In 1992, eight years after Glengarry Glen Ross won a Pulitzer Prize, the American playwright and film director David Mamet premiered his newest work before an audience of Brown undergraduates. Oleanna, which dramatizes a series of increasingly nightmarish conversations between a professor and his student, would go on to receive the kind of press that most writers can only fantasize about, with the Village Voice heralding it as “a tragedy of language that Wittgenstein might have relished” and the Boston Globe declaring that Mamet had “raised outrage to an art form.” The student audience, however, had a different reaction. “Don’t you think it’s politically questionable,” one person asked at the show’s conclusion, “to have the girl make a false accusation of rape?”
Indeed, Oleanna does contain a false accusation of rape — or an accusation in which the meaning of that word, like the word “racism” today, is stretched beyond any defensible limit. Yet the play predicts far more than that, anticipating such contemporary phenomena as the ability of victimhood to confer power, the tendency of leftists to willfully misunderstand their opponents when political gain can be had, and the inclination of “progressives” to engage in censorship. In short, Oleanna seems like it was written five minutes ago, despite its quarter-century of age. That the indignation of the original audience would almost certainly be echoed in 2017, at far greater volume, were Mamet to bring out the play now is but one illustration of his work’s remarkable farsightedness.
The play’s action takes place in a single room, described, in Mamet’s characteristically terse notes, as “John’s office.” John, a harried professor who has recently received good (though not yet formalized) news from his college’s tenure committee, is attempting to balance the demands of his profession with telephone calls concerning his purchase of a new house. With him is Carol, a student by turns perplexed and self-pitying, who begins their meeting by asking John to define the phrase “term of art” (tellingly, his answer is distracted and incomprehensible) and soon confesses that she understands almost none of what she has been hearing in class.
For veteran teachers, or for anyone who has eaten the bitter ration of educational failure, this opening scene contains no small amount of pathos. Carol’s writing is drivel (“I think that the ideas contained in this work express the author’s feelings in a way that he intended”), yet John’s instruction is alternately defensive and patronizing. Carol struggles even to define her confusion, yet John, an incorrigible theorist, can offer only bromides about education-as-“hazing” and the “virtual warehousing of the young.”
Making matters worse, both John and Carol speak in classic Mamet style — a punchy (but believable) hyperrealism in which, as the scholar Verna A. Foster has written, characters drift around a subject “while each asserts that he understands what the other is talking about.” The resulting conversations, as the following example illustrates, can feel startlingly uncommunicative, even when a message finally does come through:
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.
Add to this mutual inarticulateness the problems inherent in arguments between unequal participants (John is, after all, Carol’s teacher), and one can glimpse a disaster in the making.
When that disaster finally strikes, early in Act Two, it does so with a speed that is frankly terrifying. As far as the audience has been able to tell, John and Carol’s first conversation has ended amicably enough, with John rushing off to a party and Carol no longer in hysterics. No resolution has been reached, but neither have things escalated, and one can imagine a tutor and a bit of extra credit putting an end to the matter.
In the space between acts, however, Carol has been radicalized. Buoyed by an unnamed “group,” she has gone to the tenure committee with a list of complaints: that John “said he ‘liked’” her, that he “wanted to take off the artificial stricture of Teacher and Student,” that he “put his arm around” her — claims that are at once true and grossly false. They happened, all of them, but they didn’t happen like that.
Rather, Mamet has engineered a dramatic role reversal — one designed to illustrate the mercenary character that campus feminism has acquired. Unsatisfied with John’s sympathy (his attempts to comfort her in Act One are bumbling but sincere), Carol has moved from despondence to aggression, first eliciting John’s compassion, then turning that compassion against him. What John has failed to understand, and what the audience soon realizes, is that Carol covets not sympathy but John’s power to grant or withhold it as he chooses: a power inextricably linked to their roles (professor and student) in a predetermined system. The plot of Oleanna is Carol’s substitution of one such system for another. The teacher–student dynamic will always render her comparatively powerless. But the abuser–victim dynamic, in an ad hoc court of inquisition of the sort so often seen on today’s campuses, will grant her as much power as she desires.
And so Oleanna proceeds, with an appalled and mystified John maintaining that he’s done nothing wrong and an increasingly aggrieved Carol insisting that “wrong” — here again the play anticipates our time — is no longer his to define. By Oleanna’s end, Carol has reported John for battery and attempted rape (he took hold of her at the end of Act Two to keep her from leaving his office) and produced a list of books, including John’s own, that her group finds objectionable. Should John agree not to teach them, Carol will “speak to the committee” in his behalf. John’s career and freedom, if not his self-respect, will be restored.
As Thomas Carlyle might have put it, tell me what a man thinks of Oleanna, and I will tell you his politics. Is John, as Carol suggests, an “exploiter” who, from a “so-protected, so-elitist seat,” strives for “unlimited power” over his students? Or is Carol “a deranged . . . revolutionary,” ready to betray “freedom of thought” in the name of “political correctness”? Relatedly, is it to society’s benefit that few male professors these many years later would ever “closet with a student,” to borrow Carol’s phrase? Or have we, in our paranoid readiness to see a potential sexual affront in every human interaction, foolishly pathologized what were once straightforward, respectful relationships?
A different playwright might have given his audience time to consider these questions. Oleanna, however, offers no such opportunity. Instructed by Carol not to call his wife “Baby” (she has overheard his telephone call home), John “grabs her and begins to beat her,” to quote the blunt wording of Mamet’s stage directions. John’s violence is despicable and obscene, but it is also, in its wretched way, a political act. Just as Carol has seized the advantage by replacing one system with another, so John attempts to take the upper hand by making a substitution of his own. Gone in an instant is the language and ideology of weaponized feminism. In its place is the harsher reality of raw physical strength.
Six years before Oleanna’s completion, Mamet had tested this very theme in an essay in Vanity Fair. In arguments between husbands and wives, “the ultimate response the man feels is . . . physical violence,” he asserted. “People can say what they will, we men think, but if I get pushed just one little step further, why I might, I might just _______ (fill in the blank) because she seems to have forgotten that I’m stronger than her.”
To the extent that feminism has discredited such barbarism, it has been successful. Yet feminism has not stopped there, wedding itself instead to the Left’s project of silencing all opponents, a strategy on display both in Oleanna and on campuses now. Stripped of any legitimate recourse, persecuted and shamed, John resorts to a noxious and self-defeating violence. How many of today’s college students will be driven into the arms of thuggish “protest” movements by similar circumstances?
Unhappily, Oleanna offers no answers, just as we seem to have none in 2017. It is, however, a work of exceptional prescience: “a play,” in the words of The Spectator’s Sheridan Morley, “about who[m] shall be given the power of deciding what things mean.” Such language should feel very familiar these days. And terrifying.
– Mr. Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.