PRINT March 1993

Exits and Entrances

David Mamet’s Oleanna

THE SHOCK OF DAVID MAMET’S Oleanna, a play about a female student’s charges of sexual harassment against her male professor, is the shock of the Hill/Thomas hearings: it astounds by revealing how many otherwise “reasonable” people still don’t get it. And it’s an easy reading to say that one of them is the author. Once again, as in his screenplay for the Paul Newman film The Verdict, Mamet has invented a woman who seems to “ask for it” so intensely that New York audiences for the play, at this writing SRO off-Broadway, apparently routinely shout approval of the violence his politically correct character suffers.

Still, if Mamet has problems in the area of unconscious projection, his forte remains ambiguity: it may be hard to sanctify the student in Oleanna, but for some of us, anyway, it’s impossible to tolerate the teacher. What’s interesting, then, is just how controversial the play has become. There seems to be a desire to defend the professor on the part of some audiences, and even of critics like John Lahr, whose 16 November theater column in The New Yorker shares something with those viewers of riverboat melodramas who wouldn’t just hiss the villain but climb onstage to knock him down—a total suspension of disbelief.

Ironically, Mamet has characterized the phrase “I don’t understand” as the sign of a “degree of conscience” troubled by corruption.1 Any casebook of Mamet criticism will tell you that in his plays corruption is most visible in language itself, language rusted out by a windy individualism left over from a vanished frontier, empty phrases barked out menacingly—in short, bombast. And it is specifically her teacher’s language that student Carol (Rebecca Pidgeon), repeatedly wailing “I don’t understand,” claims to miss. Moreover, we know professor John (William H. Macy) is in the jargon business when he explains a vocabulary choice as “a term of art.” In Mametian terms, John is corrupt.

Furthermore, he’s a hypocrite. Parading professorial concern for Carol and “iconoclastic” notions about education, he simultaneously complains of the “white man’s burden” of paying both public-school taxes and private-school tuitions. And he’s a compulsive, blundering self-aggrandizer: to show his understanding of Carol’s feelings of inadequacy, he bares his own early fears of being stupid, but can’t omit that everyone always told him how smart he was.

Yet Lahr, whose views I take as representative of the audience hecklers’, sees John as “a puppydog.” He also says Carol’s chorus of I-don’t-understand’s indicates a “shaming humiliation at ignorance” that leads her to disguise the “awful spoiling power of her envy.” (Mustn’t there be a clinical term for the attribution of all disapproval to envy?) There’s no hint in Lahr’s piece that Carol might be humiliated by John’s interruptions of her, or by his neglect to request privacy for his bullying phone chats with his wife and his real estate broker. In Carol’s presence, evidently, he feels he already is in private. The bedrock of his insensitivity is uncovered here.

John’s telephone tantrums expose him as Mamet’s typical ruthless-capitalist-on-the-make. A kind of alternative play-within-the-play, these distasteful conferences, for Lahr. show John as “all orders and authority”—all orders, yes, but no authority, only unsuccessful intimidation. On the phone, it is John who is always interrupted. On the phone, it is he who says “I don’t understand.” For one thing, he doesn’t understand business; he’s only a know-it-all academic. He also doesn’t understand that his wife and friend are trying to lure him to a surprise party in his honor. To this he responds bitterly: “There are those who view it as a form of aggression.” “What is?” Carol asks. “A surprise.”

Act 2 shows Carol learning what John taught—that surprise is aggression—all too well: seemingly out of nowhere, she has charged him with “sexism, racism, elitism.” Lahr sees John’s meeting with Carol as one in which he tries “reasoning her out of her accusations,” but Carol—more astute than John, and than Lahr—cuts through this fake rationality: “You want to force me to retract.” Of course he does; who wouldn’t? Who believes him when, his career at stake, he claims “Look! I’m trying to save you”? Later, when he manipulatively thanks Carol in advance for hearing him out, she listens, but he fails to “get it”: “It profits you,” he begins, but it is he who is in need.

The phone conversations turn out to be the real tutorial, the true revelation of character. It is the telephone John—his most honest self—who paradoxically produces a corrupt Carol: his bluffing legal threats over real estate teach her to use her accusations as leverage for curriculum change, and her attempt to “blackmail” him into using books prescribed by her action group is what convinces audiences she has ulterior motives. But Carol’s motives may be “pure” by her own lights. Actually, it seems to be John’s treatment of his wife that has incensed her: domestic relations infect all relations. The telephone John’s violence—“Screw her! You tell her we’ll see her in court!”—gradually spills into the “big” play, the hand that slaps the cradle ruling the nation. When Carol attacks John for addressing his wife as “baby,” she and he have changed positions—for the first time she has miscalculated his feelings. He was using “baby” affectionately. Carol’s disgust pushes him over the edge: he hits her. “Well,” he says. “Well, yes, that’s right,” she says. And the play ends.

How principled is John? Faced with Carol’s demands for curriculum change, he strikes a noble pose of refusal—for all of two heartbeats. In fact he balks only when his own book is banned. For as long as memory serves, nothing has been more the butt of student jokes than professors who prescribe their own books—thus ensuring a financial gain, if not necessarily an intellectual one. So much for the “diversity . . . in thought” that is sacrificed, according to Lahr, by Carol’s “politically correct” demand for “diversity.”

How smart is John? For Lahr, his textbook musings “intelligently tease received opinion” and “cunningly gloss” Thorstein Veblen’s argument about higher learning. But these are the clichés of an undergraduate (who, like John, probably wouldn’t credit Veblen either). Even at his best, John cannot complete a sentence (a typical Mamet metaphor for the exhaustion of language), and says things like “Quite” when he doesn’t understand. The once tongue-tied Carol, on the other hand, learns to push her syllogisms to conclusions so relentlessly that logic itself is dazed. Her language in the later acts could indicate visionary clarity as easily as corruption. Linguistically, she shows, her teacher’s actions do fit a definition of sexual harassment, and she becomes a better academic than John: he is at best New Critical irony, she is post-Structuralist implosion. The catch is that the gamelike nature of deconstruction, with its separation of “meaning” from “truth” or “reality,” segues into Mamet’s argument about the bankruptcy of language. This is how, in Mamet’s world, Carol’s incisiveness can seem tainted and venal. On the other hand, John has no comeback to Carol’s quintessentially deconstructivist accusation: “You think . . . that these things . . . mean what you said they meant.”

Carol certainly seems to represent some desire for purity, as well as a source of dread. For Lahr, her costume changes, from a loose shift to a vest and slacks and then to a jacket and green pants, hint at the “paramilitary” and the “Maoist enforcer”; actually, she simply begins to dress more like a man—or, rather, like a businessman, a “professional.” “Behind every fear lies a wish” is the moral one critic derives from another Mamet play. Henry Higgins asked, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Mamet may be both worrying and hoping that a woman will be a better man than a man will.

The timing of this drama of false charges—which Mamet had abandoned until Hill/Thomas prompted him to finish it—is disturbing: the play sends a clear message about women taking their grievances too far. Still, Mamet’s ambivalence is preferable to Lahr’s one-sidedness. To reinforce his view of Carol as merely envious, Lahr ends his review with lines from the folksong that gives the play its title: in Oleanna, “The poorest man from the old country/Becomes a king in a year or so.” The production’s program, though, quotes a different rhyme: “O! To be in Oleanna, that’s where I’d rather be/Than to be bound in Norway and drag the chains of Slavery.”

Jeanne Silverthorne is an artist and writer who lives in New York.


1. David Mamet, quoted in File on Mamet, ed. Nesta Jones and Steven Dykes, London: Methuen Drama, 1991, p. 61.