By David Mamet
Directed by Doug Hughes
with Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles
Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
through July 12, 2009
Photo: Craig Schwartz.
David Mamet wrote Oleanna in 1992. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill debacle of the previous year had the public focused on the issue of sexual harassment. Last year's movie Doubt is but the latest entry in the growing list of he said/she said, she said/he did, or, last but not least, he said/he said, dramatic portrayals. Foolish is the male in a position of power who uses his position to sexual advantage, but also foolish is he who fails to recognize the minefield that exists and the harm that even an unsubstantiated accusation can bring. Academia has often been the setting for these cautionary tales.
Oleanna was one of the first dramas to suggest that the accused might not always be guilty. Another way of looking at Oleanna is that it is about the power of the powerless. John (Bill Pullman) is a professor on the brink of tenure, and Carol (Julia Stiles) is a graduate student who is doing miserably in his seminar. She has come to his drop dead spectacular office -- a gorgeous set by Neil Patel -- the likes of which has never been seen in academia, certainly not by someone who is not in administration and does not even have tenure. She claims she is baffled by John's statements in the seminar, and in his book, to the effect that graduate school is a form of hazing, and that graduate students are taken advantage of. She says she feels "stupid" and has come to his office to seek help under the rubric of low self-esteem and inability to understand.
Mamet has created a character who could only have gotten into graduate school as an affirmative action placement for attractive blond females, which would be an unlikely story. It is hard not to question her credentials at this point. A graduate student who has never been exploited by faculty and does not get the concept of academic hazing? Come on, give me a break. Where are all those underpaid teaching assistants and research assistants harvested from if not from the lowly graduate student ranks? Confession of a part time critic: I have done time in graduate school, on both sides of the desk; one of my sons is a professor; and the other a recent member of academia. I bring my own biases to bear.
More even than most playwrights, words are Mamet's currency. His work is characterized by rapid-fire speech, frequent interruption and hairsplitting attention to the oh so subtle differences between words. Often these are mountains made over molehills or less: illusions of molehills. In Glengarry Glen Ross the characters duel over "talk" vs. "speak." In Oleanna, Carol, the afore mentioned blond, is stopped dead in her tracks by the differences in meaning between "precept" and "paradigm." Give this woman a dictionary, please. No, her concrete thinking and self reported low self-esteem has instead brought her to this office seeking help, or pity. John, a little full of himself, knowing that tenure is about to be bestowed, and with exaggerated magnanimity, sets about offering her an A by creating a tutorial just for her. After all, it is his criticism of higher education that has her befuddled. It is this proposed private tutorial, his casual references to his own personal experiences, careless judgment in how he expresses himself, and her extremely aggravating and provocative doggedness in denying comprehension that ultimately cost him tenure his position. We see not an iota of sexual innuendo. She quotes him out of context, manipulates his self-defense into even greater accusations, pushes his buttons, and makes vague allusions to her group, implying there are many behind her.
Mamet is not infrequently criticized as misogynistic, however, when Oleanna was first produced audiences reportedly emerged from the theater heatedly debating who was right. It was pretty quiet coming out of the Taper. Unfortunately, Oleanna, as conceived by director Doug Hughes has lost the original nuances. I had no question but that the charges costing John his tenure & his job were trumped up, nor did anyone around me express a soupçon of doubt. It is misogynistic.
Pullman's recreation of John is a dead on professor and family man, well intended, but distracted by the quotidian interruptions of life. The insufferable Carol is drawn with a mean pen. Oleanna becomes a straightforward cautionary tale about how easily a malicious woman can fabricate a complaint of sexual harassment; and not a very believable tale at that. Few would have put up with her for a second visit. There is no suspense, obviously it can lead to the downfall of an up standing, well intended, but careless, male. A production that would cause one to expend some energy questioning what really was going on would be far more interesting. The Taper production of Oleanna does a disservice to two important issues deserving serious attention: there sexual harassment and predation by the more powerful, and there are false accusations wherein lies the power of the powerless.