Director/Screenwriter: David Mamet
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Oh to be in Oleanna,
That’s where I’d like to be
Than to be in Norway
And bear the chains of slavery.
Little roasted piggies
Rush around the city streets
Inquiring so politely
If a slice of ham you’d like to eat.
Beer as sweet as Muncheners
Springs from the ground and flows away
The cows all like to milk themselves
And the hens lay eggs ten times a day.
This satirical folk song about the failed utopia Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull tried to set up in 19th century Pennsylvania is the obscure and pretentious origin of the name of David Mamet’s play Oleanna—and perhaps that pretension was part of Mamet’s game plan. The idea of Oleanna certainly makes sense to the aspirations of the play’s two characters—a smug professor about to grasp the gold ring of guaranteed employment and freedom of thought that is tenure and a working-class, somewhat dull female student of his who has sacrificed to realize her supposed promise at the expensive, exclusive university at which the play is set. The tragedy of their Oleanna is that neither are true believers in the power of education; instead, their cynical pretensions barely conceal that they have each put their faith in power and hierarchy to get ahead.
Tellingly, the play premiered in 1992 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a stoning’s throw from Harvard, and not so far from Worcester, Mass., the home of College of the Holy Cross, where then-newly minted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas matriculated in English literature 20 years earlier. Thomas almost certainly inspired this examination of sexual politics, as the term “sexual harassment” (ha-RASS-ment or HAR-ass-ment was the pronunciation dilemma of 1991) was ubiquitous following testimony at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing by Anita Hill. Hill, Thomas’ special assistant when they both worked at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said he had spoken in a sexually inappropriate manner to her on several occasions. Testimony by Angela Wright, another Thomas aide, that “she had not considered the behavior to be sexual harassment, but that others might” seems to have informed Mamet’s construction of the play. Mamet’s obsession with language and meaning gets a workout in this play, as interpretation of the text/subtext of the first act leads to a radical and ruinous shift in power in the second.
The play was moved to the screen with little consideration for cinematic possibilities by the man who created it in the first place. That is not pleasing for the more cinematically inclined members of the audience, but the virtue of this approach is that we are really forced to consider the movie’s text—how language can be flattened of nuance by committing it to paper (presaging the rampaging misunderstandings that take place every day in online communications), how interruptions in conversation can destroy understanding, and how social position (teacher/student, male/female) can create a very different experience for the participants in a conversation.
During the first half, John (William H. Macy) is meeting in his office with Carol (Debra Eisenstadt), a student of his who is doing poorly. Repeatedly, Carol says she doesn’t understand a word he is saying, that she can’t follow the discussions, and that she has tried and failed to understand his point of view in the book he has written and is using as a classroom text. John takes the blame for her lack of understanding, and offers to have intensive one-on-one sessions with her to help her succeed. He offers a reassuring arm around the shoulder, and reveals a bit of his personal life, perhaps as a way to build rapport or perhaps simply because he is constantly interrupting their conversation to take phone calls from his wife and real estate agent. John explains that he is awaiting an announcement that he has made tenure and is buying a house to go along with his new job security and salary increase. As befits their respective positions and prospects—imminent success and looming failure—John is magnanimous, a rush of erudite words and concepts, and only slightly regretful that he has to take call after call during their meeting; Carol is sheepish, desperate, bewildered, and frankly kind of annoying in her repeated, emphatic “I don’t understand” and commands that John explain his $10 words in plain English.
During the second half, the tables are turned—John is the sheepish and desperate one. Carol has filed a complaint against him for sexual harassment and racism (using the term “the white man’s burden”) and submitted a report to the tenure committee detailing his abuses. What? This is as unexpected for audiences as it is for John, but Carol has written everything down from their meeting. When read out loud, it sounds like what she accuses him of:
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 he had problems with his wife and that he wanted to take off the artificial stricture of teacher and student. He put his arms around…
Carol has fallen in with a “group,” which given the elite university setting suggests women modeled on Mary McCarthy’s characters in The Group (at least, that was a fun and useful way for me to imagine how Mamet might have conceptualized them while writing the script). Her group has apparently instructed her in the error of John’s ways and helped her draft a list of demands that could possibly save John his job, if not guarantee his tenure; one of the demands includes the banning of several books from the curriculum, including his. His indignation at this affront pushes him from cajoling to defiant. The last straw, however, is when John learns from his wife that Carol has charged him with attempted rape; witnesses heard her yell for him to let go of her and saw her run frantically from his office at the end of the first half. “You think that you can destroy my life after how I’ve treated you,” he yells and begins slapping and hitting her, stopping just short of pummeling her with a heavy chair. The final words, as he recoils from himself in horror, are “Oh my god.” “Yes, that’s right,” says Carol. The ambiguity of that final sentence is interesting to ponder—has John finally had his consciousness raised about his own monstrous prerogatives, or has Carol become the new god in his universe(ity).
