KPBS AIRDATE: May 25, 1994
Playwright David Mamet often takes demonic delight in tracing the fine line between standard business practices and sheer thuggery. It was all about Hollywood hype in “Speed-the-Plow,” and the slimy swampland of real estate in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross.” In “Oleanna,” his latest, perhaps most controversial work, Mamet tramps over the same turf, but this time he drags us into the hallowed halls of the Academe. He sets his rifle sights on pedantry, hypocrisy, elitism, and power plays; Mamet aims and shoots, with one explosion splattering political correctness and intellectual terrorism.
“Oleanna” pits a man against a woman, a teacher against a learner, a privileged pedagogue against an under-privileged whiner, a supposed free thinker against a slavish follower of rights and rules, a supercilious pedant who tries to force his charges to think against a confused and credulous pupil who needs to be told what to think.
This cast of characters is distilled down to two: the professor John and the student Carol. She comes to his office to question her failing grade on a paper, and to say that she doesn’t understand anything he’s been talking about all semester.
CAROL: 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…?
CAROL: … what am I then?
JOHN: I think you’re angry. Many people are.)
Distracted by last-minute negotiations on a new house, and a surprise party to celebrate — prematurely, it turns out — his promotion and tenure, John nonetheless tries to rewrite the teacher-student relationship and arranges a private tutorial for Carol. Then Mamet pulls the trigger and all hell breaks loose.
We don’t like either of these characters. She is wimpy, inarticulate, unable to think for herself. He is pompous, hyperverbal, condescending. But in that halting, fragmented, classically Mametian dialogue, they both tell truths. His cynically concern the sorry state of the Academe, the inanities of the tenure process, higher education assumed to be a ‘right’ and reduced to “ritualized hazing.” And her truths are buried in that minefield of sexual harassment, abuse of power, academic exploitation. Both take their arguments too far. Each refuses to acquiesce to the power of the other, and disaster ensues. She moves terrifyingly, inexorably from charges of sexual harassment to attempted rape. He moves from mollifying to anger to violence. The PC police have brought out their billy clubs. Political correctness has done its dirtiest of deeds.
In some of Mamet’s most muscular writing, Carol’s lack of understanding in act one is echoed in John’s incredulity in act two.
JOHN: What does this mean?
CAROL: I thought you knew.
JOHN: What. What does it mean.
CAROL: You tried to rape me. According to the law.
CAROL: You tried to rape me. I was leaving this office, you “pressed” yourself into me. You “pressed” your body into me.
JOHN: … I …
CAROL: My Group has told your lawyer that we may pursue criminal charges.
CAROL: … under the statute. I am told. It was battery.
JOHN: …. no ….
CAROL: Yes. And attempted rape. That’s right.
Director Jack O’Brien has masterfully spotlighted the subtleties and the ambiguities of the play in this highly effective and deeply disturbing Old Globe production. The terrific technical work is all metaphor; there’s no ceiling in the stark set; light streams in brilliantly, but fades. And periodically, we hear the cold, hard slam of prison doors. (SOUND BITE: slamming door)
Onstage, William Anton and Kathleen Dennehy take commanding control of the characters. When Mamet deals, the deck is always stacked — against the woman. We don’t like what she’s doing, we don’t believe her rapid transformation, but we do understand. This is very potent, provocative theater. Prepare yourself for an extended evening; the play itself is short, but your post-theater debate may last long into the night.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.