties in school, that he too has problems—with his wife, with his job—and that he does not feel contempt for her ignorance, but likes her. When she seems to break down in despair, he attempts to comfort her with a hug, from which she springs away with a start. Carol's attempts to express herself and, at one point, to confide in John, are interrupted, either by the telephone, or by his educational theorizing. At another point, he uses a tasteless sexual metaphor: “The rich copulate less than the poor but they take off more of their clothes.”

But by Act II, it appears that the scene we have witnessed, in which the professor is vain and foolish, but basically well-intentioned, and the student is more worried about grades than about learning, but basically grateful for the professor's effort to help, was not at all what we had supposed. Carol has made charges to John's tenure committee that she has been the victim of sexual harassment. She has rewritten the narrative of Act I in the most sinister terms—a man having problems with his wife has made sexual overtures, and promised her an A in his course if she will meet privately with him in his office. She now reappears alone, at his extremely unwise and unrealistic request, to listen with unshakable self-righteousness to his efforts to sort things out.

While in Act I she could barely understand words like “paradigm” and “transpire”, Carol is now given to solemn polysyllabic oratory on questions of legal propriety, class exploitation and academic morality. Boyishly dressed in a little vest and trousers, she sits primly in a straight-backed chair, writing John's remarks in a blue ledger like a recording angel. And where before she seemed isolated and waif-like, in contrast to John, who has a wife and son, now she is the representative of an unidentified “group”, in whose name she makes her accusations. When she insists on leaving, John, who seems not to have figured out what he is up against, attempts to hold her back.

By Act III, she has called this gesture an act of attempted rape; his tenure has been revoked; and he is about to lose his job. Their roles are reversed; he is dishevelled, in his shirtsleeves, and distraught; she is calm and neatly garbed in a man's suit. His pleas for human sympathy are met first with her sermons about his cynicism and elitism, and then with a proposal: if he will accept her group's list of books to be removed from the reading list, including his own, she will withdraw her charges. On a realistic level, it's an absurd situation; even in the dire terms of the play, such a demand could immediately backfire on the accuser, while the withdrawal of criminal charges would not bring instant reinstatement. But instead of handing the blacklist to his lawyer, his supporters, the press and the union, John makes an impassioned speech in favour of freedom of thought, and, after a final taunt from Carol, the play ends with a long-anticipated act of violence (the programme credits a Fight Director), which, though not calculated to help John's legal position, certainly provides a much-desired catharsis for the audience. As the man sitting next to me commented, “I nearly climbed up on the stage to kick the shit out of the little bitch myself,” and while various New York reviewers remarked on the unusual phenomenon of audience members shouting one-liners back to the actors, “Right on, sister!” was not among them.

It may safely be said that Oleanna is an involving theatrical experience, although the nature of that involvement is highly questionable. Frank Rich in the New York Times described Oleanna as Mamet's “impassioned response to the Thomas hearings”, and told his readers to “imagine eavesdropping on a hypothetical, private Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation in an empty room”, to get an idea of “what the playwright is aiming for and sometimes achieves”. This is nonsense: the Hill-Thomas hearings, which continue to have unforeseen repercussions in American political life, constituted a social drama, played out before an audience of millions, in which the original conversations, a decade past, played a minor role. What the hearings displayed were the massive inequalities of gender and race within American democracy, not the communication problems of two conservative, upwardly-mobile African-American lawyers. And, of course, Thomas was confirmed and took his seat, for life, on the Supreme Court.

Mamet himself has explained that he drafted the play eight months before the Hill-Thomas hearings, drawing on the experience of a college teacher friend who had been “the target of a sexual harassment charge”, but pulled it out of the drawer while they were going on. Asked by the New York Times what had drawn him to the subject to begin with, Mamet replied, “That's like asking Capa why he took pictures of war.”

These combative metaphors make clear why Oleanna does indeed exploit the audience's reservoir of emotion from the Hill-Thomas hearings, or from other widely publicized cases of sexual harassment. Like Strindberg's dramas of sexual combat, or Patrick Buchanan's anti-feminist rantings (“a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”), hyped-up charges of female vengeance and sexual warfare will readily tap a latent male rage, especially in fin-de-siècle periods of political confusion and economic decline. On the whole, critics have been too soft on Mamet's failure to distance himself from his characters' violence. An exception is David Van Leer, who noted in a prophetic essay in the New Republic in 1990 that “the racism, the sexism and the homophobia of his characters is not effectively defused by their author, and Mamet may seriously misjudge the psychological effect of so regularly venting those emotions in his work … The venom of Mamet's plays permits audiences to credit their own worst biases under the cover of moral distance.”

Mamet expresses his own biases at some length in his essays as well as his plays; he believes, for example, that “women do not, on the whole, get along with women”; that “the true nature of the world, as between men and women, is sex, and any other relationship between us is either an elaboration, or an avoidance”; and that “the joy of male companionship is a quest for and can be an experience of true grace, and transcendent of the rational, and so, more approximate to the real nature of the world”.

In the all-male plays, like Glengarry Glen Ross, even a feminist spectator can take pleasure in the dramatic conventions Mamet has developed to express this grace. But Oleanna gives Mamet little scope for his usual gifts. There's very little humour, and little of the staccato, aphasic obscenity which gives his dialogue its driving rhythms. Only in the ultimate confrontation (“Rape you? I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole, you little cunt”), does he get to use the magic words. Moreover, his usual stylistic tricks—rhetorical questions, unfinished sentences, italics, pauses—fall flat because these characters do not speak the same language; they simply declaim to each other. Bill Macy, a long term associate of Mamet's who was in the original Chicago cast of American Buffalo, seems more at ease with the dialogue than Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife, although her failure to elicit any sympathy is more the playwright's problem than her own.

In making his female protagonist a dishonest, androgynous zealot, and his male protagonist a devoted husband and father who defends freedom of thought, Mamet does not exactly wrestle with the moral complexities of sexual harassment. What he has written is a polarizing play about a false accusation of sexual harassment, and that would be fair enough—false accusations of harassment, rape and child abuse indeed occur—if he were not claiming to present a balanced, Rashomon-like case. The disturbing questions about power, gender and paranoia raised in Oleanna cannot be resolved with an irrational act of violence. Mamet's haste to end the play recalls his harried salesmen: “I got to close the fucker or I don't eat lunch.”

Gerald Weales (review date 4 December 1992)

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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 well-meaning professor at first intent on helping a confused student or a sexist and elitist whose every casual word is an indication of his comfortable place in the power structure. Carol is either a victim of that structure or a radical feminist who wishes to replace the professor as power figure. Neither character, in so far as the two are characters rather than opposing points of view, is particularly attractive. Each in his/her way is a whiner and completely self-absorbed although both explain their words and actions in terms of some larger idea or entity. John professes to love teaching; Carol eventually speaks for her group (an unidentified gathering of arbiters of political correctness), the students at large, and the college.

The first act provides the text for the mutual misunderstanding to follow; Carol's only concern at this point seems to be her grade. If, as she says, she does not understand anything said in class nor anything in the professor's book, she probably should not be in college at all, but this is not a real student in a real college. She is an occasion for John to do his understanding-professor turn. He sees himself as an ironist and an iconoclast, dismissing education, which is what he teaches. Carol's confusion about the apparent split between subject and approach becomes an excuse for him to turn avuncular, autobiographical, and preachifying. He may be sincere in his attempt to help her, but his language—typically Mametian (except for the absence of obscenity) in its mixture of pretentious vocabulary and broken sentences, its stops and starts—suggests either his own omissions or a calculated effort to convince her that she and he are alike—which of course they are not. He rides over her simple question about her grade with a deluge of presumed concern, affection, sympathy. He even puts his arm around her when she seems especially upset.

Carol and John's initial meeting is interrupted by phone calls from John's wife and his lawyer, indicating his expectation of tenure and of a house he is buying to celebrate his new security. Presumed security. Carol returns in the second act—her awkward jumper dress replaced by a mannish suit—after having filed a detailed complaint with the tenure committee which, acting out of a need to get on with the play (or to indicate Mamet's suspicion that the forces of “political correctness” have taken over campuses today), has rejected his promotion. Their roles are now reversed, he is the petitioner, she the power figure. He continues to try to explain himself and when she starts to leave he holds her by force. In the final scene, she agrees to save him if he accepts her group's list of books to be banned from class. When he finds his own book on the list, he explodes in rage and high moral rhetoric and orders her out of his office. A phone call lets him know that he has now been charged with attempted rape. As she goes, she tosses him the last straw (“And don't call your wife ‘Baby’”) which drives him to violence. He throws her viciously around the stage until both end in exhaustion, staring at one another, each indicating his/her perception of the other as enemy.

The overstated characters balance one another, making for a standoff of the ideas they represent. Although the battle is unresolved, the play remains a fascinating disquisition on power, and it is impressively performed by William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon under the direction of the author.

Daniel Mufson (review date 1993)

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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 fall, has attracted attention primarily because it has upset people.

Oleanna makes a statement by the playwright himself sound even more peculiar. In his essay, “A National Dream-Life,” Mamet wrote, “[A dramatic experience] concerned essentially with the aesthetic politics of its creators may divert or anger, but it cannot enlighten.” Yet anger was clearly Mamet's goal for Oleanna, in which a female student, Carol, exploits the issue of sexual harassment as a means of imposing the political agenda of “[her] group” upon John, her unsuspecting professor—she is femme fatale and p.c. fascist rolled into one. Oleanna's working title could have been The Bitch Set Him Up. The actor playing John, William H. Macy, told a class last year at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training that he thought it was good when several people booed at one of the Cambridge performances. Mamet's own satisfaction with the controversy is smug and sanctimonious; one of the advertisements for the Cambridge show states that the goal of Mamet's new theater company is “to support theater as the place to go to hear the truth …”

Not surprisingly, critical dialogue about Oleanna has focused, first, on its provocativeness, and second, on the validity of its sociopolitical statement. Like Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio or Serrano's Piss Christ, Oleanna's aesthetic merit, if it has any, has become parenthetical to its polemics. Meanwhile, Mamet has touted the play as controversial while insisting that its implications are ambiguous, that it does not take sides. Several critics bought this hogwash. Jack Kroll set up his Newsweek review of the play by telling us to remember the Thomas confirmation hearings: “Suppose they're both telling the truth,” he asked, and told us that Oleanna presents that option. In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold called the play a “series of verbal misunderstandings,” and insisted that neither character “says a single word he or she does not sincerely believe is true.”

Diehard Mamet fan Frank Rich conceded that it's “hard to escape [Mamet's] tendency to stack the ideological deck,” and noted that Oleanna “might be a meatier work if its female antagonist had more dimensions, even unpleasant ones, and if she were not so much of an interchangeable piece with the manipulative, monochromatic Mamet heroines of, say, House of Games and Speed-the-Plow.” Fair enough, but in the next two sentences, Rich said it would nevertheless be “overstating the case” to suggest that Oleanna is sexist because, by the end of the play, Mamet has “at least entertained the possibility” that there is no good guy. Rich refers here to the “shocking final catharsis” where, upon having lost his tenure, his house, the right to have his own book on his own syllabus, and the freedom to state his opinions in class, the professor loses all composure and starts to punch and kick the student who has systematically destroyed his career.

Does the “shocking final catharsis” sound preposterous? It is. And it hardly creates ambiguity. As Markland Taylor noted in his Variety review, if both characters in the play are supposed to appear to be attempting to do the right thing, “Oleanna and its production don't succeed. Audience sympathy clearly comes down in favor of William H. Macy's professor …” Bruce Weber wrote in his New York Times “On Stage, and Off” column that there was scattered applause after John finished beating his student. Elaine Showalter, writing in the November 6, 1992, Times Literary Supplement, recounted that the man sitting next to her said, “I nearly climbed up on the stage to kick the shit out of the little bitch myself.” But one can expect few other reactions when Carol is such a viper. As several reviewers have noted, her costume and carriage suggest an Americanized Maoist. In the New York Times forum on Oleanna, Enrique Fernandez, of National Public Radio, called Carol “a kind of Maoist Mr. Spock.”

Many critics found little trouble in putting aside the annoying little problem that one of the two characters in Oleanna is a cardboard cut-out, a nightmarish phantom conjured by the paranoid fantasies of a patriarchy peering over a cliff to see—gads!—egalitarianism. These critics boldly conceded that they liked the play because they like its political statement. John Lahr admitted that Oleanna is a “polemical play,” and as such, a lesser work in “Mamet's canon.” But Lahr defended the play because he fears and loathes what Carol represents, “political correctness as an intellectual carapace that substitutes dogma for thought, mission for mastery,” a group whose “central paradox” is that it “demands diversity in everything but thought.” Lahr also saw Carol as a Maoist enforcer.

Arthur Holmberg, too, in his October 1992 article for American Theatre, lauded the play for supposedly representing a real-life situation where the “halls of ivy are now patrolled … by the guardians of political correctness, and … semi-literate students … who deploy a brilliant array of blackmail tactics to con a grade.” The same article quoted Brustein as saying that the situation reminds him “of nothing so much as an academic version of the Stalinist purges.”

Although he and Oleanna's other fans drew the play's conflict in Manichean terms, Lahr nevertheless tried to dress Carol as an ambiguous character, and he sounded ridiculous in doing so. At one point, Carol pleads, “Teach me. Teach me.” Lahr thought this was a “cunning trap” set by Mamet so that the audience would sympathize with the woman, who possesses that “fierce vacancy and ambition which distinguishes [sic] the American undergraduate.” First, what is fierce vacancy? Second, where are the fiercely vacant and ambitious undergraduates? If anyone pleaded, “Teach me, teach me,” to a professor where I went to school, he or she would have been laughed off the campus, with little or no sympathy. Carol provokes the same reaction when she makes such stupid remarks and when she bursts into tears at the suggestion of reading a simple graph. And all this becomes especially reprehensible when, in Acts II and III, she turns into an ideological con artist who decontextualizes Act I in a vindictive and pseudofeminist rage. Lahr said, “This transition is jarring but intentional.” Either way, it destroys the plausibility of Carol's character. John Simon, who called both of the characters “wooden dolls,” posed the appropriate questions that Lahr failed to answer: “Was [Carol's] near imbecility in Act One … an elaborate act of entrapment? Or is she a genuine idiot savant whom the Group has coached in some fancy lingo? Or is Mamet simply playing fast and loose with authorial responsibility?”

Lahr supported his argument with quotes from Mamet's books of essays, which he used selectively in a way that distorted Mamet's beliefs—and sidestepped Mamet's misogyny. Only Elaine Showalter dipped into the essays to hint at Mamet's vast labyrinth of prejudices regarding both sexes. Lahr cited Mamet's inane but relatively innocuous remark that “Men are the puppydogs of the universe.” He conveniently omitted the text that followed immediately afterwards:

Men will waste their time in pursuit of the utterly useless simply because their peers are all doing it. Women will not. They are legitimately goal-oriented, and their goals, for the most part, are simple: love, security, money, prestige. These are good, direct, meaningful goals, especially as opposed to the more male objectives of glory, acceptance, and being well-liked. Women don't give a tinker's damn about being well-liked, which means they don't know how to compromise … The coldest, cruelest, most arrogant behavior I have ever seen in my professional life has been—and consistently been—on the part of women producers in the movies and the theater.

Now read the deifying Newsday feature where the playwright whined: “Why do they think I'm a misogynist? That I can't write women? Somehow I've been stuck with this sexist label.” Mystifying, yes.

Is Oleanna provocative? Does it involve the audience? Some critics made much of the applause when the professor beats Carol, or of the gasps when Carol makes her accusations. When I saw Rocky IV a few years ago, people applauded when Stallone pummeled the Russian boxer, and Basic Instinct fueled many debates beyond the movie theater. But no one is going to defend the merit of either of these two films. William A. Henry III in his Time column and Michael Feingold in the Village Voice fawned, respectively, “the power to incense, like that to sadden or amuse, is reason enough to cheer for the future of the theater,” and, because the play would “furnish New York dinner parties with brawl material for many months to come,” Mamet must be operating at his “cunning best.” In the New York Times, David Richards came ever so close to taking a stand against Oleanna, noting that it is “rigged” and that its action “slips out of control without our really understanding how or why.” But then he, too, backed off, saying, “Mr. Mamet's ability to provoke a gut response has to be considered highly welcome.” How to account for such pandering judgment, I don't know. We can only lament the spread of the anti-aesthetic aesthetic of Howard Stern's and Don Imus' shock radio to people who should know better.

Which critics did know better? Aesthetics makes strange bedfellows. The critical split on Oleanna did not fall altogether neatly into gender lines. Just about all the female critics were less than thrilled with the play, but they may have been surprised to find John Simon in agreement with them. They may have been even more surprised to see Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, praise the play in an unusual New York Times critical forum, as a “welcome jolt of nervy political theater.” Of course, Brownmiller deals a sharp blow to her own credibility when she says it is “rare to see woman against man” as a theme in drama, a remark that makes me wonder if she's read many of the plays that have been written over the past three thousand years.

The most thorough and well-written piece against Oleanna was Elaine Showalter's, in part because critics such as Alisa Solomon in the Village Voice, and Jan Stuart and Linda Winer in Newsday, did not have adequate space to discuss the play's many problems, though their criticism went beyond the assertion made in the Times forum by Deborah Tannen, that “we don't need a play that helps anyone feel good about a man beating a woman.” Tannen is right, but she gives the play too much credit in even discussing its message. The strength of her argument comes through when she describes the impoverished quality with which the message is delivered, calling Carol “all surface: just a stereotype that audiences can join in hating.” Finally, Solomon summed up a complaint of a number of other critics, dismissing what is widely praised as Mamet's forte: “Mamet's hiccuping language has become a mannerism.” David Richards, too, complained that the sound of the dialogue “is intrinsically annoying.” Mamet's action lives in his dialogue, his defenders say. Fine. But any playwright of any merit will have dynamics within any passage of dialogue. Mamet's are more salient because there's nothing else to observe.

The critics showed most integrity in their reviews of Oleanna when they explicitly stated their political motivations for liking the play. Kevin Kelly, John Lahr, and Arthur Holmberg certainly made their biases clear. But when a critic writes at length about how drama should not point accusatory fingers in a manner that makes the theater a “place for social reform” or “moral blackmail,” and even goes so far in his complaint as to define the “Theatre of Guilt” as a genre, and then winds up coproducing Oleanna, what is there to say? In his March 1992 article in American Theatre, called The Theatre of Guilt, Robert Brustein reproved theater whose function is “to arouse the spectator's guilt,” acknowledging that the targeted spectators come “generally from the white masculine ruling class.” Oleanna targets a woman as an ugly representative of the group that challenges the white masculine ruling class. Brustein implied that his anti-guilt aesthetic is non-partisan, but after Oleanna, one has to wonder.

Alisa Solomon (review date 2 November 1993)

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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 up on a dozen stages, is the second most popular play at America's regional theaters this year. The most popular, with 16 productions, is Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, another commercial hit despite its large, therefore expensive, cast. (This isn't counting, of course, the annual run on Christmas Carols—almost as many as Oleanna and Lughnasa combined.)

Lughnasa is a piece of languid mediocrity, but one quite in line with the fuzzy fare typically put up at the regionals. There's certainly a rant to recite about these theaters' tendency to latch onto formally tame, sentimental, gently topical, and, most important, commercially tested work. But it's an old, familiar rant, a useful reminder perhaps, but about as effective as railing against the unchallenged power of insurance companies in Clinton's proposed health plan. It's a wearying rant, for its inevitable conclusion is democratic socialism: Our institutions that provide essential services—whether health care, art, or any other nourishing necessity—will never fulfill their missions as long as their success is measured by the balance sheet, as long as their services are not assumed to be the absolute right of every citizen.

But the proliferation of Oleannas raises new questions, for it is not just another mildly liberal “issues play,” as works that mention AIDS or apartheid are called in season-planning powwows. It's a twisted indictment of egalitarian impulses, dramatizing how sexual harassment is used as a trumped-up weapon of “political correctness.” In Mamet's view, pointing out sexism (or, by extension, racism, homophobia, or anything else dismissed as so much p.c. harangue) leads inevitably to censorship and the vindictive destruction of straight white men.

By now everyone knows the plot. Act One: A dim student named Carol comes to her professor's office for help, bleating “Teach me, teach me.” The teacher, John, offers a consoling hand on the shoulder, while pontificating about the limitations of higher education—offering a rather adolescent and self-absorbed critique. Act Two: Egged on by her anonymous “group” and suddenly articulate (at least insofar as anyone in a Mamet play is ever articulate), Carol has brought John up on sexual harassment charges, threatening his pending tenure and the real estate deal that depends on it. Act Three: Carol has charged John with rape. He loses job, house, and control. Climactic Ending: John beats Carol and calls her a “cunt,” often to the cheers of spectators.

Many of the artistic directors I spoke to who chose this play for their seasons insist that there's a balanced approach to explore, that Carol need not be a cardboard villain, nor John a creep whose violent outburst becomes sympathetic because he gets a comeuppance much larger than he deserves. Many—though none for the record, for fear of offending Mr. Mamet—attributed widespread (often feminist) disgust for the play to the playwright's failures as director of the New York production. In a blandly tactful expression of this view, one AD said, “When I went to see it in New York, it wasn't a great experience. But when I read it I was fascinated and felt there was a potential production that was interesting to me.” Another complained that W. H. Macy played John as a “charmless asshole,” contradicting Carol's claims that he charms students into his elitist cynicism; another charged that Carol (played by Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon) was reduced to stick-figure inanity by sexless costuming and an affectless performance.

Whether or not they derided Mamet's directing, all the ADs I spoke with talked energetically about the play's capacity to illuminate some central truth about the strain of contemporary human relations: “We're not listening to each other,” said Bruce Bouchard, AD at Albany's Capital Repertory Theatre, who will be directing Oleanna for a January opening. “It's not about sexual harassment; it's about how the world doesn't work.” For Stan Wojewodski, AD at the Yale Repertory Theater, where his production of the play just opened, Oleanna “is about how two people can have two absolutely truthful interpretations of the same experience that contradict each other.” Portland Stage AD Greg Leaming, who has hired a woman—Melia Bensussen—to direct the play in the spring, said it shows that “there is absolutely no coming together; the Other will always be unknowable.” Carey Perloff, AD at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, is “fascinated” by the play's exploration of “the power plays inherent in any teacher-pupil, master-slave, male-female relationship and the vast chasm that separates people from ever understanding.”

Can't we all just get along?

Well, no. Not as long as some swim in luxury and others drown in poverty, some preen in pedantic self-satisfaction while others struggle against great odds to learn. That much is obvious enough, despite the American tendency to reduce every political difference, even class antagonism, to the unfortunate clash of personalities who just haven't learned to communicate. Oleanna is fueled by such a reduction; no matter how much a director promises to flesh out Carol into a truly searching student—and they all promise to do so—her complaints (and his, for that matter) come off, finally, as the waste product of failed communication, not as legitimate descriptions of inequity.

Directors repeatedly talked about achieving “balance” in their productions—another of those all-American values that rarely gets examined. Somehow, giving equal time or weight to two sides of an issue constitutes balance, no matter that one of the sides holds more power, gets more attention, is more commonly accepted, or is just downright bogus. Thus, for example, Roger Cornish can write a column in American Theatre complaining that our theaters are censorious p.c. institutions because none would dream of doing a play that questioned the existence of the Holocaust or that suggested that the poor deserve what they get. It doesn't strike him as relevant that the radical right spews its message across countless cable and radio stations, and even on the floor of Congress—nor that there's an essential humanism to the artistic endeavor that might make such views antithetical to theatrical expression.

Similarly, Mamet's play occupies a world where false charges of rape are extremely rare, where women who have actually been assaulted tend not to report their experience for fear of being blamed, a world where it's the right—not the left—that removes books from libraries and curricula, and that closes down a county's entire arts budget. I don't doubt the sincerity of America's artistic directors; it's just that Mamet's traps are treacherous—all the more so for the sincere.

I got a flier in my mailbox at Baruch College the other day that began “Dear Educator.” It's a promo piece for $10 student and faculty tickets for Oleanna. “Are you: Politically Correct? Sexist? Malicious? Destructive? A Feminist? Victimized? Righteous? Manipulative? Angry? Abused? Abusive?” it asked, suggesting that if you answer “yes” to any of the above, you must see this play. Look at that balanced list. Can anyone explain what “feminist” and “abused” are doing on it?

Marc Silverstein (essay date May 1995)

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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 sexual harassment against a male professor—an allegation leading to his denial of tenure, the loss of a new home he was buying based on the assumption that he would receive tenure and promotion to a more financially secure position, and the potential jeopardizing of his relationship with his wife. In the play's final moments, the professor, driven to a frenzied rage by his ruin, “begins to beat [the student] … [and] knocks her to the floor” (79). Never before has Mamet allowed the verbal aggression his male characters direct towards women to express itself in terms of brutal physical violence, and never before has his audience (both men and women) shown itself so ready to embrace this misogyny. The beating is often accompanied by applause, cheers and quite audible exclamations of encouragement to the professor. 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.

How can we account for so visceral a reaction to the play as a whole and to its misogynistic violence in particular, a reaction that allowed Oleanna to play to sold out houses? Mamet's own comments on the role theatre plays as an expression of America's “national dream-life” suggests one answer:

We respond to a drama to that extent to which it corresponds to our dream life. … The play is a quest for a solution. As in our dreams, the law of psychic economy operates. … The American theatre, acting as a collective mentality, operates … on considerations which approximate those which determine the individual's choice of dream material: “Does examination of this idea, of this action, seem to offer a solution to an unconscious confusion of mine at the present time?”

(Writing in Restaurants 8-9)

Mamet's sense that theatre stages the contents of America's collective unconscious and, through that staging, translates those contents into consciousness suggests (although he does not make this point himself) that theatre can demystify and perform a kind of ideology critique of the desires and values inhabiting our national unconscious that, to borrow Jameson's term, is a political unconscious, rather than some amorphous psychic entity. This is not to say that Oleanna sets out to anatomize the roots of misogyny in American society; however, that so many of those who see the play take evident satisfaction to the point of cathartic release in the violence directed not simply at a woman, but at a woman backed by and identifying herself as spokesperson for a feminist “group” raises the question: What can Oleanna tell us about the uses of misogyny, about the frightening “need” for misogyny, at the particular cultural moment at which we find ourselves?

To answer this question, we need a clearer sense of the precise nature of this cultural moment—a moment in which the ascendancy of cultural conservatism within America testifies to the enormous success of the New Right in presenting its ideological agenda as a solution to what Habermas identifies as the legitimation crisis of the late capitalist welfare state.2 For purposes of exploring how Oleanna inscribes a cultural politics of misogyny that lends itself to articulation in terms of neoconservative ideology, I am less concerned with the New Right's economic program than with the strategy through which it displaces its analysis of legitimation crisis from the spheres of economics and politics onto the domain of culture. In “The New Obscurity,” Habermas defines this displacement as constitutive of the neoconservative ideology that

shifts onto cultural modernism the uncomfortable burdens of a more or less successful capitalist modernization of the economy and society. … [The New Right] does not uncover the economic and social causes for the altered attitudes towards work, consumption, achievement and leisure. Consequently, [it] attributes [legitimation crisis] to the domain of “culture.”

(7)

Rather than recognize these “altered attitudes” as a “deepseated reaction against … the pressures of the dynamics of economic growth” (7), the New Right issues its apocalyptic jeremiads against the alleged deleterious effects on American culture produced by feminism, homosexuality, multiculturalism, the politicization of the academy generally and the humanities specifically, and the postmodern interrogation of totalizing categories and structures (that is, the “human”) in service of an emphasis on cultural, ethnic and sexual difference. Against these cultural “evils,” the New Right calls for a return to “family values,” a nationalism bordering on xenophobia, the reconstitution of the American community—a “community” defined more on the basis of exclusion than inclusion—and a revalorization of capitalism through privileging the vigorous competition of an entrepreneurial economic order.

While the vision of capitalism's destructiveness dramatized in American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed-the-Plow clearly distances Mamet from the New Right's economic agenda, I want to argue that, through the kind of humanism to which it appeals, Oleanna inscribes a “cultural imaginary” that lends itself to articulation in terms of neoconservative social ideology. Such ideology depends for its efficacy on a certain conception of the political—a conception that Mamet himself has expressed when drawing a distinction between the kind of ethical critique of capitalism contained in his work and a more explicitly political critique. Referring to this distinction in an interview with David Savran, Mamet rejects the idea of locating intervention against capitalism within the political/economic sphere, which “is not susceptible to change … [because] it is an outgrowth of the intrinsic soul of the culture” (141-2).

In relegating the economic order and the political operations through which that order achieves stability to the level of secondary phenomena—a superstructural “outgrowth” of the base, the “soul” of American culture—Mamet performs the very displacement that Habermas defines as constitutive of neoconservative ideology. Indeed, by locating America's “soul” in its culture, Mamet implicitly circumscribes the realm of culture, setting it apart from and outside of the domains of politics and ideology. It is precisely this desire to rescue culture from the potential contamination of ideology—a desire that constantly betrays its own ideological dimensions—that determines the status of misogyny in Oleanna. In the confrontation between professor and student Mamet dramatizes the deleterious effects when ideology installs itself at the heart of the institution that, perhaps more than any other, determines the content of the nation's cultural core—the university.

In a stinging attack on the play, Francine Russo asserts that Oleanna's “clever talk of … education and p.c. run amok” (97) amounts to little more than a pretext for the author to dramatize his misogynistic fantasies. I have already remarked that audiences seem all too willing to embrace such fantasies as what Mamet calls a “solution” to our “unconscious confusion”; however, I would also argue that it is precisely the play's treatment of education and its choice of a university setting that allows for this type of audience response. How, then, does its setting affect the play's uses of misogyny?

Perhaps no other institution has played so major a role as the university in the New Right's attempt to deflect attention away from the effects of late capitalism and onto the cultural sphere. The writings of New Right ideologues, William Bennett, Allan Bloom, Pat Buchanan, Dinesh D'Souza, Roger Kimball, George Will and others, depict the university as a battlefield on which the forces of culture confront the forces of anarchy. On the side of culture, we find those, like Kimball, who see the university's function as disseminating “the idea of common culture, the idea that despite our many differences, we hold in common an intellectual, artistic, and moral legacy … that define[s] us as a civilization … that preserves us from chaos and barbarism” (6). The use of “we” and “us” in this passage mirrors the educational agendas of the New Right—an agenda regarding difference as a condition that can and must be transcended through declared allegiance to a “common culture” that marginalizes, if not demonizes, those who emphasize the specificity of sex, race, and class.

When Kimball describes the university as a site of cultural transmission, he reveals the extent to which the New Right regards it as a site of cultural and ideological production, constructing a vision of authority and community that can only see the education and political claims of feminism and multiculturalism as posing a threat to the “moral legacy” of universal values defining “our” culture. The “barbarism” of such radical educational theorists as Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux consists in their arguments that what Kimball calls a “moral legacy” has served to legitimate classist, ethnocentric and patriarchal values; that the university has played an essential part in promoting these values, while at best paying lip service to a watered-down notion of pluralism; that the university could and should become an agent of the radical democracy appropriate for a postmodern cultural politics. For such theorists, culture is not a monolithic, monologic entity expressive of our “common” human nature and universal values, but, in Giroux's words, “a shifting sphere of multiple and heterogeneous borders, where different histories, languages, experiences, and voices intermingle amid diverse relations of power and privilege” (32). Rather than reinforcing and reproducing these power relations, the university

must provide the conditions for students to engage in cultural remapping as a form of resistance. Students should be given the opportunity to engage in systematic analyses of the ways in which the dominant culture creates borders saturated in terror, inequality, and forced exclusions … that have disabled others to speak in the places where those who have power exercise authority.

(33)

The New Right, at least in part, owes its ideological ascendancy to the success with which it has represented such calls for “cultural remapping” as leading to an anarchy that threatens the integrity of America itself—an “anarchy” reflected in the attempts by feminists and multiculturalists to set the pedagogical agenda. The university can only resist such “barbarism” by serving as the front on which the New Right can, in Pat Buchanan's words, “wage a cultural revolution in the 1990s as sweeping as the political revolution in the 1980s” (11). The alarming impact of the New Right's calls for a conservative “cultural revolution” within the academy can be measured by the popular success of such books as Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education—a success aided (effectually if not intentionally) by a media coverage that often trivializes and caricatures the very real issues and concerns that engendered the so-called political correctness movement on university campuses.

The extraordinary success of the New Right over the last decade in shaping public perception of the “correct” ideological role of the academy allows the university setting of Oleanna to resonate with its audiences in ways that suggest why they have greeted the play's misogyny with such enthusiasm. In her review of the play, Leslie Kane argues that Mamet traces the decline of the university “from liberal community to battlefield where zealot dominates scholar” in order to dramatize “the pernicious, pervasive evil of thought control, the McCarthyism of the 1990s” (2). It is the success of this dramatization, Kane asserts, that prevents us from labeling the play “as anti-feminist, even misogynist” (2). I want to suggest that the cultural politics of misogyny in the play are directly related to and depend upon how Mamet explores the question of the university.

To clarify this last point, let met turn to a moment in the play's second scene. John, the professor, attempts to reason Carol into dropping her charge of sexual harassment by convincing her that she has misinterpreted him. She refuses to retract, accusing him of abusing his professorial power, and the following exchange occurs.

CAROL:
You can look in yourself and see those things that I see. And you can find revulsion equal to my own. Good day. (She prepares to leave the room).
JOHN:
Wait a second, will you, just one moment. (Pause) Nice day today.
CAROL:
What?
JOHN:
You said “Good day.” I think that it is a nice day today.
CAROL:
Is it?
JOHN:
Yes, I think it is.
CAROL:
And why is that important?
JOHN:
Because it is the essence of all human communication. I say something conventional, you respond, and the information we exchange is not about the “weather,” but that we both agree to converse. In effect, we agree that we are both human. (Pause) I'm not a … “exploiter,” and you're' not a … “deranged,” what? Revolutionary … but that we're just human.

(52-3)

John defines the ability to engage in and reach agreement through such interpersonal speech acts as “the gist of education” (56). As he admits, however, this dialogic ideal—the communicative action through which we affirm the “common humanity” that both liberal humanism and neoconservative ideology see education as legitimating—proves vulnerable because we “interpret the behavior of others … through the screens we create” (19-20).

We find here the familiar Mamet theme of the need for a community in which recognition of our commonality becomes the basis for establishing universal values that transcend the limits of strategic, instrumental action. Such values can only establish themselves through the understanding achieved by a linguistic practice in which the “magic force of words [is] capable of assuring the truth in oneself or in others” (Mamet Writing in Restaurants 6-7). In the context of the play's setting, however, such a communal ethic functions less as ethical assertion than as ideological program. If “the gist of education” consists of reaching consensus that “the human” serves as the foundation and defining marker of subjectivity, then the university must, according to John, ensure that the “agree[ment] that we are … human” takes precedence over the fact “that we may have … positions, and that we may have … desires, which are in conflict” (53).

The implicit suggestion here that the university manages sites of conflict by adopting a pedagogy oriented toward social integration and consensus easily lends itself to articulation with the educational agenda of the New Right, in which it is precisely those students occupying sites of class, ethnic, and sexual difference who find themselves asked to (mis)recognize the irrelevance of such difference when compared with their membership in a “common culture.” If John's speeches lack the overtly apocalyptic rhetoric of Allan Bloom or Roger Kimball, focusing on a kind of distorted communication rather than culture difference as the main obstacle to community, Oleanna nevertheless associates such distortion with the cultural politics of difference. John claims he wants to engage Carol on communicative terrain where they can remove “the Artificial Stricture, of ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Student’” (21). Viewing his actions through the “distorted” interpretive screen of the feminist “group” that convinced her to bring charges against him, Carol declines to engage in such dialogic reciprocity: “Because I speak, yes, not for myself. But for the group” (65).

Carol's repeated menacing invocation of “the group” echoes an implicitly distinction Mamet draws between community and groups in the notes to his play The Water Engine. What ultimately distinguishes groups from communities is “their lack of accountability,” a lack manifesting itself in the refusal of dialogue: “We cannot talk to them” (Writing in Restaurants 108). Mamet's identification of America's legitimation crisis as a form of communication disorder in which instrumental and strategic manipulation of speech replaces the communicative understanding through which speakers reach agreement on ethical principles of conduct is not unique to Oleanna. Indeed, Carol's “group” succeeds other Mamet groups that threaten both communication and community—the real estate company (Glengarry Glen Ross), Al Capone's crime “family” (The Untouchables) or the paramilitary Zionist organization (Homicide). I am not suggesting that the structurally similar role these groups share in Mamet's work in any way qualifies the misogynistic anger directed at Carol and her group. On the contrary, we can see the play's anti-feminism as a logical extension of the “ethical” critique of distorted communication that runs throughout Mamet's work. What distinguishes Oleanna from Mamet's earlier work is the insistence with which the play locates the roots of distortion in the claims of a gendered difference that refuses to submerge itself in the ideological rhetoric of the “human,” a gendered difference that threatens to reveal this rhetoric as ideological.

It may be objected that Mamet's depiction of Carol's feminism is so blatantly unfair that we are asked not to regard her as a “true” feminist, but, as John Lahr suggests in his review of the play, as a study in the destructive “power of envy disguised as political ideology” (121). In an ideological atmosphere largely inhospitable to feminism's attempts at “cultural remapping,” however, it becomes only too easy to view what Lahr locates at the level of character as a judgment on feminism itself, particularly as Oleanna offers no alternative vision of feminism. Indeed, to the extent that it lends itself to Lahr's reading, the play depoliticizes feminism, transforming its challenge to the status quo from the field of ideological struggle to a psychological obsession with achieving power as an end in itself.

We see this depoliticization, ironically enough, when Carol tells John that the university denies him tenure based on “your own actions. … What has led you to this place? Not your sex. Not your race. Not your class. YOUR OWN ACTIONS” (64). What strikes us about this moment is that while Carol repeatedly identifies her subjectivity in terms of class and gender—markers of identity that have forced her to “endure humiliations” and “overcome prejudices [both e]conomic [and] sexual” (69)—she invokes the image of the humanist subject as autonomous agent when confronting John: “You are a Free Person” (74). While we might expect such an argument from John himself, Carol's willingness to locate his “sexist … elitist” (47) tendencies in subjectivity independent of sex, race, and class or, more to the point, independent of the discourses, institutions, and practices through which sex, race, and class acquire meaning, raises serious questions about what Carol calls her group's “agenda” (74).

As Henry Giroux argues, a feminist politics of difference and agency will engage in theory and practice that interrogates and challenges “those mediations, interrelations, and interdependencies that give shape and power to larger political and social systems” (68). Such a politics could never emerge from Carol's “analysis” of John, but rather than discredit her as a spokesperson for feminism, the logic of the play suggests that feminism utilizes the political language of diversity, pluralism, and difference to mask a desire for power entirely unrelated to questions of “cultural remapping.” As the spokesperson for her “group,” Carol shows less interest in challenging how the university (re)produces dominant ideologies of gender and class than she does in divesting John of his power and appropriating it for herself. As she says quite pointedly, John must learn that “You. Do. Not. Have. The. Power” (50), adding later, “you hate me. … Because I have … power over you” (68-9).

Given the play's association of feminism with distorted communication, it is hardly surprising that the power Carol seeks is a specifically verbal power, the power quite literally to have the last word—a word that refuses to admit the possibility of response by an other positioned as an equal partner in a dialogical relationship. When John asserts that his conduct toward Carol “was devoid of sexual content” (a claim that the play supports), she responds by invoking this monological power: “I say it was not. I SAY IT WAS NOT. Don't you begin to see … ? Don't you begin to understand? IT'S NOT FOR YOU TO SAY” (70). Here, we see how much the play's “ethical” critique of feminism relies upon a specific figure from the image-repertoire of misogynistic fantasy: the woman who appropriates the power of speech; the woman who, refusing to resign herself to silence, not only inserts herself within the symbolic order, but threatens to evict men from their privileged position within that order.

Indeed, in response to Freud's question, “what do women want,” Carol's actions suggest that women aspire to the logocentric mastery that feminism attacks in patriarchal culture. The play transforms the feminist call for women to fashion their voice(s) into an aggressive urge either to silence men or to grant them a voice only on condition they speak to affirm the woman's Word (Carol offers to retract her charges if John signs a self-condemning statement written by her “group”). Similarly, the play decontextualizes the debate surrounding canon-formation—a debate in which feminism has raised important questions about the relationship between knowledge and power—transforming it into a desire to repress men's writing as well as their speech (Carol's offer to drop the charges also depends upon John's agreement to stop assigning and recommending texts, including his own, of which her “group” disapproves).

Carol's linguistic terrorism,3 her rejection of communicative action in favor of a coercive verbal practice that reduces one's partner in dialogue to an object of manipulation, appears at its most insidious in the play's final moments. John receives a phone call from his wife, whom he calls “baby” during their conversation. Carol rebukes him for using this term: “And don't call your wife ‘baby’. … Don't call your wife baby. You heard what I said. (CAROL starts to leave the room. JOHN grabs her and begins to beat her)” (79). Since Carol has already cost John his job, attempted to have his book banned from the university, and pressed charges against him for attempted rape, we might ask what it is specifically about this admonition that provokes him to violence.

When Carol condemns John for calling his wife “baby,” questioning the validity of a linguistic practice that both reflects and creates the emotional tie between husband and wife, she threatens what is often regarded as the most fundamental form of community: the family. Families are largely absent from Mamet's work. In American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow—the so-called “business trilogy”—this absence suggests how capitalism has commodified and objectified the private sphere of interpersonal relationship to the point where it becomes impossible to locate any affective dimension uncontaminated by the inexorable logic of capital. In Oleanna, this private sphere becomes the site of ultimate meaning, as John claims that the importance of family ties functions as a determining factor in his desire for tenure: “To obtain tenure … on the basis of which I contracted to buy a house. … A home. A Good Home. To raise my family” (44).

To the extent that it is an object, a commodity that one contracts to buy, an house is merely an house; once it serves as a place to raise a family, an house becomes an home, a site of the affective mutuality and reciprocity that characterize any community. This sense of home easily lends itself to articulation with the neoconservative discourse of “family values” in which the “home” serves as the locus where the traditional values of marriage, family, parenthood and social life defend against the ravages of the same cultural fragmentation against which the university must fight. John's comment that tenure will provide him with the security “to raise my family” not only suggests that the university provides economic support for the home, but reminds us that university and home function as two sites for the production and transmission of cultural values, two institutions engaged in a similar ideological project. While Carol's remark about John's use of “baby” obviously cannot destroy his home in the same way that her “group” can endanger the “civilizing” mission of the university, it seems to confirm the New Right's apocalyptic scenarios depicting feminism as a movement that, not content with advancing its claims through the political process, seek to destroy that mythical ideal known as “the American way of life”—an ideal represented by an anachronistic image of the nuclear family that neoconservative ideology remains intent on resurrecting.

Such cultural conservatism has found a considerable audience (an audience it shares with Oleanna) for a diagnosis of America's cultural crisis that resonates with large sections of the middle class who, buffeted by rapidly shifting economic and social winds, seek an explanation for the crisis that does not call into question the political/economic order from which it has derived its well-being. When this audience responds positively to Carol's beating, it reads the violence less as an act of aggression than as a form of defense—not so much self-defense as a defense of the institutions (the family and the university) that, as the guardians of traditional values, find themselves under attack from those who flock to the rallying cry of “difference.”

Writing in the conservative journal National Interest, Irving Kristol argues that such “American” ideals as “the longing for community” are more endangered in the 1990s than in the 1960s: “We may have won the Cold War. … But this means that now the enemy is us, not them” (28). By allowing (if not encouraging) its audience to collapse the distinction between Carol as an “individual” character, women as biological entities and feminism as an ensemble of sociopolitical movements, Oleanna attaches a name and a face to this enemy within—the enemy who must be prevented, through the use of violence if necessary, from contaminating the community. To the possible objection that such violence itself constitutes a breach of community, one could respond that the internal enemy has forfeited its right to be considered part of the community by refusing to recognize itself in the hegemonic values that define and set “us” apart from the cultural pollution of “them.”

JOHN:
Don't you have feelings?
CAROL:
Don't you have feelings? … What is it that has no feelings. Animals. I don't take your side, you question if I'm Human.