Sorry for all the wordplay, but Mamet’s language is always very carefully chosen for its depth of meanings. Of course, he takes kind of cockeyed aim at the political correctness that was spreading through campuses at the time; John is skewered for the historical and relatively innocuous phrase “white man’s burden.” Perhaps, tellingly, the example of another professor in Philip Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stain being dismissed for using the word “niggardly” in class points to the larger problem of the decay of vocabulary in American society.
But vocabulary is the least of it. Although Carol doesn’t understand a few words John uses, such as “paradigm” and “predilection,” she is not inarticulate, and she clearly understands that John is a hypocrite. Her protests that she doesn’t understand refer to how it is possible for John to bite the hand that feeds him, criticizing in his book and in his lectures the assumption that higher education is necessary. John and Carol are moving at opposite purposes toward social mobility—John is already at the top and so declares that one doesn’t have to go to college to achieve, whereas the still-striving Carol sees he wouldn’t be saying such things if he hadn’t already succeeded and resents his condescension. He pretends to question social constructs like higher education, and yet when faced with a construct he is not consciously aware of—his male prerogatives—he is relatively defenseless and reduced to animal aggression to defend himself.
What I find most interesting about Oleanna is that it seems to be an exercise in Mamet trying to figure out women. He has, in my opinion, never written a wholly successful woman character; in fact, some of them have failed miserably. His early, most successful plays revolved around the rituals and relationships of men. His abstract expressionist verbiage isn’t very user-friendly for actors or audiences and requires a strong grasp on the feelings and motivations that underlie it in order for a character to truly emerge as a person. William H. Macy, a cofounder with Mamet of Chicago’s now-defunct St. Nicholas Theatre, originated several of the playwright’s roles and has learned to climb into this difficult skin. He knows how to punch Mamet’s words like a pointillist painter to create the image. He also can let us know a dozen thoughts with a look. For example, when Carol is about to reveal a part of herself she has “never told anyone,” the phone rings; he knows he should let it ring, but he really doesn’t want to become her confidant and cares more about his pending home purchase anyway. The guilty/apologetic/offhand look Macy assumes is exactly right and forms a crucial link in the vehemence of Carol’s attack on him in the second half.
Eisenstadt fares less well. Not only can’t Mamet write women, he can’t really direct them. He has her use props to signal her mental state, putting on her glasses and pulling her hair back when she becomes defensive and rejects mercy for John. He has her sounding as stupid as she thinks she is in the first half with inappropriately punched repetitions of “I don’t understand.” The flatness in her voice, certainly as directed by Mamet, robs her of her intelligence and nuance and does not adequately convey her fear of failing John’s class and intimidation about her privileged surroundings. He forces her to find her identity in her group, as though she had no mind of her own, and seems to turn her into a Cultural Revolutionary with the anti-educational act of proposing a ban on certain books. Eisenstadt strives to individualize Carol, but she can’t overcome the deficits Mamet has hung on her.
So, in the end, Oleanna is something like a Socratic dialog, where we get to judge the “he said, she said” evidence and render a verdict. Mamet stacks the deck against Carol, and it’s hard not to think she completely overreacted and is actually a virulent danger. Turning John into an abuser at the end is the only way Mamet knows to balance the scale, but there’s an ever-so-slight hint of “she deserves it.” The film is a stilted, stagebound misfire, but it’s still fascinating, thought-provoking, and a snapshot of America’s recent culture war at one of its most intense moments.