Oleanna (1994)

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.

  • Claire spoke:
    22nd/07/2010 to 4:44 pm

    Have you read The Woman Beater?

    Working from the end backwards, the two stories sound comparable in several ways (though Zangwill’s aim seems to be truer, going on your review here).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/07/2010 to 6:07 pm

    Claire – Thanks for stopping by. I haven’t read it, but thanks for the link so I can take a look.

  • Kevin J. Olson spoke:
    22nd/07/2010 to 7:00 pm

    Wonderful, wonderful essay on one of the Mamet’s I’ve always had the hardest time with, and I’m someone who doesn’t shy away from the fact that I am a Mamet acolyte (I think I may be the only person who think STATE AND MAIN is good, heeh).

    I was struck by your final paragraph, in particular this line:

    Eisenstadt strives to individualize Carol, but she can’t overcome the deficits Mamet has hung on her.

    I’m curious, Marilyn, do you think Mamet hamstrings his female actors? I’ve always wondered with this particular story if Mamet purposefully directed Eisenstadt that way because Mamet sided with the Macy character. Do you think Mamet misunderstands women, and purposefully misdirects them in the same way someone like von Trier does? Just curious.

    Great essay!

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/07/2010 to 7:26 pm

    I haven’t seen this, but I’ve watched a lot of Mamet’s adaptations and original works, and something that’s always struck me is how his peccadillo for femme fatales, and that steely/neurotic dynamic that inflects his female characters, can get in the way of his better intentions, as it looks like it does here. Lindsay Crouse’s character and performance in House of Games is the defining example. Ironically the best female character in his films is the one he didn’t write himself, Catherine Winslow in The Winslow Boy, and he still turned her into a Mamet character in her uber-smart-but-brittle verbal combativeness. But then again, that’s a large part of his familiar dynamic, that attempt to communicate blocs of power through words, and his women are fetishised conduits for that.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/07/2010 to 8:31 pm

    Rod – I totally agree with everything you’ve said here. I did think of Carol as a femme fatale and compared her in my mind to Crouse in House of Games while I was writing this, down to very similar wardrobing. I also think The Winslow Boy is his best film, and I thought Redbelt showed some real progress with his female characterizations.

    Kevin – I don’t think there’s anything deliberate in his problems with female characters. I just don’t think he gets women at all. He’s a macho guy steeped in the world of men. That’s where he shines. He doesn’t know how to get inside a woman’s head, and his expressionist style doesn’t generate any heat or even warmth that could make these women break out of the ice queen perception we have of cool women – not even icy hot Grace Kelly could survive in his style. Emotions in his world are reflected in violence; anything else is just a con, a pose. When Crouse shoots Mantegna in House of Games, she blossoms as a woman, like she was just waiting for someone to generate the fire of anger in her. That’s just not a woman’s way, from my perspective. Mamet, in essence, keeps turning his women into men because he understands a man’s passion and intensity. How can he direct women if he really doesn’t know not only how to get feelings out of them, but also what those emotions should be.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    23rd/07/2010 to 9:52 am

    “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. ”

    This is a fascinating observation in a review (and summary judgement) that I largely agree with. Particularly I like the Socratic dialogue assertion and the proposal that despite it’s stagebound execution, it does have a thought-provoking premise. This is not remotely my favorite Mamet (I suspect you like a few others more yourself) but it’s not easy to dismiss.

    As to the argument that Mamet has not written a single thorough and successful female character, I’d pose that he did with Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) in HOUSE OF GAMES, though she’s an aloof, unsympathetic character in an unflattering physical embodiment. But again, she’s an amazing creation, and one of Mamet’s all-time most fascinating creations, nonetheless, even in the context of a symbol. I understand though that his basic presentation with female characters is one-dimensional, hence I can see some disdain for his failure to leave the proverbial box.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/07/2010 to 10:20 am

    Sam – I love House of Games, but Margaret Ford does not ring true as a woman to me. She makes noises like Mamet thinks a woman should act – compassion toward her jailed patient (her shadow, I suppose), a bit gullible and driven by passion over a betrayal, but it’s all got a tin sound to my feminine ear. He really tried with that character, but didn’t pull it off; therefore, while I agree she is interesting, I don’t think she’s terribly successfully realized.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    23rd/07/2010 to 11:17 am

    Aye Marilyn, I did hedge my bets in my comment, and what you just added here makes me pull further back.

  • David Ehrenstein spoke:
    24th/07/2010 to 9:30 am

    Like Neil LaBute and Todd Solonz, Mamet is a one-trick reactionary pony vibrating with puffed-up misanthropy and imagined male privilege.

    I despise the lot of them.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/07/2010 to 10:11 am

    David, I see you’ve followed our discussion from The House Next Door to over here. I really don’t see any puffed-up misanthropy in Mamet, nor imagined male privilege (whatever you mean by that). Male privilege is actual in our society. You might not find it worth watching, but I find it quite interesting in terms of understanding the male psyche at this moment in time. Plus, each of these men has made some good, thought-provoking films, and Mamet is a talent I’ve admired from his earliest days here in Chicago, though he’s more a theatre guy than a movie guy.

  • bill r. spoke:
    24th/07/2010 to 8:07 pm

    Great essay, Marilyn, on what must be Mamet’s most problematic play/film, though also one of his most fascinating. I have to admit that I’ve always sort of loved the film, though I can’t defend it cinematically. It’s the epitome of a “filmed play”, but I find it very easy to get lost in his language, and I think Macy is superb. Eisenstadt less so — it was supposed to be Pidgeon in the role, but she discovered she was pregnant. I don’t know how short the notice for Eisenstadt was, but whatever the case she rivals only Crouse for stiffness as a lead in a Mamet film.

