In the fall of 1993 my wife and I went on our first real date. Twenty-five years later I can honestly say it was lucky the relationship continued after seeing David Mamet’s play “Oleanna” that night. Libby and I were freshmen, she studied playwriting at Sarah Lawrence, and I studied acting at New York University. We had gone to high school together, where, well, there were some moments and a constant chemistry, but it was still in its early confusing stages. As we walked into the Orpheum Theater that night, we knew what the play was about, but we had no idea what a buzz saw of gender, sex and power we were about to experience.
“Oleanna” is a simple play with only two characters: John, a pompous professor on the verge of tenure, and on edge about it, and Carol, his student who feels she is flailing in his class. That’s the first act, anyway. Its squeamish watching John pontificate to the scared pupil, but bearable. At rise in Act Two, we find out that Carol has accused John of sexual harassment, and the two engage in the most brutal scene I have ever witnessed. One in which John and Carol stab at each other over whether remarks and slight touching from Act One, which he views as innocent, should be allowed to destroy his career.
What palpably overcame the audience during Act Two, in a way that I imagine may be different now, was very nearly a terrified panic. Some, mostly men, grew increasingly angry that Carol was destroying John over a few indelicate phrases and an arm around the shoulder. Others, mainly women, thought John had dug himself this hole through his arrogant, sexist demeanor and unclear — could be — advances. The whole theater felt like the roof was going pop off owing to the pressure. After the play loud yelling of couples arguing could be heard. After one performance the actor who played Carol was punched leaving the theater by an audience member.
The Context of the Early 90s
“Oleanna” premiered a year after Clarence Thomas became a Supreme Court Justice following Anita Hill’s allegations that he had sexually harassed her. It was a new kind of moment in American politics and society. At the same time, a new term was starting to come into prominence, “political correctness.” This mixture of accusations from women and a fear that PC was unfairly limiting what men could say at work was highly combustible.
In the early 90s many men still had the attitude that if women were starting to occupy traditionally male roles and spaces, they had to accept those spaces as they were. Everyone was an adult. If a coworker complemented your rack or legs, that’s just how men talk and do business. As the century closed, society as a whole, popular or public society, that is, seemed to reject those claims. Of course, the workplace had to change to make women feel they were not at risk, everyone agreed. But as the #MeToo moment peaks through the blinds back over the past two decades, we see that much of this was just talk.
Seeing the Worst in Ourselves
In discussing the audience reaction to “Oleanna” on the Marc Maron show WTF recently, Mamet paraphrased Shakespeare to describe what happened. It’s a bit from Hamlet where he and Horatio plan a play within the play to see if Claudius flinches. “I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play may be so moved to blah, blah, blah, that they lose their fucking minds,” Mamet said, and then, “I read that, and I say, Okay, but not really. But I saw it. I saw it every night.”
This seems about right to me. I recall thinking, there on this date, and I want to take Libby back to my dorm, but I’m watching this thing thinking, have I done or said anything during our romance that could be misinterpreted, that went too far? If I have or haven’t, how can I avoid that tonight? Do I dominate conversation and try to overpower her? This guy John is an idiot who can’t read Carol, at all. Am I like that?
Discussing the play with Libby this week she remembers us smoking a cigarette outside the theater, arguing, as most couples were. And she felt she had to hold her own, had to compete with me rhetorically. She couldn’t be like Carol, frail and weak, or dogmatic and angry. She recalls the play making her want to be her best self, having just witnessed the carnage of being less than that.
Some Things Have Changed, Some Haven’t
The climax of “Oleanna” is disturbing and brutal. Realizing that his efforts to get through to Carol and save his tenure are fruitless, John snaps. He beats her mercilessly, and then lifts a chair, ready to strike his cowering student. At many performances men could be heard cheering the violent act of revenge. I don’t think that would happen today, and as far as I know it hasn’t occurred at more recent productions of the play. But just as the social opprobrium on sexual harassment didn’t stop it from occurring in the past two decades, one wonders if the feelings that led those men to cheer back then might still exist, masked by today’s social conventions.
Some of the recent cases of serial harassers like Harvey Weinstein are cut and dry, but many are not. Particularly in journalism we have been privy to lurid details of men in power, attracted to a woman, maybe also earnestly wanting to help her, an office party at a bar, flirting, touching, hazy memories the next morning that may be very different for him than for her.
Some of those men, caught up in the tidal wave of the #MeToo moment are coming back to shore now, chastised but employable. And yet, it doesn’t seem that their shaming and apparent forgiveness has left us with any solid new rules. In fact, depending on the people involved, the same act of flirting or touching some late night in a Manhattan upstairs bar space could lead to a happy marriage or a sexual harassment suit.
The Lesson of ‘Oleanna’
If there is a lesson in “Oleanna,” understanding that Mamet would almost certainly tell us there is not, it is that there may be no set of rules and we may be incapable of creating one. In Act One, John and Carol have vastly different ideas about what is going on. He think he is helping her, a man with power, trying to crouch down to her, understand and assist. She thinks, or is convinced by others, that he is belittling and even hitting on or harassing her. Both positions are plausible, but what really stands out is what didn’t happen.
Both characters are so locked into their own way of understanding what happened in the first act, and so inflexible in their discussion of it in the second act, that they stop seeing each other as human beings. Carol triumphantly mocks him regarding her ability to destroy his life, and John physically assaults her for it. This inability to communicate twists each of them in the direction of evil, and ultimately self-destruction.
Word has recently come down that Mamet has a new play, for Broadway, about Harvey Weinstein. Just as in 1992 there are feminists concerned that this play will be politically irresponsible. At that time, the term “rape culture,” wasn’t in their quiver yet, but it was basically the attack on “Oleanna,” that it justified or minimized abuse of women. That was an unfair attack, but leveled nonetheless. We can imagine that should Mamet find any nuance at all in the Weinstein story, that attack will be launched again.
Maybe Libby and I will go see the new Mamet play on sexual harassment. Maybe we will smoke cigarettes and argue outside the theater again. This time, hopefully, I won’t have to worry about whether she’s coming home with me. When I think back through the mist to that night in 1993, outside that same Orpheum Theatre that we still walk by, I remember it as the beginning of a conversation that has never ended.
Unlike John and Carol, we can take a breath, really listen and hear, even when one of us has done something wrong. I don’t envy the couples starting out on that journey today; the world is a very different place than it was then. But what “Oleanna” still teaches and will always teach us, is that a person of the opposite sex we are dealing with is just that, a person, not a vessel for our ego or an aggressor to be kept in check, just a person, as weak and vulnerable as everyone else.