(65)

It is not only John, however, but the play itself that insistently questions whether Carol is “Human,” while refusing to question how appeal to “the human” helps legitimate social hierarchies and the power relations that consolidate them. This appeal to “the human” amounts to a kind of terrorism. By terrorism, I do not mean the play's climactic violence so much as the forms of ideological management that effectually authorize such violence, creating what Michael Taussig calls “the space of death … where the social imagination has populated its metamorphizing images of evil” (5, 8). In the play's representational economy, Carol occupies this “space of death”—the death of the university, the family, the community, the “human”—and if the violence directed against her fails to contain the threat she poses, this very failure leads many in Mamet's audience to misrecognize the status of this “image of evil” as an image, an ideological fiction that mystifies the political and economic factors contributing to our current legitimation crisis.

That this specific “image of evil” both arises from and reinforces the image-repertoire of misogynist fantasy raises serious questions about the “human” values in the name of which Mamet's plays mount their cultural critique. Whether we view Carol, following John Lahr's suggestion, as using the aspirations of feminism to mask her desire for power or regard her as a “real” feminist ultimately doesn't matter because the textual politics of the play locate the threat she poses to community in her status as a woman, thus foregrounding difference at the expense of the “human.” Introducing the “contamination” of political divisiveness into the domain of the university, jeopardizing the cultural mission of that institution which, more than any other for the New Right, must transcend politics and ideology, she represents the mediation of “human” communication by interest—a mediation that, for Mamet, transforms the relationship between equal dialogical partners into an imperialistic exercise of power in which the interested speaker utilizes language to manipulate and objectify her “partner.”

This tension between the disinterested “human” and the interest of cultural specificity informs the conflicting educational “philosophies” of the two characters. John offers a succinct account of the decline and fall of the American university: “I say college education, since the war, has become so a matter of course, and such a fashionable necessity, for those either of or aspiring to the vast new middle class, that we espouse it, as a matter of right, and have ceased to ask, ‘what is it good for?’” (33). John's comments encapsulate Mamet's sense of the degeneration of American culture. As he does in Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, Mamet here suggests the disappearance of criteria for grounding value judgments by reminding us of what happens when we pervert the meaning of “good,” wrenching it from its place as the vital center of an ethical vocabulary and transforming it into a synonym for “success.” John implies that the best answer to the question of what education is good for lies in “a love of learning” (33). In other words, for John (and we can almost hear William Bennett or Allan Bloom speaking through him), education is a good in itself—an “in-itself” whose goodness demands that we view education as an end rather than a means.

It is precisely the instrumentalization of education that Carol represents. Carol freely admits that she sees education as a means for attaining the social mobility that will allow her to rise above her lower class origins. Rather than defining “a love of learning” as an integral part of the humanist ideal of the ethically good life, she views knowledge as a good only to the extent that it can alter her status and advance the interests of class empowerment. She identifies herself as one of the “people who came here [to the university]. To know something they didn't know. … To get, what do they say? ‘To get on in the world’” (12). Such an instrumentalized approach to education becomes symptomatic of the larger crisis of American culture Mamet explores, a crisis in which, as Lyotard observes a propos of capitalist legitimation crisis, “success is the only criterion of judgment [our culture] will accept. Yet it is incapable of saying … why it [success] is good, just, or true, since success is self-proclaiming” (18-9).

Like his suggestion that the interpretive “screen” of gender issues distorts the extent to which “we're just human,” John's sense that class interest has eclipsed a concerned with what “is good, just, or true” when deciding what education is good for, performs its ideological work under the guise of ethical critique. Implicitly rebuking Carol's willingness to use education as a means of furthering her social aspirations, John obscures the extent to which, by participating in the cultural (re)production of class identity, that university engages in reifying the class differences and antagonisms that manifest themselves precisely in the economic “prejudices” and “humiliations” that Carol desires to escape. While such “prejudices” work against those “aspiring to the vast new middle class,” the university empowers those who, like John, already belong to that class. John's motivations for seeking tenure reveal his own desire for an empowerment that is as much material as it is ideological:

That I had duties beyond the school, and that my duty to my home, for instance, was, or should be, of an equal weight. That tenure, and security, and yes, and comfort … were even worthy of honourable pursuit. And that it was given me … to assure myself of—as far as it rests in The Material—a continuation of that joy and comfort. In exchange for … [t]eaching.

(44)

I have already discussed John's desire for tenure in relation to the ideologically charged appeals to the “home” as a center of values. Neither such appeals nor the equally charged rhetoric of “duty” he employs here, however, can disguise the fact that John's “honourable pursuit” of “The Material”—carefully revealed throughout the play—is only another version of both the valorizing of success at the expense of the “good, just, or true” and the reduction of education from end to means that Carol appears to represent. Since I have been arguing that the humanistic values John espouses are precisely those affirmed by the play, it may be objected that Mamet exposes his privileging of “The Material” and the elite status it confers upon him in order to submit his values to our critical scrutiny.

To answer such an objection, we must consider how the play invites us to judge John. Insistently demonized by the text, Carol never occupies the position of an ethical or social norm against which we can measure John's actions. If we find his “pursuit” of “The Material” questionable; if we find objectionable his attitude towards such social “duties” as supporting public education through taxes (“Is it a law that I have to improve the City Schools at the expense of my own interest? And, is this not simply The White Man's Burden?” [34]); if we find him ultimately concerned with the prosperity of the elite rather than the cultural dissemination of the “human” values for which he acts as an imperfect spokesman, Mamet encourages us to judge him only in terms of those values.

To clarify the implications of this point, let me refer to C. W. E. Bigsby's comments that Mamet's plays “argu[e] for the necessity of a humanism for which he cannot always find space within the plays.” Such humanism may never manifest itself in the characters' actions, but remains present through Mamet's “retain[ing] the vocabulary of a world which has slipped away” (290, 262). Bigsby here points to the irreconcilable gap between what Mamet's characters say and what they do in American Buffalo, when Teach declares the need for distinctions between right and wrong at the very moment he engages in the play's climactic act of violent destruction, or in Glengarry Glen Ross, when Moss utilizes the language of community and solidarity to coerce Aaronow into helping him rob the real estate office. Through such disjunctions between word and action, Mamet allows the audience both to see the characters as active participants in the collapse of those values to which they appeal and to recognize those values as the kind of ethical norms that ideally should serve as guiding principles of action.

In Oleanna, Mamet utilizes this same disjunction in order to inscribe the text's humanist ideology. When we see John acting out of a sense of the interest of privilege—”Is it a law that I have to improve the City Schools at the expense of my own interest”—Mamet represents him as failing the values he invokes of a world in which commitment to the characteristics that define our “common humanity” outweighs distinctions of class, ethnicity, and gender. By encouraging us to see John in such terms, Mamet places these “human” values beyond question. Inviting us to view John's elitism as betraying the values he claims to represent, the play effectually refuses any critical scrutiny of its humanism, which functions as the ethical yardstick by which we measure John. Focusing on how his “pursuit” of “The Material” undermines the humanistic “ideal,” the play never suggests how the institutional support of the claim that “we're just human” can work to reify social inequality. Condemning John's overt elitism, an audience can (mis)recognize the elitism promoted and ideologically masked by the claim that differences and specificities of class, race, and gender are merely distorted interpretive “screens.” Accepting “common humanity” as the fundamental marker of subjectivity, an audience can fail to interrogate how regarding identification in terms of cultural specificity as “artificial” serves to naturalize the disempowerment of those denied the benefits of cultural centrality. Positioning John as guilty of the self-interest that threatens the humanistic ideal, the play deflects its audience from exploring the relations of power that both support and find their support in humanism and from questioning the extent to which John's sense of entitlement and privilege mirrors (rather than betrays) the interests informing the plea to recognize that “we're just human.”4

It may be objected that the play's “humanism” is less an ideological position than an utopian yearning for a society that escapes polarization over issues of class and gender; a society in which John would feel obligated to subordinate his interests to the good of a communal ethic; a society in which Carol would not have to “overc[o]me prejudices. … Economic, sexual. … And endure humiliation” (69), because the fact that “we're just human” would be the only index of subjectivity that we recognize. As Oleanna suggests, however, we purchase such an “ideal” society at the cost of the demonization and terroristic exclusion of those who identify themselves in terms of difference, those who speak from the subject position of women rather than from the position of the disinterested “human,” at the cost of the deployment of a misogyny that both proves incompatible with any viable ethics and allows us to ignore the underlying political/economic causes of America's legitimation crisis.

While Mamet has received praise for opposing a vision of community to the ravages of capitalism, Oleanna suggests that we need to take a closer look at the cultural imaginary shaping that vision—an imaginary that equates difference with distortion and divisiveness, that offers misogyny as a “solution” to our “unconscious confusion.” If, as Mamet remarks in his interview with David Savran, we are going to create a community that serves as a true site of “ethical interchange” (134), then we must articulate both a sense of community and a sense of ethics that encourage responsiveness and openness to the specificity of difference. Within such an ethics, communication would no longer function as a form of containment performed under the sign of the “human,” but would provide a perspective from which to view difference as positive and socially enabling. Such a perspective, as Henry Giroux writes, allows us to “to recognize and to analyze how the differences within and between various groups can expand the potential of human life and democratic possibilities” (34). Lacking such an ethics, Oleanna can only perpetuate the very crisis of cultural fragmentation it seeks to address.

Notes

  1. See Elaine Showalter's “Acts of Violence,” Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 6, 1992, for an early review that sharply raises the questions of antifeminism and misogyny that continue to dominate responses to the play.

  2. See Habermas's Legitimation Crisis for a full discussion of this concept.

  3. The extent to which language functions as a form of violence has received much discussion in Mamet criticism—two particularly insightful accounts are offered by C. W. E. Bigsby's A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, Volume Three: Beyond Broadway and Jeanette R. Malkin's recent study, Verbal Violence in Contemporary Drama.

  4. In one of the more creative attempts to save the play from charges of misogyny and reactionary cultural politics, Hersh Zeifman draws a distinction between Mamet as playwright and Mamet as director. Zeifman sees the play as a balanced exploration of the abuse of power that submits both Carol and the “humanistic” values John imperfectly represents to critical scrutiny. Only “Mamet's badly misconceived production had turned Oleanna into a comic potboiler satirizing Political Correctness” (3). Even if we believe that director Mamet is incapable of understanding writer Mamet, the disjuncture between speech and action that Bigsby identifies as one of Mamet's fundamental dramatic strategies, and that I have discussed in terms of John, suggests the limitations of Zeifman's defense of the text.

I want to thank Harry M. Solomon for inviting me to deliver an earlier version of this essay (under the title “David Mamet's Oleanna and the Politics of Misogyny”) at the Humanities Discussion Circle at the 1993 meeting of SAMLA.

Works Cited

Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, Volume Three: Beyond Broadway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Buchanan, Patrick. “In the War for America's Culture, the ‘Right’ Side is Losing.” Richmond News Leader 24 June 1989.

Giroux, Henry. Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Habermas, Jurgen. Legitimation Crisis. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1976.

———. “The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 11(2): 1986.

Kane, Leslie. Review of Oleanna. The David Mamet Review 1: 1994.

Kimball, Roger. “Tenured Radicals: A Postscript.” The New Criterion January 1991.

Kristol, Irving. “Comment.” National Interest Summer 1989.

Lahr, John. “Dogma Days.” The New Yorker 16 Nov. 1992.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 1982-1985. Trans. Don Barry, Bernadette Maher, Julian Pefanis, Virginia Spate and Morgan Thomas. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Malking, Jeanette R. Verbal Violence in Contemporary Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Mamet, David. Oleanna. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

———. Writing in Restaurants. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Russo, Francine. “Mamet's Traveling Cockfight.” The Village Voice 29 June 1993.

Savran, David, ed. In Their Own Words. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Showalter, Elaine. “Acts of Violence.” Times Literary Supplement 6 Nov. 1992:16.

Taussig, Michael. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1987.

Zeifman, Hersh. Review of Oleanna. The David Mamet Review 1: 1994.

Alain Piette (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6163

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 history-making review in Newsweek (Kroll, “The Muzak Man” 79), David Mamet has consistently been acclaimed as a language playwright. Most critics have concurred to hail his exceptional mastery of the dramatic dialogue, whether poetic and funny as in The Duck Variations and A Life in the Theatre, vituperative and obscene as in American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, or verbally ebullient and sexually charged as in Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Edmond.

Few of his critics have resisted the temptation to label Mamet's gift of the gab. Some critics have borrowed their similes from the visual realm: C. W. E. Bigsby refers to the playwright's accuracy with words as “verbal pointillism” (Bigsby, Introduction 269). Jack Kroll rather speaks of “verbal cubism” (Kroll, “The Muzak Man” 79), while Ruby Cohn considers David Mamet as an “urban, vituperative miniaturist” with however “a limited palette” (Cohn 161). The same and other critics have also sought their comparisons in the musical or aural field. Jack Kroll, again, writes that David Mamet is “a cosmic eavesdropper who's caught the American aphasia” and “whose ear is tuned to an American frequency” (Kroll, “The Muzak Man” 79). John Ditzky finds that “the sound of his plays has the fascination of an overheard phone conversation” (Ditzky 26). Clive Barnes notes the playwright's “poetic, almost choral use of words” (Barnes), which Mel Gussow defines as “everyday language distilled into homely poetry” (Gussow III, 3). (With such a widely recognized gift for the rhythms, consonances, and assonances of language, it is not astonishing that Mamet should also have written a number of radio plays.)

Other critics still have preferred to coin their own phrases to try and pinpoint the peculiar nature of David Mamet's verbal qualities: thus, David Savran calls Mamet “a warrior-philologist” (Savran 132). Anne Dean “a verbal pornographer” (Dean 34), Guido Almansi “a virtuoso of invective” (Almansi 191-207), and Jack Kroll, still him, an “Aristophanes of the inarticulate” (Kroll, “Mamet's Jackals” 103). As for Charles Moritz, he admires the playwright's “verbal acrobatics” (Moritz 274). More importantly, with the notable exceptions of Gordon Rogoff (Rogoff 36-37) and Brendan Gill (Gill 54), most critics agreed that with David Mamet a distinctly new voice had risen on the American stage, whose tone and inflections were to determine its course for many years to come.

With the emergence of David Mamet in the late 1970s, American drama indeed seemed to veer away from the formal experiments in performance drama of the previous decade to return to the verbal medium, which is after all one of its essential components. This return to a theater of words prompted several critics, as e.g. Samuel Freedman, to recognize in David Mamet's dramatic dialogue a kind of gritty “eloquence,” (Freedman VI, 32) which Steve Lawson then hastened to dub the “New Eloquence” (Lawson 40).

Using the term “eloquence” to designate Mamet's brand of dramatic language might seem bizarre or ironical at first, if not altogether far-fetched, since the dramatist has indeed built most of his reputation precisely on his masterful rendition in speech of his characters' lack of articulateness. David Mamet's characters are far from being communicators: drawing on a very poor thesaurus of words inspired from the simplistic vocabulary of American sports and TV commercials, they either espouse the staccato rhythms of TV anchors to deliver a jumble of second-rate gibberish or they vociferously proffer a string of expletives and obscenities in an endless rant. More often, words fail them altogether, and they lapse into an irritating aphasia of barely audible monosyllables, onomatopoeic grunts, and suspended utterances. But it is in their pregnant silences, in their feebly articulated mumblings, or in their inane ramblings that they paradoxically manage to find the best expressions of their innermost distress and rage. As in Chekhov, Beckett, and Pinter, the true great moderns of western drama, it is in the interstices between the broken pieces of its discourse that the plight of Mamet's humankind is to be perceived.

The lack of apparent coherence, the surface confusion in the characters' speech, which sometimes verges on hermeticism, is paradoxically what gives the plays their coherence. For Mamet's dramatic language is first and foremost a pervasive, running metaphor, in that its very inarticulateness and incohesion can be seen as the reflections of the lack of communication and of cohesion of a society that has been deprived of its essential communal values. If their language fails them, if speech falters, it is simply because they have nothing left to communicate. Their loneliness is unfathomable, just as is their dumbness. The emptiness of their idle or confused talk merely echoes the vacuity of their emotional world.

Self-deluding talking heads or stuttering gargoyles, they live in a universe that is in a shambles and that they have long since ceased to comprehend. Their fragmented speeches are the mere manifestations of their fragmented states of mind, and the harrowing cadence of these speeches is the verbal translation of the screeching cacophony of the oppressive urban environment in which Mamet's characters are steeped. As C. W. E. Bigsby appositely writes:

Mamet writes of a world in which alienation is a fundamental experience; he creates plays in which that fact is reflected in the linguistic and theatrical structure. They are, indeed, episodic for more than structural reasons. Discontinuity, disjunction, a disruption of coherence at almost all levels is fundamental. Not the least of Mamet's achievements lies in the degree to which he has accommodated such convictions at the level of character, language, action and dramatic form.

(Bigsby, Mamet 109)

In this respect, the obscenity of Mamet's language, for which he is unjustly renowned, only mirrors that of the society whose mental structures it vainly attempts to grasp, let alone encompass.

But more than simply a metaphor, Mamet's language also serves another essential function. Influenced by Stanislavski's theories on dramatic action, as he has himself acknowledged in numerous interviews, Mamet, like his Russian predecessor, firmly believes that language is a form of action and that it often anticipates, if not actually shapes, our actions. This is why Mamet's only articulate characters, however blunt, are in fact all talk: as C. W. E. Bigsby has demonstrated, Mamet's characters consistently substitute talk for action in a pathetic effort to camouflage the meaninglessness of their existences (Bigsby 23). Theirs is a vicarious life which they invent even as they speak, borrowing from the great American myths of work, business, and success to flesh it out (the all-American myth of the family is conspicuously absent from the Mametian stage).

Their storytelling takes on various forms. It is the fictions kept alive by the two actors whiling away an entire career in some second-rate regional theater, while giving themselves the airs of stardom. It is the two old men trying to make sense out of some ducks' lives to avoid making sense out of their own. It is the salesmen selling to gullible customers worthless plots of land that their imagination has turned into exotic paradises, as if their lives depended on the deals. It is the petty crooks painstakingly plotting a burglary that will never take place. It is the young men telling each other the unbelievable exploits of their imaginary one-night stands to avoid having to talk about more meaningful relationships which elude them. Yet, all their verbal efforts are to no avail: the more their glib or blunt utterances embellish or distort a society they loathe, the more meretricious and chaotic their existences become.

It follows that not only does the characters' lingo echo the predicament of the fractured society they live in, it is at the same time responsible for its downfall, for its empty rhetoric is instrumental in undermining the very structures of that society. This idea of the interaction between language and society is by no means new. As Douglas Bruster underlines in an essay entitled “David Mamet and Ben Jonson: City Comedy Past and Present,” Ben Jonson had already formulated this assumption several centuries ago (Bruster 333-46). Closer to us, at the beginning of the century, the dadaists and the futurists, confident in the power of language, had endeavored to dismantle the structures of a society they abhorred by attacking the linguistic structures which they believed informed its social and intellectual foundations. In their view, their “mots en liberté” had to pave the way to a free society. Marinetti's Words in Freedom, with their broken-down syntax and semantic collisions, aimed at destroying the corrupt structures of a petrified language, and through them, the corrupt structures of a petrified society.

Mamet's characters seem to share their playwright's belief in the power of his medium—a dramatist's prerogative, no doubt—for they are constantly engaged in a verbal battle with one another in which they all try to have the upper hand: Bernie inundates Dan under his paternalistic and chauvinistic advice in Sexual Perversity in Chicago; Robert and John vie for verbal supremacy in A Life in the Theatre: the loser will be implacably upstaged; Teach talks Bob out of the aborted burglary and Fletch into it in American Buffalo; Roma and his peers literally flood their clients with words until they crumble and give in, in Glengarry Glen Ross. (As Mamet himself explained, he might have inherited this fascination with words from his father, an amateur semanticist who was adamant that the young David and his sister Lyn find the proper words to best express themselves.)

The same interaction between language and society can be said to underlie the current notion of political correctness, which has become the subject of many a heated debate on most American university campuses and in most American intellectual circles. It should, then, come as no surprise to us that Mamet should have decided to tackle the issue in his latest play, Oleanna, which premièred on May 1, 1992, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before opening on October 25, 1992, at the Orpheum Theater off-Broadway. Much as Umberto Eco's interest in all things linguistic led him to investigate the variegated manifestations of the language in its written and spoken forms, so Mamet's interest in the pragmatics of semantics was bound to prompt him to examine the phenomenon of political correctness, which finds its roots in the liberal 1960s and 1970s, but is only now coming full swing at the beginning of the 1990s, rekindled after lying dormant during the Reagan-Bush years.

A close parent to affirmative action, it is intent on eliminating from our language, behavior, and value system all forms of offensive and discriminatory attitudes toward certain categories of the population. At the beginning of the 1990s, it has almost exclusively been appropriated by the minorities as a weapon in their fight for equal rights and opportunities. The reason why the notion is now gaining so much prominence in American intellectual circles lies I feel in the global crisis of ideas and values that our western civilization is undergoing at the end of this second millennium. After the fall of the communist system, the world is now going through a period of redefinition of its normative political, social, and cultural values. In Europe, the collapse of the communist bloc has caused an enormous ethnic, religious, political, and social reshuffle under the aegis of the victorious ideology, capitalism. In the United States, after a decade spent fighting mostly external enemies and rival ideologies, the disappearance of the former eastern bloc has helped refocus the attention of the American people on its internal plight. The severe global economic crisis of the beginning of the 1990s has brought about the bitter realization of America's lingering inequalities, which were tragically laid bare for the whole world to see during the Los Angeles riots of 1992. This traumatic awakening to painful domestic realities suddenly revealed that America, like most of Europe, seemed to have lost the social consensus upon which an entire civilization with its values and certainties used to be based.

I would like to suggest that political correctness is a palliative ideology that has emerged in the U.S. to compensate for some of the most blatant shortcomings of the capitalistic system. It is the ideology of a transitional period during which all the societal pacts are being renegotiated in the hope of achieving a truly egalitarian multi-cultural society, which is seen as the only viable alternative to a fully integrated society threatened with implosion by all its political, social, racial, religious, and sexual tensions.

Mamet's interest in the phenomenon of political correctness undoubtedly stems from the fact that the new ideology has invested primarily the field of language in the assumption that a socially conditioned idiom ultimately shapes our patterns of social behavior. At the bottom of the notion of political correctness lies the very Mametian belief that, by altering and correcting the mechanisms that help perpetuate the discriminatory linguistic patterns, we will end up altering and correcting the corresponding discriminatory behavioral patterns, thus eradicating from the structures of both our language and our society the inequalities that threaten the social consensus with extinction. Political correctness is underlied by the utopian belief that by avoiding the use of “confrontational” phrases in our different modes of expression we will simultaneously smooth out the corresponding confrontational aspects of our everyday realities. It is an optimistic theory, which has unfortunately known the fate of many new ideologies bent on changing society's rules for the better: as I shall attempt to demonstrate, it has resolutely chosen the path of a militant radicalism, so as to become the exact opposite of what it purported to be.

This is why Mamet's Oleanna does not present us with an ideal alternative to reach a harmonious multi-cultural society where most political, social, racial, and gender tensions have been resolved, but on the contrary with a nightmarish world picture in which these tensions have been exacerbated because of a too fanatic application of the precepts of political correctness, a would-be sanitized world in which this utopian theory has become an anti-utopian terrorism of the mind, a censorship of sorts, intent on imposing on all individuals an intellectual conformity and propriety that is the negation of any freedom of thought and of expression. It posits a frightening universe in which the newly defined moral norm is seen as absolute and all deviating behaviors implacably sanctioned, preferably by a court of law.

The three acts of Oleanna are set exclusively in the office of John, a middle-aged college professor who has just been granted tenure pending some confirmation process by his tenure committee. As a result of that promotion, at the beginning of Act I, he is seen answering the phone, making the final arrangements to buy a house on which he has already paid a deposit. During the telephone conversation, Carol, one of his undergraduate students, is seated across the desk from him. She has just entered his office to argue with him about the grade of her last paper for his course. She thinks he is going to fail her for the course. Although she does not have an appointment, and despite the fact that he is rather rushed by the formalities he has to go through to buy his new house, John nevertheless accepts to talk to her for a few minutes. Most of the conversation, however, will be one-directional, as the young woman seems rather confused. As always in Mamet, her mental disarray betrays itself through her particularly inarticulate speech, a device reminiscent of the plays of Edward Albee. She seems to be able to utter only a few monosyllables or broken sentences, which invariably begin—and immediately end—with the personal pronoun “I.” Ironically, as C. W. E. Bigsby has pointed out, “the reiterated personal pronoun [“I”] is a marker indicating the collapse of the very self that it seems to proclaim” (Bigsby 107).

To be fair, John does not leave her much time to collect her thoughts or even to formulate her sentences, for he seems to be so infatuated with the sound of his own voice that he never misses an opportunity to use it. Despite his hurriedness, he is in total command of a conversation in which it quickly appears that the teacher and his student are at complete linguistic odds with each other. And if John sometimes stops speaking, it is only because the conversation is regularly interrupted by the ringing of the telephone: John's wife and lawyer press him to join them in the new house because there are last minute problems concerning the deal. It is almost as though Mamet had read John Ditzky's comparison of the dramatist's gift for the dramatic dialogue with an “overheard phone conversation” (Ditzky 26).

Symptomatically, the only few times Carol manages to utter more than just a few words are to complain about her lack of understanding of John's language. She repeatedly asks him to explain words she does not understand, tells him she did not comprehend most of the concepts he used in his book, although she claims she has read it, and finally exclaims at the end of the act: “NO, NO—I DON'T UNDERSTAND. DO YOU SEE??? I DON'T UNDERSTAND … […] Any of it. Any of it. I'm smiling in class, I'm smiling, the whole time. What are you talking about? What is everyone talking about? I don't understand. I don't know what it means” (36). In the light of Mamet's previous work, we understand that herein lies the crux of the matter: we are presented once again with the traditional Mametian proposition, i.e., two characters vying for power through the language they wield. The scene is strongly reminiscent of the political debates and of the talk shows of American television, which are all conceived as verbal battles and in which the winner is invariably the participant who has managed to bully his opponents orally.

Only this time the fight seems particularly unequal, for Carol's lack of mastery of the verbal idiom is truly pathetic. Encouraged by his verbal superiority, John sympathizes with the young woman. He tries to reassure her, patronizes her a little, tells her a couple of personal anecdotes regarding his own waywardness as a student, cracks a few cynical jokes about the tenure committee and the academic establishment, ventures some daring iconoclastic statements about education, and finally offers Carol to give her an “A” for his course if she accepts to meet with him in his office regularly to start the course over in a one-on-one situation. Puzzled, she asks him why he would do that. He replies that he likes her and that he would like to give her some advice just as he would his son. He even consoles her by putting a sympathetic arm around her shoulders. After a final phone conversation, the act ends with the announcement of a surprise party in John's honor on the occasion of his promotion.

The surprise will indeed be his and the audience's at the same time, for we learn at the beginning of Act II that Carol has filed a complaint for sexual harassment with John's tenure committee. John has asked her to come to his office for some last-chance conciliatory meeting in which he hopes to convince her to retract. He is indeed about to be denied tenure after all and is even afraid of losing his job altogether.

Some miraculous transfiguration seems to have gone over her personality. She is no longer the inarticulate, confused, helpless little creature of Act I. She has grown into a mature, self-assured student. She is accordingly in complete command of the language. She no longer asks John to explain the meaning of the words she does not understand: she forces him to use synonyms she can comprehend. Therefore, she uses a rhetoric that seems to have been inspired by some pressure “Group” (54) whose advice she has evidently sought. With the help of that “Group” she has appropriated the language that seemed to be John's sole prerogative and she is now using it as a weapon to deprive him of the power it had endowed him with. Conversely, he has grown timorous and he gradually loses his control over the language. As the action of Act II proceeds, he slowly sinks into inarticulateness as a result of the enunciation of all the accusations she is hurling at him. His speech begins to falter at the same time as the realization of his crumbling universe dawns upon him.

In fact, she has taken their encounter of Act I and systematically twisted the meaning and interpretation of each of John's words and attitudes. Thus she considers John's sophistication of speech and thought as pedantry and elitism. She has accused him of making sexist jokes and pornographic digressions from the contents of a play. Finally, she has filed a complaint for sexual harassment, claiming that he has “embraced” her against her will at the end of their meeting. In her story, John has become a lecherous professor who has promised one of his female students an “A” if she accepts to meet him privately in his office because “he likes her.” Carol's twisted story is the perfect illustration of Mamet's belief in the creative and potentially destructive power of language. John dimly realizes it when he tries a linguistic loophole in an attempt at regaining his lost power. He urges her to make amends to his tenure committee, because he believes in the healing power of words, just as “the Stoical Philosophers,” he avers, “say if you remove the phrase’I have been injured,’ you have removed the injury” (47). He fails to convince her.

After a feeble attempt to dismiss the charge as the normal frustrated reaction of an angry student whose susceptibility has been ruffled by the too sarcastic correction of an inane paper, John finally realizes the extent of the damage that Carol's complaint to the tenure committee will cause him. He then begs her to retract, pleading that the charges she brought against him would destroy his career and compromise the future of his entire family. As she is about to leave without changing her mind, he tries to restrain her physically from leaving the room in a last attempt at arousing her pity. The act closes on Carol's frantic screaming for help: “LET ME GO. LET ME GO. WOULD SOMEBODY HELP ME? WOULD SOMEBODY HELP ME? WOULD SOMEBODY HELP ME PLEASE … ?” (57)

Act III focuses around a third encounter between the teacher and his student. She has now turned into an outraged young woman who reiterates her accusations against him, but she nevertheless proposes to withdraw her complaint, which has now become the complaint of her entire “Group.” There is however one condition. She gives him a list of books, including his own, that her “Group” finds questionable and wants removed from John's reading list. He refuses in an angry outcry in the name of academic freedom. The phone rings once again: it is John's lawyer who informs him that Carol has accused him of battery and attempted rape because he “pressed [his] body into [her]” (78) at the end of their meeting of Act II. Losing all control over both his speech and behavior, he starts vociferating a string of obscenities and begins to beat her, thus lapsing into the very battery and assault she had accused him of previously:

(CAROL starts to leave the room. JOHN grabs her and begins to beat her.)
JOHN:
You vicious little bitch. You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life?
(He knocks her to the floor.)
After how I treated you … ? You should be … Rape you … ? Are you kidding me … ?
(He picks up a chair, raises it above his head, and advances on her.)
I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. You little cunt.

(79)

Once again, language has created its own reality. We are reminded here of a similar instance in Mamet's Edmond where the protagonist of the play is confronted in the subway with a woman who believes he is assaulting her, whereas he has simply uttered an innocuous comment on her hat in an attempt at communication. In both cases, we witness how an innocent encounter is vitiated by a twisted interpretation of semantics and degenerates into a scene of sexual harassment. Because of its similarity to the conclusion of Oleanna, the scene is worth quoting in full:

SCENE THIRTEEN

THE SUBWAY

(EDMOND is in the subway. Waiting with him is a WOMAN in a hat.)
EDMOND:
(Pause.) My mother had a hat like that. (Pause.) My mother had a hat like that (Pause.) I … I'm not making conversation. She wore it for years. She had it when I was a child.
(The WOMAN starts to walk away. EDMOND grabs her.)
I wasn't just making it “up.” It happened.
WOMAN:
(Detaching herself from his grip:) Excuse me. …
EDMOND:
… who the fuck do you think you are? …
I'm talking to you … What am I? A stone? …
Did I say, “I want to lick your pussy? …”
I said, “My mother had that same hat. …”
You cunt … What am I? A dog? I'd like to slash your fucking face. … I'd like to slash your motherfucking face apart. …
WOMAN:
… WILL SOMEBODY HELP ME. …
EDMOND:
You don't know who I am … (She breaks free.)
Is everybody in this town insane? … Fuck you … fuck you … fuck you … fuck the lot of you … fuck you all. I don't need you. … I worked all my life!

(58-59)

Oleanna is a polemic play that tackles an issue that is dividing many American intellectuals today. As a consequence, its première did not fail to arouse a fierce controversy surrounding its main theme, political correctness. Most reviewers have however relied solely on their personal apprehension of the problem to assess the artistic quality of Mamet's latest work, but then this is assuredly the fate of all polemic theater. John Lahr holds a rather positive view of the play in The New Yorker and lays the stress on the student's waywardness in Act I to conclude that, in the subsequent acts “she adopts political correctness as an intellectual carapace that substitutes dogma for thought, mission for mastery” (Lahr 121). Frank Rich's review in The New York Times is also laudatory. Rich emphasizes the “primal struggle for power” between the two characters and underlines the fact that Carol's newly acquired political correctness is bent on forcing John into a reassuring “intellectual conformity,” a policing of the mind dictated by her “Group” (Rich). As for Alisa Solomon in The Village Voice, she is hard put to take “Mamet's twisted little play” and its attack on political correctness seriously, alleging precisely the dramatist's lack of it and positing that, “when criticism can be equated with intellectual tyranny, it never needs be engaged” (Solomon).

As for all polemic theater, it is necessary to make a distinction here between form and content, between the play's ideological subject matter and its dramatic representation, before attempting to assess its artistic merits, and this is what I propose to do.

Thematically, Oleanna explores a series of concerns that have always stood central in Mamet's work. The most prominent is illustrated by Carol's allusion to the “Group” that seems to loom over all her actions and words in Acts II and III. As her stern rhetoric indicates, she has clearly been conditioned, if not brainwashed, by some frightful pressure group that has availed itself of the language as a weapon to secure absolute dominance over the intellectual community and that uses censorship to obliterate its resistance. Mamet is stigmatizing here the institutionalization of modern American society into a myriad of self-proclaimed minorities elbowing for power amidst the crumbling debris of the social consensus and demanding immediate gratification. The ensuing competition is ruthless, as Edmond had already sensed in Mamet's 1983 play: “There is no LAW … there is no history … there is just now … and if there is a god he may love the weak … but he respects the strong” (71).

As Mamet himself declared in an interview with Matthew Roudané, this is a fundamentally self-centered impulse, insofar as “one feels one can succeed only at the cost of someone else” (Roudané 74). As a consequence, American society tends to disintegrate into a disparate aggregation of feuding minorities frozen for all eternity in a process of victimization it both abhors and relishes. Ironically, political correctness is highly instrumental in that general climate of confrontation that it purported to eradicate, in that it posits that no act or word can ever be innocent. It accordingly proceeds to scrutinize our every sayings and doings, thus installing a tyranny of the mind, a mental inquisition, which leads to a paralysis of sorts and ultimately prepares for what the French weekly L'Evénement du Jeudi calls the “dictatorship of the minorities” (14-20 November 1991: 60).

In its constant monitoring of our speech patterns and the social attitudes they are supposed to reflect, political correctness, in its most extreme version, is in fact depriving language of its two essential functions: communication and information. In Act II, John realizes that when he tries to make Carol understand that her paranoid accusations of sexual harassment are in effect going to breech all communication between them, or rather between her and the world outside her organized “Group:”

JOHN:
[…] Nice day today.
CAROL:
What?
JOHN:
You said “Good day.” I think that it is a nice day today.
CAROL:
Is it?
JOHN:
Yes, I think it is.
CAROL:
And why is that important?
JOHN:
Because it is the essence of all human communication. I say something conventional, you respond and the information we exchange is not about the “weather” but that we both agree to converse. In effect, we agree that we are both human?”

(52-53)

Moreover, by stripping the language of all its polemic and confrontational aspects, the defenders of political correctness also deprive it of its essential argumentative and dialectical potential, thereby impoverishing it and the way of thinking it conveys. The result is a sanitized language, a sterile code of euphemisms, devoid of some of its fundamental formative and informative role, a language that attempts to obliterate all racial, gender, and political differences that make up the wealth of human experience and are not necessarily a source of social inequalities. By suppressing the controversial information it may contain, by negating the dynamic potential of the dialectics of difference, political correctness in effect advocates, consciously or unconsciously, a return to a certain form of obscurantism, a form of intellectual inquisition, which denies the individual some of his or her freedom of thought and of expression. As a consequence, what it posits is not an egalitarian pluri- or multiculturalism, but rather an isolationist monoculturalism at war with most of the rival cultural groups.

The title of the play, Oleanna, has puzzled many of Mamet's critics and theatergoers. David Mamet once declared in an interview that “one thing you need in addition to a good play is a title that's fun to say” (Lawson 40). The dramatist may, then, have chosen the title of Oleanna for the musical qualities of the name contained in it—it is borrowed from an old folk song written as an epigraph to the published play:

Oh, to be in Oleanna,
That's where I would rather be.
Than be bound in Norway
And drag the chains of slavery.

(Oleanna, s.p.)

Some critics have suggested that “Oleanna” was the name of a 19th-century utopian community of the Midwest. In view of the thematic content of the play, I would rather be tempted to establish a link between Oleanna and the anti-utopian and catastrophist currents of late 19th- and 20th-century western literature, in which the idyllic utopian communities founded on the best intentions of equality and fraternity invariably become hellish dictatorial anti-utopian societies negating all basic individual freedoms. In its most extreme forms, political correctness has undergone much the same process. Mamet's ironical use of the utopian myth seems indeed to be confirmed by the other epigraph to the play, a quotation from Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, which also conveys a particularly oppressive atmosphere:

The want of fresh air does not seem much to affect the happiness of children in a London alley: the greater part of them sing and play as though they were on a moor in Scotland. So the absence of a genial mental atmosphere is not commonly recognized by children who have never known it. Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances. Even if they are unhappy—very unhappy—it is astonishing how easily they can be prevented from finding it out, or at any rate from attributing it to any other cause than their own sinfulness.

(Oleanna, s.p.)

That Samuel Butler should also be the author of one of the most famous and important anti-utopian novels of late 19th-century, Erewhon, is perhaps more than a simple coincidence.

From an artistic point of view, however, Oleanna is incontestably flawed. So much abuse is piled up by the playwright on the young woman all along the play, that she could not possibly elicit the audience's sympathy. Accordingly, the latter is literally elated at the end of the play when John physically assaults Carol. Similarly, the sudden reversal of Act II, in which Carol's manner abruptly switches from utter submissiveness and inarticulateness to a shrew-like callousness and a calculated eloquence, stretches our credibility to the utmost and, with it, our willing suspension of disbelief. However, this flaw affects the credibility of the dramatic construction only, not that of its ideological and thematic content. The tidal wave of political correctness has flooded many an American campus. One of the most recent examples is the demand by a Yale-based feminist group that the Capretz method, an innocuous French language-learning method, be banned from the curriculum on the ground that it reflects the “macho view of women as presented in French literature” (Schneck 12). Apparently, some pressure groups would like to make theirs the autodafés of Inquisition. The problem with political correctness is that it suffers no contradiction, hence that its sincerity can sometimes be put into question for, as a critic puts it, “the halls of ivy are now patrolled […] by the guardians of political correctness, and […] semi-literate students […] who deploy a brilliant array of blackmail tactics to con a grade” (Mufson 111-13).

Oleanna is not a great play, but it was a necessary one. In it Mamet felt the urge to expose what he thought could very well become the Big Brother of the 1990s. Unless, of course, his being a white male playwright automatically disqualifies him from expressing a valid opinion, an ad hominem argument often read in the columns of the proponents of political correctness, which in turn leads to an insidious form of reverse-discrimination, which David Mamet would never allow. Hence the urgency of Oleanna.

Works Cited

Almansi, Guido. “David Mamet, a Virtuoso of Invective.” In Marc Chénetier, ed. Critical Angles: European Views of Contemporary American Literature. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1986. 191-207.

Barnes, Clive. “Buffalo Returns with Al Pacino's Riding Herd.” The New York Post 5 June 1981.

Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Volume III: Beyond Broadway. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

———. David Mamet. London and New York: Methuen, 1985.

Bruster, Douglas. “David Mamet and Ben Johnson: City Comedy Past and Present.” Modern Drama 33.3 (September 1990): 333-346.

Cohn, Ruby. New American Dramatists, 1960-1990. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Dean, Anne. David Mamet: Language as Dramatic Action. London: Associated University Presses, 1990.

Ditzky, John. “He Lets You See the Thought There: The Theatre of David Mamet.” Kansas Quarterly 12.4 (1980): 25-34.

Freedman, Samuel G. The New York Times Magazine 21 April 1985: VI, 32-40.

Gill, Brendan, “No News from Lake Michigan.” The New Yorker 28 February 1977: 54.

Gussow, Mel. The New York Times 19 October 1979: III, 3.

Kroll, Jack. “The Muzak Man.” Newsweek 28 February 1977: 79.

———. “Mamet's Jackals in Jackets.” Newsweek 9 April 1984: 103, 109.

Lahr, John. The New Yorker 16 November 1992: 121-25.

Lawson, Steve. “Language Equals Action.” Horizon November 1977: 40-45.

Mamet, David. Oleanna. New York: Random House-Vintage Books, 1993.

———. Edmond. New York: Grove Press, 1983.

Moritz, Charles, ed. “David Mamet.” Current Biography Yearbook 1978. 274.

Mufson, Dan. “Sexual Perversity in Viragos.” Theater 24.1 (1993): 111-113.

Rich, Frank. The New York Times 16 October 1992: 11.

Rogoff, Gordon. “Albee and Mamet: The War of Words.” The Saturday Review 2 April 1977: 36-37.

Roudané, Matthew C. “An Interview with David Mamet.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 1 (1986): 73-81.

Savran, David. “Interview with David Mamet.” In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988. 132-144.

Schneck, Colombe. “Le français piégé par le multiculturalisme américain.” Le Monde 17 February 1994: 12.

Solomon, Alisa. The Village Voice 24 November 1992: 104.

Thomas H. Goggans (essay date winter 1997)

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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 of the conflict between a professor and his female student is marked by ambiguous discourse, troubling physical contact, and subsequent charges of sexual harassment.2 Mufson found, in the seventeen reviews of the play he considered, two typical responses: some critics, including John Lahr, seem to defend the play's political message because they “[loathe] what Carol represents,”3 while others, Elaine Showalter among them, lament the construction of a play which “targets a woman as an ugly representative of the group that challenges the white masculine ruling class.”4 Each condemns Carol, some feeling that Mamet went too far in creating such a harridan in order to support his misogynistic views. As Deborah Tannen wrote, “we don't need a play that helps anyone feel good about a man beating a woman.”5 Mufson shares Tannen's view, remarking that “Oleanna's aesthetic merit, if it has any, has become parenthetical to its polemics.”6 Significantly, none of these reviewers seems to have found any justification for Carol's actions. Mufson mentions “the annoying little problem that one of the two characters in Oleanna is a cardboard cut-out, a nightmarish phantom conjured by the paranoid fantasies of a patriarchy peering over a cliff to see … egalitarianism.”7 He quotes approvingly Tannen's observation that Carol is “all surface: just a stereotype that audiences can join in hating,” and David Richards's remark that Oleanna is “rigged” so that its action “slips out of control without our really understanding how or why.”8 Mufson also cites John Simon, who voices three possible interpretations: “Was [Carol's] near imbecility in Act One … an elaborate act of entrapment? Or is she a genuine idiot savant whom the Group has coached in some fancy lingo? Or is Mamet simply playing fast and loose with authorial responsibility?”9

The failure of these critics to uncover any dramatically consistent subtext for Carol within this “rigged” plot recapitulates Carol's plight within the play; Mamet achieves a wonderful irony in constructing a text which the audience must decode just as the characters are required to do. In fact, Carol's critics have ignored the behavioral motivations implicit in the play. Christine MacLeod notes this absence in her study of gender and power in Oleanna, focusing on the fruitlessness of imposing a Manichean gender interpretation onto the text. She observes, “the consensus is that the play has constructed Carol in such one-sided negative terms that no genuine debate about the merits of her position is necessary or even possible.”10 MacLeod instead sees questions of power within the pedagogic relationship as the central concern in Oleanna, nothing that “the gender difference between student and teacher is not the crux of the matter.”11 In her analysis, gender becomes a factor merely as a tactic Carol can employ to change her position within her power relation with John, the sort of pragmatic strategy also employed within the power relationships in Mamet's other plays, such as Glengarry, Glen Ross.12

MacLeod is sensitive to the significance of popular culture and contemporary sexual politics as the interpretive field in which Carol maneuvers, yet she fails to recognize a series of transparent “hints” within the play which call to mind certain clichés within pop psychology that permeate the contemporary American consciousness. The reading I propose offers a subtext for the apparent contradictions in Carol's personality which appear throughout the play. Such a reading honors the play's dramatic complexity without resorting to polemics on either side of the struggle Carol wages with John. Without undermining valuable analyses of power and sexual politics in the play, and without diminishing the oppressive implications of John's patriarchal assumptions, an awareness of the clues offered as a subtextual context for Carol's actions frees Oleanna from charges that its plot is rigged. I think this interpretation bolsters MacLeod's argument by nesting her consideration of power strategies within a concrete dramatic context.