    As for what’s actually going on in OLEANNA — well, that ending, that “My God…” and “Yes, that’s right” sure does make things hard to pin down. From my perspective, up to that point, John was clearly in the right, morally and ethically, but, as you point out, his arrogance and inability to see what might actually be troubling Carol, as well as his flippant attitude towards higher education, totally blinds him. Which reminds me that, by way of an explanation for that ending, Mamet once said that John “realizes that he is the cause of the plague in Thebes.” This turns out to be decidedly unhelpful, when you remember that well Oedipus was technically the cause of the plague, he actually didn’t do anything wrong — he didn’t know that was his mother, and so forth.

    I remember when the play hit big, discussion centered on “whose side are you on?” I think OLEANNA certainly courts that way of looking at it, and I have, indeed, picked my side, but I wonder if that’s too reductive. It has me thinking now of EDMOND, which presents a take on race (among other things) that has a similar baiting quality, but which, by the end, it’s very difficult to know what Mamet expects you to think of it all. I love EDMOND at least in part for that very reason. It’s hard to even put into words what I think is powerful about the approach without making it seem like I’m just giving Mamet a pass, when I could just as well, and possibly with more evidence, call him out for being philosophically hazy. But with OLEANNA, I think Mamet’s Thebes quote is pretty instructive in the amount of confusion it adds to my way of thinking about the play, and the film.

    Anyway, that probably didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there it is. One other thing I’d like to make note of, though, is the songs in the film. Pidgeon wrote the music, and Mamet wrote the lyrics, and I think they’re quite beautiful. I’m especially fond of the song that plays over the end credits, sung by Pidgeon, called “Our Brief College Days”. I really think that’s a wonderful song, and worth mentioning, just to praise it.

  • OMAR spoke:
    26th/07/2010 to 4:47 am

    I have yet to see Oleanna and can determine quite strongly from the comments that it is a provocative film, one that generates a lot of debate in regards to gender/power relations. Mamet is undoubtedly a brilliant writer but I think he is somewhat overlooked as a film maker. His early films including Homicide and House of Games are not simply dialogue led but brilliantly directed. He has got less angry though but The Spanish Prisoner is perahps his greatest achievement and also comes with one of Steve Martin’s best performances. La Bute is also interested in exploring the notion of male/female victimisation which has become commonplace in society today. I will have to watch Oleanna – is it avaliable on DVD?

  • Pat spoke:
    1st/08/2010 to 1:05 pm

    Marilyn, this is an extremely late-breaking response, as I was out of town and offline when you posted this. I happened to catch part of “Oleanna” again on cable yesterday, and I find all your commentary here to be very apt. There is definitely a mismatch in quality of performance between Macy (who is superb and seems like a real, flesh-and-blood character wtih a discernble inner life) and Eisenstadt (who is more like an academic construct that an actual person, and largely unsympathetic.). Bill’s comments abouth the original casing interested me – I can’t think that Rebecca Pidgeon would have been any better. I find her all performances under Mamet’s direction to be equally flat and unconvicing. The best she’s ever been, to my mind, was in her brief appearance opposite Steve Martin in “Shopgirl.”

    For what it’s worth, I – like Kevin – really enjoy “State and Main,” and think some of the comic female performances (by Sarah Jessica Parker, Patti LuPone and Julia Stiles in particular) are delightful.

  • Colin spoke:
    21st/08/2010 to 4:45 am

    What a fantastic read. There’s so little written about this play/movie, and I love it because of the emotion it triggered in me. As a man, I suppose I took everything Macy said in a non-threatening manner, not seeing the implication behind the words. I became incensed at Eisenstadt’s character twisting his words and (to my eternal shame) cheered when he hit her. Apparently I’m not alone in this; a West End performance of the play resulted in half the audience doing the same when Julia Chiles was on the receiving end.
    I’m grateful for this essay, and consider the site bookmarked!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/08/2010 to 10:56 am

    Bill, Omar, Pat, and Colin – Thanks for your great comments. I was too busy with work to answer the first three, but appreciate with your insights. Pat, I’m glad you feel the same way I do – it shows my “female intuition” was not offbase.

    Colin – I don’t know if you need to feel ashamed; Mamet did stack the deck against Carol, and I believe he was taking a big poke at political correctness; he was a teacher as well as a writer at this time (probably still is). As a Chicagoan, I’ve watched Mamet throughout his career and have gotten very familiar with his peccadillos and flaws, as well as his strengths. I don’t think the average theatregoer in the West End, there to see a big play by a big playwright, brings that kind of background to a reading of the work. I’m glad you understand where I’m coming from and that this review moved you. (And was that Julia Stiles? I really would like to see her do this part, as I am a fan of hers.)

  • Colin spoke:
    21st/08/2010 to 5:13 pm

    Did I really just write Julia Chiles? I’m losing it.
    I’m envious of your location; the opportunity to see a Mamet production is as rare as hen’s teeth in Britain. I have to make do with movie versions and the occasional brilliance therein.

  • Basil Lee spoke:
    10th/03/2012 to 2:47 pm

    I see Eisenstadt as intentionally cast as a Mamet woman, of which he need not be ashamed; the Mamet woman is deliberately icy and invariably effective, to my mind.

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