This month I've been helping a friend out with publicity for a production of Oleanna. I realize that writing a post about the show is automatically suspect, since it's still running and I'm helping promote it, but truth be told, this play makes me think about a lot of things and I just want to get them out. I won't pretend that I wouldn't love it if you went to see it, but heck, that's not what this post is about, so let's just move on.
Oh, also, there are probably some spoilers in this post, so if you care about keeping the plot of a play that was written over twenty years ago a secret, don't read on.
Oleanna is, for me, a very problematic play. Well-written, for sure. Full of Mamet's penchant for controversy, you bet. Controversy isn't problematic, but the fact that this play is billed (and intended to be) "the ultimate he-said/she-said." It's meant to be, I imagine, something like Shanley's Doubt, where - when played "right" - the audience walks out not knowing who was right or wrong.
In some ways, Oleanna play achieves that. Everyone leaves this play arguing. There is, however, one, major problem: no matter how much John (the professor) is a sleaze, a dirt bag, a total pompous jerk, or anything else unlikeable, Carol takes it too far. Carol is clearly making an example out of John, and that is problematic because nobody likes watching someone be made an example of. We like to see mean and privileged people knocked down from their pedestals, sure, but we don't like seeing them stomped to a pulp while down there. Then we start to feel sorry for them.
The problem is in the structure of the play. In scene one we see John dominating Carol and, potentially, being sexually inappropriate. Scene two shows Carol in power and John begging for help, and then physically restraining Carol at the end of it. Scene three, John is ruined and Carol continues in her mission to destroy him. Here is where the who's right/who's wrong battle gets lost. Yes, John may have been wrong before, but now Carol is taking it a step too far and her perspective is washed away as too extreme. It's been too long since we saw John being terrible - this is now the second scene running where he is knocked down and she has lost sympathy.
The infuriating aspect to all this is that Carol makes so many good points. John represents everything that is wrong with benign patriarchy. He thinks he is helping. He does, to a degree, care. But ultimately he wants power and he hurts those who get in his way. His violent turn in the end also show how this patriarchy, that can seem so innocuous, lives on the same spectrum as violence and rape, and it really takes a tiny nudge to knock it over that edge.
To those who argue that he was provoked and we would all act out violently provoked, I say - true. Sort of. When he physically restrains her, that's an example of using force out of desperation. If, at the end of the play, he hit her, restrained her, or did another small acts of violence, then I would say that yes, it was an act of violence out of desperation because he was provoked. That's not all he does, though. He hits her, knocks her down, and chokes her while yelling "you deserve to be raped!" This is different, and speaks to the violence on the flip side of patriarchal culture.
Yet this argument is almost completely lost, because of how Mamet structured the play and how he wrote Carol.
This is, of course, a problem in a lot of Mamet plays. Mamet's women are, overall, problematic. They are usually sneaky, conniving, and out to ruin someone's life over an arbitrary grudge or to make a point.
I think this all gets summed up very well by my first reaction to reading Oleanna. I was a young theatre student, and it was the first Mamet play I had ever read or encountered. I found it in a used book store and thought "oh, I still haven't read any Mamet, I should do that", and bought it. After I got to the end of the play, I have a distinct memory of closing the book and one sentence running through my head: "I guess David Mamet doesn't like women very much."