XXY Reads: Oleanna by David Mamet

XXY Reads: Oleanna by David Mamet

Persuading someone to read Oleanna by David Mamet has the same effect on them as playing the Scary Maze Prank; it will cause their souls to leave their bodies and then return with newfound vigour to inflict or bestow (depending on how you see it) this engrossing experience on to the next person.

Mamet’s Oleanna is a touchstone in any conversation regarding gender issues. Contextualising it makes it all the more pertinent; it came out in 1992, just one year after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas scandal, where a soon-to-be Supreme Judge was accused by his former secretary of sexual harassment. Undoubtedly inspired by this, Mamet wrote a three act, two character play about a timid female student who accuses her charming soon-to-be tenured professor of sexual harassment. We see an incredible escalation of events as the seemingly harmless and frustratingly awkward Carol states that she has been struggling in class, while the pretentiously articulate John has his own struggles in juggling his paper work and his constant telephone interruptions with Carol’s stammering and spluttering. As a result of their vivid characterizations, we don’t even really see them as a man and a woman headed towards a clash that foregrounds their genders. But within a short time span, due to the scarce and concentrated writing, Carol suddenly turns into a force to be reckoned with, as she becomes stronger and louder in her unwavering blinkered opinions and manages to overpower John, who seems to be wearying down in inverse proportion to his opponent. Not surprisingly, the ending is as abrupt and sensational as every other preceding dramatic succession in this play.

The most admirable part it is the fact that the upheaval the play causes is not solely due to its sensitive and provocative subject matter. Sexual harassment, institutional sexism, gender-based power relations – you might think that anyone could cause an uproar by writing about such topics, and you are probably right. But how many writers can weave a narration tethered to both the socio-political aspect of the zeitgeist, as well as the collective historical consciousness of a topic on an abstract philosophical level?

The truth is that this is one of those rare pieces of literature that sets a very practical structure to stimulate and accommodate necessary conversations. There is no clear right and wrong stance, the characters are so flawed and particular that they’re not in danger of being interpreted as being representative of their whole genders, and John and Carol’s behaviours are equally infuriating. When contemplating whose side you are on, you ultimately just have to decide who you hate less and either answer will be guaranteed as understandable, leaving the reader/audience stirred to debate, yet not tainted by bias.

Written by: Ishrat Ahmed

Images: 1998 production of Oleanna at the Abbey Theatre in St Albans;

Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill 1991