April 17, 2004

Oleanna is a controversial play — and then film — by the great David Mamet. It tackles the subject of sexual harassment in metatheatrical and tragic genres. Yes, both. It is designed, I think, to provoke, and to undermine the provocation just as the provocation is made.

It’s often said that the character of Carol, the benighted, confused college student who gains mastery by joining a feminist cult and destroying her professor, is a caricature of a feminist.


OLEANNA, Debra Eisenstadt, William H. Macy, 1994, (c) Samuel Goldwyn

That’s too strong. It assumes that most latter-day feminists are not self-caricatures. What evidence do we have that they are not? “Water buffalo,” anyone? The depiction seems fine to me. Her intellectual weakness actually helps the drama of the play. Had she been able to hold her own, the many ironies that Mamet unrolls would not have unfolded, and the power relations at the heart of student-teacher relations — and at the heart of sexual harassment issue — would have been left stillborn.

Both times I’ve watched the movie of the play, I’ve despised her, of course. But the comeuppance of her professor was far more riveting — and somehow just. I could identify with him, and yet he is a major failure from the get-go. Here is a man who pretends to mastery of power relations who unwittingly steps into a power play! Perfect, poetic justice for the age of irony and the age of subjective truth. Think of simple-minded Carol, at first meek and then vengeful, as his bête noir, almost a personification of Justice, or (better yet) Nemesis.

But, final irony, Carol proves herself, in the end, to be deeply flawed and controlling; she over-reaches her power-play, and brings down wrath from her professor, who finally assaults her — batters her — in earnest, in actual fact and not just legal fiction. And it is this battery where I finally sympathized with him, even as he destroyed his last shred of legal credibility. Why? Because his act of violence was justified. She deserved to be attacked. She had over-reached, had presumed to extend her power into his family relations, and deserved herself to be destroyed.

Neat trick. It seems to me that Mamet takes power relations more seriously and thoroughly than do feminists who yammer about power relations ad nauseam. It’s a better play, in any case, than the critical consensus would have it. Its handling of mis-communication, self-obsession, and power is almost unmatched. All I’ve seen, alas, is the movie version, which is less than perfect. Still, William H. Macy is always worth watching, and Debra Eisenstadt is a revelation as the young Nemesis. She’s lovely, too, but I wouldn’t touch her with a …

  1. Feminism as an insistence upon the humanity of individual women is in no sense harmed by this play, or by any critique of recent brands of moddish feminism, or post-feminism, or what-have-you.
  2. Feminism as an assertion of moral-legal equality between the sexes also remains secure, provided one does not embrace ideologies that undermine it, like any form of Bulverism — those essentialisms that mask themselves as strictly reductionist.
  3. “Do me the courtesy” — Mamet provides an important key to the meaning of his play in the repeated demands the characters make for courtesy, and their repeated inability to meet the demand. Manners really are key to much of life, and these two individuals have no clue.

I have no idea what the title “Oleanna” refers to! Who is Oleanna, and what is she, that our greatest prosepoet should offend her?

Wirkman Virkkala
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