I updated my essay about OLEANNA from thirteen years ago for the NYCPlaywrights weekly email, with 2017 info.
In OLEANNA David Mamet portrays charges of sexual harassment as a plot by feminists to destroy men. And it should be noted that OLEANNA was first produced long before Mamet came out of the closet as an extreme conservative happily joining his buddy Rush Limbaugh on his radio show.
Many people, including critics, seem to think that David Mamet wrote about 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.”
Some people think OLEANNA is an indictment of political correctness, as Michael Billington of the Guardian believed:
“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. This review of a currently running production does not mention The Group at all.
com/entertainment/20171017/ theater--new-reps-oleanna- takes-on-renewed-urgency
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.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.
CAROL: ...my position...
JOHN: I want to hear it. In your own words. What you want. And what you feel.
CAROL: My Group.
In the Lindsay Posner production (London, 2004) 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)This completely changes the ethical issue at the heart of the play. The play does not portray at any point an attempted rape. The charge is clearly a vicious lie by an evil shadow organization that has immense but unexplained power. We never learn anything about the Group except its criminal machinations and its control over Carol's mind.
So the play is not actually about a man-woman misunderstanding or political correctness gone wild. This play is about a 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 blackmail. And he responds by transforming from a self-absorbed jerk or a subtle groper (depending on the production) into a fearless champion of free speech:
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.
It's fascinating to compare Mamet's folk tale with reality. And Hollywood isn’t the only problem. Naomi Wolf claimed she was groped by literary celebrity Harold Bloom when she was his student.
She was attacked for discussing it in public and Kathleen Parker, writing for Townhall.com, even suggested 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 women have been sexually harassed at school and on the job and even Naomi Wolf advises them to worry about making TRUE accusations, the most famous play on the subject of sexual harassment is about an evil Group using lies and blackmail to ban a book?
Village Voice theatre critic Alexis Solomon noted in 1999:
“…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.)”In 2015 the Women Count study by the League of Professional Theatre Women indicated the situation had improved somewhat: 21% of off-Broadway plays were by women in 1999, sixteen years later the number was 29% (down from a high of 36% in 2013).
Things are slowly getting better, but men are still telling a greater share of human stories although humanity is 50% female.
Under such conditions, it’s not surprising that the focus in theater has not been on the impact of sexual abuse on women’s lives but rather on men as victims of false charges.
Mamet includes some lyrics from the folk song "Oleanna" in the published version of the play. 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
(please note - the above link to the OLEANNA pdf is no longer available. Here is a different version of the lyrics - the translation is different, but the idea is the same:And gives herself a beating!You can read the entire song here:
The women there do all the work
As round the fields they quickly go
Each one has a hickory stick
And beats herself if she works too slow
Maybe one day when women's plays are produced 50% of the time, or when sexual harassment is no longer so common, 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.