Carol's inability to recognize the normative, undistorted terms required to understand John's actions is implicit in the language of Act One and further supported by later passages in the play. If we as readers can interpret those misunderstood terms as examples of an aberrant, distorted contextual standard in her own life, she ceases to be “a cardboard cut-out” or simply a stereotype. Intimations of Carol's past experiences appear throughout the play: though one cannot make definite biographical inferences about her based on these cues, they do supply a plausible context within which she operates. Significantly, the first words spoken by Carol provide a clue to uncovering her subtext, as she asks “What is a ‘term of art?’” to which John responds, “It seems to mean a term, which has come, through its use, to mean something more specific than the words would, to someone not acquainted with them … indicate” (2-3).

In Act One of Oleanna, Carol constantly traffics in the code words of incest and child sexual abuse, speaking and responding in ways that are recognizable to anyone familiar with the representation of sexual abuse in today's culture. She exhibits low self esteem, depression, and guilt, remarking: “Did … did I … did I say something wr[ong]” (3); “I'm stupid” (12); “I'll never learn” (14); “nobody wants me” (14); and “I know what I am. […] I know what I am” (14-15). Psychologist Dianne Cleveland has written that:

Considerable evidence is mounting that some females who experience incest in childhood consider themselves permanently injured and therefore seek therapy. … Frequently these women report low self-esteem, sexual dysfunctions, depression, guilt, shame, feelings of isolation, and mistrust of both males and females.13

Therapist Laura Davis describes such characteristics in her patients: “Every survivor I've ever met has battled with shame, with the awful sense that there was something wrong with them deep down inside that caused the abuse.”14 Davis also notes that in adult survivors of child sexual abuse

[t]he litany of verbal abuse becomes internalized, and instead of hearing it from the outside, you record and store it, and end up saying the same self-hating things to yourself … you get depressed and a voice inside says, “You'll never amount to anything.” …


These voices … are the regurgitated lies of the abusers.15

In the revised ending Mamet added to the play for its New York production, Carol replicates the phenomenon Davis describes. As John menaces her with a chair and bellows, “I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. You little cunt,” she seems to regress into a familiar pattern:

CAROL:
“Yes. That's right. (She looks away from him, and lowers her head. To herself:) … yes. That's right.”

(79-80)

These allusions in Mamet's portrayal of Carol do not represent the necessary cause of her actions, of course; but they do repeatedly echo an accessible discourse most of his audience should be familiar with, providing them with a possible pattern with which to interpret Carol's actions.

Sexual confusion and shame are confirmed later in Act Three as Carol accuses John of viewing her as an “abandoned young thing of some doubtful sexuality,” a statement reflecting her own insecurities (68). Carol also acknowledges that something other than her course grade is troubling her when the professor tells her she seems angry: “It is true. I have problems …” (7). Late in the play, she refers to her past: “But we worked to get to this school. (Pause) And some of us. (Pause) Overcame prejudices. Economic, sexual, you cannot begin to imagine. And endured humiliations I pray that you and those you love never will encounter” (69). This “sexual” allusion can be viewed as a generalized term exposing patriarchal oppression. But it can also be viewed as a personal reflection. In the film version of Oleanna, directed by Mamet, the actress Debra Eisenstadt gasps the word “sexual” and physically recoils during an otherwise assertive, self-contained oration.16

The student-teacher relationship depicted in Act One is a pastiche of phrases and clichés associated with the secrecy and psychological manipulation of incestuous abuse. Carol's “misunderstanding” lies in this coincidence. I suggest that she finds herself in a situation which replicates through her interpretive screen some sort of previous abuse. She is disturbed because the present seems to be repeating the past as she obeys the demands of a male authority figure and yet cannot “satisfy” him: “I'm doing what I'm told. It's difficult for me” (6), and “I did what you told me. I did” (9). Several exchanges with John on the subject of his teaching principles follow the patterns of molesters seducing children. This is clearly so as he offers Carol an “A” if she will submit to unorthodox but well-intentioned instruction:

JOHN:
I say we can. (Pause) I say we can.
CAROL:
But I don't believe it.
JOHN:
Yes, I know that. But it's true. What is The Class but you and me? (Pause)
CAROL:
There are rules.
JOHN:
Well. We'll break them.
CAROL:
How can we?
JOHN:
We won't tell anybody.
CAROL:
Is that all right?
JOHN:
I say that it's fine.
CAROL:
Why would you do this for me?
JOHN:
I like you. Is that so difficult for you to …
CAROL:
Um …
JOHN:
There's no one here but you and me. (Pause)

(26-7)

She cannot contextualize this interchange properly because she lacks the normative experience necessary for recognizing an ideological abuse of language. She identifies John's words as similar to a molester's rap, and therefore misinterprets them.

Further evidence of Carol's contextual confusion appears as John ironically (and perhaps disingenuously) attempts to explain that his role as teacher differs from that of a conventional authority figure:

JOHN:
Now, look: I'm a human being, I …
CAROL:
I did what you told me. I did, I did everything that, I read your book, you told me to buy your book and read it. Everything you say I … […] I do. … Ev …
JOHN:
… look:
CAROL:
… everything I'm told …
JOHN:
Look. Look. I'm not your father. (Pause)
CAROL:
What?
JOHN:
I'm.
CAROL:
Did I say you were my father?
JOHN:
… no …
CAROL:
Why did you say that … ?
JOHN:
I …
CAROL:
… why … ?

(9-10)

In the film, this exchange is a slowly paced interlude, emphasizing its significance, during a frenetic conversation. It also recapitulates Mamet's pregnant allusion to parental abuse in his film House of Games, in which the psychiatrist Margaret Ford unwittingly exposes her own troubled psyche when discussing an abused patient with another doctor:

FORD:
I know why she is in the hospital, she's sick. […] That poor girl, all her life my father tells her she's a whore, so all her life she seeks out …
MARIA:
“My father …”?
FORD:
I'm sorry?
MARIA:
You said, “My father says that she's a whore.”
FORD:
My father … ? (Beat.) I said, “My” father … ?(17)

An earlier Freudian slip by Ford, substituting “pressures in my life” for “pleasures,” heightens the impact of this passage.18 Mamet seems to employ this strategy in both works in order to insinuate character motivation.

Returning to Oleanna, Carol's abrupt defensiveness appears to mask a particularly sensitive secret which she nearly confesses later in Act One:

CAROL:
I feel bad.
JOHN:
I know. It's all right.
CAROL:
I … (Pause)
JOHN:
What?
CAROL:
I …
JOHN:
What? Tell me.
CAROL:
I don't understand you.
JOHN:
I know. It's all right.
CAROL:
I …
JOHN:
What? (Pause) What? Tell me.
CAROL:
I can't tell you.
JOHN:
No, you must.
CAROL:
I can't.
JOHN:
No. Tell me. (Pause)
CAROL:
I'm bad. (Pause) Oh, God. (Pause)
JOHN:
It's all right.
CAROL:
I'm …
JOHN:
It's all right.
CAROL:
I can't talk about this.
JOHN:
It's all right. Tell me.
CAROL:
Why do you want to know this?
JOHN:
I don't want to know. I want to know whatever you …
CAROL:
I always …
JOHN:
… good …
CAROL:
I always … all my life … I have never told anyone this …
JOHN:
Yes. Go on. (Pause) Go on.
CAROL:
All of my life … (The phone rings.)

(37-8)

In Mamet's film, this interchange takes place in the shadows of a half-lit conference room adjacent to John's office, accentuating the secrecy of Carol's past as well as its tortured relevance. The passage serves as the hook on which my interpretation depends. This unspoken secret lies behind the “hints” previously described, compelling us to interpret them as echoes of Carol's actual experience as well as reflective manifestations of John's pedagogic hegemony.

With the beginning of the second act, Carol gains a voice she did not possess in Act One. This change involves the use of inflammatory language employed by her “Group,” a pugnacious style which goes hand in hand with the rhetoric of abuse to which Carol seems so sensitive. Controversial feminist legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon, arguing for restrictive laws against pornography in Only Words, describes the effect of sexual abuse on women:

[C]onsider what it does to one's relation to expression: to language, speech, the world of thought and communication. You learn that language does not belong to you, that you cannot use it to say what you know, that knowledge is not what you learn from your life, that information is not made out of your experience. You learn that thinking about what happened to you does not count as “thinking,” but doing it apparently does. You learn that your reality subsists somewhere beneath the socially real—totally exposed but invisible, screaming yet inaudible, thought about incessantly yet unthinkable, “expression” yet inexpressible, beyond words. You learn that speech is not what you say but what your abusers do to you.19

This seems an apt characterization of Carol's frustration and estrangement, serving as another key to the context through which she confronts the conflicts in the play. In Act Two she rebukes John:

You think, you think you can deny that these things happened; or, if they did, if they did, that they meant what you said they meant. Don't you see? You drag me in here, you drag us, to listen to you “go on”; and “go on” about this or that, or we don't “express” ourselves very well. We don't say what we mean. Don't we? Don't we? We do say what we mean.”

(48-9)

With the help of the Group, she has become assertive and confident, and now exhibits indignation rather than guilt. No longer timorous and helpless, she can proclaim: “I don't think that I need your help. I don't think I need anything you have” (49).

This transformation is derived from the Group, which provides her with support and advice, unlike John, whose pedagogic role is simply a reformulation of other patriarchal structures, including the family. John Lahr notes this fact, though he fails to place it within a convincing dramatic context:

Carol, who lacked words before, has got educated in a hurry by what she refers to as her Group, and she speaks now with the righteous fervor of a woman whose day has come. This transition is jarring but intentional. She has acquired a new voice and a new vocabulary, whose authority precludes ambiguity. She adopts political correctness as an intellectual carapace that substitutes dogma for thought, mission for mastery. Naming is claiming, and since Carol won't work to master a world she can't comprehend, she changes the frame of reference to a world she can.20

Lahr correctly describes the process Carol follows, but he seems to feel that her motivation is her “adamant dimness” and “the awful spoiling power of envy disguised as political ideology.” He insightfully remarks, “Carol's rigidity is a sign of her insecurity,” but errs in seeing ignorance as the sole source of that insecurity.21

Most importantly, the ideological rigidity of the Group is antithetical to Carol's previous abusive context, providing her with meaning, purpose, and hope. It serves as the answer to her plea at the end of Act Two: “would somebody help me please … ?” (57). But though it seems to free her, in fact it merely replicates the manipulation of her abusive past, allowing her to repress rather than excise her secret. The evasive effect is clear as Carol remarks: “What I ‘feel’ is irrelevant” and “The issue here is not […] my ‘feelings,’ but the feelings of women” (49, 63). Thus, rather than gaining her own voice at last, Carol merely becomes the Group's mouthpiece. As in so many of Mamet's works, power structures pursue their own preservation, often disregarding those whom they claim to serve. In this sense, Carol's relation to the Group mirrors her relation to John. In echoing the rhetoric of the Group, she is again merely reading back her notes as she did in John's class. For example, she does not fully understand John's use of the words “precepts” (14), “index” (24), “predilection” (31), “paradigm” (45), “indictment” (63), and “transpire” (66). Yet she parrots without hesitation the terms she undoubtedly learns from the Group: “to countenance continuation,” “manipulative” (51), “impinge” (56), “derive” (72), and “amenable” (74).

Carol appears to embrace the ideological rigor of the Group because it provides her with a ready-made tool allowing her to identify and challenge a world which she perceives as her victimizer. And John's fatuous pedagogy, revealing an essentially patriarchal position, is worthy of measured criticism. But the specific allegations of sexual harassment and assault seem unreasonable. And the harassment she perceives does not seem to be drawn from a “willful misinterpretation,” as Lahr describes.22 Instead, it seems to be misinterpretation fated by her personal history and merely mis-channeled by the self-interested Group which pursues, in John, a legitimate perpetrator of hierarchic abuse, but the wrong representative of Carol's literal “patriarchal” abuse. Carol's relationship with her Group thus becomes a type of exploitation itself, which emphasizes the complexity of Carol's role within the text and validates the significance of her struggle within the context analyzed by MacLeod. The truths and errors Carol utters must then be acknowledged rather than dismissed as merely the tactics of a stereotyped p.c. “bitch.”

In Act Three, Carol tells John, “I've profited nothing from your, your, as you say, your ‘misfortune’” (68). But she has profited in overcoming the self-loathing and uncertainty of Act One. In this sense, she has clearly benefited from her contact with the Group, though, I would argue, she is avoiding the authentic source of her unhappiness. John is only partly correct in proclaiming early in Act Two, “I'm not a bogeyman. I don't ‘stand’ for something” (50). One of the tragedies of Oleanna is that he does come to “stand for something” to Carol, as illustrated by the terms of child sexual abuse Mamet employs in the play. Daniel Mufson's reading of the play exhibits a failed understanding of Carol when he describes her as “femme fatale and p.c. fascist rolled into one,” a stereotypical character constructed only to produce fury in the audience.23 Such angry responses to Carol fail to recognize the dramatic progression she experiences.

Notes

  1. Daniel Mufson, “Sexual Perversity in Viragos,” Theater 24:1 (1993), 111-12.

  2. See David Mamet, Oleanna (New York, 1993). Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  3. Mufson, 112, referring to John Lahr, “Dogma Days,” review of Oleanna, by David Mamet, as performed by the Back Bay Theater Company at the Orpheum Theatre, New York, New Yorker (16 November 1992), 121-25.

  4. Mufson, 113, referring to Elaine Showalter, “Acts of Violence: David Mamet and the Language of Men,” review of Oleanna at the Orpheum, Times Literary Supplement (6 November 1992), 16-17. See note 1.

  5. Deborah Tannen, “He Said … She Said … Who Did What?” New York Times (15 November 1992), Arts and Leisure 6, quoted in Mufson, 113.

  6. Mufson, 111. See note 1.

  7. Ibid., 112.

  8. Mufson, 113, quoting Tannen, 6, see note 1; David Richards, “The Jackhammer Voice of Mamet's Oleanna,” review of Oleanna at the Orpheum, New York Times (8 November 1992), Arts and Leisure, 5.

  9. Mufson, 112, quoting John Simon, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Turkey,” review of Oleanna at the Orpheum, New York (9 November 1992), 72. See note 1.

  10. Christine MacLeod, “The Politics of Gender, Language and Hierarchy in Mamet's Oleanna,Journal of American Studies, 29:2 (1995), 200-01.

  11. Ibid., 204.

  12. For an illuminating study of such strategies in Mamet's earlier plays, see Pascale Hubert-Leibler, “Dominance and Anguish: The Teacher-Student Relationship in the Plays of David Mamet,” Modern Drama, 31:4 (1988), 557-70.

  13. Dianne Cleveland, Incest: The Story of Three Women (Lexington, MA 1986), 11. Cleveland's clinical text provides an interesting series of images which have entered American popular discourse.

  14. Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal Workbook: For Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (New York, 1990), 256. Self-help books such as this illustrate the widespread rhetoric of abuse, easily recognizable in the popular culture, which Mamet exploits in Oleanna. For relevant insights into this topic, see also David Mamet, “Self-Help,” in Make-Believe Town: Essays and Remembrances (Boston, 1996), 161-66.

  15. Davis, 281. See note 14.

  16. Oleanna, dir. David Mamet, Samuel Goldwyn, 1994.

  17. House of Games: A Screenplay by David Mamet (New York, 1987), 30.

  18. Ibid., 8.

  19. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Only Words (Cambridge, MA, 1993), 6. MacKinnon's polemic is yet another example of the pervasive rhetoric of abuse available for Mamet to appropriate in alluding to Carol's past.

  20. Lahr, 124. See note 3.

  21. Ibid., 122, 121, 124.

  22. Ibid., 124.

  23. Mufson, 111. See note 1.

Sandra Tomc (essay date May 1997)

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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 sense of them even if they were a random juxtaposition” (61). “If you are telling a story, then the human mind, as it's working along with you, is perceiving your thrust, both consciously and, more important, subconsciously” (62). If you're not telling a story, on the other hand, says Mamet, the only thing that will make your work engaging for your audience is sensationalism. When there is no narrative, no causal track for the “human mind” to follow,

the bad author, like the countercultural architect, has to take up the slack by making each subsequent event more diverting than the last; to trick the audience into paying attention.


The end of this is obscenity. Let's really see their genitals, let's really endanger the actor through stunts, let's really set the building on fire. Over the course of a movie, it forces the filmmaker to get more and more bizarre. Over the course of a career it forces a filmmaker to get more and more outré; over the course of a culture, it forces the culture to degenerate into depravity, which is what we have now.

(62-63)

The mindless pursuit of titillation, Mamet concludes, is at the bottom of what he deems the “psychotic” nature of “‘performance art’ … ‘modern theatre’ [and] ‘modern filmmaking’” (63). Of course, postmodern performance and film artists and theorists agree with Mamet's assessment of the antithetical relationship of “story” and controversy, of drama and performance, only in their formulations controversy is a positive energy. As Elin Diamond summarizes it in her introduction to Performance and Cultural Politics, performance theory since the 1960s has held that in freeing performance from the strictures of drama, and the actor's body from the “referential task of representing fictional entities,” performance art challenges the sociopsychic norms purveyed by traditional theatre (3). The “obscenities” that earn Mamet's contempt are for these theorists and artists crucial instruments in the dismantling of normative bodies and the ideologies they corporealize. “Refusing the conventions of role-playing,” says Diamond, “the performer presents herself/himself as a sexual, permeable, tactile body,” a body whose indeterminacy “scourges audience narrativity” (3).1

And yet ironically, given Mamet's mistrust of the purveyors of controversy, his own two-hander, Oleanna, has been the object of more widespread public rage, debate, celebration, and reproval than even the most extreme of the performance pieces he condemns. Many reviewers, indeed, accuse Mamet of the forms of “trickery” and sleights of hand he himself finds offensive in performance art. However, the criticisms directed at Mamet centre not on his transgression of traditional proprieties, as one might expect of “controversial” material, but, interestingly, on what reviewers think of as his unseemly adherence to “story.” According to its critics, Oleanna does too much work for the “human minds” of contemporary audiences. Its particular representation of political correctness is inappropriate for the way in which, in Mamet's words, we “make sense of events.”

Overwhelmingly, reviews of Oleanna focus on the implications of its first act. Here, an insecure and inarticulate student, Carol, confronts her professor, John, with the failing grade he's given her paper. They talk; he offers personal tutoring and gives her a friendly pat on the shoulder. Yet these, we discover, are the events upon which Carol subsequently bases her charges of sexual harassment. For critics and reviewers, the aesthetic compromise in the play lies in Mamet's choice to dramatize what goes on between Carol and John and thus to leave no doubt as to John's innocence. As Newsweek's Jack Kroll phrases it, “We don't know what happened between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, but we see exactly what happens with Carol and John” (65). Frank Rich of The New York Times argues that “Oleanna can be seriously faulted as a piece of dramatic writing … for its first act, which, despite some funny asides about a ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’-like realestate deal, is too baldly an expository set-up for the real action to come. … If it is hard to argue with Mr. Mamet's talent, it is also hard to escape his tendency to stack the play's ideological deck” (C12). Other reviewers agree. “Oleanna,” says Steve Mikulan of the LA Weekly, “is no you-be-the-judge drama … Mamet has rigged the play in John's favour” (45). “In portraying such a one-sided case in Oleanna, where the professor is so obviously the victim of an unhappy, possibly unhinged, young woman, Mamet,” says Annalena McAffee of the Evening Standard, “is being disingenuous” (10). And H. J. Kirchhoff of the Globe and Mail remarks, “It annoys me that Mamet is so confident aboard the anti-PC bandwagon, so content to tap into some mean-spirited streak in our society, that he evidently didn't feel the need even to write a proper play, but settled instead for a tract peopled with caricatures” (A12). Finally, in a kind of summary of what Mamet's critics, taken collectively, find wrong with the play as whole, Ellen Schwartzman concludes simply, “Mr. Mamet presents a plot devoid of ambiguity” (“He said” C6).

But what does it say about the opposition between convention and controversy, between drama and performance, that the very means by which performance art sets out to challenge accepted standards—ambiguity, dissonance, caricature—are cast by these reviewers as norms in the parabola of audience expectation? How does Mamet's conventionalism become articulated as the stuff of controversy? In the following paper I want to explore these questions through what I suggest is the late twentieth-century normalization of the “polymorphous body” (Diamond 3) that anchors radical performance. Mamet's peculiar transgression of this norm lies not just in his adherence to “story,” but, more profoundly, in his choice of sexual harassment as the controlling paradigm for his condemnation of political correctness. Whereas Oleanna insists on the possibility of an unproblematic sexual innocence represented by an uncomplicated bodily presence, the discourses of sexual harassment, which are themselves symptomatic of changing perceptions of bodies and social spaces, are preoccupied with what might be called the body's performative possibilities. They emphasize the body's reiterability, its radically unstable erotic significations and indeterminate locations in time and space. If Mamet's reviewers see his play as too comprehensive, too “storied,” it is because the performative body of sexual harassment has come to dominate the expectations, the “sense-making” capacities of contemporary audiences. By the same token, it is Mamet's application of a paradigm of indeterminacy to a politics and aesthetics founded on self-evident determinations that makes his conventionalism controversial.

From the opening words of Oleanna, when John is negotiating for “house” and “land,” to his insistence that he is “always looking for a paradigm” (45), Oleanna sides thematically with notions of stability and order.2 To a great extent, these themes are elaborated in the character of John himself. Stating to Carol at one point, “I am not pure of longing for security” (44), John is associated throughout the play with various social stabilizers, from his home and family to his active pursuit of tenure, the ultimate in career security. John's vocabulary is defined by its reference to certitude; the words he must explain to Carol, for instance, all suggest rigour and resolution: “term of art” (3), “index” (24), “concepts”, “precepts” (14), “charts” (36), “paradigm” (45), “literally” (47). In the play's first act, John is preoccupied with the notion of clearing up mysteries. “Let's take the mysticism out of it, shall we?” he says, when Carol asks for a definition of “term of art” (3). Later, John tells Carol the story of his own progress as an intellectual, a progress that involves his journey from misunderstanding to understanding: “I was brought up and my earliest and most persistent memories are of being told that I was stupid … I could not understand.” “The simplest problem,” he says. “Was beyond me. It was a mystery” (16). The removal of mysteries implicit in John's personal education is reiterated shortly when John proposes to “take off the Artificial Stricture, of ‘Teacher’ and ‘Student.’” “Why,” he says to Carol, “should my problems be any more a mystery than your own?” (21). It comes as no surprise that at the end of this act John pronounces his surprise party—an unannounced, uncontrollable event—“a form of aggression” (41).

While perhaps most apparent in John's character, Oleanna's thematic of stability is also central to Carol's and, indeed, forms the crux of the relationship between them. For all that she occupies a polemical position opposite to John's, Carol too is obsessed with certitude and self-evident value. Her cardinal concern in the first act is, of course, her grade. Like John, she would like to clear up mysteries and vaguenesses, in this case those she associates with education. Not only her belief in the university as a place where people come to be “helped,” to “know something” (12), but her constant repetition of the phrase “I don't understand” suggest her commitment to principles of order and enlightenment. In her interaction with John even in the first act she is concerned with “rules” and proprieties (26); she keeps checking her notes “to make sure that [she has] it right” (27). In the subsequent acts Carol's reliance on rules and strictures is what fuels her allegations of misconduct. She brandishes her “report,” her “group.” And she too is a master of the definitive: defending her accusations to John, she savagely tells him, “It is a fact … and that story, which I quote, is vile and classist, and manipulative and pornographic” (51; emphasis in original). “Nothing,” she says, “is alleged. Everything is proved” (63); and the tenure committee has “ruled” (64). Mamet's New York production (Orpheum Theatre, 1992) emphasized Carol's infatuation with rules through her clothes, about which one critic wryly remarked: “She … is costumed in asexual outfits that come close to identifying her brand of rigid political correctness with the cultural police of totalitarian China” (Rich C12).

Mamet's deployment of tropes of rigour and stability in his characterization of both John and Carol speaks of his larger commitment to notions of measurable and verifiable value and to the possibilities of stable meaning. When Carol meets John in his office and asks him for a definition of “term of art,” he admits to not knowing exactly what the phrase means (3). The point of this episode, however, is not to introduce the possibilities of nuance and ambiguity, but to emphasize that, indeed, there is a fixed meaning for “term of art” even if it lies beyond the scope of John to recall it. As the play progresses, the source of this definitive, extra-textual meaning is located by Mamet in Oleanna's audience, who, via the play's first act, is put in the position of being able to testify to the “truth” of what happens between Carol and John. To be sure, some productions of Oleanna have attempted to complicate that “truth” by presenting a richer, more sympathetic Carol than the play text would seem to indicate. But Mamet's position on this subject was made clear when, in the LA production of the play (Tiffany Theatre, 1994), he and director William H. Macy insisted on casting an African American actor, Lionel Mark Smith, in the role of John. As one reviewer noted, this strategy had the (not unexpected) effect of “drawing additional sympathy” for the professor (Mikulan 46).3 But regardless of Mamet's production choices, the play text alone does its best to secure, not only Carol's moral culpability, but the larger moral certainties her uncontested wrongness implies. To this end, Mamet in his stage directions carefully delimits the extent and nature of the physical interaction between his two protagonists; and here, too, there is no room for ambiguity. The asexual innocence of John's touch in the first act is carefully anticipated in his escalating concern for Carol and regret at his own negligence as a teacher; and, of course, as so many reviewers have pointed out, the innocence of John's initial gesture of physical contact fuels our outrage for the remainder of the play. But not only is that first physical interaction meticulously choreographed so as to secure its status as unambiguous “truth,” it forms the first step toward an epiphanic coherence of gesture and meaning. John touches Carol three times in the course of the play and each of these moments moves us away from confusion and misreading toward clarity. Misunderstood the first time when he touches Carol's shoulder in regret and sympathy, partially misunderstood the second time when out of frustration he tries bodily to stop Carol from leaving his office, John is finally unequivocal in the last moments of the play when, in a fit of rage and violence, he beats Carol to the ground. Carol's comment on this event—“Yes. That's right” (80)—while it remarks on the ironic fact that John has become the maniac she accused him of being, also underlines that for the first time in the play John and Carol have reached a point of agreement; in that moment of violence, they understand each other perfectly. Their physical interactions have proceeded to a state of utter unambiguousness in which the possibility of stable “truths” can be taken for granted.

In Writing in Restaurants, his 1986 meditation on theatre, Mamet elaborates his belief in the possibility of correspondence between “truth” and the gestures of the performing body, or what he calls “technique”—“those skills which enable the artist to respond … to whatever he or she wishes to express” (20). “This technique,” according to Mamet, “this care, this love of precision, of cleanliness” is what ultimately “unites the actor and the house,” for it is through technique that actor and audience “share something which they know to be true” (20-22). Of course, Mamet's commitment to “truth” and to the apparent material stability of the stage serves Oleanna's polemic well. Purporting to oppose truth and false consciousness and liberal and authoritarian strategies, Oleanna rests its case on its elaboration of an ontology and aesthetics in which such moral categories are starkly distinguishable. And yet Mamet's belief that theatre ideally “translate[s] inchoate desire into clean action” (20) could not be further from the dominant themes of contemporary discourses of sexual harassment. These articulate what they purport is a vanished and indeterminate erotic moment. The bodies they describe, far from materializing moral certitude in “clean action” or “technique,” are characterized by gestural ambiguity and narrative inconsistency. Unavailable to scrutiny or analysis, the body of sexual harassment fantasizes an ethereal and uncertain corporeality; it posits a failure of signification, temporally and spatially. Articulations of the body of sexual harassment manifest a larger cultural preoccupation with the possibilities of discursive, effectively disembodied, sexual identities. It is, accordingly, this mass fantasy of corporeal and sexual ambiguity that contests Mamet's insistence on the stability of what John nostalgically calls “the Material” (44).

Writing in the New York Times shortly after the conclusion of the Clarence Thomas hearings, William Broyles, Jr. was moved to throw up his hands in bewilderment at the ways of relations between the sexes: “Where men and women are together,” he concluded, “there is misunderstanding and mystery” (A25). As brief and even misguided as Broyles's comment was, it typifies the reigning theme of the news coverage of the Thomas-Hill conflict, which was the slipperiness of the sexual event in question and the difficulty of plotting it in normative time and space. Of course, the fact that Anita Hill had waited ten years before coming forward with her charges made her interactions with Thomas seem peculiarly nebulous from the start. But journalists restaged this uncertainty in their insistence that Hill's accusations belonged to no known social landscape. One journalist, for example, contended, “In the context of show business … Anita Hill's testimony seemed unreal. Your boss talking dirty to you? You were shocked? What part of town you from, babe?” (Shoales 4). The “unreal” character of the Thomas-Hill sexual picture was likewise emphasized by British novelist Fay Weldon, who remarked, “Dismal that the political sleaze seemed so much worse even than the sexual sleaze as the events that happened or didn't happen in a Washington office 10 years ago were wilfully turned into a media sideshow by the self-interested.” Weldon's reference to the “media sideshow” reiterates a related insistence in the coverage on the highly mediated nature of the whole hearing and, by extension, of the sexual event it tried to recover. And invariably foregrounded was the unreliability of that mediation. Thus, whereas Mamet insists on the possibility of translating “truth” into theatre, one journalist commenting on the Thomas-Hill hearing remarked, “Senators, commentators and rented experts agreed that a televised hearing was not the best setting for accusations of the sort Professor Hill brought against Judge Thomas. They were right. Although the camera can reveal much, it can also be fooled” (Goodman A22). Unlike conventional television, which conforms to certain generic and narrative codes, the Thomas-Hill hearings were framed so as to suggest their confusing defiance of media codes. So the same journalist could say: “Judge Clarence Thomas will go to the Supreme Court and in violation of all the rules of television drama, the mystery that kept millions at their sets through a long, tense weekend remains unresolved” (A22).

One might be tempted to attribute this emphasis on the indeterminacy of the Hill-Thomas event to a conservative strain in the American media that prevents journalists from taking the issue of women's harassment seriously. And yet a similar emphasis on indeterminacy characterizes many of the left, multicultural, and feminist academic readings of Hill's accusations, particularly those readings that address the issue of gender over race.4 A number of the essays in Toni Morrison's collection, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, for example, cast both the Hill-Thomas interaction and the hearings themselves as grossly over-mediated and ultimately opaque events. Morrison introduces the collection by observing that “Anyone interested in the outcome of this nomination, regardless of race, class, gender, religion, or profession, turns to as many forms of media as are available … searching between the lines of the official story for one that most nearly approximates what might really be happening” (viii). Describing the hearings, she continues, “The emptiness, the unforthcoming truths that lay at the centre of the state's performance contributed much to the frenzy as people grappled for meaning, for substance unavailable through ordinary channels” (ix). Morrison's sense of the unreachable, even ephemeral, nature of the “truths” and “meanings” contained in the hearings is echoed in Andrew Ross's sense of them as showy, insubstantial sleights of hand: “In the course of the hearings, women's anger was redefined as a shadowy conspiratorial impulse … [T]he ‘real women of America,’ the female equivalents of John Q. Public, were ventriloquized as speaking out against a star witness who had been cast as delusional and repressed” (43). Ross's essay as a whole emphasizes the staged, “edited” character of the hearings, the sessions “surrounded with, and … stitched together by, commentary from a small battalion of anchorpeople, reporters, lawyers, media managers, and expert opinion-makers” (45).

If for Morrison and Ross the “truth” of the harassment issue was obscured by congressional strategies and journalistic technologies, for other commentators it was obscured just as completely by Thomas's introduction of the issue of race. In claiming he was a victim of racism, Thomas, Claudia Brodsky Lacour argues, “rendered Anita Hill's words effectively meaningless by rendering deaf those for whom those words were intended” (132). Homi Bhabha elaborates: “By quite literally changing the subject of the inquiry from sexual harassment to racial victimage, Thomas deploys a dissembling, displaced from of guilt. He evokes a painful memory of ritualized male racial violence to displace the patriarchal ‘guilt’ endemic to gendered relations—sexual harassment—within the workplace” (247). According to Bhabha, indeed, the very “system of truth and falsity” within which the hearings took place “is founded on the evasion of the endemic reality of women's exploitation,” an evasion which makes sexual harassment itself a thing always “displaced,” “repressed,” available only through “the proxy of metaphor and the rhetoric of inversion” (249, 248).

While I am not questioning the fact that sexual harassment is a legitimate problem, I am pointing out that its articulation in academic and journalistic discourse constructs it as a problem peculiarly unavailable to conventional scrutiny or analysis. Its gestures are phantasmal, its characters “displaced.” Similar constructions are to be found in the host of popular books and articles on this subject. Encompassing not only the legal actions brought against specific individuals, but the forms of decorum that govern relations between the sexes, particularly in social spaces reevaluated as problematic—the office, the frat house—these popular formulations of sexual harassment are characterized by their topoi of confusion and nebulousness. A 1994 article in Harper's Bazaar, for example, insists on the difficulty of pinning down the bewildering dynamics of what it calls “office intercourse”: “[H]am-fisted aggression is rare. Most of what passes for sex play in the office is far more … playful. And wide open to interpretation—depending on who's involved” (Squire 136). Books that deal with women's problems in the workplace tend to spend most of their time emphasizing the clashing perspectives of men and women and then defining the grounds for women's complaints. One advice book, appropriately titled Crossed Signals, opens by confronting the slipperiness of harassment:

Both men and women say they're confused about how to relate to one another on the job. It seems that all the concern about sexual harassment has put new restrictions on us. After all, men and women are different, so it's no surprise that we interpret things differently. Some people say that they just don't know what constitutes appropriate behaviour in the workplace. They want someone to define sexual harassment for them, and help them recognize when the “line” has been crossed.

(VanHyning 2)

Another book, subtitled 100 Women Define Inappropriate Behaviour in the Workplace, states outright what its methodology implies: “Sexual harassment is grey—not just black and white” (McCann and McGinn 119). The linguist and popular author Deborah Tannen attributes this greyness to “the indeterminacy (or … polysemy) of language and other symbolic systems” (245):

Nowhere are these ambiguities as palpable as in matters of sex, including what has come to be called sexual harassment. Just mentioning the term sets off predictable and intractable emotional reactions of anger or indignation. … The indeterminacy of language, the inscrutability of people's “real” intentions, the liability of conversations we thought were about one thing coming back at us, refracted through someone else's mind, as if they were about something else entirely—all these, and the deepest and strongest currents of sexual relations and myths—muddy the waters in which women and men swim together at work.

(243)

Tannen's language—“indeterminacy,” “polysemy,” “ambiguity”—suggests the extent to which popular articulations of sexual harassment borrow from the tropes of performance and postmodern theory, projecting a body that, in Judith Butler's words, “exists only through being instituted and reiterated and, by virtue of that temporalization, is unstable” (90). I would also suggest, however, that the rapid dissemination of poststructuralist tropes for popular consumption is related not to the nature of sexual harassment itself, but to the larger set of anxieties around the mutability of sexual identities that sexual harassment evinces. To this extent, one of the most revealing moments in the history of the 1990s fascination with sexual harassment is to be found in Michael Crichton's Disclosure. Attention to Crichton's novel was focused solely on its gender turnabout—a male employee is harassed by his female boss. But more interesting to me is Crichton's choice to set his story in a company that develops virtual reality technology. Like Oleanna, Disclosure is motivated by an insistence on and search for stability; but the destabilizing threat in Crichton's novel is very clearly a technology that threatens to upset our conventional experience of bodily presence.

In the film version of Disclosure, which was produced by Crichton, this threat is articulated overtly: Meredith Johnson, the new Advanced Products Division head at DigiCom, announces:

What we're selling is freedom. We offer through technology what religion and revolution have promised but never delivered: freedom from the physical body, freedom from race and gender, from nationality and personality, from place and time. Communicating by cellular phone and hand-held computer and PDA and built-in fax modern we can relate to each other as pure consciousness.

It is within the context of such fantasies of disembodiment that Tom Sanders tries in vain to assert the very real claims of his own body as the object of harassment. He too searches for “truth.” “What I got off my chest was not a version,” he tells his boss. But his boss replies, “It's always somebody's version. I mean, that's the legacy of the modern age—we have information, but no truth, little flashes of electrons in a grain of sand.” In the novel the connection between virtual reality and the shifting amorphous terrain of sexual harassment is made more emphatically. Characterizing the changing gender politics of the workplace, Sanders's lawyer remarks, “It's like that virtual reality thing you have. … Those environments that seem real but aren't really there. We all live every day in virtual environments, defined by our ideas. Those environments are changing” (488-89).

Crichton's intuition that sexual harassment and virtual reality are linked implies the extent to which the 1990s' absorption with sexual harassment—as opposed to, say, rape or battery, which are so much more emphatically scripted on the flesh—exemplifies and condenses the anxieties associated with what Allucquère Stone calls the dissolution of “the warranted self, safe in its politically authorized coupling with a biological body.” “At the close of the twentieth century,” says Stone, “the bounded social individual is engaged, willfully or otherwise, in a process of translation to the refigured and reinscribed agencies of virtual systems. ‘Sex and death among the disembodied’ is an apt expression for the generous permeability of boundaries between the biological and symbolic, which this translation signifies” (619). It is worth noting, moreover, that, much like Mamet, who so passionately preserves theatrical space as “the place we can go to hear the truth” (Restaurants 23), Crichton, for all his protests to the contrary, ends up retrieving cyberspace for a similar purpose. His company's Virtual Information Environment is where Tom Sanders finally goes to find solidity, precision, and answers—literally to find out the “truth” about his harasser's underlying motives.5

I have drawn this comparison between Mamet and Crichton in order to illuminate the similarities between their attempts to paralyze the ambiguous body of sexual harassment. But does Mamet, in fact, challenge that ambiguity in a way that Crichton never does? Mamet's intuition that theatre is the locale of “truth,” of a kind of ontological certitude, is corroborated by certain theorists of live performance. In his phenomenological reading of bodies and theatre, Stanton Garner begins by talking about theatre in a way that seems to contradict Mamet, observing, “Theater hinges on the partial occlusion of the presentational by the representational, the actual by the virtual, the solidness of self-coincidence by internal difference” (39). But even organized through such “structures of displacement” (39), Garner argues, theatre “is also the site of a radical actuality that surrounds and arrests the flight into otherness” (40). “Though the play of elsewhere and otherness guarantees that theater can never be spoken of in terms of uncomplicated presentness, actuality continually pressures representation/fiction/illusion with the phenomenal claims of an experiential moment” (41). That moment is never more acutely experienced than upon the entry of the actor, the performing body. “A point of independent sentience, the body represents a rootedness in the biological present that always, to some extent, escapes transformation into the virtual realm” (44). Theatre, that is, asserts the very “radical actuality” of bodies that the discourses of sexual harassment want to deny or elide.

It is possible, then, that Oleanna is an object of such contention not just because it shocks with its political simplicity but because it accomplishes this form of assault through the one medium that remains impervious to our culture's developing fantasies of disembodied eroticism. It is not irrelevant in this regard that William Gibson, the author who coined the term “cyberspace” and who can be credited with imaging the virtual technologies that Silicon Valley would later go on to develop, represents theatre as a challenge to what his first novel, Neuromancer, dubs the “bodies exaltation of cyberspace.” The theatrical performances in the novel, staged by the villain Riviera, are specifically geared toward undoing the “rootedness in the biological present” that live performance seems to assert. Riviera's dinner shows, for example, which are themselves a form of nonimmersive virtual reality, feature holographic bodies in various states of deconstruction. The very gruesomeness of these displays, as much as their thematic content (in one show the apparently real body of Riviera gets dissected by his virtual “dreamgirl”) attests to the radical absence on Riviera's stage of the actual, biological body that, according to Garner, theatre conventionally offers.

But if Garner is correct, what becomes of the dichotomy of performance and theatre that both Mamet and performance artists and theorists assert? Is any live performance a challenge to the mediatized phantoms of contemporary fantasy? Are there degrees of actuality? To this last question, I would say, yes. To the extent that performance art seeks to unmake, to denaturalize the body and expose its constitution within ideology, it wants to question what its audience accepts as “actual.” As Jeanie Forte says of feminist performance art, “Women's performance art has particular disruptive potential because it poses an actual woman as a speaking subject, throwing that position into process, into doubt. … The female body as subject clashes in dissonance with its patriarchal text, challenging the very fabric of representation by refusing that text and posing new multiple texts” (254). Thus when Rebecca Schneider describes the moment in one of Annie Sprinkle's performances when Sprinkle invites audience members to shine flashlights through the speculum inserted into her vagina, she emphasizes not the encounter with Sprinkle's “actual” body but the proliferation of “texts” or narratives that this encounter produces:

I found myself encountering Sprinkle's cervix as theoretical third eye, like a gaze from the blind spot, meeting the spectator's—my—gaze and instantly doubling back over a field of modernist obsessions. I thought about Bataille's horror and fascination with the envaginated eyeball in his Story of the Eye, about Freud's inscription of the female genitals as “blinding” in “The Uncanny,” and about Walter Benjamin's efforts to “invest” an object or the objectified with its own gaze. … I tried, in my mind's eye, to hold on to the tactile and viscous pinkness of Annie's cervical eyeball, peering out, effulgent, from the socket of her vagina. I also thought about my own eye meeting this cervical gaze as well as my own eye seen seeing by Annie's other eyes, the ones in her head, watching me watch her and perhaps even catching the glint of her own cervix reflected in my retina.

(159)6

But if Schneider's encounter with the “actual” produces a multiplicity of texts—Bataille, Freud, Benjamin, Sprinkle, Schneider's own—the critic's encounter with performances of Oleanna produces the opposite. It was, we will recall, Oleanna's lack of narratives, its inattention to the possibility of nuanced or multiple readings of the concourse between John and Carol, that reviewers found objectionable in Mamet's play. And if performance art seeks through its generation of multiple texts to interrogate the ideological terms of the “actual” body, Mamet, we remember, wants to convey its idiosyncratic “truth.” In other words (and to elaborate Garner's point), it isn't Mamet's choice of live performance, of the “actual” per se, that challenges contemporary fantasies of corporeal uncertainty. The challenge arises in his choice of a particularly delimiting “story” that inhibits the proliferation of “texts” that his audience has come to desire.

Whether or not one agrees with Mamet's choices, Oleanna and its controversial reception pose some interesting questions to accepted notions of what constitutes a countercultural theatre. Are what John Rouse calls the “abnormal practices of theatrical postmodernism” (148)—the deconstruction of the performing body, the elimination of conventional theatre's spatial and temporal categories, the rejection of unitary narratives—still “abnormal” if they mesh with mass fantasies of an indeterminate corporeality? To be sure, this is a question of which performance theorists are not unaware. Commenting on what he sees as the co-opting of performance art by commodity culture, David Román says, “The current commodification process of much performance art suggests that any subversive potential inherent in the art form loses its capacity to engage in any radical critique once it enters more mainstream mass culture venues and spectatorships” (212). Román's answer to this dilemma is one often put forward for strategies of critique in a postmodern ideological field that seems to offer no position outside itself from which critiques might issue:

It's not as if performance can be placed outside the inspection by which it holds traditional art accountable, nor can performance be placed outside of the operative tensions of popular culture. Instead, it becomes necessary to consider the degrees of opposition performance offers within cultural practices at large and, as Philip Auslander comments, recognize how performance “problemetizes, but does not reject, the representational means it shares with other cultural practices.”

(212)

And yet if the commodification of performance—what I have been calling the normalization of the performative body—prevents performance art from finding an oppositional spot in contemporary culture, the case of Oleanna suggests that such a spot is available, but only through a return to nonpostmodernist devices. One may not agree with Mamet's polemical position, but Oleanna, with its belligerent claims to truth-telling, its propagandistic plot, its stalwart refusal of an erotics or politics of indeterminacy, takes up the controversial position that performance art thinks of itself as having lost.

Notes

  1. Diamond's introduction nicely encapsulates the history of performance theory. For a discussion of the intersections in performance of the body in representation and the body as a material entity, see Jeanie Forte, “Focus.” Forte, however, is careful to distinguish her Foucauldian notion of materiality from a return to notions of the biological or natural body “as something unmediated” (249).

  2. Unless otherwise indicated, references to dialogue and staging are taken from the 1993 edition of Oleanna.

  3. In fact, Mamet quarrelled over this issue with the Taper, the original theatre set for Oleanna's L.A. premiere. The Taper, it seems, balked at casting a black actor in the role of the professor. As a result the production was moved to the Tiffany. (See Mikulan 45-46).

