David Mamet’s new play, Oleanna, is an urgent, upsetting examination of sexual harassment, a subject that has gripped America since the Clarence Thomas hearings. When the play premiered last October in Cambridge, Mass. (produced by Mamet’s own Back Bay Theatre Company in conjunction with the American Repertory Theatre), Mamet was attacked by people on both sides of the sexual battlefront. “Your play is politically irresponsible,” one female student challenged the playwright. “You don’t take a position. Your political statement is wrong.”
What has Mamet wrought? Is he just another macho playwright lashing out at guerilla feminists? Or does his play legitimately explore the gender gap? Or is it about two human beings who misread each other, tragically? “As a playwright,” Mamet answered the student, “I have no political responsibility. I’m an artist. I write plays, not political propaganda. If you want easy solutions, turn on the boob tube. Social and political issues on TV are cartoons; the good guy wears a white hat, the bad guy a black hat. Cartoons don’t interest me. We are living through a time of deep transition, so everyone is unsettled. I’m as angry, scared and confused as the rest of you. I don’t have answers.”
If Mamet believes an artist has no political responsibility, what then is the function of theatre in society? In his collection of essays, Writing in Restaurants, Mamet provides an answer: “In dreams we do not seek answers which our conscious (rational) mind is capable of supplying, we seek answers to those questions which the conscious mind is incompetent to deal with. So with the drama, if the question posed is one which can be answered rationally, e.g., how does one fix a car, should white people be nice to black people, are the physically handicapped entitled to our respect, our enjoyment of the drama is incomplete – we feel diverted but not fulfilled. Only if the question posed is one whose complexity and depth renders it unsusceptible to rational examination does the dramatic treatment seem to us appropriate, and the dramatic solution become enlightening.”
Currently running at New York’s Orpheum Theatre with Rebecca Pidgeon and William H. Macy, Oleanna focuses on a female student who accuses an older male professor of sexual harassment. Although the play’s polarized subject matter might lead one to expect an overtly polemical approach, Mamet’s use of language gives the play rich texture. Speaking past each other and often at cross purposes, the two characters get trapped in a tragic comedy of errors in which misunderstanding piled on misunderstanding builds a labyrinth of ambiguity.
Formalized, repetitive, hypnotic, Mamet’s language is both real and surreal. In his hands, it ceases to be a transparent medium of communication, translating thoughts and feelings clearly and unequivocally from one mind to another. Instead, language spins its wheels and gets nowhere. Sentences refuse to complete themselves; they run on, loop back, start over, peter out, or suspend flight mid-air as the other character butts in. This stop-and-go creates an hallucinatory rhythm, a litany of broken sentences.
Rhythm gives Mamet’s dialogue its undeniable theatrical punch. When asked about the difference between dialogue in a novel and dialogue on the stage, Mamet made the following observations: “I grappled with this problem when I was adapting The Postman Always Rings Twice for the screen. Once you take dialogue out of a novel and delete the descriptions and the |he said’ |she said,’ once you put pictures with this dialogue, it collapses. The rhythm is wrong. The rhythm of a line of prose on a page is not the rhythm of a line of dialogue on a stage. If you break the rhythm, you break the meaning. Rhythm conveys meaning. It’s puzzling. I can’t explain it. But my ear hears it. Each medium has its own rules.”
The rhythm of the language translates directly into the rhythm of the scene in performance. During a rehearsal for the Cambridge production, Mamet talks the actors through the violent final moments of the play: “Filming Homicide, I learned the traditional bang-bang-bang way is wrong. It’s too fast. Do it like a slow dance. Let the audience take it in. Be gentle with the violence. Then it terrifies. Then drive, drive, drive to the end. The blood sugar level is a little low. Let me hear those words full voice. This play is a protest. Protest from the bottom of your balls and the bottom of your ovaries. The last 90 seconds are the most important part of the play. Wrap it up, but don’t tell the audience something they already know.”
“To act is to do,” Mamet says later, casting himself as the, Hemingway of directors. “The difference between what is actable and what is not is physical. Emotions are not important in acting. An actor can’t act angry. But a reprimand can be acted, and the reprimand will convey anger to the audience. You get at the inner thread of a play by what a character does. If you write a play correctly, you don’t need stage directions. Let the script do the work. A director brings the actor in line with the text. And the director must always remember that on stage, as Stanislavsky found out, real palm trees from Yalta look fake. The purpose of theatre is to express, not duplicate.”
In Oleanna, Mamet also exposes the contemporary university as the graveyard of our culture. As an institution dependent on language for its very definition, the university is revealed as little more than a house of cards, subject to linguistic instabilities. A thicket of questions emerges from the play: How does one define an educated person? What is the purpose of education? How is it best accomplished? What does one need to know to face the 21st century? A top-notch diploma today can run $100,000 – is it worth it? As universities raise their tuition, they resort to Madison Avenue marketing techniques to lure dwindling students, Mamet suggests. The halls of ivy are now patrolled, on the one hand, by the guardians of political correctness, and on the other, by semi-literate students who can’t read Charles Dickens’s long sentences, but who deploy a brilliant array of blackmail tactics to con a grade.
“This befuddled situation,” notes Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Rep and professor of English at Harvard, “reminds me of nothing so much as an academic version of the Stalinist purges. Mamet’s play functions like one of Strindberg’s steam valves, explosive and angry.”
On an archtypal level, Mamet’s play – a sexual minuet of violence – deals with the unending struggle for power between male and female. Deep within, men and women mistrust each other, and the relationship between them can never be easy, owing to primal fears: the male fear of castration and the female fear of male force and rape. The play unsettles spectators because it taps deep into the collective unconscious where these instinctive fears lurk just beneath waking life. This archtypal level gives Oleanna its muscle. “The moment this mythological situation reappears,” writes Jung, “is always characterized by a peculiar emotional intensity. It is as though forces whose existence we never suspected were unloosed.” With his back to the wall, the professor discovers brutality within him he never knew existed.
Mamet sums up his play with questions, not answers. “My play is about two people looking for answers and torturing each other. Both characters are in a state of flux. In this play the unthinkable, the unbelievable becomes real. The point of the play is, at the end, to ask, |How did we get here?’ The professor adores his students and prides himself on being a good teacher. How did he wind up thrashing a student?”