Oleanna, a powerful two-character drama by David Mamet, explores the destructiveness of miscommunication and excessive political correctness. It is a play about academic politics, student/teacher relationships, and sexual harassment.
Carol, a female college student, privately meets with her male professor. She is concerned about failing the class. She is frustrated because she doesn’t understand the professor’s overly verbose lectures.
At first the professor (John) is callous with her, but when she explains that she feels incompetent, he expresses empathy for her. Because he “likes her,” he bends the rules and decides to give her an “A” if she agrees to meet with him to discuss the material, one on one.
During most of Act One, the teacher is abrupt, interruptive, and distracted by continual phone calls about real estate problems. When the student does get a chance to speak, it is difficult for her to express herself clearly. Their conversation becomes personal and sometimes upsetting. He touches her shoulder on several occasions, urging her to sit down or to remain in the office.
Finally, she is about to confess something deeply personal, but the phone rings yet again and she never discloses her secret.
An unknown amount of time passes (probably a few days), and John meets with Carol again. However, it is not to discuss education or philosophy. The student has written a formal complaint about the professor’s behavior. She feels that the instructor was lewd and sexist. Also, she claims that his physical contact was a form of sexual harassment. Interestingly, Carol is now very well spoken. She criticizes him with great clarity and mounting hostility.
The teacher is astounded that his previous conversation was interpreted in such an offensive way. Despite John’s protests and explanations, Carol is unwilling to believe that his intentions were good. When she decides to leave, he holds her back. She becomes scared and rushes out the door, calling for help.
During their final confrontation, the professor is packing up his office. He has been fired. Perhaps because he is a glutton for punishment, he invites the student back to make sense out of why she destroyed his career. Carol has now become even more powerful. She spends much of the scene pointing out her instructor’s many flaws. She declares she is not out for revenge; instead she has been prompted by “her group” to take these measures.
When it is revealed that she has filed criminal charges of battery and attempted rape, things get really ugly! (But this article won’t spoil the ending for the reader.)
Who Is Right? Who Is Wrong?
The genius of this play is that it stimulates discussion, even arguments. Is the professor attracted to her in Act One? Does he behave inappropriately? Does he deserve to be denied tenure? What are her motives? Is she doing this simply out of spite? Is she right to claim her professor is sexist? Or is she merely over-reacting? That’s the fun of this drama; it all about the perspective of each audience member.
Ultimately, both characters are deeply flawed. Throughout the play they rarely agree or understand each other.
Mamet designs her character so that the most of the audience will ultimately loath her by Act Two. The fact that she interprets his touch on the shoulder as sexual assault shows that Carol may have some other issues that she does not reveal.
In the final scene, she tells the professor not to call his wife “Baby.” This is Mamet’s way of showing that Carol has truly crossed a line, prompting the enraged professor to cross a line of his own.
John may have good intentions in Act One; however, he doesn’t seem be a very good or wise instructor. He spends most of his time waxing eloquently about himself and very little time actually listening.
He does flaunt his academic power, and he does unintentionally demean Carol by shouting, “Sit down!” and by physically trying to urge her to stay and finish their conversation. He doesn’t realize his own capacity for aggression until it is too late. Still, many audience members believe that he is completely innocent of the charges of sexual harassment and attempted rape.
Ultimately, the student possesses an underlying deviousness. The teacher, on the other hand, is overtly pompous and foolish. Together they make a very dangerous combination.