  4. Apparently in accord with the poststructuralist interrogation of feminist identity politics that preoccupied the academy in the late 1980s, academics writing about the Hill-Thomas conflict preferred to set aside the issue of women's harassment, with its knotty implications of “identity”-based prejudices, and to deal rather with the then less vexed issue of race. The essay by Homi Bhabha is one exception.

  5. As it turns out, Tom was sexually harassed by Meredith Johnson and then subsequently accused of harassing her as part of a plot to discredit him and thus to foil the discovery of Meredith's shady business practices.

  6. Schneider goes on in her essay to affirm the actual body that here eludes her, stating that Sprinkle's cervix is, after all, only a cervix.

Thanks to Patricia Badir and Michael Zeitlin for their valuable comments, to Mitch Owens for assistance as a researcher, and to Sheila Stowell and Joel Kaplan for encouraging me to write on Oleanna. An earlier version of this article was presented at a plenary session of the 1994 ASTR conference in New York City.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “A Good Judge of Character: Men, Metaphors and the Common Culture.” Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. Ed. and Introd. Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon, 1992. 232-49.

Broyles Jr., William. “Public Policy, Private Ritual.” New York Times 16 Oct. 1991: A25.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.

Crichton, Michael. Disclosure. 1993. New York: Ballantine-Random House, 1994.

Diamond, Elin. Introduction. Performance and Cultural Politics. Ed. Elin Diamond. New York: Routledge, 1996. 1-12.

Disclosure. Dir. Barry Levinson. Warner Brothers Pictures, 1994.

Forte, Jeanie. “Focus on the Body: Pain, Praxis, and Pleasure in Feminist Performance.” Critical Theory and Performance. Ed. Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992. 248-62.

———. “Women's Performance Art: Feminism and Postmodernism.” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 251-69.

Garner, Stanton B. Bodied Spaces: Phenomenology and Performance in Contemporary Drama. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Goodman, Walter. “Direct From Senate, A View of Realities of U.S. Society.” New York Times 17 Oct. 1991: A22.

“He Said … She Said … Who Did What?” New York Times 15 Nov. 1992: C6-7.

Kirchhoff, H. J. “A Tract Posing As a Play.” Rev. of Oleanna, by David Mamet, dir. Terence Kelly. Citadel Theatre, Edmonton. Globe and Mail 11 Mar. 1994: A12.

Kroll, Jack. “A Tough Lesson in Sexual Harassment.” Rev. of Oleanna, by David Mamet. Newsweek 9 Nov. 1992: 65.

Lacour, Claudia Brodsky. “Doing Things with Words: ‘Racism’ as Speech Act and the Undoing of Justice.” Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. Ed. and introd. Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon, 1992. 127-58.

Mamet, David. Oleanna. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1993.

———. On Directing Film. New York: Penguin, 1991.

———. Writing in Restaurants. New York: Viking-Penguin, 1986.

McAfee, Annalena. “Blaming Women.” Evening Standard 10 Feb. 1993: 10.

McCann, Nancy Dodd, and Thomas A. McGinn. Harassed: 100 Women Define Inappropriate Behaviour in the Workplace. Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin, 1992.

Mikulan, Steven. “The Empowerment and the Glory: Is life Politically Correctible?” Rev. of Oleanna, by David Mamet, dir. William H. Macy. Tiffany Theatre, Los Angeles. LA Weekly 18-24 Feb. 1994: 45-46.

Morrison, Toni. “Introduction: Friday on the Potomac.” Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. Ed. Morrison. New York: Pantheon, 1992. vii-xxx.

Rich, Frank. “Mamet's New Play Detonates The Fury of Sexual Harassment.” Rev. of Oleanna, by David Mamet, dir. Mamet, Orpheum Theatre, New York. New York Times 26 Oct. 1992: C11-12.

Román, David. “Performing All Our Lives: Aids, Performance, Community.” Critical Theory and Performance. Ed. Janelle. G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992. 208-21.

Ross, Andrew. “The Private Parts of Justice.” Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. Ed. and Introd. Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon, 1992. 40-60.

Rouse, John. “Textuality and Authority in Theater and Drama: Some Contemporary Possibilities.” Critical Theory and Performance. Ed. Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992. 146-57.

Schneider, Rebecca. “After Us the Savage Goddess: Feminist Performance Art of the Explicit Body Staged, Uneasily, Across Modernist Dreamscapes.” Performance and Cultural Politics. Ed. Elin Diamond. New York: Routledge, 1996. 155-76.

Shoales, Ian. “Harassment Goes Hollywood: Sacrificing Personal Comedy Principles to Aid the Healing Process.” Image 10 Nov. 1991: 4.

Simon, John. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Turkey.” Rev. of Oleanna, by David Mamet, dir. Mamet. Orpheum Theatre, New York. New York Magazine 9 Nov. 1992: 72.

Squire, Susan. “Office Intercourse.” Harper's Bazaar Oct. 1994: 136+.

Stone, Allucquère Roseanne. “Virtual Systems.” Incorporations. Zone 6. Ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter. New York: Zone, 1992. 608-21.

Tannen, Deborah. Talking From 9 to 5: How Women's and Men's Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work. New York: Morrow, 1994.

VanHyning, Memory. Crossed Signals: How to Say No to Sexual Harassment. Los Angeles: Infotrends, 1993.

Weldon, Fay. “Sex and Paradox Across the Atlantic.” New York Times 18 Oct. 1991: A31.

Montana Katz (essay date 1997)

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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 hearings about sexual harassment, the theater audience was hungry for material that would challenge their thinking about this issue. Considering the lively and often heated debate that flowed on the streets and in the press after the play's opening night, Oleanna apparently satisfied that need. Much of the focus at the hearings was on the truth, both determining the truth and the consequences thereof. In that case, it was the truth teller, Anita Hill, who suffered the consequences. In Oleanna the situation is reversed, and it is the (falsely) accused man who endures life-changing and dire consequences.

The setting for opening a dialogue about the subject of sexual harassment in Oleanna is a college campus. This is an interesting choice for at least two reasons. First, instances of sexual harassment between professor and student can more often occur than in other contexts behind completely closed doors. Second, the ivory tower has remained a stronghold against the illumination and eradication of gender bias generally, and of sexual harassment and rape specifically, as compared to other social contexts in contemporary culture.

In the play it is John, an Education professor, who is accused by a student, Carol, first of sexual harassment and later of rape, and who is harshly punished for these alleged crimes. This is in spite of the fact, as the audience is made patently aware, that the charges are not only unfounded, but were made by Carol under the influence of, and as a means to a sinister end on behalf of, an unnamed campus political organization.

In a culture in which the emphasis is on punishment for rather than the prevention of crimes, the issue of sexual harassment becomes a heated debate over its very existence, rather than an exploration of what it is. Because these two concepts, truth and consequences, loom so large in discussions of sexual harassment, and because they are the building blocks of Oleanna, this essay will take a close look at the role they play in distracting our attention from what is actually at stake concerning sexual harassment; namely, an articulation of what its dynamics are and how to arrest them.

Curiously, the audience walking out of the play on the night I attended Oleanna seemed exhilarated, both women and men. What accounts for this response? Oleanna falls into a tradition in theater of works that highlight and confirm society's fears and anxieties. In the case of Oleanna, the most salient are the male fantasy of unjust accusation and the fear of powerlessness vis-à-vis female sexuality.

At the dawn of Western patriarchy we had The Oresteia, which at the time confirmed current anxieties surrounding the fledgling concepts of male right and dominance. In the stark words of Richard Lattimore in his introduction to The Orestia:

The Furies are older than Apollo and Athene, and, being older, they are childish and barbarous; … they are female and represent the woman's claim to act … in a Greek world they stand for the childhood of the race before it won Hellenic culture … Apollo stands for everything which the Furies are not: Hellenism, civilization, intellect, and enlightenment. He is male and young. The commonwealth of the gods—and therefore the universe—is in a convulsion of growth; the young Olympians are fighting down their own barbaric past.

(Aeschylus 1: Oresteia)

Now, at the dusk of Western patriarchy, we have Oleanna weakly attempting to prop up trends that have one foot in the grave.

JOHN:
Now, look, granted. I have an interest. In the status quo. All right? Everyone does. … I want to tell you something. I'm a teacher. I am a teacher. Eh? It's my name on the door, and I teach the class, and that's what I do. I've got a book with my name on it. And my son will see that book someday. And I have a respon … No, I'm sorry I have a responsibility … to myself, to my son, to my profession
You're dangerous, you're wrong and it's my job … to say no to you.

(Oleanna 56, 76)

Judging by the audience response during my viewing of the movie version of Oleanna, it was an effective tool for eliciting and confirming our collective tension over the facts of sexual harassment. Toward the end of the film several men spontaneously called out that John should “get that cunt,” and that he should kill her. There was enough applause at the end when John beats Carol for me to feel unsafe, not to mention depressed.

When the curtain closed on the first of three acts of Oleanna I had the distinct impression that the stage had been set for a second act in which Carol would become the object of sexual harassment by John. Instead, the curtain opened on a scene in which John was already accused by Carol of having committed sexual harassment.

Thus, by the time that the play is less than half through, it is well established that the actual subject matter is not what it purports to be, namely, professor-student interaction and sexual harassment. Rather, it is about the male fear and fantasy of even delineating the very concept of sexual harassment. It is a theatrical exemplification of what has occurred through the past decade to obscure the potential for discussion of the issue.

In Act I, the audience is presented with the timid and self-conscious Carol, an undergraduate whose background did not afford her many cultural and class advantages of use in an academic setting. In contrast, the professor, John, seems to have fulfilled the expectations of his middle-class upbringing to become a professor on the brink of receiving tenure, purchasing a substantial home, and who has created a family of his own. The entire act takes place in John's office, where Carol has come for help with the subject matter of the course she is taking from him. She makes it clear that she feels deficient and stupid, that there is much that she does not understand and perhaps cannot understand.

John's responses are sympathetic, if patronizing and pompous. He genuinely attempts to help Carol understand his lectures and to relieve her anxiety. The strategies that he employs are benign, yet to the audience they are clearly ill-advised, considering that Carol demonstrates disturbed behavior while in his office. John suggests that he will let her start the course over as a private tutorial and that she will get an A. At the conclusion of the act he puts his arm around her shoulder when Carol is overcome with anxiety to the point of hysteria. The gesture is clearly orchestrated as a reflexive human response, completely devoid of sexual content.

Act II opens with Carol in John's office again, some time later. It rapidly becomes clear that Carol has filed charges of sexual harassment against John among other claims, in response to which he is justifiably bewildered. He has called Carol to his office to attempt to resolve the matter efficiently and privately. Carol is now a more defined character. Where her clothing and comportment in the first act were vague and ambiguous, her demeanor is now more clearly directed and her clothes more shaped. This trend culminates in the third act, in which Carol's clothing is tailored and fitted and she has clearly identified herself as a political activist and member of an organization. Her speech is sharp, articulate, and determined. For example:

ACT I

CAROL:
Nobody tells me anything. And I sit there … in the corner. In the back. And everybody's talking about “this” all the time. And “concepts,” and “precepts” and, and, and, and, and, WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? And I read your book. And they said, “Fine, go in that class.” Because you talked about responsibility to the young. I DON'T KNOW WHAT IT MEANS AND I'M FAILING …

(14)

ACT II

CAROL:
You see. I don't think that I need your help. I don't think I need anything you have

(49)

ACT III

CAROL:
Now. The thing which you find so cruel is the selfsame process of selection I, and my group, go through every day of our lives. In admittance to school. In our tests, in our class rankings … Is it unfair? I can't tell you. But, if it is fair. Or even if it is “unfortunate but necessary” for us, then, by God, so must it be for you. (Pause) You write of your “responsibility to the young.” Treat us with respect, and that will show you your responsibility. You write that education is just hazing …

(69)

In Act II, Carol's charges against John include the complaint that John embraced her and that he attempted to trade an A in the course for her attention because he likes her. Throughout the act, John clumsily tries to resolve the matter. In frustration over not being able to converse with the one-dimensional, maniacal Carol, John restrains her tepidly and briefly from leaving. Carol cries for help.

In the third and final act, the tenure committee has found John guilty of Carol's charges and has not only denied him tenure, but has suspended him as well. As a result, John will lose his new house and the deposit he put down for it. Carol has returned to his office for the third time. John tries to apologize, to make amends. Carol suggests that she will recant if John agrees to censor a list of books drawn up by her group. John is shocked and indignant and tells Carol to leave. John is at this point informed by telephone that Carol has filed an additional charge of rape against John resulting from their last meeting. Further, broaching the last sphere of John's life, Carol instructs John not to call his wife “baby,” which she heard him do over the telephone. At the conclusion of the play, John beats Carol, smashing her with a wooden chair.

Mamet's combination of sexual harassment and rape is not arbitrary. Difficult as it is to recollect, our current attitude about sexual harassment is much like the attitude of yesteryear toward rape. No one could conceive of how a wife could say her husband raped her, for example. It was impossible, by definition. It was also legislated as legally impossible. In the early days of our society's comings to terms with rape, the concept of “crying rape” came into being with full force. The idea seemed to be that if we acknowledged marital rape as criminal, the floodgates of false accusation would rip open. Never mind that bringing a charge of rape was a humiliating, exhausting experience in which the accusing woman had to subject herself to multiple physical examinations which were insensitive at best and often brutal; to interrogation and character scrutiny and, often, character assassination; and to protracted legal battles. All for the pleasure of seeing the rapist go free most of the time, or get by with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Why would anyone subject herself to such torture unless the charge were not only true but she felt she could not live in safety without so doing?

So it is now with sexual harassment, and, often, sex discrimination as well. Predictably, the question looming larger than life over everyone's heads is, what about false accusation? Underlying this query is fear, and the fear serves the function of distracting us from the true issues that cry out for clarity. David Mamet has contributed to this trend by creating Oleanna, which is principally focused on the male fear of false accusation, of “crying rape” about sexual harassment, so to speak. Carol and John's story is a pure fabrication by Mamet, literally and figuratively. Nevertheless, it embodies much of our collective angst about the subject of sexual harassment.

The male fear of unjust accusation runs deep in our culture and serves several functions. Above all, it shifts the focus of the discussion in a manner that inverts and obscures the true balance of control of harassing behavior. The college campus is a strange, upside-down sort of place with regard to sexual harassment. It is a place in which male professors, some of whom actively perpetrate harassing behavior, walk about in supposed fear of unjust accusation, and the female students, almost all of whom are victims of harassment in one form or another, walk around fearless. They appear almost oblivious to the fact of sexual harassment, while, concurrently, they bear the full force of its consequences.

Sexual harassment is about dominance, not sex. Most people know this, if only on an intuitive, unverbalized level. The kind of dominance involved in sexual harassment is not the same sort one comes across in, for example, chess. It does not take much skill; it is arbitrary. One merely has to have been born male to have the privilege of exercising it.

Much of men's fear of unjust accusation is actually fear of being dominated in just this seemingly arbitrary fashion, and, moreover, being dominated in the worst possible way: being overcome by someone on the lowest end of the pecking order, a woman. This fear obliterates the fact that, veridical or not, there is content attached to a complaint of sexual harassment; it is not arbitrary, as Mamet suggests that it is in Oleanna. It may seem arbitrary to many because, in dismissing the very idea of sexual harassment, the concept has been left either undefined or defined in such a way as to be ludicrous (as in statements of the following sort: “Now I can't ask a woman to lunch without her turning around and claiming I harassed her”).

Like John, like most men accused of sexual harassment, they slough off the claim as utter nonsense. Engaging in biased, let alone criminal, behavior does not square very well with most male professors' liberal view of themselves. By definition, as it were, they could not do such a thing. It's not unusual for the incredulous professor to ostracize the student effectively in any case, nor is it unusual for a professor to consult the university counsel about the matter to cover his bases.

At the same time that a claim of sexual harassment is rolling off their backs, professor ring out as loudly as possible about the dire consequences (of having done nothing, according to their accounts, remember). They have it both ways. They didn't do anything out of the ordinary (of course, part of the problem is that they are in a sense correct: sexual harassment remains within the ordinary for now), women are just too sensitive and trigger-happy. And yet, the man's world will cave in.

JOHN:
I was hurt. When I received the report. Of the tenure committee. I was shocked … They will meet, and hear your complaint—which you have the right to make; and they will dismiss it. They will dismiss your complaint; and, in the intervening period, I will lose my house. I will not be able to close on my house. I will lose my deposit, and the home I'd picked out for my wife and son will go by the boards.

(44-45)

Raising the stakes of a complaint of sexual harassment is an effective tool. It casts doubts on the possible contents of an accusation, while at the same time making it psychologically more difficult to bring such a claim. Never mind that in the real world, the current power structure is such that there are virtually no actual consequences to harassing behavior on campus unless the behavior is severe, sustained, and extreme, preferably directed at more than one student, all of whom are willing to come forward. Even among the handful of professors who have actually been asked to leave their posts (and these were cases of extreme abuse), some have been quickly snapped up by another university.

The fear also serves the function of obliterating the fact that a claim of sexual harassment is not about female dominance over the accused man, but rather that the reverse has (allegedly) occurred. In this way, the responsibility of the accused, or even of the potentially accused man who fantasizes about this fear, evaporates. Sexual harassment is transformed from a certain kind of (prevalent) male behavior toward women, to female dominance (yet again) over men. And thus, it is (yet again) the woman who looks like the guilty party. Consider how guilty Anita Hill was made to look for causing all that trouble.

Not only are the real consequences of the professor's harassing behavior minuscule and fleeting, but most female students who have experienced sexual harassment from a professor never bring a claim at all, even to their friends, and even to themselves in the privacy of their own minds. On the contrary, our collective social attitude toward sexual harassment is still so early in its development that instances of this kind of harassment are rarely recognized as such. Most often, a student who is bearing even continuous sexual harassment from a professor will feel confused and seek an explanation based on her own behavior.

The questions running through her mind, if any, will be about how she has caused the situation and what it says about her. She will typically go through another round in the series of a female's drop in self-confidence and will alter her self-concept accordingly. In short, she will internalize and personalize the professor's behavior and attitude. She will incorporate the fantasy into her mental framework. Generally, this is not conscious, deliberate thought on the student's part, but tacit. It is one of the many results of our culture's acceptance of pervasive gender bias. It is a purposeful result, however. It allows the issue to remain on an individual basis, it helps to pit woman against woman, and thus is part of the guarantee of women's sustained silence.

This being the case, what of this larger-than-life fear of accusation? It is of a piece with our almost steadfast refusal to come to terms with campus sexual harassment in a meaningful way. It shifts the debate away from prevention and remediation, back to a stereotypical and typically ambivalent view of women as the irrational and vengeful prime movers. Oleanna uses this theme with full force in the third act, in which Carol has grown tougher still and exacts the maximum penalties from John for his make-believe crimes, about which Carol has entrenched conviction.

In addition to the theme of false accusation there are at least two more that Mamet explores, and in so doing he puts his finger directly on the pulse of our distractive obsessions. One such theme is the male fantasy of fragility in the face of female sexuality. The 1995 Hollywood movie Disclosure epitomized this theme in its focus on the big, bad, powerful (and incompetent) professional woman. In Oleanna, the fragility is professional, but often in our thinking it can be personal weakness as well. This is an old theme that runs through Western culture, but it is cast in a new light with regard to sexual harassment. Now, not only can men tremble in terror of the force of female sexuality, but it will turn around to bite them for a second time in the name of sexual harassment. They are twice powerless; first to resist the temptation of female sexuality, and second to avoid falling into its snare through sexual harassment legislation, which they do not comprehend and feel continuously muddled by.

John is the embodiment of the male fantasy of fragility in the face of female sexuality. Or, more precisely, in the face of the woman's exploitation of her (powerful, dominating) sexuality. This is the fantasy, at any rate, that women use sex to crush men, to consume them, to render them powerless. In John's case, he is crushed professionally. And so he physically beats Carol.

CAROL:
You think I am a frightened, repressed, confused, I don't know, abandoned young thing of some doubtful sexuality who wants power and revenge. (pause) Don't you? (pause)
JOHN:
Yes. I do.

.....

JOHN:
You vicious little bitch. You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life?
(He knocks her to the floor.)
After how I treated you … ? You should be … Rape you … ? Are you kidding me … ?
(He picks up a chair, raises it above his head, and advances on her.)
I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. You little cunt

(68, 79)

What is the function of this fantasy in regard to campus sexual harassment? Yet again, it serves as a time-worn tool to turn the tables of attention and blame toward women, toward those who are the actual victims of sexual harassment. In this picture, the man is freed from responsibility. He is merely reacting to a powerful and dangerous force. He projects his own quest for dominance onto the woman, based on some archaic, deep-seated, and convenient mystification of her anatomy.

At the same time, the effect of the fantasy is almost an inversion of itself: women are reduced to their sexuality and defined in terms of it. Carol is a cunt who seeks power and revenge. Men, the fantasy concludes, have only one recourse open: to view women as sexual objects and to treat them accordingly. In the case of punishment, rape is then the logical choice, as the violent undercurrent to John's reference to a ten-foot pole attests.

Women, too, have learned to incorporate a fear of the power of their own sexuality into their conceptual framework. Evidence for this can be found everywhere, even down to the pervasive, and almost exclusively female, posture-deforming fashion of sitting with legs crossed at the thigh, closing the unspeakable chasm of temptation. If a woman sat in class with legs spread as her male peers do, she would be courting abuse, she would be enticing it. Just as wearing a tight shirt or walking with a wiggle asks for rape (how much time have teenage girls wasted, trying to learn to walk straight with not a hint of horizontal hip movement, feeling this could help ensure safety?).

Women, along with men, have formed and believed Western culture's portraits of female and male. As far as sexual harassment on campus goes, this is another piece of the female student's internalization of the social model. She will implicitly consume virtually whole the idea that much of her identity is wrapped up in her sexuality. That, therefore, it is that part of her that is being responded to by others. By the professors, who are actually there to teach her. And so again we are thrown upon the notion that the nexus of power rests with women. Because women are defined by their sex and sexuality, men are compelled to behave in a certain predictable and justified fashion toward them.

A final theme in the play (passing over a jab at political correctness) is that women, particularly strident feminists, bring attacks (of sexual harassment, of violence) upon themselves. They provoke it by their aggressive pursuit. This is certainly Carol's fate by the end of Oleanna. In trying to define and circumscribe gender issues and bias, women so aggravate their audience as to incite the behavior they seek to describe and eradicate. If only they would stop making everyone angry, there wouldn't be a problem.

Until there is some enhanced awareness of the depth of sexual harassment, we can have little understanding of prevention. In this regard, Oleanna is a reactionary distraction from reality. The fact is that Oleanna paints a picture entirely false to human reality. Its subtext speaks directly to our worst and most retrograde feelings about women and about sexual harassment. In the actual world of campus life, over half its population live with real sexual harassment every day. For them, the choice of the moment is not so much truth or consequences as it is truth and consequences, or, silence and consequences.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Translated Richard Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1953.

Mamet, David. Oleanna. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Carla J. McDonough (essay date 1997)

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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 confirms the fear of the feminine that whips Mamet's male characters into such a frenzy.1 Its timely subject, coming so soon after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas confrontation, no doubt contributed to its immense success. Mamet's stated intention was to offer an even-handed look at the issue of sexual harassment that targets both men and women.2 His tactic relies on the premise that truth is relative to the participant—each participant perceives a different version of their encounter. Although Mamet's intentions are commendatory, the outcome of fair representation does not follow in the text of his play. Mamet's play stacks the deck, perhaps unconsciously on Mamet's part, in favor of his male character, effectively shutting down the possibility of real exposé by its lack of character development in regard to the female character. In doing so, his play reveals the difficulty of speaking fairly from two sides of an argument in which the speaker himself is already immersed. Mamet's choice to deal with the issue of sexual harassment fits comfortably with his concerns about the world of business that he explored in the three “men-at-work” plays, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed-the-Plow. By examining the threatened position that he portrays men encountering in the world of work, we can view Oleanna as another facet of this threatened male position, which views the ultimate challenge to men as coming from women, even when women are denigrated, abused, and physically shunned in his worlds of work.

Set in the office of a college professor, this play pits professor John against student Carol. Carol of the first scene is deceptively soft and powerless, seeking help from John because she just does not understand his class, the text, his lectures. Her dialogue further indicates her complete ineptness at even the most basic concepts, although this might be somewhat mitigated by the fact the John is a rather confusing speaker. The first act of this play is a masterpiece of inarticulateness on the part of John, who creates inarticulateness on the part of Carol by never allowing her to finish a sentence. We can see this dynamic quite clearly in the following exchange from early in the play:

CAROL:
I'm just: I sit in class I … (She holds up her notebook.) I take notes …
JOHN:
(simultaneously with “notes”): Yes. I understand. What I am trying to tell you is that some, some basic …
CAROL:
… I …
JOHN:
… one moment: some basic missed communi …
CAROL:
I'm doing what I'm told. I bought your book, I read your …
JOHN:
No, I'm sure you …
CAROL:
No, no, no. I'm doing what I'm told. It's difficult for me. It's difficult
JOHN:
… but …
CAROL:
I don't … lots of the language
JOHN:
… please …
CAROL:
The language, the “things” that you say …
JOHN:
I'm sorry. No. I don't think that that's true.
CAROL:
It is true. I …
JOHN:
I think …
CAROL:
It is true.
JOHN:
… I …
CAROL:
Why would I … ?
JOHN:
I'll tell you why: you're an incredibly bright girl.
CAROL:
… I …
JOHN:
You're an incredibly … you have no problem with the … Who's kidding who?
CAROL:
… I …
JOHN:
No. No. I'll tell you why. I'll tell … I think you're angry.

[5-7]

At first more concerned with his life outside the classroom—as his constantly ringing phone makes clear—than with helping a wayward student, John quickly comes to pity Carol and offers to let her take the course over in special tutorials with him. By the second scene, we discover that his gestures of goodwill have been interpreted as sexual harassment by this confused student who has filed charges against him, charges that threaten his tenure promotion and his job. The confused and misguided Carol of scene 1 has turned into a vicious harpy out to destroy her professor's livelihood, life, and soul. Her penchant for willfully misunderstanding John's well-intentioned, if highly befuddled, gestures and words provides a convincing argument that sexual harassment charges are bogus and that political correctness is to blame for disrupting an otherwise comfortable, if somewhat paternalistic, system. Ironically, John of scene 1 does manage to be paternalistic, and certainly patronizing, even as he states, out of the blue, “I'm not your father” (9).

More significant perhaps than the truth or falsity of the accusations Carol brings against John is Mamet's method of developing the conflict through character development—or the lack of it. The exposition of this play serves to present Carol as being so distinctly “other” that there is little possibility within the play's logic of rational explanation for her behavior. While we are offered some idea of John's life outside of the classroom—his wife and son, the house he is trying to purchase, his tenure evaluation, and so on—we know nothing of Carol's life except that she has come under the power of some mysterious “group” that seems to equate intolerance with feminism. Alisa Solomon of the Village Voice even notes, “Camille Paglia couldn't have invented a more ludicrous spokesperson for feminism” than Carol (104). While we have no personal background on Carol to make her a real person for us, further ways in which she is portrayed serve to distance us from interpreting her as a believable and thereby a sympathetic character. Chief of these is that sometime, mysteriously, between scenes 1 and 2, she learned to speak in a sophisticated vocabulary. While Carol of scene 1 stumbles through

JOHN:
I said that our predilection for it …
CAROL:
Predilection …
JOHN:
… you know what that means.
CAROL:
Does it mean “liking”?

(31)

Carol of scene 2 explains her accusations by saying

It is a sexist remark, and to overlook it is to countenance continuation of that method of thought. […] How can you deny it. You did it to me. Here. You did. … You confess. You love the Power. To deviate. To invent, to transgress … to transgress whatever norms have been established for us. And you think it's charming to “question” in yourself this taste to mock and destroy. […] You call education “hazing,” and from your so-protected, so-elitist seat you hold our confusion as a joke, and our hopes and efforts with it. Then you sit there and say “what have I done?” And ask me to understand that you have aspirations too … [51-52]. [And later:] Just don't impinge on me. We'll take our differences and …

[56]

Even later, however, she has to have the word “indictment” explained to her (63), although she is comfortable in her very next speech using legal lingo (64). From not being able to understand John's book, which argues that college education is simply a “hazing” process that “warehouses” the young, by scene 2 Carol is evidently able to understand the complex nuances of the power structure in which John operates, able to explain to him, “You believe not in ‘freedom of thought’ but in an elitist, in, in a protected hierarchy which rewards you” (67). Whether we are to interpret her comments as a parroting of her “group's” teachings—and John Simon wondered if she were perhaps an “idiot savant whom the Group has coached in some fancy lingo” (102)—or whether her actions are a freely embraced and understood approach to power relations on every level of her life, feminism (i.e., the Group) is given an ugly face in this play—all the more so because its spokesperson is simultaneously facile, dogmatic, and deft.

Given what the audience is allowed to behold in act 1, we are left with the conclusion that John's version of events is the “real” one, while Carol's is the result of her willful misreading of his behavior based on her own sexual fantasies. But the play's non-conflict becomes significant when we consider its message, particularly in regard to the final moments of the play. At the end John, upon discovering that Carol has charged him with rape—or actually battery under the law—physically attacks her. His beating of Carol in the final scene is motivated by tensions and pressures that the audience witnesses occurring onstage as his confrontation with Carol builds. The audience understands why he hits Carol, and so tends to clap or cheer when he does so, as they did the evening that I saw the New York production of the play in the spring of 1992. In contrast, Carol's motivation for her attack on John's character is never made clear. Mamet manipulates us into concluding that Carol is incapable of distinguishing the rational world from her fantasy world, or, to put it another way, has been brainwashed by her group into seeing every gesture of John's as sexist, and as a mark of patriarchal oppression. Through Carol's character, Oleanna confirms the fear of the feminine that whips Mamet's male characters into such a frenzy. Carol's leap from idiot to intellectual between scenes 1 and 2 is completely unanticipated. Yet by way of this leap, she comes to embody all that Mamet's men most fear about women's powers. Even the seemingly most helpless and defenseless of women is actually a tigress waiting to pounce.

Certainly it is a modern-day “truth” that truth is subjective, that events are in the eye of the beholder, and such is the supposed premise of this play, as some reviewers and as Mamet himself seem to agree. Mamet, who directed the premiere, chose to have two programs handed out to his audience, one with a woman's figure targeted on the cover, and one with a man's figure targeted. The implication was that both were being targeted equally. The play is supposed to keep from taking sides. However, by allowing us into the details of John's life and obscuring the details of Carol's life, Mamet manipulates our sympathies in favor of John simply because Carol never becomes a real enough character to elicit sympathy. The inability to sympathize with Carol, or more accurately, that the play encourages us to sympathize with John, is reflected in numerous reviews of the original production. Clive Barnes of the New York Post wrote that “the professor has no contest in winning our sympathy” (359), while Alisa Solomon, again, of the Village Voice, wrote about this “controversial” play: “The pathetic thing is, there's nothing to debate” (104).

Ultimately Oleanna is a simplistic reading of gender misunderstandings, fueling the fires of the war between the sexes with its assurances that the gulf between men and women is too wide to be bridged. Oleanna affirms the fears of Mamet's male characters and helps to explain why they are so afraid of the feminine, why they are disgusted by women, why they long for their all-male worlds. As cutthroat as the competition is in Mamet's male world, at least his men know the rules there (after all, they made them up). At least there, they can escape the terrifying, inexplicable threat that the female represents to them. No wonder his male characters cling to the fantasy of a male-only world. Compared to the “competition” set forth in Oleanna, that of Glengarry Glen Ross seems almost palatable. At least in that world, John would have a fighting chance.

Notes

  1. For representative reviews that treat the play as a serious or accurate portrayal of the issues surrounding sexual harassment, see Jack Kroll's “A Tough Lesson in Sexual Harassment” [Newsweek, 9 November 1992, 65], Michael Feingold's “Prisoners of Unsex” [Village Voice, 3 November 1992, 109], and Frank Rich's “Mamet's New Play Detonates the Fury of Sexual Harassment” [New York Times, 25 October 1992, C:11-12].

  2. This intention of even-handedness was set forth in Mamet's choice of program covers for the premiere, which he directed. Each program had either the figure of a woman or the figure of a man with a target drawn over it, implying, as I will discuss further later, that both men and women were being targeted by the play.

Richard Badenhausen (essay date fall 1998)

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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 correctness on college campuses in America and its treatment of sexual harassment, an issue made more potent then by the just-concluded October, 1991, Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.1 Both of these timely themes allowed spectators of varied political persuasions to take up the cause of the Left or Right via the play's two characters, characters polarized not only in their gender, but physically, generationally, and educationally. Thus performances of Oleanna often provoked audience members into greeting Carol's character with hisses, according to David Richards, or generated responses like that of Susan Brownmiller's friend “who could barely restrain herself from booing, [and who] favored a picket line to protest Mr. Mamet's ‘vicious misogyny’” (Richards 1993, 5; “He Said” 1992, 2.6).

Such readings, however, reveal critical perspectives partially skewed and narrowed by the particular cultural circumstances surrounding the play. Indeed, when examined outside the context of the explosive headlines of the early 1990s, the message of Oleanna appears to have much less to do with political correctness and sexual harassment and more to do with the difficulties of acquiring and controlling language, especially in the specialized environment of the academy. And since that acquisition depends on a student-teacher relationship that is unequal, its participants would benefit from coming to some agreement about how power will be exercised during their association. Yet because Mamet's two characters refuse to define these boundaries and fail to grasp the complexities of language while ignoring its subversive power, the play inevitably delivers them to a tragic end. Oleanna ultimately explores the perils of inferior teaching and the subsequent misreadings that necessarily follow in a pedagogical environment that tacitly reinforces (instead of collapsing or bridging) hierarchical differences amongst its participants. In fact, this is more a play about teaching, reading, and understanding: how to do those things well and the consequences of doing them poorly. As such, Oleanna offers an ominous commentary on education in America and more particularly functions as a dire warning both to and about those doing the educating.

Mamet's play, which unfolds in three acts, takes place entirely in the office of a male college professor in his forties who receives three visits from a twenty-year old undergraduate named Carol. In the first of these visits, Carol seeks help from John because of her difficulties in his class on higher education. Carol's questions, which are often cut off in midstream by his responses, are also interrupted by periodic phone calls, all of which involve John's impending purchase of a house for himself and his family. Having just received word of his imminent tenuring (the college has not yet delivered the verdict in writing), John feels secure enough to begin negotiating the purchase of a new home. Towards the end of the first act, as each character becomes more frustrated with the other, an exasperated John makes the mistake of offering Carol an “A” in the class, if she will just meet him in his office a few times during the semester to discuss her problems. He does this because he “likes” Carol and thinks they might be “similar.” She protests, only to have John tell her to “[f]orget about the paper,” for “[w]hat is The Class but you and me?” (Mamet 1993b, 21, 25, 26). John then punctuates his lesson on theories of higher education with an indecorous analogy about how “the rich copulate less often than the poor. But when they do, they take more of their clothes off” (32). Not surprisingly, Carol continues to profess a lack of understanding for the subject (35-37), even though she has started to ask some rather penetrating questions and is on the brink of telling her professor a secret that she has “never told anyone” (38). That secret remains unspoken, like so much else in the play, because yet another phone call interrupts her confession. The scene ends as it begins, with John answering a question of Carol's after an exchange on the phone.

The two acts that follow almost need not occur, for we have sensed that the numerous double entendres, the unconventional grading arrangement, the tasteless joke, the drawn-out stories about John's own experiences as a student, all will have led these two characters into some kind of trouble. That trouble takes the form of Carol's accusation to the tenure committee that John has sexually harassed her. Bolstered by her association with an unseen and unidentified “Group,” Carol later requests that John ban certain books, including his own, as “representative example[s] of the university” (Mamet 1993b, 75); if he does not submit, she will consider pressing rape charges. What follows is the first physical violation and violence of the play, as John—his tenure, house, and marriage evaporating before his eyes—throws Carol to the ground while shouting, “You vicious little bitch. You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life?” (79). The verbal skirmishes of Act One have deteriorated into open warfare, with each side seeking vengeance.

This brief narrative summary, however, suggests a certain tidiness that simply does not exist in the events of Oleanna, for neither the characters onstage nor members of the audience. The fact that so much dispute hovers over not only the meaning of the episodes in Oleanna but about literally what events actually take place grows out of Mamet's approach to theater, which I would characterize in this case as Brechtian. As Walter Benjamin wrote of Brecht's epic theater, it attempts to achieve “not so much the development of actions as the representation of conditions” (1968, 152).2 Brecht's minimizing of narrative in favor of cultivating an audience's identification with sociopolitical issues represented through his characters resurfaces in Mamet's conception of John and Carol. While Mamet sets up these two characters to appeal to audience's sympathies and prejudices, he finally turns over the resolutions of most of the play's conflicts to the viewers. Ultimately, Mamet has constructed a highly self-referential art that operates much along the same lines as Terry Eagleton's version of “modernist literary works,” which

make the “act of enunciating,” the process of their own production, part of their actual “content.” … They do this so that they will not be mistaken for absolute truth—so that the reader will be encouraged to reflect critically on the partial, particular ways they construct reality, and so to recognize how it might all have happened differently.

(Eagleton 1983, 170)3

Readings of Oleanna will resist consensus because the drama investigates how language and gesture signify differently for all involved in the performance. The drama is necessarily provocative because its events take place within a landscape of indeterminacy.

Mamet has always been drawn to the specialized languages of different disciplines—the real estate scams of Glengarry Glen Ross or the pathetic cliches of low-level thugs in American Buffalo—and his extensive experience in the academy has given him plenty of material with which to work in Oleanna.4 The academic setting of Oleanna complicates the question of signification even further, for its participants share a specialized language that assigns status according to an individual's ability to employ that discourse. While M. A. K. Halliday remarks that “language is one of the semiotic systems that constitute a culture” (1978, 2 my emphasis), in the culture of the academy it is the most important system. As linguist Robin Lakoff has noted,

university people love to talk … the discourse of academe seems (and not only to non-initiates) especially designed for incomprehensibility … [and, finally], [t]oward the outside world [the special languages of the academy] are élitist: we know, you cannot understand, you may not enter. But for insiders they are a secret handshake. When I encounter my profession's term of art in a piece of writing or a talk, I am obscurely comforted: I am at home among friends.

(Lakoff 1990, 143, 144, 148)

For these reasons, Carol's lack of access to this discourse puts her at a compelling disadvantage. Mamet wants to highlight this subordination from the start, for the play opens with John talking on the phone in Carol's presence, a conversation physically closed to the student. Likewise, through Carol's first words—“What is a ‘term of art’?” (Mamet 1993b, 2)—which asks John to explain a phrase he has just employed, the student not only draws attention to the play's focus on specialized discourse as a crux but she reveals her inability to participate fully and properly in this language-centered culture.5

Eagleton is helpful again here, for his comments on literary criticism illustrate the effect of bringing together two characters who possess different levels of competency with the discourse of the academy. Eagleton observes that

critical discourse is power. To be on the inside of the discourse itself is to be blind to this power, for what is more natural and non-dominative than to speak one's own tongue?


The power of critical discourse moves on several levels. … It is the power of authority vis-â-vis others—the power-relations between those who define and preserve the discourse, and those who are selectively admitted to it. It is the power of certificating or non-certificating those who have been judged to speak the discourse better or worse.

(Eagleton 1983, 203)

The fact that Mamet immediately establishes language as the currency of this environment, and one participant is far poorer than the other, makes Oleanna primarily concerned with the power that derives from one's mastery of language. As Mamet remarked in an interview five years before Oleanna, drama is “about two people who want something different. … If the two people don't want something different, the audience is going to go to sleep. Power, that's another way of putting it” (1988, 137).

What Carol wants, from the very start of the play, is to become proficient and perhaps even skilled at using language, while John sits in the privileged position of possessing this expertise already and deciding how to impart it to others. Thus Act One of Oleanna explores what it means to teach, while Acts Two and Three discuss the consequences of performing this task poorly. That reviewers tend to gloss over the early action as inconsequential and focus on the meaty conflicts of the second two acts suggests not only that discussions of pedagogy interest far fewer people than clashes between men and women, but that they have misunderstood this as a play about gender conflict instead of about the inability of a teacher and student to communicate successfully within the educational and cultural model they find themselves occupying. Frank Rich goes so far as to argue that the first act “can be seriously faulted as a piece of dramatic writing … [while] the evening's second half … is wholly absorbing—a typically virtuoso display of Mr. Mamet's gift for locking the audience inside the violent drama of his characters” (1992, 12). Steven Ryan offers a more sensitive observation that “the subtleties of the first half of the play barely seem to prepare the audience for the blunt battles that dominate the second” (1996, 393). Yet in failing to ask whether or not John is a capable teacher (the central issue of Act One) and choosing instead to focus on his status as a victim of political correctness, Rich and others ignore the fact that these two issues are inextricably intertwined. John's ultimate failure—to gain tenure, to help Carol, and to understand himself—has its roots in his confused understanding of what it means to teach.

Like many of the issues touched upon by the play, the student-teacher relationship is first framed by John in terms of power, when he belittles the old-fashioned Socratic method or what he calls the “notion of ‘I know and you do not’ … an exploitation in the education process,” which caused him as a student to hate “everyone who was in the position of a ‘boss’” (Mamet 1993b, 22). (The play was originally subtitled “A Power Play” and subsequent productions, like the 10 February 1995 performance at Ohio State University, have continued to employ that qualifier.) Even at this early moment, John's angry lessons reveal more about himself than his subject matter, reminding us that he finally sees the class as more teacher-centered than subject-centered: “It's my name on the door, and I teach the class” (76), he declares. He then dismisses the tests Carol takes in college as “nonsense,” “garbage,” and “a joke” (23) and compares the typical student's undergraduate experience to hazing or “ritualized annoyance”:

We shove this book at you, we say read it. Now, you say you've read it? I think that you're lying. I'll grill you, and when I find you've lied, you'll be disgraced, and your life will be ruined. It's a sick game. Why do we do it? Does it educate? In no sense. Well, then, what is higher education? It is something-other-than-useful.

(Mamet 1993b, 28)

One might more readily accept his disparagement of a traditional student-teacher relationship wherein the teacher functions as infallible oracle if John had substituted a more effective method. But that does not occur here, for we find in John's actions a professor who very much enjoys his power. From the very start of Oleanna, John decides in Carol's presence whether or not to answer his phone, symbolically controlling the conversation by alternating between live student audience and other unseen voices. He even makes a show of not answering the phone at one point, at the climactic moment of the opening scene where he offers Carol an “A” (“I say we can” [26], he asserts), another gesture that reinforces his role as determinant of the action. That seemingly casual overture also, of course, deprecates the student's college experience and demeans any real future achievement that might occur, for it suggests that teachers do not evaluate a student's work objectively, but instead assign random grades on a whim. Although he protests early on in the play that he is not Carol's father (9), John later falls quite comfortably into that paternalistic, authoritarian role when he tries to comfort Carol with the admission that “I'm talking to you as I'd talk to my son” (19). When John decides he has had enough of the conference, he again asserts his power by telling Carol, “though I sympathize with your concerns, and though I wish I had the time, this was not a previously scheduled meeting” (13). To her credit, Carol manages to keep him in the office for another twenty minutes.

John's stated pedagogy, his so-called alternative to the outdated power game, turns on taking off “the Artificial Stricture, of ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Student’” (Mamet 1993b, 21), trying to “awake [the] interest” of his students” (26), and finally hoping to “provoke” the students and “force [them] to … listen” (32), that last goal contradicting the previous dicta. But John fails to translate this idealistic theory into practice. Indeed, when we see the actual teaching going on in the office, it consists of little more than John asking Carol to parrot his own ideas and perform for him in the process, as when he prods her with comments like “I spoke of it in class. Do you remember my example?” and “Can you repeat it to me. … Without your notes?” (29). We have covered little ground from the old lecture-based model that John so excoriated, a point Carol astutely recognizes when she responds to John's pontifications by starting to take notes in his office. Upset by her note-taking, John asks Carol to stop, for “I'm not lecturing you, I'm just trying to tell you some things I think” (34), as if there were a difference. In fact, we have probably regressed from the earlier model, for actual useful information gives way in the lecture to inappropriate and rambling stories about his own experiences, hardly the stuff of accomplished teaching.

