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Oleanna Critical Review Essay

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Alluding to the Clarence Thomas controversy, the play seems to be criticizing the society's over adherence to political correctness and commenting on the prevalent use of feminism as a form of manipulation during that time. Feminism is portrayed negatively in this play through the depiction of Carol as a radical and manipulative character. John is certainly arrogant and not likable, but many things he said can actually be interpreted differently. His words and actions are taken out of the context of that particular situation and conversation and interpreted in the worst possible way. For instance, when he said "I like you" to Carol, under that context he is only trying to show kindness and reassure Carol who appears to be very frustrated. Yet when taken out of the context and strictly examined with the guidelines of what is politically correct, it could be interpreted as inappropriate. It can be concluded that Mamet is unsupportive of such social phenomenon where a political movement can be manipulated to serve one's own agenda.

The most obvious theme in Oleanna is the constant struggle for power between men and women, and also between those with less power and those with more power. At the beginning, Carol as a female student is defenseless against John and has almost no power. John has title, money, and is in charge both in his own household and at a societal level. In this sense, John's power and authority as male professor is absolute. However, there is also power in Carol's apparent weakness. Ironically, Carol's power also lies in the fact that she is a woman. She understands how to manipulate her weak position in order to take advantage of John. She knows that the tenure board will protect the weak and be in favor of her due to the feminist movement during that time, so she charges John of sexual harassment and rape simply because she can. In the end, when John is stripped of his powers (his job, his house), he resorts to physical power by assaulting Carol. In conclusion, sometimes power is not absolute, and even weakness can be manipulated to become power.

Language in used in this play to represent power. As evident from the change in language patterns used by the characters, it can be seen that eloquent speech and advanced vocabulary represent power. In Act One, Carol is portrayed as nervous, desperate, uncertain, and almost idiotic, thus her speech includes many pauses and ellipsis and she uses very simple sentences and vocabularies. Carol is also unable to comprehend advanced words used by John such as “paradigm” and “transpire” at the beginning. John, on the other hand, is fluent in speech and uses higher level scholarly vocabularies, demonstrating his confidence and authority over Carol as a male professor. However, as Carol gains slowly power over John in Act Two and Three, her sentences become more complex and her vocabulary level escalated. John's speech in turn deteriorated into broken sentences, and in the end, into angry outbursts and derogatory terms as he loses the power he once held.

Throughout the play, Carol and John's conversations are frequently interrupted, and they constantly seem to be unable to understand each other. At the beginning, Carol does not understand John's teachings and his use of vocabulary. Then later, John does not understand why Carol accused him for sexual harassment and offensive speech. The failure to understand and communicate without interruptions and misconceptions highlights the communication barriers between the characters, to demonstrate not only the distinction between student and professor, but more importantly the disparity between man and woman. Due to their difference in gender and status, there is a lack of concern and empathy for each other; they cannot stand in the shoes of each other to understand things from another perspective. While Carol thinks that she is fighting for a righteous cause against arrogant and patriarchal men like John, John thinks that he should have power and control over Carol as a social superior. This thus shows the antagonism between the genders as they each pursue seemingly incompatible goals.

Experiencing David Mamet's play "Oleanna" on the stage was one of the most stimulating experiences I've had in a theater. In two acts, he succeeded in enraging all of the audience - the women with the first act, the men with the second. I recall loud arguments breaking out during the intermission and after the play, as the audience spilled out of an off-Broadway theater all worked up over its portrait of...sexual harassment? Or was it self-righteous Political Correctness? There are two characters in the cast: A professor named John (William H. Macy) and his student, Carol (Debra Eisenstadt). She is failing his class. She absolutely cannot accept a failing grade, and so she visits him in his office, where he is distracted by telephone calls about a house he and his wife hope to buy. He never really seems to hear or understand her problem.


In the second act, the student returns, with a new wardrobe and a more confident attitude. She is now a member of an unidentified "group." She has brought charges of sexual harassment against the professor, based on statements and physical behavior she found offensive. He stands to lose his tenure and his beloved house. He absolutely cannot accept these losses.

An objective observer might conclude that the professor's behavior is incorrect in the first act, and the student's in the second; that the play is Mamet's attempt to portray the situation from both points of view. Yet even the movie's press kit lacks this objectivity. (On the basis of the grammatical errors it contains, I doubt if the kit was personally reviewed by Mamet.) "There are two sides to every story and they are both Carol's," we read. And "...

he instead turns their meeting into a platform from which he espouses his own pedantic ideologies on education and life, but not her grade.

Sentences fly, inner thoughts revealed and motives change with hair-pin precision." Penetrating as best I can the illiteracy of these sentences, and others later in the synopsis, I gather that Carol was basically right, and John basically wrong. Sarah Green, the co-producer of the film, is quoted as believing "Oleanna" is "the most feminist play David has ever written. I absolutely identified with the woman's point of view." But what has he done? It is made apparent in the first act that Carol is failing the course because she is either incapable or unprepared. Certainly the professor should not raise her grade simply because she is unhappy about it. Nor does he make an improper sexual advance - although his awkward movement at one point is later misinterpreted by Carol, and is the basis of the complaint that may destroy his career.

But then, you see, I am a man and Sarah Green is a woman.

The most illuminating value of "Oleanna" is that it demonstrates so clearly how men and women can view the same events through entirely different prisms. With all the best will in the world, despite a real effort, I cannot see the professor as guilty. I see the student as a monstrous creature who masks her own inadequacies with a manufactured ideological attack; she is failing the course not because she is a bad student but because her teacher is a sexist pig.


Everything I have written refers to the stage version of the play. Now we come to the film, directed by Mamet himself and essentially unchanged from the theatrical version. To my astonishment, it is not a very good film. I am not sure why. The original characters are there, and the situation, and the dialogue, and even one of the actors (Macy) is the same as on the stage. But the material never really takes hold. It seems awkward. It lacks fire and passion. Watching it was like having a pale memory of a vivid experience.

Would the film seem more powerful to someone unfamiliar with the play? I obviously have no way of knowing. All I can say is that Mamet's play, so provoking that I bought and read the script, doesn't seem to have the same effect on the screen. Certainly it will inspire some of the same arguments in its audience, and may be worth seeing for that reason. But as a film, it is a disappointment.

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