OLEANNA: A PLAY BY DAVID MAMETOleanna
's the full text of the play.ThemesPolitical CorrectnessOleanna is primarily a backlash against the American political correctness movement of the 1990s, which encouraged minimizing offensiveness in all aspects of life. Common examples include phrases like African- American replacing Black or African, gender neutrality in writing, and great concern about interpersonal behavior that could be construed as sexual in nature or intent. Political correctness teaches great sensitivity to situations in which sexual harassment may occur, and the action of Oleanna shows the characters within this framework. John is completely insensitive to the dangers of being in such a situation; he refuses to censor himself and constantly watch his own actions, and so he is charged with sexual harassment by Carol.
If taken to its logical extreme, this mandated sensitivity could become so invasive, so overpowering that every interpersonal act could be construed as sexual in nature and, as a result, punishable. Carol's admission that the charges may be false yet cannot be denied by the accused is the dangerous conclusion of this extreme form of political correctness. What began with good intent as a safeguard for the rights of everyone becomes an unstoppable tool for the malicious and the power-hungry. While the charges of rape and battery are somewhat extreme in such a situation, John's actions may be interpreted as sexual harassment by the letter of many laws, and his punishment is not by any means fantastical; what happens in Oleanna could very well happen in real life. By bringing this to life on the stage, the play suggests that the audience question its own judgment of what constitutes sexual harassment. To what extent is intent important, and to what extent is the offense in the eye of the beholder?
John is a professor who teaches a class on higher education; Carol is a student. Every scene in this play takes place in a professor's office at a college. Higher education is not only the backdrop for Oleanna, it also serves as a subject of ideological scrutiny. Mamet includes several thought-provoking barbs relating to the system. John questions the necessity of a college education and how much good it really does for students. For John, college is a ritualized form of "hazing," in which teachers go through the traditional motions, claiming that they are teaching while really inculcating the students with the belief that higher education is good and necessary. Teaching, for John, is nothing if not self-perpetuating; many students, he suggests, do not really learn, instead coming away with a firm belief that education is an unassailable good and that they have learned. Carol, however, takes this as an assault upon her right to an education, arguing that she and other students will take quite a bit out of an education for which they have worked very hard and that people like John make it more difficult for those students to learn because of their power roles. When John calls education no more than hazing, when Carol cannot perform up to par in something that isn't even real but instead some meaningless ritual—if these characteristics make the case, she sees John and others of his status as mocking what she is working for, holding her confusion as a joke and not taking seriously a process which Carol and other students hold extremely dear to their own self-improvement. Behind the scenes, higher education in this play shows the contrast between the worth of the system and of its critiques, as well as the dangers of seeing only one of the two.
Communication is more important structurally than textually. The ringing phone ranges in role from an interruption in John's convincing rhetoric to a sort of deus ex machina that controls the lives of the characters on stage. John's interruptions express much of his character, and the clipped conversations hint at the characters' fundamental inability to understand each other. The action is constrained to one room and two characters, and the telephone is the only method of communication with the outside world. When the phone rings, it is for John, and only he is shown as communicating with someone else. Carol mentions a group of advisers several times, but there is no evidence that they exist or how she communicates with them. In this sense, the mere presence of the phone calls contrasts John, who communicates somewhat normally with others and leads a life outside of the office, with Carol, who, in the play itself, only communicates with John. The telephone calls back up John's claims to Carol; he does lead an outside life and have outside responsibilities, as the two sometimes cross over in the form of telephone communication.
Whatever John communicates through his speeches, the way they are constructed speaks volumes about his character. His use of more academic words and his frequent allusions both characterize him as well educated and perhaps haughty, and Carol certainly seems to think that he overuses big words in an attempt to belittle her. He begins the play repeatedly interrupting Carol, which shows his lack of concern for her right of speech and his own self-esteem. Social mores hold that interruption is impolite, but for one reason or another John regularly violates this rule. Similarly, when by the Act three Carol begins interrupting John, she is recognizing and taking advantage of her own power over him, which allows her to violate the rule and show disregard for his rights. How these two people communicate shows certain aspects of what they think about themselves and about each other.
Ultimately, Mamet is going as far as to ask what it means for two people to communicate and how much of what is intended is actually expressed through our methods of communication. His conclusions seem disheartening; the two are so incapable of communication that John must resort to clear, unambiguous physical action—serious violence—to finally express himself.
Mamet constantly uses interruptions as an example of rhetorical structure elucidating character. When John interrupts Carol, this tells us something about him—that he is arrogant and little concerned with what she says. Similarly, when they engage in a mutually interruptive conversation, we are seeing that their problems in conversation stem in part from their relative lack of concern for the role of the other in conversation; each would be equally happy if he or she were able to propound their views before a stone wall or a video camera. Interruptions are difficult to read and in actual performance are violent and disconcerting, and so Mamet returns to them as a method of showing the communication barriers between the characters.
When Carol is with John, she is following her own agenda and playing games with him, and so she hides her true feelings and motivations. While hiding her real thoughts and feelings may be believable in the context of the play, presenting us only with John's conception of Carol threatens her three-dimensionality and pushes her toward becoming symbolic. Instead of being a complex character with many conflicting aspects, Carol at times appears to be a caricature who is attacking John for being oppressive and not being politically correct; as such, we can see her as representing the politically correct movement. One interpretation of the final scene has it being symbolic of the real world attacking the virus of political correctness the best way it knows how, with force. This reading might even suggest that Mamet wishes us to excise the tumor and abandon political correctness altogether. This is definitely an oversimplification but looking at the play in this light—with Carol as symbolic of the politically correct movement as a whole—yields some interesting insight. It is important to note, however, that Mamet's body of work is almost entirely lacking in important symbolism and that he has been cast as a writer in a genre that is not interested in symbolism. It is doubtful that Mamet intended any overt symbolism in the play, and while reading it through the lens of a set symbols may be insightful and thought-provoking, it is more than likely not the author's wishes that any such set of symbols be exclusive.