To emphasize the theme of failed instruction, Mamet offers us a brief glimpse into John's method when confronted by one of the most important and neglected tasks of today's universities, the teaching of writing. At last, John has the opportunity to make himself useful and provide some advice that Carol might actually apply profitably when she leaves college, fulfilling his earlier goal of attacking the current condition of higher education as “something-other-than-useful” (Mamet 1993b, 28). Make no mistake, Carol's writing does need help. But it is perhaps no better or worse than what most undergraduates confused by difficult material might submit. As Carol sits next to John, he picks up her paper and reads a sentence, presumably its thesis or opening statement: “‘I think that the ideas contained in this work express the author's feelings in a way that he intended, based on his results’” (8). The tortured prose lacks substance because the student's thinking about the subject matter is so obviously cloudy—Carol appears in the office, after all, making this very claim and attempting to get John to explicate the ideas outlined in his book. The exchange that immediately follows John's reading of the sentence exposes his feeble pedagogical abilities:

JOHN:
What can that mean? Do you see? What …
CAROL:
I, the best that I …
JOHN:
I'm saying, that perhaps this course. …

(Mamet 1993b, 8)

Instead of explaining to the student how the unclear prose reflects a problem in thinking or putting pen to paper to illustrate how to amend the prose for clarity, thus giving her a model for revision, John asks two unanswerable questions. Then, after Carol's first few halting words, he cuts in with the beginning of a recommendation to drop the course! He has moved from thesis statement to drop slip in five seconds.

Elaine Showalter, whose reading of Oleanna I discuss at length below, has accused Carol of being an unsympathetic character; of Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon, the actress playing Carol, she writes: “her failure to elicit any sympathy is more the playwright's problem than her own” (1992, 17). Yet this inability to see the many ways an audience might sympathize with Carol—she is confused; is worried about passing the class; is putting herself through college; is without any apparent support system—shows how easily academics can misread their students and even cavalierly dismiss their struggles as unimportant, the very mistake made by John. Although he may find it more rewarding to work with the brightest students in a class, John also has a responsibility to his less gifted students. In Carol's case, the stakes are especially high, for she seems to be footing the bill for her education.

Instead of faulting Carol's actions, critics would do well to investigate John's professional and personal role, for it is his misreading of various texts—Carol, the situation, and even himself—that helps prepare his student to be exploited by the “Group” and ultimately brings about his downfall. This series of misreadings surprises, for John spends his days reading, writing, and exercising his rhetorical skills. Mamet's play, then, indicts the academy's own illiteracy against a backdrop of its current efforts to teach not knowledge (for such a thing no longer exists), not values (we have no common values anymore), not clarity of expression (impossible with an indeterminate language); instead, obfuscation, intimidation, and misreading make up the daily lessons. A frustrated Carol senses this when she screams at John: “YOU BELIEVE IN NOTHING. YOU BELIEVE IN NOTHING AT ALL” (Mamet 1993b, 67). Under such conditions, the diseased language usually leads to a similar moral deterioration in Mamet's milieu, rendering any sensitive, positive interaction between these two characters inconceivable. Jeanette Malkin sees a similar paralysis in American Buffalo, which explores “the impossibility of human contact or compassion among the verbally and morally debased” (1992, 147); and like Oleanna, that earlier play pairs off individual characters only to have them finally divorced.

For this reason, talk drives John and Carol further apart instead of closer together, as we might expect when two people communicate in rather close surroundings over a number of days. Part of the problem results from certain illusions held by members of the academy about the ability of different discourses to convey meaning. Jonathan Culler, who has discussed

the Western tradition of thinking about language, in which speech is seen as natural, direct communication and writing as an artificial and oblique representation of a representation, [points out that] [s]peech is seen as in direct contact with meaning: words issue from the speaker as the spontaneous and nearly transparent signs of his present thought, which the attendant listener hopes to grasp. Writing, on the other hand, consists of physical marks that are divorced from the thought that may have produced them.

(Culler 1982, 100)

This is nowhere more apparent than in academia, where professors encourage students to clear up their questions about assigned readings in “office hours,” which exist as a “place” where enlightened mentors explain orally the dense written discourse, under the tacit assumption that speech operates more directly and therefore more clearly. Because the idea of the office hour presumes that speech clarifies—after all, this is why Carol first appears in John's office—the student becomes extremely frustrated when the promised comprehension that the concept of office hours implies fails to occur. Thus Carol raises her voice for the first time in the play as an expression of that frustration: “WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?” (Mamet 1993b, 14), with Mamet highlighting spoken discourse as the problem both through volume and emphasis in the line.

Ironically, in Mamet's world a person's talent for reading texts (books, people, playing cards) is often inversely proportionate to his or her level of formal education. In Glengarry Glen Ross, salesmen who depend on reading their marks to pull off their schemes separate themselves from Williamson (the office manager) in various ways, including speaking a coded language that isolates him, excluding him from their real estate scams, and feminizing him rhetorically and thus trying to assume authority over him: “You stupid fucking cunt. … You fairy. … You fucking child,” says Roma (Mamet 1984, 96-97).6 Importantly, this outburst results from Williamson's inability to pick up on (or “read”) one of Roma's schemes as it starts to unravel before the client's eyes. Shelly Levene ties these inadequacies to Williamson's education, when he shouts, “Fuck marshaling the leads. What the fuck talk is that? What the fuck talk is that? Where did you learn that? In school?” (19). Likewise, in his 1987 film House of Games, Mamet's first directorial effort, a confidence man and his cronies dupe a female psychiatrist and best-selling author because she fails to recognize the con. Dr. Margaret Ford, played by Mamet's first wife, Lindsay Crouse, finds her many years of education, a span filled with reading both books and patients, useless and probably even a detriment, since the con men turn the weaknesses picked up from that education—which has evolved into an academic interest in compulsive disorders—against her.7 The character finally abandons this training at the film's conclusion, when she employs violence to erase the text of which she has lost control. Since Mamet has spoken of theater as “about two people who want something different,” the diverse ways in which characters read texts during these pursuits become one method of distinguishing among them (Mamet 1988, 137). The act of reading, like much in Mamet, is finally about power; and because reading provides access to the specialized discourse of a particular culture, it is a privileged activity.

Although we would expect John's extensive education to make him a better reader, the most educated character falls into trouble early on in Oleanna, as in House of Games, when he stumbles over a definition of “term of art.” But it is in his misreading of Carol, when she first appears in his office, that really initiates John's downfall. Since one essential ingredient of effective teaching is the capacity to read students—especially through their written and oral comments—to see what they need in their academic pursuits, John's inability to understand Carol from the start and failure to interpret the signals she sends suggest that the only possible result of their exchange is confusion and misunderstanding. Likewise, since John repeatedly interrupts Carol in the middle of her sentences, he is trying to read a text without having completed it. He might as well read half of a novel and then endeavor to explain its meaning.

In his opening exchange with Carol, John first tries to establish a connection with his student by claiming a certain familiarity with the type of trouble she is experiencing: “I know how … potentially humiliating these” (Mamet 1993b, 5) and “I see what you. … Yes. I understand” (6), he acknowledges. As the most crucial word in the play—it appears over a dozen times—“understand” becomes a kind of mantra for both characters as they repeatedly confess their respective lack of understanding and then hold up that quality as an accusation against the other. But the initial problems with understanding take two forms: Carol's lack of understanding of the class materials and John's misunderstanding of Carol and her difficulties. After attempting to sympathize with Carol, John continues his reading of her by contradicting her confession that she does not grasp much of his language: “I'm sorry. No. I don't think that that's true” (7), he says. John then continues, in effect accusing her of lying: “I'll tell you why: you're an incredibly bright girl. … You have no problem with the … Who's kidding who?” (7). He concludes this masterful reading by lecturing Carol about what she really must be feeling: “No. No. I'll tell you why. I'll tell. … I think you're angry, I …” (7). Carol, who has shown no signs whatsoever of being angry, is given little opportunity to ask her professor why he imagines that, for he moves her to the next text (her written essay) to attempt another flawed exegesis.

Despite John's early missteps, Carol affords him another opportunity to correct that first misreading by asking him to discuss the theories advanced in his recent book on higher education. When John struggles to put those ideas in plain language and finally dismisses his own work as “just a book,” Carol offers herself as text in asking him to analyze her predicament:

CAROL:
But I don't understand. I don't understand. I don't understand what anything means … and I walk around. From morning 'til night: with this one thought in my head. I'm stupid.
JOHN:
No one thinks you're stupid.
CAROL:
No? What am I … ?
JOHN:
I …
CAROL:
… what am I, then?
JOHN:
I think you're angry. Many people are. I have a telephone call that I have to make. And an appointment, which is rather pressing
CAROL:
… you think I'm nothing. …

(Mamet 1993b, 12-13)

This exchange highlights both John's clumsy attempts at placating his student and Carol's increasing astuteness in reading the signals sent by her professor. After Carol confesses she thinks of herself as stupid, John tries to alleviate her anxiety; but he ends up only exaggerating it by denying Carol's feelings and rhetorically extinguishing her identity: since “no one” thinks she is stupid, Carol, who sees herself as stupid, must not count in the small, contained world of the professor's office. Carol's response, “No? What am I, …” can thus be read two ways: if I am not stupid then what am I or if “no one” thinks I am stupid, where exactly do I fit in? Both meanings apply. Each character then tries to gain control of the text in question by asserting the primacy of the “I,” with John trying to rewrite the text by re-identifying Carol as angry and not stupid. Carol then engages in her own reading—a reading far more credible than John's—of what has just happened: the professor thinks of her as insignificant. No other explanation suffices, especially since later in the scene John abandons Carol as she is about to reveal a secret she has told no one through her entire life, a quintessential Mametesque moment that C. W. E. Bigsby identifies in other plays as when characters “desperately wish to connect. They have simply forgotten how to do so” (1992, 201).

One of the many ironies of Oleanna is that, unlike her professor, Carol is a careful reader who gets better at that vocation as the play progresses. Carol offers some astute readings, for example, of her professor. When John begins to wander off the point by talking about his tenure, his house and wife, and being “entitled to [his] job” (Mamet 1993b, 24), Carol steers him back to the issue at hand by trying to ground the conversation once again in specifics: “I want to know about my grade” (24). Likewise, her repeated questions highlight a number of glaring contradictions in John's own theories about education. She not only challenges his denunciations of higher education by asking, “if education is so bad, why do you do it?” (35), but also exposes the inconsistencies in his earlier reading of her own situation: “you tell me I'm intelligent, and then you tell me I should not be here, what do you want with me?” (36). Like most sensitive readers, Carol prefers clarity to language that obscures meaning. John, on the other hand, repeatedly employs an artificially-heightened vocabulary that draws attention to his academic status, favoring words like “obeisance” (5) or “paradigm” (45), instead of their simpler synonyms. When John explains that “paradigm” means model, Carol rightly asks, “[t]hen why can't you use that word?” (45). Characteristically, although he gives in to her demand, John never answers her queries, once again missing an opportunity to teach and, more importantly, interrogate his own motivations. Instead of helping students learn, this vocabulary ends up reinforcing hierarchies, for it flaunts—instead of bridging—the distance between the authoritative teacher and less-experienced student. Not only does John misread texts, but his use of an intentionally heightened vocabulary creates other texts which invite like misreadings, hardly a ringing endorsement of higher education. As Carol notes, about another one of John's synonyms,

Then say it. For Christ's sake. Who the hell do you think that you are? You want a post. You want unlimited power. To do and to say what you want. As it pleases you—Testing, Questioning, Flirting. … But I came to explain something to you. You Are Not God. You ask me why I came? I came here to instruct you.

(Mamet 1993b, 66-67)

Carol's final comment is not so outlandish as it might seem, for in the play's last two acts she is the character who makes accurate observations born out of her own readings of the situation. Her accusation that John enjoys his power and from his “so-elitist seat … hold[s] our confusion as a joke” (Mamet 1993b, 52) seems quite convincing in light of John's behavior in Act One. Carol recognizes John's cynicism—“YOU BELIEVE IN NOTHING” (67), she says—and also unmasks for the audience John's feelings about his student that he has kept hidden throughout: “You think I am a frightened, repressed, confused, I don't know, abandoned young thing of some doubtful sexuality, who wants, power and revenge” (68). When John assents to this characterization, Carol claims “that is the first moment which you've treated me with respect. For you told me the truth” (68). But truth, in Oleanna at least, is both transitory and highly relative.

A dramatic model that turns over so much responsibility to the audience will inevitably end up polarizing reactions to the play, a polarization resulting from viewers' projecting onto the characters and actions. That might be part of Mamet's point, of course. But while a critic like Stanley Fish would not worry over such an observation—content in the belief that the “reader's response is the meaning” (1980, 3)—I do want to explore briefly the mechanics of one representative “polarized” response to the drama to show how a reading that ignores Mamet's Brechtian, almost fantastical, method and fails to attend to the pedagogical context established in Act One ends up remaking the play and its characters rather radically, sometimes to the point of outright prevarication. This particular discussion of Oleanna, held almost hostage by the cultural circumstances surrounding the play's debut in 1992, stresses Mamet's supposed inappropriate identification with the sexism and violence of his male characters, turning on the accusation that Mamet fails “to distance himself from his characters' violence.” In that piece, Elaine Showalter reads the play's events as follows: “In making his female protagonist a dishonest, androgynous zealot, and his male protagonist a devoted husband and father who defends freedom of thought, Mamet does not exactly wrestle with the moral complexities of sexual harassment” (1992, 17).8 Aside from the fact that the critic curiously assumes the playwright has a responsibility to explore the issue of sexual harassment and condemn an appropriate villain,9 Showalter's reading of John as a sympathetic figure devoted to the dual causes of family and free speech necessarily glosses over significant flaws in his character that have a greater bearing on the action. First, we never see John with his family; his communications with his wife occur only over the phone and are remarkably halting and confusing. Likewise, in the midst of the greatest personal and professional crisis of his life, Showalter's “devoted husband and father” abandons his family to spend two nights in a hotel “[t]hinking” (1992, 76), oblivious to the fact that his wife and child might need some reassurance at this difficult time and that they might want to speak with him, since his decisions regarding his professional circumstances will affect them as much as him. As for the professor's role as champion of free speech, John first defends academic freedom in the play's last minutes and significantly only when his own book is threatened. He actually is willing to consider the list of banned books, instead of rejecting the notion outright on the basis of principle. What emerges most forcefully is not a lesson in the importance of free speech, but a rambling diatribe by an egocentric hypocrite squirming under the pressure of a formidable attack:

I'm a teacher. I am a teacher. Eh? It's my name on the door, and I teach the class, and that's what I do. I've got a book with my name on it. And my son will see that book someday. And I have a respon … No, I'm sorry I have a responsibility … to myself, to my son, to my profession.

(Mamet 1993b, 76)

In locating John as a principled defender of the written and spoken word, Showalter has either unintentionally romanticized his character or purposefully distorted his qualities to buttress a particular political argument.

A less biased reading of John might view him for what he is: an opportunistic cynic who believes he can solve problems by bending the rules regularly to suit his whims. When challenged by the sincere Carol about the views espoused in his book and class, John talks in circles, finally dismissing the issue because he is in the position to do so. Of his life's work he notes, “[l]ook. It's just a course, it's just a book” (Mamet 1993b, 12), a statement that calls into question his late, apparently heartfelt, defenses of his love of teaching and free speech. The seemingly unimportant secondary plot involving negotiations for a house also ends up revealing much about John's character, especially when he complains of the seller: “She what? She can't, she said the agreement is void? … That's Our House. … List, Listen, screw her. You tell her. … Her and her lawyer, and you tell them, we'll see them in court” (39). This exchange, the first part with his wife, Grace, and the second with his lawyer Jerry, exposes John as childish, unreasonable, and finally a bully, believing he can force a homeowner to sell him her house. He repeats this pattern in his dealings with his student, when he becomes weary of Carol's confusion and makes the cynical decision to award her an “A” in exchange for a few more meetings. Yet these faults are relatively minor, compared to his shortcomings as a teacher.

As for Showalter's characterization of Carol as a “dishonest, androgynous zealot,” we can only surmise that the critic craves a more sympathetic character to rebut the supposedly-saintly John; yet in her model linking androgyny and fanaticism, Showalter seems to request a more sexually-defined heroine, thus tying the worth of a female character to a kind of conventional physical beauty—the critic and not Mamet has chosen to stress outward appearances. Deborah Tannen arrives at a similar conclusion in seeing Carol as “all surface: just a stereotype that audiences can join in hating” (“He Said” 1992, 2.6). Yet these rather rigid portraits thoroughly fail to acknowledge Carol's evolution as the play progresses, for she appears zealous and deceitful only in Act Three, when she turns the discourse of the academy against John. At the opening of the play, the first seven times Carol speaks, she phrases her words in tentative, halting questions; at this early moment, we witness a confused, insecure, troubled student looking for help from her professor. The fact that she has approached him on her own—in effect admitting her failure, a large step for many students—suggests a certain amount of character already. Only after falling under the sway of the educational model Mamet indicts—John himself compares college education to “hazing” that forces students to lie (Mamet 1993b, 28)—does Carol begin to manipulate the truth.

There is also a certain literalness to such interpretations that suggests the play's readers have ignored what I have located, via Benjamin, as Mamet's Brechtian “representation of conditions.” Such readers tend to construct forced character studies that seek to find fault for omissions of content, even though on one level, according to Mamet, “[t]here's no such thing as ‘character.’ ‘Character’ doesn't exist” (1993a, 10). Tannen's complaint about Carol's superficial nature applies just as well to John, or even more so actually, since at least Carol develops as the play progresses. The superficiality that does occur derives partly from the fact that character is of less concern to Mamet here, for the drama grew out of the writer's interest in the environment of academia, with “these stories about sexual harassment,” and so Mamet “started to sit down and write a fantasy … to write a fantasy of using that as a take-off point for a tragedy about two people” (1994b). Even without Mamet's explanation, viewers should sense this fantastical element and thus steer clear of overly literal readings. Many elements of the drama—the title refers to a utopia; there is no time frame throughout nor any specific place identified as a setting; Carol undergoes a sudden shift in language skills that is preposterous in its development;10 a student magically submits a “report” to a tenure committee that suddenly overturns a decision it has already made—should remind us that this is not realist drama and reading it as such will inevitably lead to distortions. Even Showalter grants that “[o]n a realistic level, it's an absurd situation” (1992, 16).

Contrary to Showalter's contention, John is the dishonest character from the start, failing to respond to Carol's requests for a definition of the phrase “term of art,” which she has overheard during his telephone conversation. John first fudges a definition in appropriately obscure academic-speak and then confesses he might not be absolutely clear on the term since “[i]t's one of those things, perhaps you've had them, that, you look them up, or have someone explain them to you, and you say ‘aha,’ and, you immediately forget what …” (Mamet 1993b, 3-4). How anyone can assume Mamet admires such a character is beyond me, especially given the playwright's well-known hostility towards formal education and his fondness for lines like Thorstein Veblen's remark that “any profession whose language is preponderantly jargon is make-believe” (Mamet 1994a). Thus begins Carol's real “education,” whose subject matter is the art of deception, dishonesty, and skepticism. And Carol does become quite a good student who learns her lessons well by the play's end, for she has come to master many of her teacher's own tricks, including a penchant for intellectual bullying; an ability to use language ambiguously so as to get her way; and an outlook on the world informed by a deep-seated cynicism about human relations. Far from being a simplistic, static symbol of good or evil, Carol is a character who develops quite remarkably in a fairly influential environment that finally determines some of her core beliefs.11

Mamet's play finally illustrates that the educational model in Oleanna possesses some serious flaws, problems compounded by educators' own seeming disinterest in or blindness to the issue. This recalls Eagleton's admonition that “[t]o be on the inside of the discourse itself is to be blind to this power” (1983, 203). That very point is demonstrated by critical readings of the play like Showalter's that express a need to remake Mamet's play into something it does not strive to be. Likewise, not one of the reviews I came across mentioned, even in passing, the word “teaching,” an extraordinary feat indeed for discussions of a play that is set on a college campus and focuses upon an undergraduate's experience in a class on education theory.

Another notable feature of such readings of Oleanna is that not one of these commentators ties the student's subsequent behavior in later scenes to the professor's teaching, as if her actions had nothing to do with learned behavior. Whether or not one believes that what goes on in the classroom actually has an influence on students who are bombarded from all sides by far more powerful and subversive messages delivered through advertising, film, television, music, magazines, and even peers, Mamet's view is that students will follow where educators lead. The playwright introduces this key theme in part of the epigraph to Oleanna, taken from Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh: “Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances” (1965, 31). Although the paragraph Mamet cites does not mention education, he has omitted, playfully I think, its telling first sentence, which notes of Butler's characters (the young Pontifexes), that they possessed “the best education that could be had for money” (31), an interesting and helpful contextualization to a play about the very dangers of taking words out of context.

In Carol's case, John's teaching has had such a potent effect that she is about to reveal to him a lifelong secret told to no one else, until a phone call interrupts the two. Again, one needs to conceive of this relationship in terms of the power gained from access to language to understand Carol's difficult position and John's concomitant abuse of his. Foucault's historical discussion of the sacrament of confession as a “ritual of discourse” helps clarify the dynamic, one

in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile … and finally, a ritual in which the expression alone, independently of its external consequences, produces intrinsic modifications in the person who articulates it: it exonerates, redeems, and purifies him; it unburdens him of his wrongs, liberates him, and promises him salvation.

(Foucault 1980, 61-62)

The question posed by Mamet's play at Carol's moment of confession is: what happens if the authority figure turns away and the expression fails to occur? In this case, Carol remains burdened and unliberated, the confession unarticulated, a cause perhaps of Carol's embrace of the “Group.” This central moment in Act One—which foregrounds and sums up John's ignorance of and misuse of his power—marks the passing of any possible redemption for both characters and leaves only the inevitable downfall that must now occur in Acts Two and Three.

The source of Showalter's frustration over Mamet's failure to “wrestle with the moral complexities of sexual harassment” (1992, 17) is located in her alteration of the play's events and characters.12 In recasting this as a play about sexual harassment, Showalter and other academics (mis)read into the play's events by trying to engender in their criticisms a play they want to see staged, both falling into the trap set by the environment of political correctness and glossing over Mamet's serious indictment of their own profession. Mamet abhors this type of moralizing theater, for he believes theater should not concern itself with “comforting” its audience: “rather than sending the audience out whistling over the tidy moral of the play, [Oleanna] leaves them unsettled” (Mamet 1995, 53). Although the feminine ending of the play's title invites us vaguely to associate its focus with a female character, Mamet's play indicts a place, not a person, since the source of “Oleanna” is a 19th-century utopia established in Western Pennsylvania by a Norwegian singer who wanted an ideal, planned housing community in which his fellow countrymen could live. “His name was Ole,” according to Mamet, “and his wife's name was Anna, so he called it Oleanna. It failed and everybody went bust. Oleanna is a play about failed Utopia, in this case the failed Utopia of Academia” (1993, 10). While the fact that John's housing prospects are intimately tied up in his tenure decision establishes a telling link between Mamet's play and its source material, perhaps a more useful observation to make for those who want to turn Oleanna into realist theater is to point to the Greek roots of “utopia.”

Unfortunately, although Carol has learned a great deal, we are not too optimistic about the future, for she has acquired talents and values in an environment most likely populated with professors like John. These characters have done nothing more than switch places by the end of Oleanna;13 indeed, we might imagine Carol enrolling in graduate school soon enough, leading students down the same path. In retrospect, her late anger in the play recalls eerily the frustration John felt as a young student when he held all of his teachers in contempt: “I hated school, I hated teachers” (Mamet 1993b, 22), he snarls. Now, in Act Three, when it is Carol and not John who speaks the majority of the lines, the student's vocabulary becomes a bit inflated and verbose, less clear and grounded: “The thing which you find so cruel,” explains Carol, “is the selfsame process of selection I, and my group, go through every day of our lives” (69).

This is a very different Carol here who, unlike John, has discovered that reading and other intellectual activities often turn on issues related to power. As such, she fits more readily than Showalter would allow into that group of mostly male Mamet characters who use language aggressively to establish authority over weaker characters, like Lingk in Glengarry Glen Ross. Carol has become a fairly skilled reader at college, but she has also inherited the dishonesty that so often surrounds the activities that take place there, as evidenced by John and his work. Like Dr. Ford at the conclusion of House of Games, John realizes his many years of education and research provide him with absolutely no tools to defeat his adversary. Reduced to resorting to physical violence, John tries to cancel his tormentor with a violent, colloquial, misogynistic rhetoric marked by words like “bitch” and “cunt” (Mamet 1993b, 79). This reminds one of Jeanette Malkin's comment about American Buffalo in which, “[o]verburdened by incoherence … [Mamet's] language repeatedly breaks down into verbal—and eventually physical—assault” (1992, 146). In Mamet's world the separation between language and action is slight, for the language of his drama so often is the action. Here John has been honest with Carol and finally revealed himself, a revelation accompanied by Carol's chilling acknowledgment that concludes the play: “Yes. That's right … yes. That's right” (Mamet 1993b, 80). In this Darwinian formula, Mamet has shown that he or she who reads best ultimately survives. The question then becomes: how, where and what will our students learn to read? It may be that the real message of Oleanna is, as Enrique Fernández suggests, to “find out what college served as David Mamet's model, and don't send your kids there” (“He Said” 1992, 2.6).

Notes

  1. For example, Elaine Showalter notes how the play “exploit[s] the audience's reservoir of emotion from the Hill-Thomas hearings” (1992, 17). Frank Rich begins his review with a one-paragraph retrospective concerning sexual harassment and the popular consciousness, claiming that Oleanna serves as “an impassioned response to the Thomas hearings.” He also points out how in the 1992 New York City production Carol appeared “costumed in asexual outfits that come close to identifying her brand of rigid political correctness with the cultural police of totalitarian China” (1992, C11-12). Another article surveys responses to the play and its treatment of sexual harassment, “censorship, political correctness (P. C.), [and] the battle of the sexes” (“He Said 1992, 2.6).

  2. Mamet explained in a 1987 interview that Brecht “influenced me a great deal … I used to teach the works of Brecht and was fascinated by him. … His stuff is brilliant” (Mamet 1988, 136; Benjamin 1968, 152).

  3. Coincidentally, Eagleton mentions Brecht in passing in his next sentence.

  4. Mamet taught at Marlboro College and Goddard College in the early 1970s, was an artist-in-residence at Yale in 1976 (teaching once every week), and participated in summer acting courses at NYU in the mid-1980s. He also apparently borrowed some second-hand, anecdotal material for Oleanna, for as he pointed out in 1994, “[l]iving in Boston and Cambridge, Mass., I heard a lot of my friends who were involved in—family or friends involved in academia. And I would hear these stories about sexual harassment.” (Carroll 1987, 11, 17; Mamet 1994b).

  5. The fact that Carol's question about an obscure phrase echoes the previous quotation from Lakoff, an academic, is a happy coincidence that illustrates my point about how the specialized discourse of academia excludes the uninitiated.

  6. Thus I would disagree slightly with Christine MacLeod's suggestion that “there is no sexual animus behind the power play[s]” in Glengarry Glen Ross and that “no gender conflict [is] involved,” even though the play does consist entirely of male salesmen (1995, 205). Characters like Roma employ gender inequality like any other tool, when it allows them to gain an advantage. On the other hand, MacLeod's work, to which I came very late in the writing of this essay, does agree with some of my arguments, especially that Oleanna is a play about power, hierarchy, and control of language. I find MacLeod's observation that “the gender difference between student and teacher is not the crux of the matter,” for the “power of the lecturer and the weakness of the student derive from their respective and relative status, not from their sex,” particularly convincing (204). I am in less agreement with Marc Silverstein's provocative essay which explores “how Oleanna inscribes a cultural politics of misogyny that lends itself to articulation in terms of neoconservative ideology” (1995, 104).

  7. Mamet sets up a dichotomy of formal education (represented by Dr. Margaret Ford) versus experience (represented by the con men). The film frames this conflict most explicitly in its second scene when Dr. Ford, her head buried in a pad as she writes notes, is asked by a patient (who later turns out to be part of the con): “Do you think you are exempt from experience? You better not” (Mamet 1987). In the first chapter of David Mamet, Dennis Carroll explores numerous “[d]ialectical tensions” in Mamet himself, including that between the well-read, well-spoken intellectual and the “flinty, street-smart cynic … reinforced by his stocky build, short hair and plain dress.” Mamet himself often exploits this duality in public presentations of himself, especially in interviews. In one such characteristic moment, Mamet explains that he “didn't come to the theater as an esthete or as a child of the English Department or as a philosopher. I came to it, in effect, as a gag writer” (Carroll 1987, 12).

  8. Although writers can be notoriously unreliable about acknowledging embedded meanings in their own material, Mamet has taken issue with the notion that his work supports violence, suggesting it does the exact opposite, which is “show[ing] human interactions in such a way that the synthesis an audience takes away will perhaps lead to a greater humanity, a greater understanding of human motives” (Mamet 1995, 59).

  9. Mamet has argued that the “purpose of literature is not to do good, but to delight us. … People who write to do good end up nowhere” (Mamet 1993a, 8-9). Although he has spoken of Arthur Miller's drama as an influence, Mamet has also been careful to distance himself from that playwright's work, which he believes “is informed by the driving idea that theatre is a tool for the betterment of social conditions.” Mamet confesses that he takes a different approach: “I just write plays. I don't think that my plays are going to change anybody's social conditions. … I think the purpose of theatre, as Stanislavski said, is to bring to the stage the life of the soul. That may or may not make people more in touch with what's happening around them and may or may not make them better citizens” (Mamet 1988, 136).

  10. In Act One, for example, Carol can barely complete a simple sentence, while by Act Two she lectures her professor: “It is a sexist remark, and to overlook it is to countenance continuation of that method of thought” (Mamet 1993b, 51).

  11. Reductive readings of Carol might be informed partly by interpretations of characters like Karen, in Mamet's Speed-the-Plow; but, as I have suggested, that is an over-simplification of Carol. David Richards, for example, who sees Karen as a character who “paves the way for Carol,” argues of Karen: “She is either a saint or she isn't. She either has a noble cause or she doesn't” (1993, 5).

  12. Christine MacLeod has rightly pointed out that Mamet's very public, masculinist pose has “tended to overdetermine the critical response to Oleanna” (1995, 201-02).

  13. Craig Stewart Walker suggests, in passing, an intriguing possibility: that we think of Carol's actions as “an extension or projection of John's thought … [that] we imagine the play to be occurring entirely in John's imagination, like a nightmare” (1997, 159).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. What is epic theater? In Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Bigsby, C. W. E. 1992. Modern American drama, 1945-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butler, Samuel. 1965. The way of all flesh. 1903. Reprint, London: Jonathan Cape.

Carroll, Dennis. 1987. David Mamet. London: Macmillan.

Culler, Jonathan. 1982. On deconstruction: Theory and criticism after structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Eagleton, Terry. 1983. Literary theory: An introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fish, Stanley. 1980. Is there a text in this class?: The authority of interpretive communities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. The history of sexuality, volume I: An introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.

Halliday, M. A. K. 1978. Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

“He Said … She Said … Who Did What?” 1992. New York Times, 15 November, sec. 2, 6.

Lakoff, Robin Tolmach. 1990. Talking power: The politics of language. New York: Basic Books.

MacLeod, Christine. 1995. The politics of gender, language and hierarchy in Mamet's Oleanna. Journal of American Studies 29: 199-213.

Malkin, Jeanette R. 1992. Verbal violence in contemporary drama: From Handke to Shepard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mamet, David. 1984. Glengarry Glen Ross. New York: Grove Press.

———. 1988. Interview. In Their own words: Contemporary American playwrights, ed. David Savran, 132-44. New York: Theatre Communications.

———. 1993a. Mamet on playwriting. The Dramatist's Guild Quarterly 30.2: 8-14.

———. 1993b. Oleanna. New York: Vintage.

———. 1994a. Interview by Dick Cavett. The Dick Cavett show. CNBC, 28 October.

———. 1994b. Interview by David D'Arcy. Morning Edition. National Public Radio, 4 November.

———. 1995. Interview by Geoffrey Norman and John Rezek. Playboy, April, 51-60, 148-50.

———, dir. 1987. House of games. Orion.

Rich, Frank. 1992. Mamet's new play detonates the fury of sexual harassment. Review of Oleanna, by David Mamet. New York Times, 26 October, C11-12.

Richards, David. 1993. Mamet's women. New York Times, 3 January, sec. 2, 1, 5.

Ryan, Steven. 1996. Oleanna: David Mamet's power play. Modern Drama 39: 392-403.

Showalter, Elaine. 1992. Acts of violence: David Mamet and the language of men. Review of Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna, by David Mamet. TLS, 6 November, 16-17.

Silverstein, Marc. 1995. “We're just human”: Oleanna and cultural crisis. South Atlantic Review 60. 2: 103-20.

Walker, Craig Stewart. 1997. Three tutorial plays: The lesson, The prince of Naples, and Oleanna. Modern Drama 40: 149-62.

Jean Jacques Weber (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6861

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 this promotion, has started negotiations to buy a new house for his family. Carol is a rather shy and confused student who is afraid that John will fail her, and John treats her with a mixture of surface concern and underlying condescension. He asserts that he likes her and promises her a grade ‘A’ if she comes back to his office to talk about the course. When Act II opens, it turns out that Carol has accused John of sexual harassment. Her newly gained self-confidence contrasts with John's gradual loss of confidence, as he fears that he may not be granted tenure, that he may not be able to buy the house and that he may even lose his job. In Act III, Carol offers to withdraw her complaint to the tenure committee on one condition: he must sign a list of banned books, including his own. John indignantly rejects what he sees as an attack against academic freedom and when, in the final climactic scene, he finds out that Carol has lodged criminal charges of battery and attempted rape against him, he physically assaults and verbally abuses her, thus committing the very acts of which she had previously accused him.

The play is divided into three acts, each of which consists of an office-hour interaction between the professor and his student. These literary representations of office-hour interactions have greater complexity than real-life office-hour interactions in terms of what is usually referred to as discourse layering:1

level 1: author-reader/audience discourse
level 2: inter-character discourse

In other words, the inter-character discourse in the play between John and Carol is embedded within the discourse between the dramatist David Mamet and his readers or audience. And if we look at the play as performance, we also have to allow for the interpretative contributions of the production director and the actors.

In the analysis that follows, I will largely focus on the inter-character discourse layer and consider the dynamics of the office-hour interaction in an educational institution such as a university. I trust that many readers—to the extent that they themselves are either students or academics—have taken part in such encounters and will therefore have certain expectations about them. For example, we assume that the main roles are played by a lecturer and a student (or more than one student). The former is the more powerful participant, whose authority relies on, first, his expert knowledge and pedagogic expertise and, second, on the external, social legitimation of his role as a lecturer. The student, on the other hand, is the less powerful participant, because she is the novice possessing less knowledge of the subject area that she is studying. I refer to the professor as ‘he’ and the student as ‘she’ because this accords with the gender distribution in Mamet's play.

Another plausible expectation that we may have about the office-hour interaction is that the dominant discourse-type associated with it is academic discourse, although the impersonal academic discourse may at times shade into a more caring, more personal type of discourse. This is what happens in Act I, where John makes up for Carol's insufficient socialization into academic discourse by trying to establish a positive affect bond between them. In Acts II and III, on the other hand, the dominant status of academic discourse is threatened or even subverted by Carol's increasing use of legal discourse. A particular genre such as the office-hour interaction can thus be seen to draw upon a range of discourses, or even become a site of conflict between institutionally and ideologically diverse discourse-types.2

The main point that we are concerned with here is how the characters manage these discourse conflicts, and how the reader and the audience interpretatively (re)construct the discourse processes attributed to the characters by the author. A narrow and exclusive focus on the text will not take us very far here; I shall try to show that we need to bring in aspects of the social and cognitive context. It is to these contextual matters that we turn in the next two sections.

THE SOCIAL CONTEXT: POWER

Power can be defined as the ability of people and institutions to influence or control the behaviour and material lives of others.3 Though ‘control’ has more negative connotations, ‘influence’ suggests that power can be exerted both in a positive and a negative way. In the positive sense, power is something that can be given to marginalized groups (e.g. women in patriarchal society, or students in an educational context) so that they are empowered. But power can also be used to constrain, oppress, disempower, and marginalize certain people or groups of people. Note that there is a continuum between the two extremes, so that power often has good and bad aspects, in the sense that, for example, giving power to one person may imply not giving it to, or taking it away from, somebody else. Hence there is a first important distinction to be made between power as enablement and empowerment versus power as domination and oppression.

The other important distinction that I want to make is between institutionally or socially legitimated power and discursively constructed power. Perhaps a good way of approaching it is via West and Zimmerman's (1985: 116) concept of ‘participant identities’. They distinguish between three types of participant identities:

1 ‘master identities’, which crosscut all occasions of discourse: these are our more permanent identities such as age, sex, social class; on all these dimensions, John has power over Carol, who is young, female and lower class;


2 ‘situated identities’, which inhabit particular social settings: these are less permanent identities such as professor and student; on this dimension, too, John has power over Carol;


3 ‘discourse identities’, which constantly shift between discourse participants: these are ephemeral identities created by the verbal activities that we engage in; for example, in many social situations, apologizing is a self-threatening act, whereby we put ourselves in the position of the powerless discourse participant; uttering a command, on the other hand, is an act which threatens our interlocutor's face or self-image, and puts us in the position of the powerful discourse participant (though it all depends on whether our command is taken up or ignored or rejected).

It is our master and situated identities which invest us with social and institutional power, a power which, as we have seen, has not a single source but multiple sources: age, sex, class, job status, etc. But social power is not completely stable; it constantly has to be renegotiated. The renegotiation is done through our discourse identities which provide us with discursive power so that, to some extent at least, power has to be seen as an effect of discourse.4 This means that any power relation is inevitably dynamic: it is possible for socially powerless participants to temporarily gain discursive power over socially powerful participants in particular discursive encounters. The powerful participants may tolerate or even encourage this as long as they do not feel threatened in their own superior social power. In that case, the powerless participants may be lulled into a false sense of being taken seriously and having a say in things, or they may become aware of this paradoxical state of affairs and experience the seemingly emancipatory moves as oppressive ones.

This, in fact, is the way Carol reacts to John's moves in Oleanna: she feels that rather than trying to empower her, he is really only interested in upholding his own institutional power and hence in oppressing her. One of the questions we shall address in the analysis below is why this should be so. I shall argue that it is largely due to the nature of Carol's background assumptions about teaching and power. In the remainder of this chapter I will try to uncover this underlying conflict in what Carol's background assumptions are, what John's are, and to what extent they clash with each other. But first of all I have to explain more clearly the role played by background assumptions in interpretative processes.

THE COGNITIVE CONTEXT: SCHEMATA

According to Durant and Fabb (1990: Ch. 7), the creation of meaning is an inferential process, which combines new information with information already stored in memory. The information in the mind is stored not individually but in chunks, sets of beliefs, assumptions and expectations; and it is these sets that I refer to as ‘cognitive models’ or ‘schemata’.5 If the speaker's schemata are highly similar to the hearer's, with many shared assumptions, they will find it easy to communicate and understand each other. In this case, speaker and hearer can be said to belong to the same interpretative or discourse community, all the members of which use highly similar assumptions in their inferential processing of discourse. Such a set of shared presuppositions, assumptions, beliefs, values and cultural practices constitutes a world-view, a version of reality which comes to be accepted as ‘common sense’ within that particular community. If, on the other hand, speaker and hearer belong to different discourse communities and hold differing world-views, they will nevertheless understand each other to the extent that they share at least some interpretative assumptions. If their background schemata are widely divergent, then the result is likely to be misunderstanding or even a breakdown in communication. In this case, we can say that the discourse participants are locked in a situation of schematic or presuppositional conflict.

In Act I of Oleanna, Carol and John use very different interpretative schemata, and therefore find communication extremely difficult. The conflict can be seen as that between an elaborated code and a restricted code (Bernstein 1971), with the latter being associated with disempowerment, marginalization and inarticulacy. Carol is the restricted-code speaker, who has to acquire a new ‘language’—namely, academic discourse. Indeed, John frequently provides ordinary-language synonyms for the more specialized lexical items that he uses (e.g. pointer for index (24), liking for predilection (31), model for paradigm (45), bill of particulars for indictment (63), happen for transpire (66)). But using a new language also means taking on a new identity (as a member of the academic discourse community) and acquiring a new belief-system, a new world-view. It is this process of socialization, as we shall see, that Carol seems to resist.

The important theoretical point is that our belief-systems, and the cognitive schemata in which they are enshrined, are not fixed and static, but are highly dynamic structures which are constructed in and through discourse, and are constantly revised and updated. Schemata, as Cook (1994: 188) says, ‘are used in processing, but also changed by processing’. So there is constant flux and change. For example, our schemata for teacher and student are influenced by our self-image (if we ourselves happen to occupy either of these social roles) and by our real-life encounters with particular teachers and students. But they are also influenced by the representations of teachers and students in the verbal and visual texts that we come across in our daily lives, particularly if a large number of texts use similar ways of representing them. In other words, our cognitive schemata are socially, culturally, discursively and intertextually constituted.

But the very fact that certain representations tend to dominate in a particular culture also works against change. These dominant representations are naturalized and become part of the culture's ‘common sense’. We do not question them any longer, and the prejudiced beliefs or stereotyped images that they may include become almost invisible. At one stage in the play, John reminds Carol that the minimum common ground that is needed for communication to take place at all is to look upon the other person as human (53). But cognitive schemata—precisely because of their stereotypical simplifications and overgeneralizations—encourage a depersonalization of the Other. Therefore it is important to be aware of the way in which our schemata are constituted. A critical awareness is the precondition for positive cognitive change, for identifying and deconstructing the more pernicious aspects of schemata, and helping towards the construction of alternative, more positive ones.

In Oleanna, we witness a schema change in Carol, but it is a negative one, towards greater stereotypicality and depersonalization: she moves from an early view of John as an empowering tutor to a later view of him as oppressor, male predator and obstacle to her empowerment who has to be ruthlessly removed. Why and how she shifts from the early to the later model is a basic question to which, in the rest of this chapter, I will try to provide an answer. In order to do this, we shall attempt to (re)construct the putative cognitive processes of the characters, to uncover the cognitive models and assumptions underlying Carol's and John's verbal exchanges. The relevant assumptions that we shall look at in the next section are those concerning the nature of teaching, power and the roles into which the two protagonists cast each other.

DAVID MAMET'S OLEANNA

Mamet's play thus presents us with an inherently unequal power relation situated within the institutional context of higher education: Carol goes to see her professor in his office in order to talk about her coursework. There is a big difference for students between having a casual chat with a lecturer and being in a tutorial. In the latter case, there are a wide range of assumptions and expectations, which both lecturer and student rely on as mutual knowledge. They include, first of all, the assumption that the student will go to the lecturer's office (rather than the lecturer going to the student's room). Some lecturers might require students to make an appointment. For instance, in Oleanna John points out to Carol that ‘this was not a previously scheduled meeting’ (13). Next, we assume that the student goes to the lecturer's office because the former wants to talk to the latter about a specific topic, a topic which usually will be connected in some way with a particular course that the lecturer is teaching. In other words, the student does not go to the lecturer for a general chat; on the contrary, there is a constraint on topic relevance that the student will have to observe. Consequently their verbal interaction will not be unfocused conversation, but goal-orientated, instrumental discourse. In this way, we can gradually build up a general teaching schema for the office-hour interaction, which is widely taken for granted within the academic community and which contains the following assumptions amongst many others:

1 the lecturer possesses some piece of information, knowledge or advice that the student needs in order to get on with her work;


2 the lecturer is both willing and able to pass on that information to the student.

These assumptions presuppose the lecturer's competence and pedagogic expertise, neither of which would be expected in a general conversation, where the above assumptions would not be in force and there would be fewer constraints on topic selection. In Oleanna, for example, when John is talking on the phone to his wife, Carol overhears him using the expression ‘term of art’ and questions him about it. John, however, assumes that she has come to talk about her essay, and is so intent on introducing this delicate topic that he fails to see the point of her question:

CAROL:
[Pause] What is a ‘term of art’?
JOHN:
[Pause] I'm sorry … ?
CAROL:
[Pause] What is a ‘term of art’?
JOHN:
Is that what you want to talk about?
CAROL:
… to talk about … ?
JOHN:
Let's take the mysticism out of it, shall we?
Carol? [Pause] Don't you think? I'll tell you: when you have some ‘thing’. Which must be broached. [Pause] Don't you think … ? [Pause]

(Mamet 1993 [1992]: 2-3)

What is going on here is that Carol is still operating within a conversational schema, in which she can develop whatever topic comes up, whereas John already operates within a teaching schema, presupposing that there is something specific and relevant to the course that Carol ‘want[s] to talk about’, that there is some ‘“thing” [w]hich must be broached’.

