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Theatre Essays

History is written by the winners

OLEANNA by David Mamet, produced by Lindsay Posner at the Garrick Theatre in London

Most critics seem to think that David Mamet has written an analysis of male-female miscommunications:

In Virtual-Lancaster, Paul Wilkenson wrote.:

What men say and what women hear (and visa versa) is one of those tricky areas of human nature that science steers clear of and only playwrights and comedians dare to tread.

or an indictment of political correctness, as Michael Billington of the Guardian believes:

Mamet is not just attacking the lunatic excesses of political correctness. His play is really a lament for the destruction of mutual trust and personal interaction that makes academic freedom possible.

Maybe it seems to be about miscommunications or political correctness on the stage, and the final message of the play depends a good deal on how it is directed. But on the page, OLEANNA is a folk tale about a hero fighting evil.

The title of the play is inspired by a folk song, which Mamet quotes in the introductory pages of the published play:

"Oh, to be in Oleanna ,
That's where I would rather be.
Than be bound in Norway
And drag the chains of slavery."
- folk song

In OLEANNA, John the professor fights evil in the form of the Group (Mamet's capitalization). Many reviewers entirely overlook the importance of the Group to the dramatic structure of the play and focus on Carol, the student who accuses John of harassment. The Group is mentioned only four times in the play, and probably in a stage presentation the physical reality of actors portraying John and Carol works to minimize audience awareness of the Group even further. But in the text it's easier to see the Group is responsible for the power dynamic that develops between Carol and John.

JOHN: Yes. Tell me frankly.
CAROL: ...my position...
JOHN: I want to hear it. In your own words. What you want. And what you feel.
CAROL: ...I...
JOHN: ...yes...
CAROL: My Group.

When asked what she wants, Carol refers to the Group. It's what the Group wants that matters now, and Carol is merely its spokeswoman.

In the Posner production some critics felt that John was portrayed as sexually exploitive. Charles Spenser in The Telegraph comments:

One also feels a great deal less warm towards the professor in Aaron Eckhart's performance. He presents a man fatally in love with the sound of his own voice and far too preoccupied with his impending purchase of a new home to concentrate fully on his pupil's distress. When he puts his arm round Carol to comfort her, and later hugs her and offers to massage her grades, there is a distinct crackle of exploitative sexuality in the air.

To audiences the big question in the play is always whether or not John is actually making a sexual move on Carol. I think the text shows he is not. But although that issue is in dispute, what is absolutely indisputable is that the Group tries to blackmail John in its efforts to ban his book:

CAROL: We can and we will. Do you want our support? That is the only quest...
JOHN: .. to ban my book...?
CAROL: ...that is correct...

By the end of the play, the charge of sexual harassment has become attempted rape:

CAROL: My Group has told your lawyer that we may pursue criminal charges.
JOHN: ... no...
CAROL: Yes. And attempted rape. That's right. (Pause)

which makes the issue of whether or not John is guilty of sexual harassment completely irrelevant to the moral of the story - while there may be some doubt over whether John's actions are honorable, nobody in their right mind would say he tried to rape Carol.

So the play is not really about a man-woman misunderstanding, or a student reacting overzealously against what she truly believes is sexual harassment. This play is about a shadowy Group with an agenda to censor free thought by any means necessary. The Group creates a situation where John's life is ruined unless he capitulates to its demands. And he responds by transforming from a self-absorbed jerk or a subtle groper (depending on the production) into a fearless champion of the First Amendment:

JOHN: And, and, I owe you a debt, I see that now. (Pause) You're dangerous, you're wrong and it's my job... to say no to you. That's my job. You are absolutely right. You want to ban my book? Go to hell , and they can do whatever they want to me.

This is why audience members cheer at the end of some productions when John makes Carol cower before him: at great personal sacrifice the Hero slays the Dragon.

Mamet never uses the word "feminist" but since Carol accuses John of sexism, presumably the Group is composed of feminists. Anti-feminist Katie Roiphe believes that's what Mamet means:

Writers from David Mamet to Michael Crichton wrote works of art devoted to the excesses and absurdities of the feminist preoccupation with sexual harassment.

While I'm sure that even feminist groups are capable of doing bad things, I have never heard of a feminist group using blackmail to ban a book. I'm not saying it's impossible - but I am saying that there's no evidence this has ever happened in the history of feminism. If there was, Katie Roiphe would have shouted it from the mountaintops by now.

This is a problem for Mamet, because political correctness as it is actually practiced would not serve his message. Silly speech codes and public demonstrations are not sinister enough and would probably make a better comedy than a tragedy. So Mamet invents the feminist version of the International Jew, a skulking, ruthless, extremely powerful cabal, able to arrange John's personal destruction through nothing more than hearsay from a mentally challenged undergraduate.

It's fascinating to compare Mamet's folk tale with reality. Recently Naomi Wolf has claimed she was groped by culture hotshot Harold Bloom when she was his student. She was excoriated by right-wingers for discussing it in public and  Kathleen Parker, writing for Townhall.com, even suggests that Wolf owed Bloom an apology for her reaction  

The fact that Bloom's boneless hand prompted Wolf to regurgitate her dinner inarguably put an immediate and explicit end to this would-be tale of sexual harassment, with no harm to any except perhaps to poor Bloom's withered self-esteem. Given Wolf's then-considerable gifts of youth, beauty and guile, I should think she owes the dear fellow an apology.

