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Oleanna is a three-act play written by David Mamet. The play first premiered on stage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1992. The play tells the story of a pompous university professor named John and his student, Carol, who accuses him of sexual harassment. In 1994, Mamet adapted his play into a motion picture of the same name starring William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt. Although the play has generally received good reviews, some critics have accused it of misrepresenting sexual harassment and being anti-feminist.
The first act of the play begins with John receiving a telephone call in his office while Carol sits across from him, waiting to talk to him. John has recently been offered tenure by the college, which comes with a salary raise. Because of the promotion, he and his wife are in the process of buying a new home and she keeps calling him to talk about issues she is having with their realtor. When John gets off the phone, Carol tells him that she came to his office because she is having trouble understanding the material in his class, even though she has done all the assignments and reading.
Eager to get back to his real estate problems, John is at first dismissive and rude towards Carol. Realizing that she is visibly upset, however, he softens and reassures her that she will get an “A” in the class as long as she agrees to meet with him privately to discuss the material. He tells Carol that he “likes her” and that he himself had similar frustrations as a student. At one point during the conversation, he puts his hand on her shoulder to comfort her, but she shakes it off. Carol seems as if she is about to tell John a secret when the phone rings again. It is John’s wife, and she tells him that she invented the realtor issues to try to get him to come home for a surprise party. John hangs up and goes home immediately.
In the second act, it is a different day and Carol has returned to John’s office. We learn that she has filed a complaint with the university’s tenure committee accusing John of sexually harassing her, by putting his hand on her shoulder during their previous meeting, making sexist remarks in class, and teaching pornographic material. Because of her complaint, John’s tenure and the accompanying raise are now in jeopardy. Stunned by Carol’s accusations, John tries to resolve the matter privately with her, and tells her that getting tenure and being able to buy a better home for his family is very important to him. He argues that a few questionable comments shouldn’t ruin his whole career.
Carol says that his behavior is a symptom of a larger societal problem, and that she is being advised by a student group on campus that supports her complaint against him. The phone rings again, and John answers. It is his wife calling to ask whether she should cancel the deposit on their new home in light of the charges against him. He tells her not to cancel it yet as he is dealing with the problem, and hangs up. Carol tells John that she will discuss his behavior at the tenure committee hearing, and attempts to leave his office. John panics and grabs her to try to force her to stay and hear him out. She screams for help.
In the third act, it is revealed that Carol’s complaint was successful and John had been denied tenure as a result. He is also suspended from teaching and may be fired from the university. Against his best instincts, a desperate John invites Carol back to his office to talk things out. During their conversation, Carol keeps correcting John’s language and accusing him of supporting a system that enables his privilege. She tells him that her “accusations” against him are now “facts” because they have been proven. After John tells her that he is close to losing his job, she offers to withdraw her complaint in exchange for him agreeing to ban a list of books from the university, including some that he had written himself. John angrily refuses.
When John casually mentions that he had not been home in two days, Carol tells him that if he had, he would have known that her charges against him now include attempted rape. John tells Carol to get out of his office. John’s wife calls again, and he answers the phone. Carol reprimands John for calling his wife “baby” before trying to leave his office. John explodes at this and beats Carol savagely, holding a chair over her head as she cowers on the floor. The play ends with Carol saying, “Yes…that’s right.”
The main themes of Oleanna include sexual harassment, power, censorship, gender dynamics, and societal perspective. The play was written partly in response to the sexual harassment allegations of former U.S. Department of Education employee Anita Hill against her boss, Clarence Thomas, in the early 1990s. By depicting a power struggle between two self-absorbed individuals with differing viewpoints, the play makes a statement about the ambiguity surrounding sexual harassment and how one’s perception of reality is often filtered through one’s experiences.
A college student of a presumably disprivileged socioeconomic background, Carol is frustrated because she does not understand the material taught in a class that she is failing, though she has supposedly done everything she has been told, from having taken notes and reading the assigned reading materials, which John, her professor, is the author of. She frequently falls into states of apparent self-pity and self-loathing during the play’s first act, though her attitude takes a somewhat unexpected turn later on, when she files charges of rape and harassment against John for teaching pornographic material and being sexually explicit. This makes it difficult to pinpoint her true motives and to characterize her as either the protagonist or the antagonist of the play. It is also difficult to say whether she undergoes what could be interpreted as character growth, evolving from a seemingly victimized and vulnerable position to taking on the role of a persecutor. Readers, depending on whose side they choose to take, may associate her with hypersensitivity, crazed political correctness and censorship, or see her as an empowered, brave young woman who selflessly uses her own situation to fight against the patriarchal society she lives in.
John is a university professor who teaches the class Carol is having trouble with. He is considered for being granted tenure, and is about to purchase a new house for his family. His book, which Carol struggles to understand, questions the purpose of higher education, an issue that he brings up during his first meeting with Carol, whom he offers to meet with privately in order to help her pass his class. In a supposed attempt to help Carol, he explains that he was described as stupid and incompetent when he was younger, and that he is able to understand the position that Carol is coming from. This can be read as patronizing, oppressive and ignorant, or rather, an act with the ulterior motive to make Carol the object that John exerts his power on. John, however, deems his approach honorable, as he attempts to make the issues that he speaks of in his writing more accessible, thus allowing him to cross the artificially-structured boundaries of student and teacher and breach the academic discourse that they are meant to abide by. In the end, however, it is Carol who defies the archetypal student-teacher dynamic, as she is the one to shed light onto John’s privilege and confront him by exposing his hypocrisy regarding the issues he speaks on.