However, John eventually realizes that he has been too brusque; he apologizes and proceeds to answer Carol's question:

JOHN:
It seems to mean a term, which has come, through its use, to mean something more specific than the words would, to someone not acquainted with them … indicate. That, I believe, is what a ‘term of art’, would mean. [Pause]
CAROL:
You don't know what it means … ?
JOHN:
I'm not sure that I know what it means. It's one of those things, perhaps you've had them, that, you look them up, or have someone explain them to you, and you say ‘aha’, and, you immediately forget what …
CAROL:
You don't do that.
JOHN:
I … ?
CAROL:
You don't do …
JOHN:
I don't, what … ?
CAROL:
for …
JOHN:
I don't for …
CAROL:
no …
JOHN:
forget things? Everybody does that.
CAROL:
No, they don't.

(Mamet 1993 [1992]: 3-4)

The fragmented nature of the two interlocutors' turns points to a major dysfunctionality in the interaction. Carol is shocked that John does not know for sure or has forgotten what ‘term of art’ means. She seems to make a confusion here between a conversational schema and a teaching schema, by applying the presuppositions of the latter to the former. She expects John to be able to supply an exact definition of the concept ‘term of art’, although this information is not relevant to the course that John is teaching and in which he alone is normally expected to have the necessary expertise.

So is Carol simply guilty of a conversational faux pas here? Or could the fact that Carol expects expertise from John in this area, too, be a first indication that she is operating in a teaching schema of her own, the assumptions of which differ significantly from the office-hour interaction teaching schema set out above? If so, we would be witnessing a schematic conflict, with Carol expecting a much more wide-ranging expertise from John than would usually be the case.

In the next extract, Carol again tries to raise a general conversational topic, but this time John does not follow up her topic and instead imposes his own:

CAROL:
Oh, oh. You're buying a new house!
JOHN:
No, let's get on with it.

(Mamet 1993 [1992]: 5)

From here on, John is in the dominant position and in control of the topic, whereas Carol is reduced to a submissive position. She is almost inarticulate, unable to talk about her work, and is finally reduced to a barren enumeration of the physical actions that she has undertaken in her fruitless attempts at socialization into the specialist academic discourse which is so alien to her:

JOHN:
I know how … believe me. I know how … potentially humiliating these … I have no desire to … I have no desire other than to help you. But: [He picks up some papers on his desk.] I won't even say ‘but’. I'll say that as I go back over the …
CAROL:
I'm just, I'm just trying to …
JOHN:
… no, it will not do.
CAROL:
… what? What will … ?
JOHN:
No, I see, I see what you, it … [He gestures to the papers.] but your work …
CAROL:
I'm just: I sit in class I … [She holds up her notebook.] I take notes …
JOHN:
[simultaneously with ‘notes’]: Yes, I understand. What I am trying to tell you is that some, some basic …
CAROL:
I …
JOHN:
… one moment: some basic missed communi …
CAROL:
I'm doing what I'm told. I bought your book, I read your …
JOHN:
No, I'm sure you …

(Mamet 1993 [1992]: 5-6)

Researchers such as Erickson et al. (1978) distinguish between a ‘powerful’ and a ‘powerless’ speech style. Whereas the former is marked by disaffiliating, non-supportive interruptions, the latter is marked by hesitations, repetitions and uncompleted turns. Could John be seen as using a powerful speech style and Carol a powerless one in the above passage? After all, John frequently interrupts Carol or his turns overlap with Carol's, which might indicate his power; and Carol uses many hesitations, repetitions and uncompleted turns, which might indicate her lack of power. But, if we look more closely at the dialogue, we find that many of Carol's turns also interrupt, or overlap with, John's; and John, too, has hesitations, repetitions and uncompleted turns. It thus becomes extremely problematic to identify certain linguistic features as reflexes of a powerful speech style and others as reflexes of a powerless one. A more promising route might be to look at the differing functions that one and the same linguistic form can have in context: whereas Carol's hesitations and repetitions indicate her lack of power, John's can be interpreted as instruments of power, aiming to lessen or soften the anticipated antithetical emotional reaction that Carol may have to him.

John's evaluations of Carol's work are quite negative here: he repeats ‘no’ three times (‘no, it will not do’; ‘No. I see, I see what you, it … but your work’; ‘No, I'm sure you’). But he mitigates these negative evaluations by using a variety of redressive strategies to minimize the threat to Carol's face or self-esteem. Buck and Austin (1995: 65), relying on Brown and Levinson's (1987) politeness model, describe three different types of redressive strategies:6

negative face strategies: choosing more polite forms;
positive face strategies: emphasizing one's high regard for the hearer;
off-record strategies: performing the face-threatening act in an indirect way.

Significantly, John uses all three types: in the dialogue that immediately precedes the quoted passage, his language is almost exaggeratedly polite (‘You paid me the compliment, or the “obeisance”—all right—of coming in here.’ (5)), he emphasizes his feelings of empathy for Carol (‘I know how … potentially humiliating these …’), his basic solidarity with her (‘I have no desire other than to help you.’) and his high regard for her (in the dialogue immediately following the quoted passage, he refers to her as ‘an incredibly bright girl’ (7)); and he employs linguistic indirectness in order to avoid a direct assignment of blame. Instead of telling her how bad her essay is, he prefers to talk about ‘some basic missed communi[cation]’ between them. When he eventually gets round to discussing Carol's essay, he uses a series of questions which on the surface are requests for information and only function as accusations in an indirect way:

JOHN:
[Picks up paper.] Here: Please: Sit down. [Pause] Sit down. [Reads from her paper.] ‘I think that the ideas contained in this work express the author's feelings in a way that he intended, based on his results.’ What can that mean? Do you see? What …

(Mamet 1993 [1992]: 8)

Carol's unexpectedly forceful reaction to this indirect attack allows us to glimpse hidden potentialities in her which will not be fully revealed until Acts II and III:

CAROL:
I did what you told me. I did, I did everything that, I read your book, you told me to buy your book and read it. Everything you say I … [She gestures to her notebook.] [The phone rings.] I do … Ev …
JOHN:
… look:
CAROL:
… everything I'm told …
JOHN:
Look. Look. I'm not your father. [Pause]
CAROL:
What?
JOHN:
I'm.
CAROL:
Did I say you were my father?
JOHN:
… no …
CAROL:
Why did you say that … ?
JOHN:
I …
CAROL:
… why … ?

(Mamet 1993 [1992]: 9-10)

John feels that Carol would like him to be more like a father than a lecturer; he feels that she moves out of the teaching schema into a family schema, where parents support their children. Carol's reaction, however, shows that there is a basic misunderstanding here: she was still operating within the assumptions of the teaching schema, not a family schema. It gradually dawns on us that all along Carol has been operating in a teaching schema which is significantly different from John's. In other words, the conflict between them is a presuppositional one, a clash of schemata, which explains their incapacity to reach some form of common ground.

For Carol, assumptions like ‘doing whatever you are told by the lecturer’ (9) belong to the teaching schema. According to her, the lecturer has to ‘teach’ (11) the students, in the sense of passing some information or facts on to the students, who then also ‘know something they didn't know’ (12). If the students have difficulty in understanding, the lecturer has to provide support for them: ‘You have to help me’ (10). Her teaching schema is a highly specific and also highly traditional extension of the office-hour interaction teaching schema that we encountered above:

CAROL'S TEACHING SCHEMA:

1 the lecturer possesses knowledge and expertise in all areas;


2 the student lacks knowledge and expertise in all areas;


3 the student does whatever she is told by the lecturer (e.g. to read a particular book);


4 if the student understands, then she has acquired knowledge;


5 if the student is unable to understand, then the lecturer has to ‘help’ her;


6 the lecturer knows how to help the student.

John, on the other hand, feels that Carol is treating him as if he were her father. His teaching schema is also an extension of the office-hour interaction teaching schema, but includes more innovative and critical assumptions such as the following:

JOHN'S TEACHING SCHEMA:

1 the lecturer tries to ‘awake’ the students' interest (26);


2 the lecturer teaches the students how to think for themselves: ‘What do you think? … What do you think, though?’ (29);


3 the lecturer tries to ‘provoke’ the students (32);


4 the students are expected to be independent and critical, to ‘question’ things (33);


5 the lecturer can tell the students what he thinks, and then the students ‘decide’ (53);


6 the lecturer does not try to ‘fix’ the students.

(54)

We are faced here with a clash between two opposed teaching schemata, which I shall refer to as (Carol's) ‘power of’ model and (John's) ‘power to’ model. Carol sees power as the acquisition and possession of knowledge, with the lecturer possessing power because he possesses knowledge, and the student acquiring power by acquiring knowledge. She has a naive view of empowerment as a passive process of transfer. John, on the other hand, sees empowerment as an active process in which the lecturer gives the students the power to achieve their own goals. And this is to be arrived at not so much by the students acquiring knowledge but through their developing critical skills which open up new horizons of understanding.

John's schematic or background beliefs also lead him to treat Carol sensitively as a person. He shifts repeatedly from an impersonal academic discourse towards a more caring, more personal type of discourse, in which he and Carol play the roles of mentor and protégée rather than lecturer and student.7 In his attempt to make Carol feel better, John now tells her that he himself used to be considered stupid. Carol, however, is shocked by John's revelations: ‘People said that you were stupid … ?’ (Mamet 1993 [1992]: 17). The point is that John unwittingly destroys some of Carol's assumptions about education: the lecturer possesses expert knowledge and passes it on to the novice, the powerless student, and then the student comes to possess expert knowledge and gains power, too. John also tells Carol that he has problems with his work (21-2); again, this does not fit into Carol's ‘power of’ model, which stipulates that:

• the student has problems with work;


• the student goes to see the lecturer;


• and the lecturer solves the student's problems.

Finally, John tells Carol that tests ‘were designed, in the most part, for idiots. By idiots’ (23). All that Carol can offer in reply to this is a shocked ‘no’ (23). After all, in her model, exams have a clearly defined function: they test whether the student has acquired the necessary expert knowledge.

In this way, John destroys the main assumptions of Carol's ‘power of’ model. Will she now, as a consequence of the collapse of her own model, embrace John's ‘power to’ model? We might have expected that she would have experienced the ‘power to’ model as a truly liberating one; but what she experiences instead is a contradiction between theory and practice inherent in the ‘power to’ model:

CAROL:
… that it is prejudice that we should go to school?
JOHN:
Exactly. [Pause]
CAROL:
How can you say that? How …
JOHN:
Good. Good. Good. That's right! Speak up! What is a prejudice? An unreasoned belief. We are all subject to it. None of us is not. When it is threatened, or opposed, we feel anger, and feel, do we not? As you do now. Do you not? Good.
CAROL:
… but how can you …
JOHN:
… let us examine. Good.
CAROL:
How …
JOHN:
Good. Good. When …
CAROL:
I'M SPEAKING … [Pause]

(Mamet 1993 [1992]: 30)

Again and again John interrupts Carol, inhibiting her discourse and imposing his own meanings. This abuse of power contradicts his stated conviction that students should be taught to think for themselves. John's interruptions are seemingly supportive and co-operative, but in fact Carol experiences them as devices for maintaining power.

Thus a deep-seated hypocrisy is revealed within John's ‘power to’ model. And a fundamental emptiness has been revealed within Carol's ‘power of’ model. The result is a moral vacuum which is filled by yet another teaching model, which I shall refer to as the ‘power over’ model. For the two models of empowerment, Carol now substitutes a model of disempowerment and oppression, in which education is seen as an arbitrary relation of dominance and submission, which can be reversed.

And this is exactly what we find in Acts II and III: the normal roles have been inverted. Here, the lecturer has asked the student to come to his office (46, 59). Moreover, it is the lecturer who has a problem, who needs something that the student can provide him with. In Act II, Carol asks: ‘What do you want of me?’ (45), and in Act III: ‘What is it you want?’ (61). John still tries to pretend that Carol has a problem which he can help her solve: ‘Look, I'm trying to save you …’ (57), but Carol has already turned the tables on him. She has publicly accused him of politically incorrect behaviour, and therefore she now has power over him. He needs her to drop her charges; she, on the other hand, does not need his help any longer: ‘I don't think I need anything you have’ (49). On the contrary, she is the one now who decides what words and actions mean, who has the power of imposing her own meanings:

CAROL:
My charges are not trivial. You see that in the haste, I think, with which they were accepted. A joke you have told, with a sexist tinge … To lay a hand on someone's shoulder.
JOHN:
It was devoid of sexual content.
CAROL:
I say it was not. I SAY IT WAS NOT. Don't you begin to see … ? Don't you begin to understand? IT'S NOT FOR YOU TO SAY.

(Mamet 1993 [1992]: 70)

And John is the one who does not understand any longer, who in his worries about losing his job is reduced to virtual inarticulacy, e.g. ‘Well, I … I … I … You know I, as I said. I … think I am not too old to learn, and I can learn, I …’ (Mamet 1993 [1992]: 71).

Even the basic teaching situation has been inverted here, with John ‘learning’ and Carol taking over the role of the teacher: ‘I came here to instruct you’ (67). What she reveals to him is that the lecturer-student relation is an accuser-accused relation, that the ‘power to’ ideal with its attendant beliefs in free thought and free speech is illusory and impossible to realize in the oppressive reality of a ‘power over’ institution:

CAROL:
Why do you hate me? Because you think me wrong? No. Because I have, you think, power over you. Listen to me. Listen to me, Professor. [Pause] It is the power that you hate. So deeply that, that any atmosphere of free discussion is impossible. It's not ‘unlikely’. It's impossible. Isn't it?

(Mamet 1993 [1992]: 68-9)

The roles have been inverted. The student has become the powerful accuser and the lecturer the powerless accused—and the dominant discourse-type has shifted from academic to legal discourse, which allows Carol to gain discursive power over John:

CAROL:
Do you hold yourself harmless from the charge of sexual exploitativeness … ? [Pause]
JOHN:
Well, I … I … I … You know I, as I said. I … think I am not too old to learn, and I can learn, I …
CAROL:
Do you hold yourself innocent of the charge of …
JOHN:
… wait, wait, wait …

(Mamet 1993 [1992]: 71)

Carol's accusations followed by John's hesitant replies enact the prototypical question and answer structure of courtroom discourse. But Carol goes further than this. By formally accusing John of rape, and thus moving her case out of the educational setting and into a legal one, she gains not only discursive but also (in the terminology of West and Zimmerman) ‘situated’ power over him. In all these ways, Carol appropriates power for herself. However—and this is what is so negative about it—she is not trying to change the system which she experiences as an oppressive one into an empowering and emancipatory one, but simply appropriates as much power as possible for herself within the existing system, which ultimately of course only serves to uphold and reinforce it.

CONCLUSION

What I hope to have shown in this chapter is that it is not possible to interpret a text produced by a particular speaker as mere text, but that interpreting involves (re)constructing relevant portions of that speaker's social and cognitive context. In other words, understanding Mamet's play is not just understanding the text but also understanding the social context (power relations) and the cognitive context (background schemata), and the extent to which the two are enmeshed. Paradoxically, however, such a (re)construction of the cognitive ‘worlds’ of the characters and, by implication, of the author, can only be achieved through the reader's own socio-cultural schemata. And since you as a reader will doubtlessly use different assumptions from mine in your cognitive processing of the text, you may well come up with a different interpretation.

In this way, we cannot but use our schemata to process discourse; but we must not forget that this is a two-way interaction and that our schemata are also changed in response to the discourses that we process. More specifically, particular textual representations either harden the stereotypical elements contained within our schemata, or they have the opposite effect of breaking up their stereotypicality, forcing us to look at the world in defamiliarizing ways.8 I should like to suggest that Mamet's play has both these effects on its audience and readers: an effect of gender polarization and one of cognitive defamiliarization. On the one hand, it seduces us into a brutal ‘power over’ model by tempting us to empathize with John's final actions. Indeed, several reviewers and critics have commented on theatre audiences being elated or roaring with approval as John begins to assault Carol.9 In our support of John's stance towards academic freedom, and our opposition to Carol's fanatic and repressive attitude of political correctness, we are seduced into an equally fanatic wholesale rejection of political correctness. In the words of Kureishi (1995: 111), we could ask: ‘So who's the fanatic now?’ Is it Carol, or John assaulting Carol, or Mamet tempting his audience into supporting John's assault, or the audience who allow themselves to be seduced into supporting John's assault?

The critical reader or spectator will resist this textual seduction and be more concerned with Oleanna's ambiguities and its effects of cognitive defamiliarization. This is what I have attempted to do in the above critical discussion, using schema theory in order to sharpen our awareness of the ways in which the play forces us to rethink our assumptions about teaching and power. Whatever model of power in education we may have, it is bound to be shaken up by this play in which the ‘power of’ model is deconstructed and ridiculed right from the beginning, the ‘power to’ model is upheld and yet also discredited in more subtle ways, the ‘power over’ model wins and yet is also revealed in its full brutality and inhumanity. By exposing the different types of power relations inherent in the process of education, Mamet leads us to realize that education is not either a ‘power of’ or a ‘power to’ or a ‘power over’ process but all of them at the same time; that there is a dynamic tension between social and discursive power, as well as between power as domination and power as enablement; and that this precarious balance can easily be abused, from both sides, by the more powerful as well as the less powerful participants.10

Notes

  1. See, for example, Bruce (1981) or Leech and Short (1981: 257-72).

  2. I follow Fairclough (1995: 14) here, who distinguishes between genre as ‘a socially ratified way of using language in connection with a particular type of social activity (e.g. interview, narrative, exposition)’ and discourse as ‘a way of signifying a particular domain of social practice from a particular perspective’.

  3. This definition is based on Fowler (1985: 61).

  4. For a similar argument, and an application to E. M. Forster's Howards End, see Buck and Austin (1995).

  5. Readers interested in schema-theoretic approaches should refer to Barlett (1932), Rumelhart (1975, 1980), Tannen (1993a); and for applications of schema theory to literature, Cook (1990, 1994) and Semino (1995, 1997).

  6. According to Buck and Austin (1995: 65), negative face refers to the desire to be able to act freely and to avoid having one's privacy violated, and positive face to one's aspiration to be respected and liked.

  7. See Hubert-Leibler (1992: 75) on the nature of the mentor-protégé relationship, where ‘the exercise of power is mitigated by feelings of solicitude and love, and a real concern for the other's well-being’. The two nouns, ‘solicitude’ and ‘love’, bring out the dangerous potential ambiguity of this relationship, with John later claiming that he was motivated by pure solicitude, whereas Carol interprets his behaviour as a form of ‘rape’ (1992: 67).

  8. For an argument associating literary texts with the ‘defamiliarizing’ effect and non-literary texts with the ‘hardening’ effect, see Cook (1994).

  9. See Csicsila (1995: 6) and Piette (1995: 185). It is, I think, this seductive effect of the play that Showalter (1992: 17) has in mind when she accuses Mamet of playing a rigged game.

  10. I should like to thank Clara Calvo, Marion Colas-Blaise and the editors of this volume for their most perceptive comments on an earlier version of this chapter. I have not always followed their advice, so all remaining errors are mine.

Bibliography

Bartlett, F. C. (1932) Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berstein, B. (1971) Class, Codes and Control 1, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Brown, P. and Levinson, S. C. (1987) Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruce, B. (1981) ‘A Social Interaction Model of Reading’, Discourse Processes 4: 273-311.

Buck, R. A. and Austin, T. R. (1995) ‘Dialogue and Power in E. M. Forster's Howards End’, in P. Verdonk and J. J. Weber (eds) Twentieth-Century Fiction: From Text to Context, London: Routledge, 63-77.

Cook, G. (1990) ‘Goals and Plans in Advertising and Literary Discourse’, Parlance 2: 48-71.

Cook, G. (1994) Discourse and Literature: The Interplay of Form and Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Csicsila, J. (1995) ‘Review of Oleanna’, The David Mamet Review 2: 5-6.

Durant, A. and Fabb, N. (1990) Literary Studies in Action, London: Routledge.

Erickson, B., Lind, A. E., Johnson, B. C. and O'Barr, W. M. (1978) ‘Speech Style and Impression Formation in a Court Setting: The Effects of “Powerful” and “Powerless” Speech’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 14: 266-79.

Fairclough, N. (1995) Critical Discourse Analysis, London: Longman.

Fowler, R. (1985) ‘Power’, in T. A. van Dijk (ed.) Handbook of Discourse Analysis 1, London: Academic Press, 61-82.

Hubert-Leibler, P. (1992) ‘Dominance and Anguish: The Teacher-Student Relationship in the Plays of David Mamet’, in L. Kane (ed.) David Mamet: A Casebook, New York: Garland, 69-85.

Kureishi, H. (1995) ‘My Son the Fanatic’, in A. S. Byatt and H. Hollinghurst (eds) New Writing 4, London: Vintage, in association with the British Council, 100-11.

Leech, G. N. and Short, M. H. (1981) Style in Fiction, London: Longman.

Mamet, D. (1993 [1992]) Oleanna, London: Methuen.

Piette, A. (1995) ‘The Devil's Advocate: David Mamet's Oleanna and Political Correctness’, in M. Maufort (ed.) Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, New York: Peter Lang, 173-87.

Rumelhart, D. E. (1975) ‘Notes on a Schema for Stories’, in D. G. Bobrow and A. M. Collins (eds) Representation and Understanding, New York: Academic Press, 211-36.

Rumelhart, D. E. (1980) ‘Schemata: The Building Blocks of Cognition’, in R. J. Spiro, B. C. Bruce and W. F. Brewer (eds) Theoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension, Hillsdale, N. J. Lawrence Erlbaum, 33-58.

Semino, E. (1977) Language and World Creation in Poems and Other Texts, London: Longman.

Semino, E. (1995) ‘Schema Theory and the Analysis of Text Worlds in Poetry’, Language and Literature 4: 79-108.

Showalter, E. (1992) ‘Acts of Violence: David Mamet and the Language of Men’, Times Literary Supplement 4675: 16-17.

Tannen, D. (1993a) Framing in Discourse, New York: Oxford University Press.

West, C. and Zimmerman, D. H. (1985) ‘Gender, Language and Discourse’, in T. A. van Dijk (ed.) Handbook of Discourse Analysis 4, London: Academic Press, 103-24.

Thomas E. Porter (essay date spring 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8415

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 certainly climactic; the problems it raises, however, seem to leave the audience to “draw its own conclusions,” to take sides with either the professor or the student.2 Either option turns the play into melodrama, with the professor as hero/victim and the student as villain or the student as feminist heroine and the professor as villain/oppressor. Critical opinion is divided, with a majority of critics and reviewers, even those with feminist credentials, seeing the student as “bitch/witch,” representative of a radical and punitive feminist ideology run rampant.3 Following Mamet's lead, other critics have suggested that sexual harassment is a vehicle for a broader issue: that Oleanna is a play about “power,” or a “tutorial” play with a genre affinity to Ibsen's social-problem dramas.4 Most recently, Thomas Goggans attempts to exculpate the Carol persona by pointing to textual suggestions of child abuse in her past. Then, in passing, he attaches blame for her actions to manipulation by her feminist support “Group.”5 This effort to redeem her effectively nominates this shadowy collective as the “real” villain. A final option, suggested by John Simon, is to finger the playwright—according to him, the play is simply a jumble, seriously flawed in concept and/or execution.6

Each of these critiques assumes that the play's action is (or should be) unified around a traditional center: a coherent theme, consistent persona-types, a familiar plot structure. Given dramatic tradition and practice and Mamet's own Aristotelian concern for “stick[ing] to the plot,” these assumptions seem reasonable, and readings based on them shed considerable light on particular issues.7 None of them, however, can quite dispel a general uneasiness about the play. There are features, apparently marginal, that work against the integrity of the whole: the aporias in the dialogue, the surprising transformations and role-reversals of the personae, the presence or absence of power brokers like John's Tenure Committee and Carol's feminist Group. These features surprise the audience by decentering the action in a way that undercuts conventional expectations. I would propose that, if we consider the play in a context broader than sexual harassment or individual power struggles, this decentering produces an escalating continuum of aggression that culminates in John's physical assault on Carol. Thus it exposes and explores, in microcosm, one significant impact of postmodern difference and divisiveness in contemporary American culture.

These notions of “decentering” and “difference” characterize postmodernist thought in both its academic and cultural manifestations. While Derrida's aphorism “deconstruction is America” is apparently a joke, a playful explanation of deconstruction's notoriety in American academic circles, it may also mean, as Mark Lilla suggests, “that America has something of the decentered, democratic swirl [Derrida] tries to reproduce in his own thought.”8 Over the last two decades or so postmodern notions have migrated from university cloisters into the public forum. Prominent notice in the media has contributed to this cultural “swirl” by calling attention to ideas and programs that threaten to undercut traditional pieties. When liberals advance the causes of multiculturalism, political correctness, social construction, anti-foundationalism, and their attached ideologies (radical feminism, gay liberation, and minority prerogatives), conservatives of varying stripes counter with appeals to family values, law and order, individual responsibility, various foundational principles, national unity.9 Finding some common ground for consensus on national objectives or policies amid this turbulence seems hopelessly utopian.

The barrage of contending ideologies that highlight differences over commonalities and division over unanimity reflects the deconstructive contention that “difference/différance” underlies our engagement with language and our pursuit of knowledge.10 Knowledge, in deconstructive theory, is ultimately bound to the closed system of differences that constitute language. The linguistic network of signifiers does not provide any internal basis for ordering its content. So giving one term priority over another, for example, speaking over writing or presence over absence or universals over particulars, is shown to be purely arbitrary. In the absence of any absolute, any transcendental signifier to which the network of signifiers points—some authoritative presence or foundational logos—definitive meaning must always be “deferred,” for there is no criterion independent of language by which systems or institutions can be validated. In Positions Derrida posits a “general strategy of deconstruction” that denies the validity of any systemic priorities and so challenges traditionally privileged hierarchies:

[W]e must traverse a phase of overturning [original emphasis]. To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy [emphasis added]. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand.11

Though Derrida is addressing philosophical differences and linguistic opposition, there are “readers who suspect that [deconstruction neutralizes] all standards of judgment—logical, scientific, aesthetic, moral, [and] political.”12 So a political application of this strategy issues a challenge to any established power structure. Moreover, as Foucault points out, the exercise of power—the system with the “upper hand”—is always oppressive: “it has become almost automatic in the parlance of the times to define power as an organ of repression.”13 Thus overturning an established hierarchy or a power elite will inevitably be accompanied by some kind of violence—rhetorical, legal, political, physical.

As these ideas, stripped of their subtleties, pass into the purview of the public, they become grist for social and political mills. The advocates of postmodernist ideologies and their allies call for toleration toward, and acceptance of, difference: cultural diversity, the elimination of racism, sexism, and homophobia, in the name of personal freedom. The ideologues of the right—political and religious—see this tolerance of difference as contributing to the decay of traditional order and to the dismissal of any foundational guidelines for society. The result of this confrontation is a balkanizing suspicion of the “other.” In a pluralistic community, “[w]hat ‘we’—whoever this ‘we’ might be—have in common is that we have little or nothing in common, and to attempt to smooth out these differences on or into a preexisting horizon of sameness is to doom ourselves to more of the same lack of understanding.”14 In an ironically appropriate educational context, Mamet's Oleanna gives this cultural swirl and the forms of violence that characterize it a local habitation and a name.

The setting of the play, the private office of a college professor, recalls the ideal educational locus, Mark Hopkins's log,15 allowing a one-to-one interaction between teacher and student. Carol approaches her teacher with a declared desire to learn; she has to pass his course, and she is failing. She wants John's help with her immediate problem: understanding the material in order to pass. John's expertise is education, and he wants the student to aspire to something more than a routine pass. He offers her the opportunity to develop into a self-assured and independent critic of institutional hierarchies.

John's theory, articulated in his discussion with his befuddled student, is thoroughly progressive and postmodern in its emphases. In the first place, he will overturn the oppressive relationship of authoritarian teacher and passive student in favor of “an active, cooperative, and social process.”16 The professor is to establish a personal bond with his students, relate to their concerns and interests, and promote a critical analysis of the systems that oppress them.17 John has published a book that develops such ideas; from her notes, Carol quotes catchphrases that epitomize his attack on traditional pedagogy and its outcomes: “Virtual warehousing of the young” and “The Curse of Modern Education.”18 John therefore attempts to lead his students to a critique of the status quo and to demonstrate the superiority of the enlightened individual over received institutional theory and practice. In dealing with Carol, he has this message to deliver, and, one-on-one, he is quite certain that he will be able to enlighten her.

This view of the educational system, consistent with postmodernism, is not founded on philosophical principles or logical analysis, but rather on personal conviction from John's own life-experience. In his student days he too struggled with feelings of incompetence: “I hated school, I hated teachers. I hated everyone who was in the position of a ‘boss’ because I knew—I didn't think, mind you, I knew I was going to fail” (22). He reinforces this illustration from his past with a reference to his present situation in the academic hierarchy: his application for tenure in the university. The tenure process is just another arbitrary assessment of his self-worth by unworthy judges, “people voting on me I wouldn't employ to wax my car.” For John, this “idiot[ic]” system includes “The Bad Tenure Committee,” which has not yet signed off on his promotion (23).

Since his own experience served to liberate him from the tyranny of impersonal and objective systems, he offers Carol this same opportunity, proposing that she begin her course of study over again. “Your grade's an ‘A.’ Forget about the paper.” When she protests that “[t]here are rules,” John waves this problem away; the class is “you and me,” and “[w]e won't tell anybody” (25-26). Carol wonders why John would do this for her. He feels free to overturn the rules on personal grounds and to break the “Artificial Stricture” between student and teacher when he responds, “I like you” (21, 27).

Carol, however, has different expectations about the professor's role and a different view of the educational process. She is a consumer who comes from a different social and economic background; she is here “[t]o be helped. […] ‘To get on in the world’” (12). She has done her part as she understood it—attended class, bought his book and read the material assigned, took notes, followed instructions—and is nonetheless failing. Apparently she is not interested in being friends; she wants instruction: “Teach me,” she pleads, “[t]each me” (11). In her view, it is John's responsibility to get her through the course, to provide clear explanations of his ideas that can be translated into equally clear exam questions with correspondingly clear answers.

The advocates of “empowering” education warn practitioners that adopting this method can be dangerous. “[T]raditional schooling” calls for the kind of professorial performance Carol expects. “If a democratic teacher begins the curriculum with the students' questions and understandings, then she or he may become the victim of the students' disregard for their own knowledge.”19 At this juncture Carol has no trouble with a “passive curriculum” and the “[u]nilateral teacher authority” that educators like John excoriate. She does not seem comfortable with the “strong participatory and affective opening” that they recommend and that John adopts.20 Doing violence to the established hierarchy has its perils; teachers who attempt to forge a personal relationship with their students travel at their own risk.21

John not only fails to heed this admonition; he does not practice what he preaches. Though he is intellectually committed to his egalitarian, student-centered theory, it is painfully obvious that he violates it regularly in practice. He does not listen sensitively to Carol's hesitant efforts at self-expression. He regularly interrupts her and is impatient with her lack of spontaneity—“Are you checking your notes … ? […] Tell me in your own … [words]” (27, intervening dialogue omitted). Most significantly, he fails to acknowledge her traditional perspective on the educational process and ignores his own dominant position in their relationship. He monopolizes the discussion while at the same time deprecating professorial authority; he attacks middle-class prejudices about the value of education while pursuing its rewards—tenure, status, and a rise in salary.

Throughout the discussion Carol makes explicit these contrarieties in John's position. Willy-nilly, he is the authority-figure in the classroom, he conducts the examinations, he evaluates performance with a passing or failing grade. Moreover, the obvious conclusion from his premises calls into question the value of the formal education she is pursuing. She seizes on the practical consequence of his argument: “it is prejudice that we should go to school?” When she begins to question his position, John applauds her initiative by interrupting: “Good. Good. Good. That's right! Speak up!” Finally Carol draws his attention to this habit: “I'm Speaking …” “How can you say […] in a college class,” she asks, “that college education is a prejudice?” Standing by his methodology, he explains that it is his job “[t]o provoke [her],” “to make [her] mad,” “to force [her] …” (30-32, intervening dialogue omitted). So, he concludes, it is appropriate that she become angry when her faith in the value of an education is challenged. Quoting John's description of education as “prolonged and systematic hazing,” Carol then puts the obvious personal question: “if education is so bad, why do you do it?” John's response is at once simple and, given his views on formal education, mind-boggling: “I do it because I love it.” John sees this declaration as justifying his professorial status. The “it” he embraces is not, presumably, the “idiotic” system he condemns, but his salutary critique of it (35).

It is difficult, on the evidence of this interview, to make a convincing case for John's professionalism. His arguments for his theory are fatuous, self-serving, and often fallacious. That he seems sincere in presenting them is the coup de grâce: he does not recognize that he is, in fact, one of the “idiots” he heartily condemns (23). In his teaching, his book, and his conversation, he harps on the exploitation of the student population by an authoritarian establishment of which he is a practicing member. Moreover, his personal transformation from underdog-failure to successful academician argues as effectively against the efficacy of the teaching profession as for it. He learned to be self-confident and autonomous in spite of his education; as a teacher, he delights in offering this aporia to his students. His “love of teaching” seems largely a matter of personal satisfaction with his own performance.

At this point, then, it is hard not to empathize with the frustration and desperation of Carol's reaction to the conference. She has had enough:

CAROL:
NO, NO—I DON'T UNDERSTAND. DO YOU SEE??? I DON'T UNDERSTAND
JOHN:
What?
CAROL:
Any of it. Any of it. I'm smiling in class, I'm smiling, the whole time. What are you talking about? What is everyone talking about? I don't understand. I don't know what it means. I don't know what it means to be here … you tell me I'm intelligent, and then you tell me I should not be here, what do you want with me? What does it mean? Who should I listen to … I …
(He goes over to her and puts his arm around her shoulder.)
NO! (She walks away from him.)

(36)

The vehemence of this outburst would warn someone more perceptive than John that his sympathy and his “friendly” expression of concern do not respond to her needs, that they are unwelcome and disturbing.

If the inconsistencies in John's theory and practice are not enough to call his professional standards into question, throughout this conference the contact toward which John has been working is broken by a series of phone calls from his wife and his lawyer.22 They divide his attention and foreground his concern about his personal affairs. After the initial phone conversation with his wife, Carol picks up on this private business: “Oh, oh. You're buying a new house!” (5). It is obvious that he is under some pressure to leave the office. Early on he tells her so: he must make a phone call; he has a “pressing […] appointment with a realtor” (13, intervening dialogue omitted). Later, after he has become absorbed in their discussion, he tells his wife that “it's going to take as long as it takes,” not a statement designed to relax the student. Carol's observations on the phone conversations—“You're buying a new house. […] Because of your promotion”—underscore John's immediate concerns with his personal affairs (20, intervening dialogue omitted). His plans mark him as rising middle-class; they include moving up to a new house in a more affluent neighborhood, a “private school” for his son—all the fruits of a less-than-useful higher education (33).

The next phone call breaks into their conversation at a potentially intimate moment. After her passionate outburst about not understanding, when John hastens to reassure her that he does understand, Carol seems at last ready to confide in him, to reveal some personal feelings.

CAROL:
I'm bad. (Pause) Oh, God. (Pause)
JOHN:
It's all right. […]
CAROL:
I always … all my life … I have never told anyone this …
JOHN:
Yes. Go on. (Pause) Go on.
CAROL:
All of my life … (The phone rings.) (Pause. JOHN goes to the phone and picks it up.)

(38, intervening dialogue omitted)

Carol is on the verge of a personal confession, the kind of revelation for which John has been angling, which would presumably promote a new level of teacher-student intimacy. With the phone call the spell is broken; he learns that all the urgent problems with the new house have been an elaborate ruse. There is a surprise party, he informs Carol, to celebrate his tenure. At this critical point he does not hesitate to break off their conversation to leave for the party. Whatever information might have been forthcoming about Carol's personal life and history is lost.23 Given John's blatant insensitivity to Carol's situation and his cavalier termination of their conversation, their relationship seems at an impasse. There seems no reason why she should continue it. His parting remark about the party, however, foreshadows a new development:

JOHN:
Well, there are those who would say it's a form of aggression.
CAROL:
What is?
JOHN:
A surprise.

(41)

His abrupt departure at the close of Act One leads to another, very aggressive, surprise.

The Carol who appears in Act Two has undergone a surprising transformation that overturns their relationship and the direction of the action. A far cry from the bewildered, isolated, and pathetic student of the first encounter, Carol is now a poised and articulate representative of the female student body and her “Group.” She has preferred a charge of sexual harassment against John with the Tenure Committee.

This metamorphosis, more than any other feature of the play, disturbs the critics. Are her confusion and lack of sophistication in the first interview a pose? Does she, in this second interview, become a singularly unattractive mouthpiece for an aggressive and radical feminism? Did she, in short, set John up for the charge of sexual harassment?24 An affirmative answer to these questions assumes that the Carol persona has a consistency that accounts for all her “identities” in the play. It also assumes that John can be typed as the (not altogether innocent) victim of a conspiracy.

The decentering swirl of our culture, however, raises serious questions about “character” and “identity.” A developmental sociologist summarizes the postmodernist notion of the individual: “In the place of all … essentialistic views of selfhood, post-modern theories regularly promote a historically dispersed, contextualized, spatially decentralized, and otherwise provisionalized, fragmented, and protean view of the subject.”25 Barbara Johnson, a noted feminist, is equally straightforward about the self: “As a literary theorist, I have come to regard ‘identity’ as a constantly shifting, discontinuous, ungrounded fiction.”26 Another complementary theory sees identity as constructed “by the power relations that govern, anonymously and without human face, even the governors.”27 With no appeal to theory, Mamet has declared that he holds “the will of the individual” to be a fiction; for him, society is the master whose “necessit[ies] of the moment” create our identities.28 If her previous identity—confused student seeking help—was not a ruse, then Carol's identity in the second interview is manifestly discontinuous with it and contingent upon her association with the “Group.”

Carol has not returned for this second interview with a petition or a request; her explanation of her presence indicates a radical shift in their situations. She came originally on her own initiative to ask his help; she returns at his request. “Professor. I came here as a favor. At your personal request. Perhaps I should not have done so. But I did. On my behalf, and on behalf of my group.” Focused on her accusation of sexism relative to the composition of the Tenure Committee (though one member of the Committee is a woman, he talks of “Good Men and True”), he misses her reference to the Group (50-51). A later attempt to draw her onto his ground calls his attention to this affiliation:

JOHN:
I want to hear it. In your own words. What you want. And what you feel.
CAROL:
… I …
JOHN:
… yes …
CAROL:
My Group.
JOHN:
Your “Group” … ? (Pause)
CAROL:
The people I've been talking to …

(54)

What Carol wants and feels, she avers, is predicated not on an “I,” but on the thoughts and feelings of this collective. Carol's new identity is progressively representative of a radical feminism, and her persona traces through this interview with John the growth of a shared awareness and the development of feminist theory and practice.

This reference to the Group recalls the formation of such associations, formal and informal, a social strategy of the seventies and eighties that generated in its members a sense of solidarity which produced a new perspective on women's experience.

[W]hat [group members] thought was an individual dilemma [was] a social predicament and hence a political problem. The process of transforming the hidden, individual fears of women into a shared awareness of the meaning of them as social problems, the release of anger, anxiety, the struggle of proclaiming the painful and transforming it into the political—this process is consciousness-raising.29

Carol's self-assurance in confronting the professor stems from her sense that her grievance is not only personal but—more important—representative of the victim class he has been dominating. In her classic treatment The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir provides the theoretical underpinning for this strategy. She affirms that

[o]therness is a fundamental category of human thought.


Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.30

Carol's charges in her complaint are a paradigm of radical feminist consciousness and an abstract of its ideology. Her transformation into feminist ideologue is a surprise reversal that strikes any simple resolution of the plot-line into the hazard.

The indictment runs down a typical list of grievances against the male oppressor: he is “sexist,” “elitist,” “self-aggrandizing,” given to pornographic references and seductive advances (47). What seemed innocent enough remarks in their first encounter now appear, in Carol's report, patronizing, seductive, and sinister:

([John] reads.) “He said he ‘liked’ me. That he ‘liked being with me.’ He'd let me write my examination paper over, if I could come back oftener to see him in his office.” […]


“He told me […] that he wanted to take off the artificial stricture of Teacher and Student. He put his arm around me …”

(48, intervening dialogue omitted)

John, now seen to be the Other, the opposition, the Patriarch, had assumed what Kate Millett calls the “unexamined, often even unacknowledged (yet … institutionalized[)] … priority whereby males rule females.”31 Carol states the case against John directly:

What gives you the right. Yes. To speak to a woman in your private … Yes. Yes. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. You feel yourself empowered … you say so yourself. To strut. To posture. To “perform.” To “Call me in here …” Eh? You say that higher education is a joke. And treat it as such, you treat it as such. And confess to a taste to play the Patriarch in your class. To grant this. To deny that. To embrace your students.

(51)

The final indictment—the right to “embrace students”—is telling; “[ultimate] control” by the male is exercised “at the private, personal level, in the bedroom.”32 For the feminist, this sexual liberty—John's attempt at an embrace—is an assertion of male power that extends to all other realms: economic, psychological, legal, and ideological. Now Carol resists John's invitations to engage him personally, to discuss her anger, her hurt feelings; she stands by her version of the report. Her ascendant position ensures that, as she insists, “You. Do. Not. Have. The. Power” (50). At this juncture, he becomes representative of a patriarchy that systemically abuses power.

Carol summarizes her position by reiterating her attack on his pedagogy: education is “hazing,” students' confusion is a “joke,” he has ridiculed his students' hopes and aspirations. If he could “look in [him]self and see those things that [she] see[s],” he would understand the moral validity of her description: he is a hypocrite, “vile” and “exploitative” (52). This is, of course, precisely the irony in the situation; he does not see what she (and the audience) sees.

In this conversation, John reverses positions he held firmly in their first discussion. He is confident that the Committee (“Good Men and True”) will take his part and dismiss her complaint. He now stands by the committee members—whom he wouldn't trust to wax his car—and his contempt for the tenure process has turned to admiration. While her charges are under adjudication, however, he is concerned about losing his deposit on the house, “the home [he had] picked out for [his] wife and son” (45). This is unfair because he is “unassailable” in his “unflinching concern for [his] students' dignity” (46). Astonishingly, he gives no indication of understanding Carol's feminist posture.

When she prepares to leave, he makes another futile attempt to establish common ground for discussion based on conventional civility; his attempt to reopen their discussion—“Nice day today”—has less to do with the weather than with an agreement to converse: “In effect, we agree that we are both human” (52-53). This acceptance of common humanity and its imperfections—conflicting desires, self-serving motives—would allow for rational discourse on the issues. John concludes:

[P]erhaps it's not your job to “fix” me. I don't want to fix you. I would like to tell you what I think, because that is my job, conventional as it is, and flawed as I may be. And then, if you can show me some better form, then we can proceed from there. But, just like “nice day, isn't it … ?” I don't think we can proceed until we accept that each of us is human.

(53-54)

The postmodern ideologue cannot possibly accept this universalizing commonality. John is, by definition, the Other, in this case the male, against whose rule “woman is bound to contest foot by foot.”33 Feminist consciousness-raising is designed to create, following Karl Mannheim's insistence on “synthesis” and “totality”34; it is “utopian, in that it carve[s] out a space within which the effects of patriarchy could be remedied.”35 Driven into a corner, John has fallen back on a humanism clearly incompatible with postmodernist difference. Up against Carol's ideology, John's humanistic gambit is doomed to failure. Though his newly espoused liberal humanism does not allow for “fixing” Carol, her militant feminism aims directly at fixing him.

At a critical juncture in their interchange, just as in the last episode of Act One, the phone rings. When John asks Carol to tell him “[i]n [her] own words” what she wants, she invokes the Group, “[t]he people I've been talking to …” (54). In a naive misreading of her position, John interrupts to encourage her: “There's no shame in that. Everybody needs advisers. Everyone needs to expose themselves. To various points of view. It's not wrong. It's essential. Good. Good. Now: You and I …” The phone call precludes any talk of “you and I.” John learns that the purchase of the house hangs in the balance, but he is confident in speaking with “Babe,” his wife. “[T]he deal is going to go through”; he is “dealing with the complaint” (55). Again, although Carol seemed ready to confide, to explain the philosophy and objectives of the Group, after the call she will talk further only in the formal context of the Tenure Committee hearing. As far as she is concerned, their interchange is over.

