Andrea Dworkin once observed that heterosexual coupling was defacto rape, perhaps because consent between equals would be impossible in a patriarchy. In his first collection of essays, David Mamet (playwright of “Oleanna”) suggested there was an irreducible element of sexuality between men and women, however buried or obtuse. Instead of Oleanna, this play might as easily have been titled “The Tragedy of John and Carol” though we are left to speculate about Carol’s motives. The premise of Oleanna is deceptively simple. Carol visits her college teacher (Professor?) John for a scheduled conference regarding a paper. She bemoans her inability to comprehend the material, repeatedly effacing herself and expressing the frustration that she’s in way over her head. John is touched by her predicament and reaches out to her, humanely but not inappropriately. In the next scene it’s revealed that Carol has taken formal action against John, including (but not limited to) the charge of sexual harassment. Said complaints have not only jeopardized John’s tenure, but his purchase of a home for his family and future as a teacher.
We (the audience) are present when these supposed sleights occur, and while John might certainly be construed as somewhat pompous or lofty, when we consider Carol’s observations that he “put his arm around” her and is “pedantic” we have to take a step back. “Pedantic” means to exhibit one’s knowledge as a badge of superiority, but is that even possible for a teacher? Is it not at least part of the role of a teacher to elevate and illuminate their students? Is anything that isn’t pandering elitist? Is any expression of warmth fraught with flirtatious overture, if sexual context might be inferred? A profound irony of Oleanna is that Carol takes the tools that John yearns to provide to all his students, the kindness he offers when he sheds the trappings of intelligentsia, and uses them to work the system against him. That Carol is angry is undeniable. Whether she is legitimately angry at John, who’s at worst a figurehead, is a completely different question.
I cannot praise Theatre Rapscallions enough, for taking on this scathing, devastating piece by David Mamet, and coming through with flawless grace. It drags you into the cyclone like few of his other (admittedly brilliant) dramas can. When Carol scoffs at John for believing his words can only mean what he intends, she does so without a trace of irony, and we gasp. The idea seems ridiculous, and yet it works. It’s as if Carol (unlike Prometheus) took fire as a gift from the gods, then used it to burn down their temples. But John is not a god, he’s simply a man who loves his vocation. The minute his heart goes out to Carol, he’s doomed.
Theatre Rapscallions presents Oleanna, playing March 10th-April 2nd, 2016. 518 West Arapaho road, Suite 115, Richardson, Texas 75080. firstname.lastname@example.org 214-414-1990