Incredibly Parker can't imagine that the incident could have a long-term impact on Wolf's relationship with Bloom, and therefore on Wolf's academic career. In general the conservative response to Wolf's claim is not disbelief that Bloom did what Wolf says he did, the response is that it's no big deal, it's strictly a personal issue between Wolf and Bloom, and Wolf should get over it.

And Wolf herself advises extreme caution when making accusations: unlike the world of OLEANNA, in Wolf's experience the accuser is far more likely to be punished than the accused:

For years now, Yale has been contacting me: Would I come speak at a celebration of women at Yale? Would I be in a film about Jewish graduates? Would I be interviewed for the alumni magazine?

I have usually declined, for a reason that I explain to my (mostly female) college audiences: The institution is not accountable when it comes to the equality of women. I explain that I was the object of an unwanted sexual advance from a professor at Yale - and that his advances seemed to be part of an open secret. I tell them that I had believed that many Yale decision-makers had known about his relations with students, and nothing I was aware of had happened to stop it. Where is the professor now? they ask. He is still there, I explain: famous, productive, revered. I describe what the transgression did to me - devastated my sense of being valuable to Yale as a student, rather than as a pawn of powerful men. Then, heartbreakingly, a young woman will ask: "Did you tell?"

I answer her honestly: "No. I did nothing."

"Have you never named the guy, all these years on?"

"No," I answer. "Never."

"But," she will ask hesitantly, "don't you have an obligation to protect other women students who might be targets now?"

"Yes," I answer. "I do have that obligation. I have not lived up to it. I have not been brave enough." And then there is always, among those young, hopeful women, a long, sad silence.

After such speeches, a young woman will come up to me - in Texas, in Indiana, in Chicago - in tears: My music professor is harassing me , she'll say. I tried to tell the grievance board, but they told me it is my word against his, and that there is no point in pursuing it. I know I won't get a job if I do anything about it. My lit professor made a pass at me; he is grading my senior thesis. My female adviser basically told me to drop it if I want to graduate; to switch classes; to start all over with another subject. My lab instructor keeps putting his hands on my body, and his mentor is on the grievance committee. I can't sleep. What should I do?

I am ashamed of what I tell them: that they should indeed worry about making an accusation because what they fear is likely to come true. Not one of the women I have heard from had an outcome that was not worse for her than silence. One, I recall, was drummed out of the school by peer pressure. Many faced bureaucratic stonewalling. Some women said they lost their academic status as golden girls overnight; grants dried up, letters of recommendation were no longer forthcoming. No one was met with a coherent process that was not weighted against them. Usually, the key decision-makers in the college or university - especially if it was a private university - joined forces to, in effect, collude with the faculty member accused; to protect not him necessarily but the reputation of the university, and to keep information from surfacing in a way that could protect other women. The goal seemed to be not to provide a balanced forum, but damage control.

So why is it that although many students have been sexually harassed by professors right up to the present, and even Naomi Wolf advises them to worry about making true accusations, the most famous play on the subject of professor-student harassment is about a feminist group using false accusations and blackmail to ban a book?

Village Voice theatre critic Alexis Solomon notes:

...since 1975 the percentage of plays by women has stayed virtually the same on Broadway (16 percent) and increased only marginally Off-Broadway (from 13 to 21 percent). Never mind that the study found that nearly two-thirds of ticket buyers are women. Often they're trying to drag their reluctant husbands or boyfriends along to the theater, and winning them over means insisting that the play in question will appeal to their male sensibility. (No wonder the misogynist OLEANNA was one of the most-produced plays in the history of regional theaters.)

Solomon wrote that in 1999, but nothing has changed. This year (2004) the Atlantic Theater Company is doing a season with exactly zero female writers (0%). Their direct mailing piece includes Tina Howe's name on the cover, but they aren't doing a Howe play - it's Howe's interpretation of Ionesco. Since the Atlantic is co-founded by Mamet (they're doing a Mamet play in the new season) you might expect that kind of thing from them, but the Roundabout is also doing a zero female writer tolerance season (0%). While last year's season had one female author out of 3 (33%) the previous Roundabout season had no women (0%). Meanwhile, the Manhattan Theatre Club managed to do plays by 2 female writers out of 7 total productions (28%).

Mamet includes some lyrics from the folk song "Oleanna" in the published version of the play. The song was written by Ditmar Meidel in 1853. Pete Seeger provided the English lyrics in 1953. Oleanna is not only a place to escape the chains of Norway - it is a magical land, where chores are done for you - the cows milk themselves and the hens lay eggs ten times a day. And if the women get out of line, you don't even have to beat them yourself:

In Oleanna the women do all the work.
If she doesn't work hard enough
She takes a stick
And gives herself a beating!

You can read the entire song here:
http://spikesmusic.spike-jamie.com/folk/ps3/OLEANNA.pdf

Maybe one day when women's plays are produced 50% of the time, or students have true recourse against professors who misbehave, Mamet will have cause to be paranoid about female power. But OLEANNA is an example of the way history - and folk tales - are written by the winners.

Theatre essays

  • A Streetcar Named Biteme
  • History is Written by the Winners (OLEANNA)
  • Screw ethics, this is the theatre (THE LAST DAYS OF MADALYN MURRAY O'HAIR, IN EXILE)
  • SIGHT UNSEEN, Lunch Revisited
  • The Asshole License
  • The Last Manly Man Playwright
  • The Strange Case of Einhorn v. Mergatroyd (Copyright lawsuit)
  • What about Lil Lizabeth? (HUCK FINN)
  • Why OUR TOWN is Great