John, who seems to have no clue about the identity or objectives of the Group, presses for further discussion. He insists that they can settle the matter, and, when she tries to go, leaving his desk, “[h]e restrains” her. Her response is frantic:

CAROL:
LET ME GO.
JOHN:
I have no desire to hold you, I just want to talk to you …
CAROL:
LET ME GO. LET ME GO. WOULD SOMEBODY HELP me?
WOULD SOMEBODY HELP me please … ?

(57)

John has stepped across another line; he has “impinge[d]” (56), not only on her space, but on her body. This trespass can be viewed as a fundamental form of intimidation. Mary Douglas, for instance, writes, “The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious.”36 The threat here is specified by Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape; the secret weapon of patriarchy is the possibility of rape:

Man's discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe. From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.37

John need make no overt declaration of sexual intent toward Carol; in feminist eyes, his touching her raises the possibility of rape and results in her cries for help.

John's attempt to restrain her rounds out Carol's feminist identity; she is “the newly born woman,” “sorceress and … hysteric … [without a] home.”38 As we know nothing of her personal circumstances and very little of her background, she is, in the play's terms, “newly born.” She has mutated from bewildered student to confident accuser, overturning hierarchies, conjuring surprises. Her cry for help, taken at face value, borders on the hysterical. In laying hands on her, John invites another series of surprises.

Their final confrontation in Act Three contains another set of ironic discontinuities that move the plot toward closure. When she first comes to his office, Carol is child and student, John teacher and would-be friend. In the second conference she is transformed into the feminist who has the upper hand until threatened by the masculine aggressor: distant, objective, poised, in control of the situation. John, then, becomes the patriarchal opponent and liberal humanist: advocate of reasoned discussion, and then, in turn, potential violator. In the third interview, roles are again recycled: John becomes student; Carol becomes the teacher who would elicit full understanding from her pupil.

The Tenure Committee has decided to support Carol's grievance and to “discipline” John (64). He has invited her back in one final attempt at persuading her to “hear [him] out.” She has been advised against seeing him: “[T]he court officers told me not to come” (60). She has made her point; the Tenure Committee has disciplined John, and, although he does not yet know it, he has been charged with attempted rape. Though Carol the feminist has nothing to gain by returning to the office, she is determined that John understand. “You asked me in here to explain something to me, as a child, that I did not understand. But I came to explain something to you. You Are Not God. You ask me why I came? I came here to instruct you” (67). As he attempted to clear up her confusion in their first interaction, so now she will attempt to enlighten him.

Through the first half of her tutorial she attacks his unwillingness to accept the verdict of the Tenure Committee and his insistence on the innocence of his sexual innuendoes. When John uses terms like “accusations” and “indictment,” she strikes back: the report contains “facts,” proven facts (61-64). The University is going to fire him, and he deserves this punishment: he has “worked for […] power” and “privilege,” “for the right to insult” and oppress his students. Though John believes in freedom of thought, he does not, she points out, extend this freedom to the Tenure Committee. “You believe not in ‘freedom of thought,’ but in an elitist […] protected hierarchy which rewards you” (67-68). Carol unpacks these modernist generalities to expose his lack of integrity and complicity with the power elite—which, ironically, has now rejected him.

As he exercised his power in the first interview by telling her of his emancipating experiences in resisting authority, she exercises hers to tell him of the oppression she and her peers have suffered “every day of our lives.” She rehearses her victimization: “[W]e worked to get to this school. (Pause) And some of us. (Pause) Overcame prejudices. Economic, sexual, you cannot begin to imagine. And endured humiliations I pray that you and those you love never will encounter.” This catalogue of women's oppression and humiliation requires that John show compassion, that he identify with their suffering. He should see, know, and, most significantly, feel “[w]hat it is to be subject to […] power.” Echoing her refrain in their first meeting, John does not know what she is asking: “I don't understand” (69-70).

Carol has documented his arrogant liberties with women students: flirting, the “verbal or physical caress,” the casual male hand on a female shoulder. When he demurs, declaring that his words and action were “devoid of sexual content,” she insists that he fails to understand: “It's not for you to Say.” By dismissing the seductive freight of his language, he affirms his quasi-paternal view of women in general and her in particular and so would deny her right to judge his remarks. When he wants to reopen the case, she cuts him off sharply: “You Fool. … You think I want ‘revenge.’ I don't want revenge. I want Understanding” (70-71).

The emphasis on “I” in her demand follows on her evaluation of his attitude toward her person: “I know what you think I am […] a frightened, repressed, confused, I don't know, abandoned young thing of some doubtful sexuality, who wants, power and revenge” (68, intervening dialogue omitted). When he admits to this view of her, she responds that she thinks he is “terribly wrong” (68). This statement is double-edged: he is “wrong” about her motives; more significantly, he is wrong about her identity. The “understanding” she is seeking demands that he acknowledge the validity of her position, that he “overturn” his patriarchal assumptions. The next item on her agenda contains another unexpected reversal.

He was willing to disregard the rules on her behalf—to forget about the paper and give her an “A.” And he was willing to take these steps because he liked her. So she, in turn, offers a deal: “What if,” she asks, “it were possible that my Group withdraws its complaint.” When John asks her why, she responds: “Well, let's say as an act of friendship” (71-72). Her offer, like John's, is not unconditional. He conditioned his offer on one-to-one personal revelations; Carol and her Group will retract the charges if John agrees to sign a statement removing certain books from University reading lists, including his own. Overtly an attack on free speech and on the university as the marketplace of ideas, her demand echoes the contemporary confluence of factional pressures on public policy from both left and right—for example, on the one hand, proposals by liberals to outlaw language offensive to minorities, and, on the other, petitions to censor objectionable reading lists by conservative moralists. Such factions bring their own interpretations of the First Amendment to the discussion without any ground for discussion or compromise.

John responds defiantly: “You want to ban my book? […] Get the fuck out of my office” (75, intervening dialogue omitted). This is the first hint of real animus toward Carol. She then amends her offer; she will reconsider if he signs, then “we will” drop the charges. Regaining his control, he tells her that he has reflected for two days in a hotel; he will not capitulate: “You're dangerous, you're wrong and it's my job … to say no to you” (76). He is “a teacher”; “[i]t is [his] name on the door” (76), proclaiming the very authority he has repudiated in his book. But this stubbornly defensive response to her instruction is about to be put to the test, for the phone has been ringing throughout this speech. As in Acts One and Two, its ringing promises another surprise for John.

The message astounds and bewilders him. The Group has told John's lawyer that they may bring criminal charges: battery and attempted rape.39 Her “friendly” offer (73) now takes on a larger significance; presumably dropping the grievance would also entail dropping the criminal charges. When John cuts off further discussion and tells her to go, the phone rings again—it is his wife. While in their first encounter the call about the party foreclosed Carol's revelations about herself, this final call from his wife is personal, “no concern of [Carol's].” As she turns to go, she delivers a parting shot: “don't call your wife ‘baby.’” As John tried to probe Carol's personal life in the first interview, so Carol the teacher invades his private space by challenging his treatment of his wife. In all his phone conversations with “Babe, baby,” he is protective and reassuring: everything is “going to be all right” (55, 79). This pet name, no matter how fondly intended, implies a chauvinistic, less-than-equal relationship. As he has confessed to viewing Carol as child, so his language reveals something of the same attitude toward his wife. Carol's intrusive admonition triggers the emotional eruption she has been courting. He knocks her down and raises a chair over his head:

JOHN:
You vicious little bitch. You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life? […] After how I treated you … ? You should be … Rape you … ? Are you kidding me … ?
[…] I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. You little cunt
(She cowers on the floor below him. Pause. He looks down at her. He lowers the chair. He moves to his desk, and arranges the papers on it. Pause. He looks over at her.)
… well … […]
CAROL:
Yes. That's right.
(She looks away from him, and lowers her head. To herself:) … yes. That's right.

(79-80, intervening stage directions omitted)

Their interactions have come to this climactic tableau: chair uplifted, John threatens the prostrate woman. John has been reasonably detached, holding his emotions in check, attentive principally to his own voice and his own concerns. This reaction is spontaneous, his feelings fully engaged. He feels that he has expended time and effort in his attempt to help her progress; no matter how destructive her accusations, he maintained his distance. Leaving the citadel of his desk and his professorial role, he explodes into Carol's space in anger and outrage, mixed with hurt feelings. Carol is no longer a “young thing of some doubtful sexuality” but a “vicious bitch,” a “little cunt.” He invades her space and engages her on her own ground. This emotionally driven reversion to physical force (“I'm stronger than [you]”)40 is a defeat for cool rationality and paternal distance. He recognizes his loss of control and status by retreating to his desk and straightening papers. His questioning “well …” invites her reaction.41

Carol's response, the curtain line, is a double “Yes. That's right,” an ambiguous comment on the play's final moment. Contextually, “that's right” indicates affirmation, but it is not immediately clear what Carol is affirming. On its face, the statement can be taken to mean that Carol sees John's attack as validating the charges she leveled against him and her repetition of it as simply confirmatory: “yes, I am right about my judgment.” However, the stage directions (she looks away from him, lowers her head and speaks to herself) suggest another possibility: that, on reflection, she realizes that her punishment was deserved for so provoking him. Finally, taking both readings into consideration, it can underscore the inevitability of violence as a fitting closure to the action. If the members of the audience side with John and see Carol as a conniving bitch, then they are applauding the rhetorical and physical violence done to the woman. If, on the other hand, they side with Carol and judge John to be a self-serving patriarchal oppressor, then they are applauding the career-destroying violence that Carol visits on him. There are sufficient grounds in the action for either response, and each celebrates the violence that “difference” promotes.

Mamet makes a curious comment about the personae in Oleanna: “These are two people with a lot to say to each other, with legitimate affection for each other.”42 As a characterization of their interaction, “legitimate affection” seems a gross exaggeration, but the leitmotive “I/you don't understand” implies a desire for mutual acceptance and understanding by each party. Mamet here may be getting at the substratum of gendered relationships. As Deborah Tannen points out, in man—woman interactions people “want, above all, to be heard … [and] to be understood—heard for what we think we are saying, for what we know we meant.”43 Though both can be seen as self-interested ploys, John's attempt to establish a humanist common ground and Carol's attempt to instruct him may also be signs of a mutual desire that is frustrated by the differential pressures of society.

The decentering effect of “difference,” then, creates an obstacle to any personal or societal rapprochement—an obstacle that postmodernist views of the individual and of the culture make virtually insuperable. In the background lurk shadowy power figures: the university hierarchy (alias the Tenure Committee) and radical feminists (the Group). Political correctness, in both instances, dictates John's and Carol's individual fates—he loses his job, and she is soundly beaten. Both hierarchies appear only as behind-the-scenes determinants of the personae's ideologies, and the dialogue offers little specific information about the deliberations of either one. Carol mentions an upcoming hearing by the Tenure Committee; the next we hear of it, John's dismissal is a fait accompli. Carol, as we have seen, is a hyper-representative of the Group—her radical feminist persona and her sources of power can be constructed from feminist texts. As individuals, Carol and John operate within manipulative power systems, and both suffer the consequences of their involvement.

The subordination of individual freedom to an absent source of power is characteristic of Mamet's plays. In Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) the real estate bosses who establish the intra-office competition never appear, and their employees—at one another's throats—complain bitterly of their competitive lot but never rebel against the absent owners who dictate it. In Speed-the-Plow (1988), a satirical treatment of the Hollywood scene, the two producers, having escaped the snares of a conniving secretary, must entrust their prospects to a future meeting with the studio head. In these two plays, while their actions seem arbitrary to the underlings, the absent governors, like the Tenure Committee and the Group of Oleanna, are also responding to “social necessities,” for example, the principle of capitalist competition in Glengarry Glen Ross and a cynical view of public taste in Speed-the-Plow. These plays depict, in microcosm, a neo-Hobbesian war of everyone against everyone, with no legitimate authority to police the combat and no foundational principles to adjudicate it.

In an academic context, traditionally dedicated to the search for truth through rational discussion, Oleanna offers disjunctive transformations in persona-type, unpredictable role-reversals, irreconcilable ideologies. In rotation, Carol and John are student and teacher, equals and opposites, oppressor and oppressed. Instead of the expected linear flow of interrelated events engaging consistent identities, the plot generates a whirlpool of discontinuities. The energy thus churned out is expended in misunderstanding, frustration, antipathy, name-calling, futile attempts at reconciliation, and finally physical assault. Because of these protean exchanges, shifting positions of ascendancy, and ideological differences, there can be no common ground for discussion or compromise. There is not, however, merely a void in the midst of this swirl. Carol's reflective “that's right” closes the play with a paradox: postmodern difference and its consequent decentering inevitably foster violence at their center.

Notes

  1. Jacques Derrida, quoted in Mark Lilla, “The Politics of Jacques Derrida,” New York Review of Books (25 June 1998), 41.

  2. Steven Ryan, “Oleanna: David Mamet's Power Play,” Modern Drama, 39:3 (1996), 401.

  3. For a summary of these positions, see Thomas H. Goggans, “Laying Blame: Gender and Subtext in David Mamet's Oleanna,Modern Drama, 40:3 (1997), 433.

  4. Ryan, 392-403 (see note 2); Craig Stewart Walker, “Three Tutorial Plays: The Lesson, The Prince of Naples, and Oleanna,Modern Drama 40:1 (1997), 151.

  5. Goggans, 440. See note 3.

  6. John Simon, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Turkey,” review of Oleanna, directed by David Mamet, as performed by W[illiam] H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon, at the Orpheum Theatre, New York, New York (9 November 1992), 72.

  7. David Mamet, “A Playwright in Hollywood,” in Writing in Restaurants (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), 77. See also Mamet, “Realism,” in Writing in Restaurants, 130-32.

  8. Derrida, quoted in Lilla, 41, translation mine; Lilla, 41. See note 1.

  9. See Barbara Johnson, The Wake of Deconstruction (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994), 23-25; and Stanley Fish, Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 61-63.

  10. “‘Différance’ is a pun in French, combining the meanings of ‘differing’ (as any set of items lined up in space differ from one another) and ‘deferring’ (as in putting off, delaying).” See Sharon Crowley, A Teacher's Introduction to Deconstruction, Teacher's Introduction Series, 9 (Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1989). “[Since] all texts contain ambiguities and can be read in different ways (la différence), exhaustive interpretation must be forever deferred (la différance).” Lilla, 38.

  11. Jacques Derrida, “Positions,” interview by Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta, in Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981), 41.

  12. Lilla, 38.

  13. Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, and Kate Soper (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 90.

  14. Jeffrey T. Nealon, Double Reading: Postmodernism after Deconstruction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993), 158-59.

  15. “[Mark] Hopkins [1802-1887; Philosophy Professor and President of Williams College] is best remembered as a teacher. U.S. President James A. Garfield, one of his former students immortalized him with these words: ‘The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” American Educator's Encyclopaedia, rev. ed., ed. David E. Kapel, Charles S. Gifford, and Marilyn B. Kapel (New York and Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1976), 268.

  16. Ira Shor, Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992), 15. Mamet encountered progressive education in his own days at Goddard College: “I graduated without a single demonstrable or practical skill.” Ross Wetzsteon, “David Mamet at Fifty,” Men's Journal (November 1997), 84.

  17. Ibid., 17.

  18. David Mamet, Oleanna (New York: Random Vintage, 1993), 11-12. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  19. Shor, 73. See note 16.

  20. Ibid., 23, 26.

  21. “[T]he teacher who approaches education with a passion, who develops an intense intellectual bonding with students, often creates a sexually charged environment.” Barry M. Dank, letter to the editor, Chronicle of Higher Education (18 April 1997), B10.

  22. In Mamet's film version, John's preoccupation with his personal affairs is heavily underscored. He pages through a pamphlet on real estate, leaves his desk to collect a packet of papers that he stows in his briefcase, and points out that Carol does not have an appointment. As he prepares to leave, Carol trails doggedly after him, pressing her case. Actor William H. Macy's harried indecisiveness (one thinks of his Fargo persona) and Debra Eisenstadt's Carol's aggressive pursuit draws more sympathy for the professor than the playtext would readily support. See David Mamet, dir., Oleanna, United States, Samuel Goldwyn, 1994. See also Fargo, dir. Joel Coen, United States, Gramercy, 1996.

  23. Goggans's discussion of the play attempts to fill in this history by finding hints of child abuse in Carol's past. Though he makes a good case for this possibility, it is difficult to see Carol as victim—certainly the dramatic impact of this experience falls outside the playtext. His is another valiant attempt to find a center for the action.

  24. For a summary of these positions, see Daniel Mufson, “Sexual Perversity in Viragos,” Theater, 24:1 (1993), 111-12.

  25. Michael Chandler, “Stumping for Progress in a Post-Modern World,” in Change and Development: Issues of Theory, Method, and Application, ed. Eric Amsel and K. Ann Renninger (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997), 13.

  26. Johnson, 22. See note 9.

  27. Edward Pechter, “The New Historicism and Its Discontents: Politicizing Renaissance Drama,” PMLA, 102:3 (1987), 300.

  28. David Mamet, “Decay: Some Thoughts for Actors,” in Writing in Restaurants, 115 (see note 7).

  29. Juliet Mitchell, Woman's Estate (New York: Random, Vintage, 1973), 61.

  30. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley (New York: Knopf, 1953), xvii.

  31. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970), 25.

  32. Hester Eisenstein, Contemporary Feminist Thought (Boston: G. Hall, 1983), 12, discussing “Millett's analysis [of the politics of] sexual relationships between men and women in Sexual Politics.

  33. Millett, 10. See note 31.

  34. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1936), 106.

  35. Eisenstein, 41. See note 32.

  36. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1969), 115.

  37. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), 14-15.

  38. Sandra M. Gilbert, “A Tarentella of Theory,” introduction to The Newly Born Woman, by Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986), xvi.

  39. In his treatment of the play, Stephen Ryan notes that, at this point, “Carol's Maoist tactics … switch the audience's sympathies to John”; he calls the rape charge “feckless … cheapen[ing] many of her earlier, excellent points about sexism and abuses of power in academia.” Ryan, 401 (see note 2). The charge is “feckless,” however, only if the viewer dismisses the premises of Carol's ideology and adopts John's humanist position.

  40. Writing in Restaurants, 44.

  41. In the film, John's beating of Carol is a knock-down, drag-out affair. Thoroughly thrashed, Carol cowers in a corner while John murmurs “My God, my God.” He elicits no response from Carol.

  42. David Mamet, “A Candid Conversation with America's Foremost Dramatist about Tough Talk, TV Violence, Women and Why Government Shouldn't Fund the Arts,” interview by Geoffrey Norman and John Rezek, Playboy (April 1995), 52, quoted in Walker, 150 (see note 4).

  43. Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (New York: Ballantine, 1991), 48.

Robert Skloot (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5050

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!”

Augusto Boal

When David Mamet's Oleanna premiered in 1992 in Boston and New York, under the direction of its author, critics were quick to point out that the two-character play presented a devastating vision of the tense relationships between men and women in contemporary American society. They pointed to the recurrence of a frequent Mamet theme: the inability of language to elucidate meaning and its use as a weapon of humiliation or concealment. Many provided a cultural context for the play in referring to its relationship in time to the Hill/Thomas political brouhaha and to the “P.C. controversy” in American higher education. And some critics made much of the gaps in the play's narrative, which created characters who were both memorable and opaque, particularly the character of Carol, who undergoes a transformation during the play that many saw as unbelievable, politically repugnant, or both. Many critics acknowledged the rage released by men of the audience, whose antipathy toward Carol exploded in extraordinary and immediate vituperative verbal responses. Indeed, their dislike of her was mirrored in the near-final moments when John, reduced in language to a wrathful and graphic expletive, stands over Carol in a posture of savage retribution for her successful effort to destroy his career.1

The play's three scenes chart the course of John's downfall, and they also describe the trajectory of Carol's rise to strength despite the final image of her cowering abjectly beneath his threatening (and finally released) aggression. Contradicting her spatial vulnerability, the play projects for her a viable future, whereas it asserts John's as one of utter failure, leaving him, as shown in his last activity on stage, a mere shuffler of papers (47). Above all, the play involves a struggle to achieve and to maintain certain kinds of privilege: economic, sexual, and academic.

In this essay, I want to discuss how Oleanna can be linked to Mamet's preoccupation with the issue of teaching, of how facts, customs, and feelings are transmitted among inhabitants of the same social and cultural spaces. One important difference between Oleanna and the plays that precede it in Mamet's work lies in its more “cultured” location. The play is set in an unnamed college, and though it is probably not an elite institution, it serves to represent one view of life in the academy that is, in any case, rare in the theater. The level of discourse concerning Oleanna needs to be “thickened” so that the academic politics and gender relationships it ostensibly conveys can be situated in the larger context of pedagogy.2

Thus, for example, in the character called Teach in American Buffalo, in the less experienced salesmen being advised by those more experienced in Glengarry Glen Ross, and in the young actor seeking the advice and wisdom of his older colleague in A Life in the Theatre, we can glimpse something of Mamet's concern with the manner and method of teaching. In effect, this preoccupation turns many of Mamet's venues into classrooms, in such a way that the action in the plays contains the elucidation of a distinct “pedagogy of the oppressed.” To be sure, all the plays are far from Paulo Friere's ideal stage of “libertarian education” (53b), what his colleague and disciple bell hooks calls “education as the practice of freedom” (11, 15).3 What I would like to suggest, using Friere's paradigm, is that both Carol and John suffer oppression, and their oppression is to be found in both their behavior and the place they inhabit. Subsequently, we shall see how spatially Mamet's play can be staged with visual precision so that the shifting dynamic of power between the teacher and student reveals their antagonistic identities and the gestural essence of their struggle.

Mamet need not be faulted for making the play a provocative and violent struggle for power, one that lacks more coherent thinking about specific practices of pedagogy. For this reason, I believe it is possible to amplify his exciting if limited statement of oppression to a level where we can say more than expletives about its dramaturgy or politics. That is, Oleanna can be used to reflect upon a comprehensive philosophy of teaching, thus permitting his provocative dramatization to guide us toward a vision of pedagogy. In this kind of analysis, the play becomes more than a shrewd exploitation of a contemporary issue by serving as an investigation of pedagogical principles and techniques. It is because Mamet is provoked by issues of authority that he has created a play that revolves around the authority of pedagogy; Oleanna is his contribution to raising (but not resolving) questions about the use and abuse of power in the profession of teaching.

What can be said of Mamet's image of teaching? In what way does that image reflect the world outside the classroom and inside the faculty office? And how may his play be assessed in the light of the work of Friere and Boal so that we can be brought to a new level of insight about the work we do?

Let us return to bell hooks. Several times in Teaching to Transgress she refers to her own experience as a student:

The vast majority of our professors lacked basic communication skills, they were not self-actualized, and they often used the classroom to enact rituals of control that were about domination and the unjust exercise of power. In these settings I learned a lot about the kind of teacher I did not want to become.

(5)

hooks's anecdote provides a good description of what we see in Mamet's play, where John practices his bad “teaching habits” on his students in public and private. In a staged presentation of John's character, his problems with communication and confidence as well as his assertion of domination would be emphasized. As such, he models for us a negative image of the teacher.

With hooks' book as a guide, Mamet's play becomes a meta-educational experience, a play that discusses the work of teaching at the same time that it “performs” it. John, older than the usual nontenured faculty for reasons alluded to in the play, reflects on his own profession a number of times. In the first words of act 2, he confesses,

I love to teach. And flatter myself that I am skilled at it. And I love the, the aspect of performance. …


When I found I loved to teach I swore that I would not become that cold, rigid automaton of an instructor which I had encountered as a child. …


Now: I see I have angered you. I understand your anger at teachers. I was angry with mine. I felt hurt and humiliated by them. Which is one of the reasons that I went into education.

(28, 29)

We could, of course, question John's sincerity at this moment, beleaguered by the threat of Carol's accusation and anxious at the possible loss of his promised tenured appointment. But he does show an awareness of a kind of pedagogy consistent with the concern to “open up the classroom.” This is the exact sense in which hooks defines teaching as “performative act,” in that it “offers a space for change … to engage ‘audiences,’ to consider issues of reciprocity” (15). Nonetheless, John's pedagogical method, at bottom, is a clear contradiction of the Friere/hooks liberational model; in fact, his pedagogy is doubly flawed, for he is using performative acts not to enlarge space for reflection and engagement but rather to beguile and enthrall his tuition-paying audiences.

I would argue that John's most profound crisis is one of self-understanding and, in fact, Carol's onslaught of accusation in the play's last moments is brutally humiliating in these terms. By interrupting him with a newly found confidence and linguistic clarity that she seems to have gained very quickly (some say too quickly), she reverses their roles of student and teacher and reaffirms the type of educational model unacceptable to a spirit of liberation. Clearly, there is a splendid irony in seeing how successfully John has transmitted to Carol the facts, customs and feelings of their “professional” situation. She says,

YOU FOOL. Who do you think I am? To come here and be taken in by a smile. You little yapping fool. You think I want “revenge.” I don't want revenge. I WANT UNDERSTANDING.

(43)

But, of course, understanding is something that cannot be simply demanded. By the play's conclusion, Carol has seemingly unburdened herself of the characteristics of the oppressed person as Friere has advanced them: fatalism, alienation, self-depreciation. (“I'm bad,” she confesses at the end of their first encounter.) But, in (the Sartrean) terms of Friere's “pedagogy of the oppressed,” she has failed to perceive the major insight that would allow the creation of the liberated, communal, pedagogically satisfying workplace. Friere writes:

Although the situation of oppression is a dehumanized and dehumanizing totality affecting both the oppressors and those whom they oppress, it is the latter who must, from their stifled humanity, wage for both the struggle for a fuller humanity; the oppressor, who is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others, is unable to lead this struggle.


… The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their utmost being. They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized.

(29b, 30b)

With these perspectives, John's expression of commonality with Carol in his first interview is not as farfetched as it may appear. “Perhaps we're similar,” he allows; the actor's performance determines the degree of sincerity with which this similarity is expressed. In fact, they are similar because they are both, in their own ways, teachers, although teachers whose gratification comes from oppression of their students.4

Thus Carol, turning the oppressive “banking” system of education back on John, asserts her dominance in act 3: “I came here to instruct you,” but she leaves the system intact. John's final attempt to reassert his authoritarian prerogatives finds verbal expression in the twice-articulated self-defense: “I'm a teacher. I'm a teacher. Eh? It's my name on the door, and I teach the class, and that's what I do” (45). He erupts in violence because he senses that being instructed about what to do creates a situation that only guarantees his failure if there is only one right answer to please the teacher. Carol's pedagogy is as repressive as his own. But, in Friere's terms, both remain ignorant that in the teacher-student/student-teacher relationship, “subjectivity and objectivity [exist] in constant dialectical relationship” (32b).5 Here is Friere's analysis of oppression, deeply influenced by Marx:

Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the “order” which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized. Chafing under the restrictions of this order, they often manifest a type of horizontal violence, striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons.

(44b)

What then is the oppression that John suffers? On the level of academic politics, John is oppressed by the Tenure Committee and, beyond it, the entire structure of higher education that works to validate and maintain a regressive and stultifying pedagogical practice. In a production that emphasizes John's patronizing and vain attitude, criticism of the Tenure Committee becomes yet more understandable, for it appears that the Committee has approved John's tenure despite a style of teaching that many would find objectionable if not repugnant.6 John himself loathes the system, and denigrates it in his interview with Carol early in the play, much to her dismay; at the same time he expresses his own self-depreciation.

The Tenure Committee. Come to judge me. The Bad Tenure Committee. The “Test.” Do you see? They put me to the test. Why, they had people voting on me I wouldn't employ to wax my car. And yet, I go before the Great Tenure Committee and I have an urge, to vomit, to, to, to puke my badness on the table, to show them: “I'm no good. Why would you pick me?”

(18)

Later, after Carol's accusations, the Committee reconsiders John's promotion and rejects him, seemingly without providing an opportunity to hear his side of the case. Still, if John's feelings about the Committee are genuine (or he may be merely trying to establish common ground with Carol as a kind of anti-authoritarian middle-class, middle-aged liberal, most of the time stooping to conquer the prize of his promotion), his own complicity in the corrupt practices of higher education create serious psychological problems that do not promise well for his future at the college.

And it is likely that John and Carol are similar in their discomfort with and ignorance of their bodies which, in “traditional education,” remain outside the pedagogical space. hooks writes of how the erasure of the body from the classroom has negative consequences for the achievement of the liberatory classroom:

Entering the classroom determined to erase the body and give ourselves over more fully to the mind, we show by our beings how deeply we have accepted the assumption that passion has no place in the classroom. Repression and denial make it possible for us to forget and then desperately seek to recover ourselves, our feelings, our passions in some private place—after class.

(192)

In John's private office, both endure a kind of oppression that pronounces understanding as the goal of education, i.e., Friere's “banking” model, which is called “prolonged and systematic hazing” by John. Carol spends the first half of Oleanna taking notes, a defining academic/psychological gesture. Later in the narrative, these notes will be used as evidence to “convict” John of unethical behavior. John is decisive in his claim to Carol that “I understand you.” Carol, panicked by her sense of inferiority (or feigning it, as some productions might decide) and by John's authority, shouts (pleads? whines?): “I DON'T UNDERSTAND. DO YOU SEE??? I DON'T UNDERSTAND.” As noted earlier, Carol's triumph over John includes her demand that he understand her, a demand that would seem to enlarge the dimensions of John's other misunderstandings: about his chances for tenure, about the slippages in language's meaning, about his offstage involvements with family and home-buying. (Two unwritten scenes in Oleanna are noteworthy for their absence: John's unknown defense before the suspect Tenure Committee and Carol's “instruction/indoctrination” by her “Group.” Mamet, like Molière who spared us the encounter of the misanthrope Alceste defending his sonnet at court, appears to believe that showing us less is really providing more.)

When, in the last scene, Carol reveals that she has accused him of attempting to rape her, pointing to evidence in the two physical gestures we have witnessed between them thus far, i.e., his attempt to put his arm around her in the first scene and his “restraining her from leaving” in the second, it comes as a surprise because the text seems to indicate a lack of physical desire in John and may also hint at more than a neutral supplicative entreaty from Carol. Here again, a production would have to build these meanings into its intentions. Nonetheless, the sense of the accusation has several aspects, i.e., that John has “raped” (“forcibly disabused”) Carol of her academic expectations in addition to denying her the agency and healthy growth that comes from true liberation. At the same time, Mamet provides opportunity for criticism of the type of women who “cry rape” when they feel aggrieved by men and/or powerless in their presence.

Although both John and Carol are portrayed on stage as having a sense of how they present their public images, they nonetheless seem bodiless, which is surprising in a play whose plot involves the accusation of sexual assault. Much attention has been drawn by reviewers to Carol's clothing—how she presents herself to John and to the audience—which begins as dowdy/bulky/dour/shapeless in act 1 and changes to neat and authoritatively “masculine” later in the play. (Several critics declared this image “Maoist.”) John's “costume” on the other hand, progressively disheveled, shows his “decline.” Mamet's negative message about one type of feminist ascendancy is clearly asserted and, at the same time, John's messy savagery in the defense of his own textbook provides some sort of psychological justification for his behavior, perhaps less for hers. The Eros that hooks advocates returning to the classroom, presumably so that it won't have retrogressive, harmful effects in the privacy of our offices, looks a lot like Thanatos in persons whose love requires subjugation rather than mutuality.7

Although the motivations of the two characters may remain opaque and open to variant interpretations, there is no doubt that Carol is the winner in the struggle. The final visual image Mamet specifies—Carol submissive and cowering on the floor, John arranging papers at his desk—presents a kind of pause in the action, an image of disengagement and, in liberational/pedagogical terms, failure. The play's last words, spoken by Carol, have a multiplicity of voicings available to the actor, and appear to prevent closure in the traditional sense. “Yes. That's right … yes. That's right,” she says, leaving ambiguous exactly what she believes is right.

One additional matter of staging Oleanna finds a correspondence in the work of Paulo Friere. His idea of the constant dialectic of subjectivity and objectivity finds a precise theatrical expression in the playing of the script. In the London production of Oleanna, directed by Harold Pinter, “Carol's battle for psychic ‘territory’ was reflected in Pinter's gradually allowing her to claim more and more physical space.”8 Early on, the stage (John's office, the academic world, the psychological advantage) belongs entirely to John, but in scene 3,

it was Carol who now felt free to pace the stage, to measure the “patriarchal kingdom,” to perch proprietarily on the edge of John's desk—her physical mobility the outward sign of a much more significant inner movement.

(Zeifman, 2-3)

Visually speaking, the objects and the subjects of domination and submission have reversed places, all the while leaving the principle of a bankrupt pedagogy undiminished, the issue of multiple oppressions unchallenged, and the basic stage picture unchanged.

As noted earlier, Mamet has no thoughts beyond this moment, at least none he chooses to share with us in his play. He is entirely content to present the confrontation of John and Carol, and has been quoted as saying, “I have no political responsibility. I am an artist. I write plays not political propaganda. If you want easy solutions, turn on the boob tube” (Holmberg, 94-95). At the least, Mamet is declaring the self-sufficiency of his play and the autonomy of its narrative, which is why Oleanna must conclude (as other Mamet plays do) when the action of the script is exhausted whether or not the story has reached reconciling closure (“the boob tube”).

But the point of this essay is to ask more of the play than the play asks of itself, specifically, “What kind of pedagogy leads out of the office and into the fresh air of liberated learning?” The metaphor in this inquiry is taken from the other epigraph to the published text of Oleanna, not the verse of the folk song that gives the play its name but the paragraph taken from Samuel Butler's highly sardonic novel The Way of All Flesh (1903). It is worth quoting in its entirety.

The want of fresh air does not seem much to affect the happiness of children in a London alley: The greater part of them sing and play as though they were on a moor in Scotland. So the absence of a genial mental atmosphere is not commonly recognized by children who have never known it. Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances. Even if they are unhappy—very unhappy—it is astonishing how easily they can be prevented from finding it out, or at any rate from attributing it to any other cause than their own sinfulness.

(4)

Excerpting and displacing Butler's words furthers our speculations about Mamet's perspective on how intellectual and environmental deprivation influences the life and imagination of young people. Placing Butler next to Oleanna (song lyric as well as play) obliges us to interpret Mamet's text in pedagogical terms, although it isn't certain that we would understand Butler's satirical excerpt and Mamet's satirical use of it before we see the play, after seeing it, or even at all. I would argue that both epigraphs be included in the program to any production.

The quotation provokes a number of relevant questions. What is the relationship between Butler's words and the academic world of today, a century after they were written? Should we see Carol as one of the London young people: stunted and unhappy and full of self-loathing? Could we see Mamet as intending the excerpt not as satire in itself (how many in the audience would have read the original source or even heard of it?) but as a pedagogical truth in late-twentieth-century ideologies of liberational education, i.e., students are screwed over by their authoritarian professors and made to think their ignorance is their own fault? Or is the epigraph just Mamet being clever, ambiguous, mocking, as well as post-political and pointedly postmodern, deferring meaning and endorsing the inevitable futility of promulgating any life-enhancing, truth-discerning, paradise-creating (a reference to hooks here) ideology. Oleanna, to be sure, is not only a play but a folk song as well.

I don't believe Mamet wants to think through the implications of his vision of education, and that is both his privilege and his strength. In terms of his playwrighting, he eschews any obligation other than to reveal and entertain. He resists confirming that John's linguistic insight concerning the impossibility of imposing and maintaining meaning on experience through language interests him except insofar as it provides material for his plays. Certainly, John's office (and likely his classroom) fits comfortably alongside the pool halls, movie studios, pawnshops and real estate offices we have seen before in Mamet's work; they are arenas for struggle and domination. And that, in itself, is a harsh evaluation about the pretensions and illusions of our academic world, even if the details of his picture in Oleanna may not reflect our particular professional or personal situation.9 Which brings us back to Paulo Friere and his colleague Augusto Boal.

In Mamet's world, people lose. But should they? Is there any usefulness in bringing fresh air to the alleys of the young? Mamet is also a teacher by profession (he runs an acting school) and many of his plays are about teaching, in one way or another. Despite the opacity of meaning in his plays and contradictoriness in his public image, it is clear to me that part of what he “understands” is that teaching is, and is about, love. (“Education is an act of love,” Friere has written, “and thus an act of courage” [38a]). And that is why it is worthwhile to speculate on Mamet's thinking about pedagogy, because set beside a theoretical model (Friere) and specific program (hooks), Mamet's writing can serve the interests of all teachers who seek additional insight into the continuing tensions and changes in their professional lives.

In the same way that we can see Tony Kushner's Angels in America as a play about the gay experience but larger than that, so Oleanna is about political correctness, sexual harassment, radical feminism, etc., but it is more than that, too.10 We recall John's self-enhancing and smug explanation to Carol in the second scene of Oleanna when his philosophy of education is articulated, though as yet untested. His ideas are as vulnerable to criticism as John himself is, and Carol will soon seek and gain the advantage in her own struggle to understand herself and her academic world:

You said you came in the class because you wanted to learn about education. I don't know that I can teach you about education. But I know that I can tell you what I think about education, and then you decide. And you don't have to fight with me. I'm not the subject. … I would like to tell you what I think, because that is my job, conventional as it is, and flawed as I might be. And then, if you can show me some better form, then we can proceed from there.

(34)

The rules of academe, John says, require him to instruct her, impersonally and authoritatively. Only after Carol understands this will she be permitted to make a suggestion that will open a space for involvement in her own education.

I am convinced that this scene raises issues of great importance that are worthy of consideration, and that they surface whenever we examine our own place in the pedagogy of the oppressed. For these reasons, I believe that Mamet's play can contribute importantly to what has been written about how we teach and how we can teach and learn better.

Notes

  1. An overview of the critics' responses is provided by Daniel Mufson's “Critical Eye” column in Theater Magazine 24, 1 (1993): 111-13.

  2. See Lynne Joyrich's “Give Me a Girl at an Impressionable Age and She is Mine for Life: Jean Brodie as Pedagogical Primer,” in Pedagogy: The Question of Impersonation, ed. Jane Gallop (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995), 46-62. My intention is the reverse of Joyrich's, who investigates the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as “not simply a film about education.” But we both agree that “the ongoing debates around cultural literacy, the curriculum, and the politics of education” may be engaged in “mass-mediated texts [that] are rarely valued for their pedagogical potential …” (48).

    The title for this essay is used by Madeline R. Grumet in her essay “Scholae Personae: Masks for Meaning,” in Pedagogy, p. 37. She writes that she has chosen to see “… the personal is a performance, an appearance contrived for the public, and to argue that these masks enable us to perform the play of pedagogy.”

  3. hooks devotes a chapter to Friere, pp. 45-58; the epigraph used for this essay appears on p. 11. Boal's epigraph is taken from The Theatre of the Oppressed, tr. Charles A. and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride (New York: TCG, 1985), 115.

  4. In her essay “Brechtian Shamanism,” Mady Schutzman writes: “The concept of multiple protagonists in the same forum has become more and more common; what had become evident is that there are, in fact, several protagonists in any one scene, each experiencing mutual oppression within a co-dependent power relation.” In Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism, ed. Mady Schutzman and Jan Cohen-Cruz (New York: Routledge, 1994), 149.

  5. Chris Amirault finds Friere's ideology to contain two detrimental aspects: it reinforces the institutional structure and it rewards people whose practice conforms to that structure by “reproducing” the very structure it attempts to dismantle. His critique of Friere is based on Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture by Bordieu and Passeron (1970), and reinforced by his own experience as a “student teacher”:

    Friere's terms ‘teacher-student’ and ‘student-teachers’ can serve to signal the complex identifications between teacher and student, not the erasure of those positions. … Ironically, Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed has always been oppressive for this reader, primarily because it refuses to give up the banking model in its own textual pedagogy; the text deposits Friere's experience in a reader presumed to be empty. Yet, however oppressive it might have felt, Friere's book has managed to teach a lot of people, myself included.

    Chris Amirault, “The Good Teacher, the Good Student: Identifications of a Student Teacher,” in Pedagogy, p. 76.

  6. Richard Hornby makes this point in an otherwise condescending review in The Hudson Review, Spring 1993, 193-94.

  7. See Jeanne Silverthorne, “PC Playhouse,” Artforum (March, 1993), 10-11.

  8. At the least, we could think here about our teaching spaces, for example the frustrations of teaching in a room with fixed chairs. Pinter is only showing us what we know from everyday experience, every time we, students and teachers, say: “OK, let's move the chairs into a circle.”

  9. I have omitted from discussion in this essay the additional complexity of relationships that occurs when race is involved in the casting of these roles. In the 1994 Los Angeles production, John was played (at Mamet's specification) by the black actor Lionel Mark Smith.

    In her review of the production, Stephanie Tucker writes about the final moments:

    this scene assumed an even uglier resonance: a black man stood over a white woman who had charged him with rape, a visual reminder of the horror inherent in racial stereotyping. If the academy is emblematic of our society, then this production of Oleanna foregrounded a theme hinted at in Mamet's text but made explicit with this casting. Racism, like sexism, cuts both ways. …

    (4)

  10. In a speech in Madison, Wisconsin on October 19, 1994, Kushner mentioned his admiration for Mamet's Glengarry, presumably for its analysis of economic politics, but his loathing for Oleanna, presumably for its analysis of sexual politics.

This essay was enriched by the suggestions of my colleagues Vicki Patraka, Stuart Greene, and Beth Amsbury, and I thank them here for their assistance.

Works Cited

Boal, Augusto. The Theatre of the Oppressed. Tr. Charles A. and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride. New York: TCG, 1985.

Friere, Paulo. Education for a Critical Consciousness. Tr. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 1994.

———. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Tr. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 1970 (1993 ed.).

Gallop, Jane. ed., Pedagogy: The Question of Impersonation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.

Holmberg, Arthur. “The Language of Misunderstanding.” American Theater (October 1992): 94-95.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Hornby, Richard. Review of Oleanna. The Hudson Review Spring, 1993.

Mamet, David. Oleanna. Dramatists Play Service, 1993.

Mufson, Daniel. “Sexual Perversity in Viragos.” Theater Magazine 24 (1993).

Schutzman, Mady and Jan Cruz-Cohen, eds., Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Silverthorne, Jeanne. “PC Playhouse.” Artforum March, 1993.

Tucker, Stephanie. Review of Oleanna, The David Mamet Review 1 (1994): 3-4.

Zeifman, Hersh. Review of Oleanna, the London production. The David Mamet Review 1 (1994): 2-3.

Kellie Bean (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6274

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 arguments tend to favor discussions of power, language, or political correctness gone horribly wrong. The play and its author certainly invite readings grounded in its cultural context, concerned as it is with familiar current events. But if we turn attention away from the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and Mamet's reputation for heavy-handed machismo, we are left with a play in which a man and a woman battle for ideological ground on stage.

The main characters in Oleanna, John, a university professor, and Carol, his student, occupy gender-specific identity positions whose differences are exacerbated by disparities of education and class. He is a successful father, husband, scholar, breadwinner; she is a young, lower-middle-class, female student. While no indicators of cultural power or material wealth attach to her, he is set to accept tenure and buy a house. The ideological subtext of the opening configuration of characters on stage is telling: a young woman seeks guidance from her older male professor. The male professor represents the institution of the university, a sign of cultural authority to which his gender has always enjoyed access and that women like his student have only very recently entered. This institution, a muscular instrument of the phallocratic order, stands behind him, defines and underwrites his authority over his students.

Emissaries from disparate areas of the culture, these characters speak different languages. Early in the play Carol struggles to make herself understood, as her language seems not to signify clearly to her masculine professor. Likewise, and more problematic for Carol, she finds her professor's rhetoric impenetrable. For example, the following exchange typifies the dialogue of the first act, much of which concerns Carol's difficulty with John's language:

CAROL:
The language, the “things” that you say …
JOHN:
I'm sorry. No. I don't think that that's true.
CAROL:
It is true.
JOHN:
… I …
CAROL:
Why would I … ?

(6-7)

The conversation continues in the familiar staccato of two people not hearing one another as Carol attempts to articulate the ideological differences between herself and her teacher, which, she correctly intuits, account for their failure of communication:

CAROL:
I it is true. I have problems
JOHN:
… every …
CAROL:
… I come from a different social
JOHN:
… ev …
CAROL:
a different economic …
JOHN:
… Look:
CAROL:
No. I: when I came to this school:
JOHN:
Yes. Quite … (Pause)
CAROL:
… does that mean nothing … ?

(7-8)

This exchange enacts the ideological and semantic differences Carol tries to describe to John. But his constant interruptions demonstrate a lack of real interest in this student and ensure that he will not understand what she says.

