Oleanna debuts at Cambridge Mass.
Neither propagandist nor moralist, Mamet's response to a profoundly changed America that has apparently gone insane is a ninety-minute play stripped bare to one setting, three scenes, two characters (three counting the incessantly interrupting telephone), and four expletives.
By David Mamet
The Back Bay Theater Company,
Orpheum Theatre, New York.
24 October 1992
David Mamet's new play, Oleanna, is an incendiary, unnerving examination of the burning issues of sexual harassment and censorship. Subjected to "a million drafts," recalls the playwright, prior to the Clarence Thomas Anita Hill hearings that crystallized and concretized Mamet's latest dramatization of the power dynamic, Oleanna (its third scene rewritten) opened in New York with pitch perfect timing one year after the hearings. No stranger to controversy or criticism of his own misogyny, Mamet has likened Oleanna's premiere in Cambridge Massachusetts in May 1992 (the first production of Mamet's newly founded Back Bay Theater Company), where the play occasioned strident protests and accusations of "political irresponsibility," to "staging the Diary of Anne Frank at Dachau." Picket lines in New York were no less vigilant, given that Mamet has ventured into the fray of sexual warfare with a time released grenade that explodes in our faces and implodes in our brains.
Neither propagandist nor moralist, Mamet's response to a profoundly changed America that has apparently gone insane is a ninety-minute play stripped bare to one setting, three scenes, two characters (three counting the incessantly interrupting telephone), and four expletives. The theatricality of the piece is so strong and specific that we are immediately reminded that for Mamet "power is about two people who want something different." Bearing striking thematic, stylistic, and structural similarities to Mamet plays written in the 1970s and 1980s, Oleanna lacks backstory and the depiction of the pivotal scene, exposes betrayal and power relationships inherent in pedagogy, employs personal narrative and duologue, and dramatizes characters striving to retain dignity in a morally corrupt world. Like American Buffalo it intensifies toward explosion and rapprochement. Like Woods it employs two characters and three scenes to explore a complex, discordant relationship between a man and woman. And like Glengarry Glen Ross, whose initial casual conversation is an ostensibly innocent analysis of self doubt, Oleanna cunningly draws us into overhearing a conversation between a professor, John, and his student, Carol. Thus, John's office, with its potential for entrapment and vulnerability to both realistic and ephemeral intrusions, is simultaneously familiar and defamiliarized, the site of a philosophical tutorial and the "alleged" scene of the crime where sexual harassment did/did not occur.
Played arrestingly by William H. Macy, John is a smug, pompous, insufferable man whose power over academic lives he unconsciously abuses. Carol, Mamet's most fully realized female character, acted with chilling constraint by the bespectacled Rebecca Pidgeon (for whom the part was written), is a mousy, confused cipher whose failure to comprehend "the concepts" and "the precepts" presented in John's class and book has motivated her appeal for instruction. Their Socratic exchange metamorphoses into a battle of wits and ideologies as Carol's shyness, energized into a selfrighteousness, is inflamed by her group. Similarly, Carol's feverish note taking in scene 1 is transmuted into a litigious indictment charging professorial misconduct and rape. With ebbing confidence, John appeals to Carol's humanity, but empowered, she endeavors to convert her antagonist. Gambling on John's willingness to admit his guilt to retain his job, Carol offers a plea bargain: a statement of recantation and list of banned books, including his own. The setting of the university is brilliantly conceived, not only because it questions the nature and value of higher education, but because it reflects the radical change from liberal community to battlefield where zealot dominates scholar. Beautifully prepared by the breakdown of reason and language, John's cri de coeur, "you cunt," and violent attack on Carol in the last ninety seconds nonetheless shocks us and him—by its ferocity and humanity. It is a stunning theatrical moment.
Under Mamet's taut direction, the actors have generated a production equal to the intelligence, artistry, vitality, vision, and ambiguity of Mamet's script. Moreover, the hyperrealism and precision of Mamet's rhythmic poetry—its incompleteness reflecting the separation between thought and its expression as well as combatants—has never seemed so appropriate nor sounded so amplified by repetitions, incomplete sentences, and contrapuntal speech.
If Oleanna enrages and engages—and it most certainly does (Pidgeon was hissed at several performances I attended)—it is largely because Mamet masterfully reveals the pernicious, pervasive evil of thought control, the McCarthyism of the 1990s. It is simply too easy to dismiss Oleanna as antifeminist, even misogynist. Male and female alike we understand that Carol's willful interpretation of the truth—however much it costs her—has little to do with the abolition of elitism and sexism. What we are speaking about here is fascism masquerading as humanitarianism. "In this play," admits Mamet, "the unthinkable, the unbelievable becomes real." In asking "how did we get here?", Mamet is squarely on target.
Westfield State College