John rejects Carol's description of her own experience out of hand: “No. I don't think that's true,” he says. He barrels forward in the conversation, ignoring what she says, impervious to her needs and finally punctuates the discussion of her performance by reading from her work. Inviting Carol to sit for the first time, John reads: “‘I think that the ideas contained in this work express the author's feelings in a way that he intended, based on his results’” (8). Cruelly, he reads her work as if he does not understand it. John's performance demonstrates Carol's failure of language and underlines his own success, for he knows that she has read—and not understood—his book. John controls language from both sides, then: enough to see how badly Carol uses it and so well that his own rhetoric is codified in a published book Carol fails to comprehend. Having established authority over the primary mechanism of communication between them, John invites Carol to explain herself. “What can that mean?” he asks.

One critical response to John's rhetorical aggression against this student has been to claim that “Carol's place [in the drama] … could as easily be taken by a male” (MacLeod 204). Such a claim suggests that the relationship on stage between teacher and student is not inflected with gender politics, that in fact we need not consider the gender identity of either character when interrogating this work, and that the play tells the same story with either a male or a female student. I disagree. Male and female characters are not interchangeable on the Western stage; representations of masculine and feminine identity are not ideologically equivalent there. For example, unlike male characters, female characters are held “accountable to male-defined standards for acceptable display” by the “genderized terms of the performance space” (Dolan 62). If we identify theater as a cultural artifact, as a construct deriving from and reflecting the ideological biases of the culture that produces it, then nothing on stage can be read as “value-free,” or ideologically neutral, least of all relations between men and women (Austin 76).

Language on stage acquires significance through (among other factors) the gender of the speaker(s) and auditor(s); culturally constructed (and heterosexist) notions of gender roles permeate dialogue on stage. Therefore when John explains his willingness to spend extra time with Carol by telling her “I like you,” and cryptically assuring her, “There's no one here but you and me,” it seems obvious to note that these lines would necessarily signify differently if they were spoken to a male student (27). The assurance that they are alone might actually comfort a masculine student; indeed, in this case, such an assurance contains the possibility of a kind of conspiratorial relationship between teacher and student, a relationship galvanized by a shared (if unacknowledged) gender prerogative. On the other hand, up to this point in the play John has been at pains to enact for Carol the cultural and ideological prerogatives he enjoys and she does not share. By additionally highlighting their isolation, the masculine professor (even if inadvertently) underscores the female student's vulnerability.

Violence on stage between a man and a woman amplifies gender issues; likewise, gender inflects the language of physical violence. Violence committed by a male character against a female character will invariably expose ideological attitudes toward gender roles. Think, for example, of the visual difference between Stanley's attack on Blanche in Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Max exchanging blows with Joey and Sam in Pinter's The Homecoming. These expressions of character relationships signify quite differently. Blanche finds herself in genuine danger; the biological difference between male and female physical strength and the history of violence against women in patriarchy underwrite her interaction with Stanley, and point to rape as the final outcome. Conversely, the men in The Homecoming do not so much threaten one another as perpetuate the hierarchy of the household through physical, though largely impotent, force. The masculinist technology of the theater figures a woman on stage with a man as always already a (potential) victim of masculine aggression. The stage constructs woman as a passive indicator of masculine prerogative and consistently offers her as a potential sacrifice to the men on stage, a sacrifice masculine characters may or may not enact through the physically aggressive behavior patriarchy reserves for men.

Further, because the stage defines woman primarily in terms of her sexual function within a heterosexual coupling (women are identified primarily as wives, mothers, or whores), violence against women always contains the threat of sexual violence. For within the phallocratic system of representation and narrative theater, women “always bear the mark and meaning of their sex, which inscribes them within a cultural hierarchy” as a weaker object vulnerable to a stronger subject (Dolan 63). Moreover, woman functions as the site at which masculine anxieties over power and gender are relieved through physical, and often sexualized, violence. Certainly this is the case in Mamet's Oleanna. When in the final moments of the play John says, “Rape you … ? Are you kidding me … ? I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole,” he embraces the regressive notion of rape as a sex act based on erotic desire (79). He also seems to believe that by simply denying an erotic investment in his student, he can ignore the possibility of sexual violence between them. In fact, John does not rape Carol, but when he concludes the diatribe with, “You little cunt …,” John conflates his violent act(s) into a final blow against Carol's sexuality, reducing her to a crass anatomical reference and moving his beating of Carol closer to sexual violence (79).

The stage constructs its own “Woman,” a fiction whose meaning derives from a discrete lexicon of signs specific to theatrical representation and virtually without reference to actual biological women. She is, as Jill Dolan puts it, “laden with connotations” deriving largely from external signs, or display. On stage man acts, “woman” means (52). The shift in Carol's costume in the original production of Oleanna underscores the stage's requirement for exterior indicators of female identity; in order to signify Carol's transformation between acts 1 and 2, the actress emerges in the second act visually altered, dressed in that conventional and highly recognizable indicator of acquired power: a severe, mannish suit. Mamet's text simultaneously transforms this character through an exaggerated and implausible shift in rhetorical skill. In act 1 she is hesitant, apprehensive, and inarticulate. She speaks in simple sentences: “There are people out there. People who came here. To know something they didn't know. Who came here. To be helped” (12). In act 2 Carol deploys an aggressive, almost pedantic, vocabulary in service to a suddenly sophisticated wit:

And you speak of the tenure committee, one of whose members is a woman, as you know. And though you might call it Good Fun, or An Historical Phrase, or An Oversight, or All of the Above, to refer to the committee as Good Men and True, it is a demeaning remark. It is a sexist remark, and to overlook it is to countenance continuation of that method of thought.

(51)

Still, the most obvious indicator of Carol's political transformation between acts resides in an unmistakable change in her appearance, suggesting that the transformation of her character is most felicitously communicated as a visual alteration. In this case, the visual marks of her character shift—a movement from demure, deferential good girl to angry woman—signify her behavior as threatening to the masculine authority to which her clothing refers.

Typically, dramatic portrayals of women rely upon a heterosexist notion of gender as a binary construct in which men and women occupy oppositional and mutually exclusive positions. Also mutually defining, these binaries reflect cultural stereotypes of gendered behavior: active male/passive female; strong/weak; subject/object; dominant/submissive. Recent work in feminist film theory interrogates this notion of stable, gendered identity positions in the specular arts, and argues that representations of gender are not so pat, and that audiences do not necessarily experience them as stable. However, Mamet's theater relies on static, oppositional notions of gender for its characterizations of John and Carol. Within the world of the play, the university is defined as an all-male system: male professor, male Tenure Committee. (One woman sits on this committee, a fact John consistently fails to acknowledge.) In fact, every authority figure to which John refers is masculine (the Committee, himself, and Jerry, his lawyer). The marginal, or secondary, characters who seek instruction from John are female (Carol and his wife, Grace). Mamet creates John's image on stage at the expense of the female characters around him. The play contains three clearly recognizable stereotypes of female behavior: an emotionally needy wife who depends upon her husband to conduct the “business” of the relationship; a hysterical student; and a castrating feminist. The women serve as weaker, less educated, less successful examples against which the audience is invited to judge John.

Herb Blau describes theater as “an ideological act in its own right,” which “involves questions of property, ownership, authority, force,” and I would add gender to this list (qtd. in Dolan 41). For “property, ownership, authority, force” describe the issues that dominate gender relations on stage and inform ideological readings of those relations. Blau's list provides much of the germinal vocabulary required to discuss the exchange of women in patriarchal culture and the manner in which dramatic representation repeats and reiterates that exchange. On the conventional stage, women generally function as property owned and exchanged by men, constrained to that role by the authority of the masculinist technology of the theater.

Carol functions not as property per se, but rather as an object at the mercy of the two masculine forces in the work, as the sacrifice central to the power struggle her resistance instigates. Indeed, John's tenure comes into doubt, not when he publishes and teaches a book that openly questions the value of his profession and potentially belittles his colleagues, but when a troublesome female student refuses to be dismissed. The plot situates the Tenure Committee as the enforcer of the patriarchal status quo, as a validating mechanism that will either galvanize John's cultural identity or destroy him. This power derives from the Committee's apparent ability to grant with tenure a host of signifiers of masculine bourgeois success, and to formally inscribe John within the ideological center (where he will enjoy authority, influence, and security) or condemn him to the margins. His efforts to appease Carol after she presents her grievances against him are in fact efforts to reconcile himself with the Tenure Committee, for he recognizes its function as the source of his institutional and cultural authority. Earlier in the play he describes the tenure process like this: “… I go before the Great Tenure Committee, and I have an urge, to vomit, to, to, to puke my badness on the table, to show them: ‘I'm no good. Why would you pick me?’” (23). When Carol assumes that he has already been granted tenure, he corrects her, delineating the Committee's power over him: “… they announced it, but they haven't signed. … ‘They might not sign’ … I might not … the house might not go through … Eh? Eh?” (23-24).

Despite his own objections to the tenure process, John advocates the ritual as a necessary one, imposed by “Good Men and True,” and endorses the convention of tenure itself as sound (50). Indeed, he confesses that he has been “covetous” of tenure (43). This desire—grounded in “The Material”—is in no small part a desire for material security, “A home. A Good Home. To raise my family,” he explains (44). John acknowledges here the bourgeois middle-class ethic to which he subscribes, and according to which he has “duties beyond the school,” duties to “home,” which are “of an equal weight” to his own career aspirations (44). Here he explicitly conflates his professional success with his role in the patriarchal family structure, suggesting that the reach and force of the Tenure Committee extend beyond the walls of the university and into the larger culture. Receiving the endorsement of the Tenure Committee would blend John's social and professional ambitions by defining him paradigmatically as both a worthwhile university colleague and a “fundamentally decent man. Loyal to wife and family” (MacLeod 199).

The play positions Carol between the masculine Tenure Committee, then (defined as the keepers of the greater good), and a masculine professor (who would please those men only because they have the power to grant and deny tenure), as a subordinate character who will sustain the negative effects of the convoluted codes of the masculine world around her. Carol will finally be made to stand onstage as the marginalized character (female student in a university defined as a male professor and an all-male committee) whose stereotypical outrage shields the men in the play from the unattractive implications of their own behavior. For example, through Carol the play renders the harassing male professor a victim of an angry female student misguided by an unnamed, but clearly unreasonable, feminist group. And the play effectively screens our view of the Committee; for while these men remain safely offstage, Carol suffers the violence their decision inspires in John.

In its obsessive focus on the potentially corrosive influence of feminism upon the university tradition and the patriarchal family, Oleanna aligns itself with the recent backlash against the ostensible rise of liberal politics in the university. Despite the fact that the play is written during a time when women occupy only about ten percent of all full-time faculty positions in American universities, Oleanna typifies works exhibiting anxieties regarding the so-called political correctness movement. These anxieties most often manifest themselves in claims of a feminist onslaught against the academy and allegations that a movement toward political correctness offers misguided feminists (like Carol) the opportunity to capriciously derail the careers of male academics (like John), to undermine the traditional values of higher education itself, and to potentially destroy the patriarchal family.

In telling a backlash story, Mamet's play embraces a conservative generic paradigm: American realism. In its “relentless plotting toward the white, middle-class, male privilege,” American realism, like Oleanna, mystifies its ideological preoccupations through apparently transparent works that tell reassuring and conciliatory stories of the benign wonders of patriarchy (Dolan 85). In the tradition of realistic drama, Oleanna portrays a patriarchal family struggling to survive—and relieves anxieties over the family and cultural hegemony by circumscribing troublesome female characters squarely within the patriarchal borders of the stage.

Mamet introduces John's family through a series of one-sided phone calls. The play opens on one of these conversations already in progress. As his student waits quietly in his office, John conducts a tense telephone conversation with his wife, Grace, in which he is consistently impatient and condescending:

WHY NOW? Is what I'm say … well, that's why I say “call Jerry.” Well, I can't right now, be … no, I didn't schedule any …
GRACE:
I didn't … I'm well aware … Look: Look. Did you call Jerry? Will you call Jerry … ? Because I can't now.

(1-2)

Staging the conversation from John's point of view, Mamet conveys the image of a harried husband whose wife must be chaperoned through (protected from?) the complexities of a real estate transaction. John's broken sentences suggest that his wife speaks quickly and nervously on the other end of the phone; John can barely finish a sentence, cannot seem to keep her attention. He interrupts her as if she were a child who cannot be made to listen: “Grace: I didn't,” he insists and then must stop her again (because she has apparently not stopped talking) with “Look: Look.” John's dependent and demanding wife refuses even to simply “call Jerry” (1).

If we can believe what we hear, John and his wife are in genuine danger of losing the house they hope to buy, she has phoned for help, and he plays the role of rescuing patriarch. John assumes that he can attend to his troubled student in “ten or fifteen” minutes, then arrive in time to rescue the house for his wife and their son. Evoking the infantilizing stereotype of the housebound wife incapable of understanding the world beyond the borders of her domestic space, Mamet characterizes Grace without placing her on stage or giving her a voice. John tells her what to do: have the realtor show her the basement again (an inconsequential activity meant to delay the realtor until he, the brains of the family, arrives), and call Jerry (a man who can stand in for her husband in the meantime). Grace does not determine on her own what to do and is apparently unqualified in John's (or her own) eyes of doing anything meaningful. During these conversations John inhabits an anachronistic caricature of the professional husband who must attend—unassisted—to the family's material comforts and whose wife demands from him emotional security he himself does not need or even comprehend, but which, like the weekly paycheck, he delivers: “I love you, too,” he says, “I love you, too” (2).

We learn later that the real estate emergency has been fabricated by John's wife and friends in order to lure him to a surprise party celebrating his promotion. Significantly, these circumstances do not alter Mamet's characterization of Grace as a clinging, passive wife. For later in act 3, when she apparently has no reason to plan a surprise party, Grace continues to interrupt John demanding reassurance. Still reeling from the news that Carol has brought charges of rape against him, John answers the phone and begins the now familiar litany of assurances: “No, no, it's going to be all right,” he promises (79). Throughout the play John reveals himself to be utterly the product of a bourgeois world of gendered hierarchies. With John, his wife, and “the boy,” Mamet creates a stereotypical nuclear family in which the father dominates the mother and child. The role of the father in this case is to provide material comfort; in exchange he enjoys validation from the community and control of the home. Rounding out this fantasy is John's son, “the boy.” John plans to purchase a nice house for his son, send him to private school and, most importantly, hand down to this child his influence, success and name.

Hence, John's outrage when confronted with the possibility that his book may be “removed from inclusion as a representative example of the university”—in exchange for which Carol will drop her complaint against him (75). John finds Carol's demand that his book be banned particularly disturbing, and considers it a violation not just of his academic freedom, but also of his responsibilities to his profession and his son. His “name” appears on that book, John explains with emotion, and his “son will see that book someday” (76). As a text that formally inscribes his name in a longstanding tradition of academic writing, John's book serves as a kind of intellectual progeny. This assault on his rights as a father cannot be tolerated, and at this point in the play John begins moving toward violence. He decides that Carol is “dangerous” and that it is his job “to say no” to her, to stop her and her undefined “Group” (72).

When Carol first arrives unannounced on this day in John's life she functions as a blocking figure standing between John and his goals. As the play progresses her threat to John escalates; at first only tenure seems to be at risk, then the house, then John's career, then, with the accusation of rape, his freedom. When Carol's power to threaten him can no longer be denied in act 3, John is speechless with surprise. He could not have imagined such a complete reversal of roles. Initially, John behaves with unshakable arrogance and responds to Carol with contemptuous condescension. He initiates their dialogue by belittling her. When, after overhearing him use the phrase on the phone, she asks, “What is a ‘term of art?’” he snaps in response, “Is that what you want to talk about?” (2-3). She is confused (it is an innocuous question), and he continues bitterly, asking her a question she cannot answer, “Let's take the mysticism out of it, shall we?” (3). Deliberately exacerbating her feelings of isolation and embarrassment, John punctuates his attack with a direct address—“Carol?”—and makes very clear who controls the space they share; it is his office, and he speaks a language she does not fully understand.

John does not resist the temptation presented by this unscheduled meeting to test (and flex) the boundaries of his authority. Inhabiting his space comfortably, John suggests a dimwitted, although ostensibly radical, reorganization of his course: if Carol agrees to return to his office for private lessons, he will give her an “A” for the class. He explains his motivation by disingenuously taking the blame for Carol's confusion: “I'm going to say it was not you, it was I who was not paying attention” (25). Rather than throwing off the hierarchical confines of the teacher-student relationship, or liberating himself and Carol from the power dynamic inherent in any relationship like it, John reinscribes himself squarely within a new configuration of precisely the same power hierarchy. John might as well say to Carol, “I'll create new rules, and they will reinvent the same relationship (based on class and gender) that ensures my dominance and your submission.” Couched in the language of “certain privileged forms of discourse” specific to academe (MacLeod 203), John's plan reveals that his true desires are in fact pedestrian and self-serving: to keep the student in her place and to escape an unpleasant meeting quickly.

John's glib and ill-conceived offer to throw off the “Artificial Stricture” of student and teacher, then, belies his own confidence in those very labels to protect his position (21). (Earlier John exposes the lie of his ostensible efforts to dissolve the hierarchical boundaries of the traditional classroom when he thanks Carol for her “obeisance” in coming to his office.) Having made his offer to modify the class, John immediately launches a dissertation on the politics of education and his own psychosocial experience not only with public education but also with Western epistemology—a discussion Carol cannot be expected to understand and which in its insistence on the gap between their personal and professional experiences reiterates the power structure implicit in the “Artificial Stricture[s]” of student and teacher.

In a gesture toward balancing the distribution of power between them, John offers Carol this personal anecdote:

I used to speak of “real people,” and wonder what the real people did. The real people. Who were they? They were the people other than myself. The good people. The capable people. The people who could do the things, I could not do: learn, study, retain … all that garbage

(16)

In other words, John experienced his own intellectual failure, managed to become a college professor and now privately shares his conviction that the very thing he demands of Carol and his other students—that they “learn, study, retain”—is garbage. Can this be the lesson he hopes to teach this student? John's unhip and avuncular attempts at iconoclasm merely highlight how unlike his student he really is: his days of raging against the machine are far behind him. He now aspires to a kind of triumph of convention as he works to please the established powers that be in exchange for tenure. Indeed, if Carol and his other students actually embraced the notions of higher education espoused by John here, he would have no chance at the hyperconventional life in the suburbs with his wife and son that tenure will facilitate.

Nevertheless, John speaks of his obligation as an educator in the voice of a dedicated maverick: “What's important,” he tells Carol, “is that I awake your interest, if I can, and that I answer your questions” (26). But John poses no genuine challenge to the rules of the university or the gender codes of the culture; even as he appears to jettison the rules of the university, John claims absolute authority over the class:

CAROL:
But we can't start over.
JOHN:
I say we can. (Pause) I say we can.
CAROL:
But I don't believe it.
JOHN:
Yes, I know that. But it's true.

(26, my emphasis)

John essentially ignores Carol's anxieties over the material, her grades, and the university and instead secures control over the content, terms, and form of the course. He determines where and when instruction will take place and even selects the outcome (an “A”). His breezy response to Carol's very reasonable objections testifies to a brand of arrogance symptomatic of a secure identification with culturally sanctioned identity positions.

As a member of the marginal community of female, lower-class students (she includes herself in a group of “hard-working students” who “slave” to attend the university), Carol is bound by rules that no longer control John and that he carelessly suggests they ignore. As a student pursuing a degree, Carol must pass John's course. As her professor, John apparently need not even make sense. He instructs Carol as follows:

If I do not want to think of myself as a failure, perhaps I should begin by succeeding now and again. Look. The tests, you see, which you encounter, in school, in college, in life, were designed, in the most part, for idiots. By idiots. There is no need to fail at them.

(22-23)

The lesson: if she wants to stop failing, she should try succeeding instead. Teaching seems to annoy John, even as being a teacher empowers and defines him. He has accepted the inconvenient responsibility of instruction long enough to practice rhetorical aggression against his students and to receive the material reward and social validation represented by tenure, promotion, and the house in which he intends to raise his family. But having come this far, John cannot conceive of any further obligation to his student: “… what can I do … ?” he asks Carol; “Teach me. Teach me,” she begs him (11). He never does.

Instead, John retreats into what Marc Silverstein calls “the ideological rhetoric of the ‘human’” both in the first act, when he redefines the terms of their relationship, and later, when he struggles to control Carol and to defend himself (110). For example, in act 2 John explains the value of “convention” as “the essence of all human communication” (53). He argues that conventions allow the two of them, despite their differences, to “agree that we are both human,” and in this human sameness he hopes to discover the means to resolve their conflict—namely, persuading her to drop the complaint against him (53). John ignores the obvious political questions of how social conventions are established and who they serve; certainly the conventions of the language have not served Carol, for she understands little of what he says or writes. As I have indicated, the “conventions” of “human communication” to which John has access, and that he deploys in service to his own ideological ends, alienate Carol. Further, John persists in ignoring the discrepancies of power inherent in relationships between masculine professors and female students and prefers to argue blandly that he and Carol simply have “positions” and “desires” that are in conflict (53).

But when Carol forces him into an explicitly political argument, John's disingenuously nonideological rhetoric fails him, and he resorts to physical force (as he will again later in the play): “He restrains her from leaving” his office (57). As this and the final violent moments of the play demonstrate, the stage serves masculine dominance. Although the plot punishes John for his treatment of Carol, the visual argument of the play celebrates John's power over Carol. Oleanna ends with a stark image of female submission to masculine dominance. Mamet's stage instructions emphasize that, as she “starts to leave the room,” John “grabs her and begins to beat her,” and the curtain falls as Carol cowers below John, vulnerable to his next violent act (79).

Disguised as a discourse questioning the power structure of the university, Mamet's play in fact indulges in the mystifying rhetoric of patriarchy that, rather than questioning cultural norms, consolidates power around masculine identity and the ideological center. Even John (or Mamet?) cannot sustain the fiction of equality between himself and his female student for more than a line or two, for just as he argues, “we're both human,” he also explains that while he and Carol “are two people,” they have “subscribed to … certain arbitrary … Certain institutional” notions of the university (10, my emphasis). John acknowledges here, inadvertently but unmistakably, that he and Carol occupy arbitrarily constructed identity positions: teacher and student. Moreover, he acknowledges that these positions have been constructed by the institution of the university, the institution that supports him and his family and grants him authority over students.

Like individual men in patriarchal culture, John stands as a kind of symptom of the masculinist ideology guiding his identity and behavior. His connection to an unnamed, unseen force—the Tenure Committee—that confers power based on one's relationship to it imitates the role of patriarchal authority in Western culture. That is to say that by occupying the appropriate identity position, both within the university and without, John enjoys security and privilege that Carol does not. We see this discrepancy very clearly in the opening of the play. On the phone John displays arrogant confidence that what he believes he deserves as a member of the masculine bourgeois world will be his (the house), and Carol does not even understand what he is talking about.

Always present but invisible to Carol, the Tenure Committee stands behind John as the mechanism that reifies his identity as the natural provider of grades and class credit and underwrites her role as the submissive facilitator of his identity. Like dominant ideology, the Tenure Committee, through its tacit power over the members of the faculty it polices, influences the behavior of the group's individual members, and inspires (if not determines) their ideological standards. In order to receive material and professional advancement, John enacts the Committee's approved notions of academic identity. This ideological imposition masquerades in John's career as academic freedom and disguises a collusive relationship as the diverse reality of university life. He writes, for example, an apparently iconoclastic book, but even as he criticizes the institution, he subscribes to the established conventions for acquiring increased status within that institution: he publishes a scholarly book.

An important component of academic identity in Oleanna includes the appearance of autonomy and independent thinking, which John's ostensible radicalism is meant to imply. Imported from the world of masculine violence, this academic bravado finally takes the form of arrogant intellectual aggression enacted against a female student. But John remains emphatically within the parameters of acceptable behavior sanctioned by the dominant university culture; hence, his comfort with standard conventions and his approval for tenure and promotion. John merely stages a resistance to the status quo, feigns an attempt to undermine the paternal powers that be, while in fact seeking out the security of that position for himself. For example, he claims a disdain for the revered Tenure Committee, members of which he “wouldn't employ to wax [his] car” (23), and in his book accuses the institution they represent of not educating, but of the “Virtual warehousing [of] … the young,” and of being “something-other-than-useful” (11, 28). Still, laying even problematic or ambivalent claim to an association with the central authority of the university perpetuates that association, and John continues to enjoy a comfortable identity position by siphoning off ideological power from the center.

Mirroring the totalizing mechanism of power relations in patriarchy, John's vexed relations with the Tenure Committee are repaired through the oppression of a member of a marginalized group. In this case, his female student. This oppression reinforces John's cultural authority and, as it is implicitly sanctioned by the Committee, reinvigorates his relations to the powerful center. Creating a circuit of exchange in which power constantly returns to those who already have it, John, the Tenure Committee, and the university all affect a general offer of access that is false, and that has treacherous effects on the female character who takes the bait.

Believing she enjoys equal access to the rhetoric and instruments of the university, Carol dares to challenge her professor's authority by rightly objecting to his treatment of her—and essentially leads herself to the slaughter. Aligning herself with his colleagues, she prematurely claims victory over John:

Your superiors, who've been “polled,” do you see? To whom evidence has been presented, who have ruled, do you see? Who have weighed the testimony and the evidence, and have ruled, do you see? That you are negligent … guilty … wanting, and in error

(63-64)

What she fails to realize during these moments late in the play is that the vast misogynist tradition of patriarchy stands behind her masculine professor and ensures his dominant place not only as a professor with a student, but, more important, as a man in a closed room (his office) with a woman. That tradition allows him to treat her disrespectfully, to “be personal” with her, to touch her, to offer her a better grade in exchange for more frequent visits, and, finally, to beat her.

Behind this female character, who the playwright seems at pains to render unsympathetic, John and the Tenure Committee hide their convoluted power struggle. And David Mamet disguises a vicious misogynist fantasy in a weak argument against political correctness, that meaningless phrase popularly used as code to disguise, among other things, misogyny. The final moments of the play emphatically reiterate masculine authority on stage. No matter what havoc Carol has visited upon John, he finally dominates her unequivocally, and in a paradigmatically masculine style—through violence against her. He forces her to the ground, where she acknowledges her final defeat, head bowed and “To herself”: “… yes. That's right” (80).

Yes. That's right. In this play the relationship between a masculine professor and his feminine student imitates gender roles in patriarchy, in fact, reiterates the power discrepancy inherent in those roles. Yes. That's right. As a woman on stage, Carol sutures relations between powerful men and is punished for attempting to step outside that role. Yes. That's right. On Mamet's stage, like on many others, woman suffers the violence inspired by the power struggles between men.

Works Cited

Austin, Gayle. Feminist Theories for Dramatic Criticism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990.

Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.

MacLeod, Christine. “The Politics of Gender, Language and Hierarchy in Mamet's Oleanna.Journal of American Studies 29 (1995): 199-213.

Mamet, David. Oleanna. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Silverstein, Marc. “‘We're Just Human’: Oleanna and Cultural Crisis.” South Atlantic Review 60 (1995): 103-19.

Ira B. Nadel (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3623

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 play polarized audiences: some cheered, others jeered and on more than one occasion men rose in their seats to shout or hiss the “villain,” the female character, while women staged protests outside. At the end of one of the New York performances, when the professor lashes out at his student, Carol, there was actually scattered applause among the men, leading one woman, when the house lights came up in the 299 seat Orpheum Theatre to mutter angrily, “‘let's find those [bastards] who clapped’” (Weber C2). At another performance in Stamford, Connecticut, forty-five cadets from the US Coast Guard Academy stood en masse to cheer the professor when he punched Carol at the end of Act III. A few feet from the stage door after one performance, a small group of men once gathered to yell “Bitch!” at Rebecca Pidgeon (who played Carol) as she left the theatre. “Vagina dentata goes to college” read one unsympathetic résumé of the play (Tannen 6).

The two-hander quickly became the focus of national debate and furor, provoked in part by the recently completed but volatile US Supreme Court hearings of Clarence Thomas and the accusations of sexual harassment brought by Anita Hill that spring. The play, actually written some eight months before the Thomas/Hill inquiry, was revised by Mamet in response to those hearings. The New York Times soon ran an extensive story, “He Said … She Said … Who did What?” a month after the New York opening, sparking heated exchanges on political correctness, sexual harassment and power politics. Uma Thurman, Warren Beatty, Annette Benning and Robert de Niro were among those who attended performances, although de Niro left at the intermission. The play ran in the East Village for fifteen months, a success, according to the producer Fred Zollo, because “we were blessed with controversy” (Zollo 34).

A politicized academic environment shaped by political correctness and the danger of sexual harassment particularly dominated Harvard and other universities in the Boston area when Mamet first drafted the play in 1990, living at the time in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because of various academic friends, he was privy to numerous stories of false but harmful accusations. At the dress rehearsal, held on 30 April 1992, Mamet got into a hostile exchange with a group of female students from Brown University who accused him of being politically irresponsible. As they left, he turned to a reporter and said “‘for the first time, I'm really scared for this country. America doesn't want a democracy, it wants a priesthood. It wants to be told what to do.’” During a phone call from Harold Pinter the next morning, he admitted: “‘I almost lost it; I regressed … I felt like the professor in my play.’” The controversy surrounding the premiere of the play, which occasioned strident student protests and charges of misogyny, prompted Mamet to say it was like staging “The Diary of Ann Frank at Dachau.” “Take a seat—and take a side” read the promotional material for the play (qtd. in Stayton 28).

One of the most contentious issues of the play was its ending. For the premiere of the play in Cambridge, Mamet, who directed both the premiere and the New York run, used his original ending: several pages of dialogue led by Carol after John, the professor, has beaten her. Despite his vicious assault, John suddenly says “Oh, my god … I didn't mean what I did. I didn't mean what I said to you” (Mamet 50). Carol manages to stand, find the confession she wants him to deliver before the school, including the list of books (including his own) the Group wants banned, and gives it to him to read. The play ends with the now confused and broken John offering his recantation. In these lines, verbal empowerment counters the physical violence as he suddenly expresses his horror and confusion at his acts, repeatedly asking, “What happened here today?” Carol, at his moment of vulnerability, has little pity as John confesses in the final words of the play that “I have failed in my responsibilities to the young” (Mamet 51). This original ending inverts the dynamic of action: expecting to be forced to recant her charges against John, she now finds that she can control him and force his admission of guilt. The closing lines confirm her triumph:

CAROL:
Read It.
JOHN:
“as I see that I have failed.” (PAUSE) … “In my responsibilities …
CAROL:
Yes. That's right.
JOHN:
“… to the young.”
CAROL:
Say it again.
JOHN:
“That I have failed in my responsibilities to the young.”

(Mamet 51)

This original ending turns the male into an abject figure, humiliated by the woman.

Mamet revised the ending, however, for the New York production not for aesthetic but practical reasons. The fight scene was re-choreographed and first doubled and then tripled in length and ferociousness, Mamet believing that the outbreak of John's violence needed expanded expression to be a convincing display of his pent up anger. First he punches Carol, then hurls her to the floor while cursing at her and then lifts a chair to break over her head as she crawls under a bench and huddles in a fetal position. As the fight expanded, the final speech was cut. In New York, Mamet told William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon that “‘it's over; once you pound the shit out of her, it's over. Let's just get out of this thing.’” According to Macy, Mamet just “kept shortening it up and shortening it up until he really cut it all” (qtd in Macy). But Pinter, who was sent a manuscript of the original version by mistake, said he would not do the play unless it had the original ending. Mamet at first disagreed but in the end approved, still favoring the revised ending because he believed more strongly that the accuser should not be the sole judge of a person's action. A statement of his approval appeared in the program for The Royal Court.

Mamet's directorial style is blunt and uncomplicated: speak the lines, stay with the text. A literalist, he believes that the actor does not become a character: in fact, “there is no character. There are only lines upon a page” he has written (Mamet “Ancestor” 9). Acting will follow. “Having discovered what is essential, you then know what to cut” he would repeat (Mamet “Pig” 79). But he admitted in a talk to the Dramatists Guild in New York that he had serious misgivings about directing Oleanna and some felt that he turned what had been conceived as a classically structured tragedy into a melodrama by overemphasizing the fight. Despite the divided covers of the New York program, half had a target on the chest of a seated man and half had the target on a seated woman, the New York production made the female the villain, a term some audiences actually shouted out in the final scene. Manipulated, the audiences felt sympathy only for the professor. Rebecca Pidgeon's performance, emphasizing a frumpy neurotic with a singsong voice, who somehow gains new courage as a feminist, lost any empathy from the audience.

Mamet's change to the ending tried to establish more of an oblique standoff between the characters. After a final interruption by Carol, telling John not to call his wife “Baby,” he grabs her and in a moment of rage and violence, begins to beat her, screaming “‘You vicious little bitch. You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life?’” Knocking her to the floor, he bellows

After how I treated you … ? You should be … Rape you … ? Are you kidding me? …


I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole. You little cunt

Cowering in front of John who has a raised chair above his head, Carol prepares for another blow but in the revised ending, John suddenly puts down the chair and returns to his desk to arrange some papers, looking over to her. The final words are Carol's, cryptically saying to herself: “Yes. That's right.” (She looks away from him, and lowers her head. To herself.) … yes. That's right” (Mamet Oleanna 79-80).1

Mamet enigmatically explained his change to the ending in this fashion:


Stanislavski said the last 90 seconds are the most important part of the play. And Aristotle said that what one wants in a tragedy is for the hero to undergo the recognition and reversal of the situation in the same moment. That's the climax of the play. Put those two ideas together and what you end up with, as Mel Blanc informed us, is: ‘Th-th-th-that's all folks!’”

(Weber C2; my italics)

Mamet's direction of the play was less confusing than his explanation. Peggy Hill, a co-producer, remarked that “Mamet directed in a way that imparts villainy to the female role, but like Portia she takes on a man at his word and wins” (Zollo 34).

Harold Pinter directed Oleanna for its UK premiere at the Royal Court on 30 June 1993, not a surprise given his frequent directorial projects and mentoring role with Mamet. Long an influence on, and a friend of, Mamet's—Glenngary Glen Ross, which had its world premiere in London, is dedicated to Pinter—Pinter worked hard on his production which starred David Suchet and Lisa Williams (who played Carol with more sensuality and less virginal innocence than Rebecca Pidgeon).2 At the time, Pinter outlined his directing style as “absolute concentration on the text,” and reminded an interviewer that as a director he had one particular habit: he gives his actors “one note at the very end of the other notes, one note: fuck the audience. And every actor knows what I'm talking about” (qtd. in Gussow 146, 149). Such concentration on stage work is not unusual from a director who once told an actor he was playing “‘two dots when the text says three’” (qtd. in Grant 13).

Oleanna arrived surrounded with controversy and it was said that if you went to it with a friend, you would come home alone. Having seen neither the New York or London production prevented no one from expressing strong views of the work; those who did see the play were authorized to express even more vehement opinions. At opening night, when David Suchet attacked Lia Williams in the final scene, men in the audience cheered, like their American counterparts. Williams wasn't expecting this reaction: “we were told,” Pinter said, “it wasn't going to happen in England. Not every night, but it happens” he added (Gussow 148). Williams was upset by this response, thinking the audience didn't like her. Pinter had to explain to her that it wasn't her and that she must act like her character and become indomitable. To insure such a “reading,” Pinter had already chosen to conclude the play with the original, not rewritten, ending causing friction between Mamet and himself and controversy over the interpretation of the work.

The choice of the ending, plus the sexual politics of the play, challenged audiences, since it countered the violence of the professor with his humiliation, representing John as a dishonored victim instead of showing both characters equally humiliated. You must be able to say, Pinter told Williams, “you've beaten me up, I'm hurt, but nevertheless you're going to make this statement.” “When that happens in our last five minutes,” Pinter reported, “the audience is absolutely silent. Lia has really triumphed too” (Gussow 148-9). The American production hinted at equal blame, but the British emphasized female triumph and male guilt, transforming John into a recanting, recumbent figure of authority, humiliated and preparing to denounce himself. Why did Pinter make this shift?

To answer this question, one might recall three events that occurred in 1993: the 30 June opening of Oleanna at the Royal Court (re-opening in the fall in the West End's Duke of York's); the September premiere of Moonlight, Pinter's first new full length play in years, and the deposit on loan that month of Pinter's papers at the British Library, an event receiving national praise and attention. This was a triumphant time for Pinter, not only theatrically but personally as his public profile enlarged and his cultural significance was renewed.

The success of Moonlight, with the inspired addition of the sixteen year old character, Bridget, may in fact be a key to Pinter's treatment of Carol, making her more triumphant in Oleanna. The sympathetic, even courageous role of Bridget in Moonlight, combined with Pinter's empathy for her journey—expressed in the line “I crossed so many fierce landscapes to get here”—may have shaped his decision to emphasize the independence and freedom of Carol in Oleanna (Pinter 22). Bridget's hesitant liberty, circumscribed by obedience to her parents' directive to attend a party at a nearby house, displays an unfulfilled independence Pinter makes sure Carol exceeds. In act one of Oleanna, Carol obeys; in acts two and three, she fiercely controls, supported by the dictates of her “group.” At the end of Oleanna in Pinter's production, Carol is unequivocal, direct and assertive. In an interview just before the play reopened in the West End, Pinter stressed that the condition in the play is “as much a father-daughter situation as anything else; the skein of sexual tension that seems to exist between fathers and daughters.” Furthermore, he added, “I want to get the arguments as clear as possible. What she's doing is a truly revolutionary thing, challenging a value-system that, no matter how liberal, is based on a male system” (qtd. in Grant 13).

Pinter had staged other American plays, notably Tennessee William's Sweet Bird of Youth with Lauren Bacall in 1985 and, a year later, directed Faye Dunaway in Donald Freed's Circe and Bravo. The chance to direct Mamet was exciting, especially a work with such a controversial pedigree. However, critics felt that Pinter was not comfortable with the American idiom and style. One writer noted that with the Tennessee Williams, Pinter lacked the courage of the text's convictions. “By shying away from the play's unashamed melodrama,” wrote Clive Hirschhorn,

Pinter draws all the humidity out of the writing, without which this steamy caldron and its contents—power, greed, bigotry and the fading of youth and innocence—loses its unique tone of voice.

(Hirschhorn “Sweet” 659)

Something similar can be said of Oleanna, after Pinter's decision to override the violence of John with his admission of guilt. However, the work resonates with many of Pinter's own submerged themes and actions, including missed connections, suppressed violence and the landmine of speech and silence. He, furthermore, chose to emphasize the strength, if not power, of Carol in the play.

Just before Oleanna was to reopen in the West End in September 1993, Pinter made his ideas of the ending and the play clear: he did not dislike the student but, in fact, celebrated her personal freedom which the original ending reinforced. Her actions are revolutionary and challenge a system that is essentially male, no matter how liberal. Yet the play for Pinter was not a polemic, nor about politics, as he told an interviewer for The Independent, but about a situation, “‘about two people locked in a room’” (qtd. in Grant 13). In contrast, Mamet's production, emphasizing the release of male aggression against the trumped up charges, met with male applause and cheers because it confirmed his view that “what men need is men's approval” (qtd. in Allen 39). For the New York production, half the program covers had a seated male figure with a target on his chest but half also had a female figure sporting a target on her chest.

Transforming the play into a more Pinteresque situation partly defused the work, although it made John's physical outburst at the end more startling. It was no longer the firebomb provoking audiences as it did in New York but, in Pinter's hushed, controlled production, subdued the conflict while never reducing the tension, although it twisted what was initially a professor's concern for a student into a play for power. “Bitch!” murmured a man sitting on one side of a London critic whose wife, seated on the other, later told him that Mamet “had created a monstrously unbalanced woman to represent feminism” (Nathan 745). The two extremes, it seems, had met.

The elegant austerity of the set reflected the ambiguity of the characters' language with a slow, deliberate pace to the action. Pinter inserted an intermission; Mamet never had one (suggesting something of the intensity of Mamet's production). Even the characterizations differed: Pinter's direction brought out the strength of each character rather than the overt power. William H. Macy as the original John was a disheveled wreck by the final scene who violently strikes back against Carol and the charges against him. David Suchet, in the final scene of Pinter's production, still remained composed, and removes, in a gentlemanly manner, his jacket, more stunned than desperate. As he carefully reviews the final statement he will have to present in front of Carol's group, his reasonableness masks the fury of his failure reinforced by the harsh, bright light that transforms the scene into a mock trial. Critics found the work transformed from an event to a drama as a result of Pinter's drawing out the complexity of the characters and the situation, providing pause and pulse to Mamet's sturm und drang. Subtly, Carol gains the desk, sitting atop John's symbol of authority and glorying in her display of authority. But Pinter's production of Oleanna differed in other ways from Mamet's.

Pinter began the play with music, the folksong “Oleanna,” [Olé Anna] about a wished for utopia which hung in the air in stark contrast to the dystopia about to unfold on the stage. The musical irony echoed throughout the performance, never leaving the stage. Pinter's physical blocking of the play was also extremely effective as he emphasized sharply expressed patterns of spatial relationships which re-emphasized the power games at the center of the work. Michael Billington emphasized how the staging brought complexity and equilibrium to the production, showing how the Professor not only dominates the student intellectually but is physically drawn to her. Yet from the way she sits on the desk in act three, it is clear she is aware of, and enjoying, her new-found authority.

Pinter's production, celebrated by the critics and given great attention in the press, was more explosive than exploding, his directorial style, as well as focus, embodying the themes and concerns that long dominated his work. It favored sexuality as well as politics, displaying an undercurrent of attraction along with the clinically precise workings of political correctness and how feminist demonology can transform a seemingly rational if careerist academic into a violent male. The confrontation became that between the dogmas of political correctness and the tenets of intellectual freedom. Through his taut production with its stress on speech, silence and power, Pinter intensified the drama between the reactionary and the liberal, replacing action with anger, fits of fury with moments of pain. Opposing the Mamet style, epitomized in the sentence “David Mamet sends a wrecking ball smack into the face of political correctness” is Pinter who, in his production of Oleanna, gently lobs a grenade (Hirschhorn “Oleanna” 744).

Notes

  1. In a 1992 interview, Mamet explained that he took his cue from his movie Homicide, admitting that “‘I learned [that] the traditional bang-bang-bang way is wrong. It's too fast. Do it like a slow dance. Let the audience take it in. Be gentle with the violence. Then it terrifies. Then drive, drive, drive to the end’” (qtd. in Kane 182).

  2. Pinter's influence on Mamet can be seen in his use of silence as dramatic space, his attention to detail, his minimalist dialogue and the fragmented naturalism of his texts. “‘Pinter was probably the most influential when I was young and malleable … The Homecoming, The Basement, especially his review sketches—to deal in depth and on their own merit with such minutiae.’” Pinter, explained Mamet, taught him how “‘to live in the moment—to make the moment (every moment) on stage … so unbelievably beautiful and true that one is forced to proceed to the next moment’” (qtd. in Regal 135). One should also remember that Oleanna is set in a single room, Pinter's preferred space.

Works Cited

Allen, Jennifer “David Mamet's, Hard Sell,” New York 9 April 1984: 39.

Grant, Steve. “Pinter: my plays, my polemics, my pad,” The Independent 20 September 1995: 13.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with Pinter. New York: Limelight Editions, 1994.

Hirschhorn, Clive, “Oleanna,” Sunday Express 4 July 1993 in London Theatre Record XIII (1993) 744.

———. “Sweet Bird of Youth” Sunday Express 14 July 1985 in London Theatre Record V (1985) 659.

Kane, Leslie. Weasels and Wisemen, Ethics and Ethnicity in the Works of David Mamet. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Macy, William. Interview, Atlantic Theatre Company, New York 11 April 2000.

Mamet, David. “Ancestor Worship,” True and False, Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

———. “Oleanna,” Ts., rev. draft of 6 May 1992: 50.

———. Oleanna. New York: Vintage, 1993.

———. “Pig—the Movie,” On Directing Film. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.

Nathan, David, “Oleanna,” Jewish Chronicle 2 July 1993 in London Theatre Record XIII (1993) 745.

Pinter, Harold. Moonlight. London: Faber and Faber 1993.

Regal, Martin S. Harold Pinter, A Question of Timing. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Stayton, Richard. “Then He Created Woman,” Newsday 25 October 1992: 28.

Tannen, Deborah. “He Said … She Said … Who Did What?,” New York Times 15 November 1992: Section 2: 6.

Weber. Bruce. “Sex Battle, No Codes, On Stage and Off,” New York Times 30 October 1992: C2.

Zollo, Frederick, “Oleanna,” Variety 10 January 1994: 34.

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