Review of "Oleanna"

This piece was commissioned by the University of Waterloo Gazette and appeared in their issue of 15 February 1995, under the title "Oleanna: reflections on the play, and on the audience". It earned me four nominations to the Board of Directors of the Faculty Association (declined) and an invitation to sit on the FA's Status of Women and Inclusivity Committee (accepted). Surprisingly enough, the lead actor of this production wrote into the Gazette to thank me for the review.

Some disclaimers are in order. I have not seen a theatre performance for adults in nearly three years; I have not published a piece of dramatic criticism in nearly thirteen. I am male, as are the vast majority of my colleagues and most of my students, and I work in a field where it is all too easy to retreat from the ambiguity of human relationships into the precision of machines. These facts might disqualify me from reviewing a play about sexual harassment. But Oleanna is not just a play, and it is not really about sexual harassment at all. Nonetheless, this will be less a review than a rumination, fed on scraps of half-knowledge.

One more caveat. I am not skilled enough to discuss this play without mentioning plot details, some of which involve the "strong language" warned of by the posters around campus. Those who are squeamish about either the language or the unveiling should stop reading now. No one expects Narveson to coyly allude to the last three-quarters of each performance of classical music he reviews. And since the editor of this newspaper himself quoted the word "fuck" in a Notebook item recently, a precedent has already been set.

One can approach Oleanna in three ways: as text, as performance, and as social phenomenon. The dividing lines are not clearly drawn, of course, and the approach does not take place in a vacuum. I have read reviews of the original New York production, of the recent Toronto production, and of the movie (in this paper, three weeks ago). I was aware, even through the three-quarters fog, of the basic plot: a female student comes to a male professor, afraid of failing his course. He is somewhat condescending and quite distracted, but does try to offer personal help. Then the tables turn. She, speaking of herself as a member of an oppressed "group", charges him with sexual harassment; he loses his tenure, "announced but not signed", and the house he was trying to purchase.

The text of the play is available in the Dana Porter library. It can be easily read between going to bed and going to sleep; once you have learned to hear the overlapping voices in your head, it goes quite quickly. I was surprised by how slight it was. Mamet has not lost his uncanny ear for the rhythms of language, especially between people who are not communicating, but on the printed page the dialogue cannot sustain the story. The professor's philosophizing on education seems forced; his references to his past and his frequent calls to try to secure his house give some dimension to the character, but only in contrast to the student, who is little more than a caricature. In the first act, she can't understand anything being said in class or office; in the second act, she, demonstrating reserves of character previously unseen, abruptly takes control as she justifies her intervention with the Tenure Committee; in the third act, all the weapons come out on behalf of her "group". The plot plays on fears often expressed elsewhere: a comforting arm around the distressed student's shoulder becomes sexual harassment, a hand put out to stop a premature exit becomes attempted rape, the student and her "group" present a list of books they wish banned.

Mamet is clever enough not to use the F-word (the other F-word) in referring to this "group", though the P-phrase comes out, once, near the very end. It's ironic that in a play purporting to be about the perils of group identification, the student never comes across as an individual, even before talking to her "group". This theft of character was the fate of Lindsay Crowse in the Mamet movie House of Games, and (reportedly, I did not see it) of Madonna in the Broadway production of Speed-the-Plow. They didn't lose their humanity; they never possessed it. Those could be attributed to failures of direction; here the failure is inherent in the text.

I couldn't help but compare Oleanna to the last play I read, Tony Kushner's Angels in America. "Angels" works as literature. It soars, it draws the reader in, you put it down and close your eyes and sigh. I did that upon finishing Oleanna, but it was a sigh of exasperation, of disappointment. Perhaps it's an unfair comparison: Angels, after all, won a Pulitzer Prize. But Mamet has also won a Pulitzer (for Glengarry Glen Ross, a decade ago), and until now I would have paid good money to see a Mamet adaptation of the New York City telephone directory.

The UW production of Oleanna is directed by William Chadwick of the Drama Department; the professor is played by Joel Greenberg, chair of that department. The student is played by Stephanie McCarthy, a fourth-year student. It is staged in Studio 180 in Hagey Hall, recently converted from rehearsal space.

Mamet is an ambitious target for any company; the effectiveness of the dialogue depends on split-second timing. In the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, a talented cast and director were tripped up by the simple cinematic practice of cross-cutting. To their credit, Greenberg and McCarthy largely surmounted the possible pitfalls. The one effect which eluded them was the mantra, "Do you see?", which functions in this play as punctuation in the same manner that some of us use "You know?" or "Eh?". To make such a phrase appear subliminal when it is not part of the actor's personal vocabulary must require almost superhuman effort.

The casting makes evaluating the acting particularly difficult. When Greenberg is convincing as a professor, is he acting, or is he just being himself? I could find no fault with his performance; though he has not been on a stage in several years, he's clearly kept in practice. His little gestures -- brushing his nose with two fingers, touching his glasses -- were particularly effective.

It is easier to pick holes in McCarthy's performance; she can't be the kind of student she is depicting, because such a student wouldn't participate in this production. Her gestures seemed a little more forced. At one point, she fidgets with the eraser on her pencil; it's the sort of little fill that is supposed to smooth out a performance, but in this case it drew attention to itself.

Her character was slightly different from the one I pictured on reading the text. In the first act, she is more aggressive; her interruptions come across as challenges, not as expressions of self-doubt. It's a rational choice (hers, or the director's, I can't tell), to limit the discontinuity in character, to let the anger of the second act bleed into the first. But the text betrays it: the schism is simply spread across acts, and the manner of the character in the first act is at odds with the words being used.

The professor's examination of education was more seductive to me on stage than in the text, partly because this was a real professor speaking, partly because I, too, have stood in front of my class this term and questioned the system that I help to support. But my students, like the student in the play, don't want to hear about it. It's not because of some conspiracy, not because they're stupid: it's simply that, in exchange for several years and many thousand dollars, they would like something tangible in return, something more than my moralizing.

Mamet wants this play to be about many things -- the nature of education, freedom of expression, the confusion of equity and utility -- and the production also aims at a larger context. The poster for the show, which is also the cover for the playbill, has a background of pseudo-deconstructionist jargon; we are played the children's song from which the play draws its name, which is about a mystical land of milk and honey. These efforts are swamped by the central plot element, the unfair charge of sexual harassment.

Studio 180 holds perhaps sixty people. I recognized several senior colleagues, graduate students, undergraduates, and staff members. The audience is not normally mentioned in a review, unless they riot. But I've already denied that this is a review, and the reaction of the audience was particularly important to me. These were administrators who will design, implement, and enforce human rights policies on campus; these were instructors who will find themselves on the strong end of power relationships, students who will find themselves on the weak end. These were my neighbours.

I can't fault the Drama Department for staging this work: the casting temptation must have been irresistable, and they could use the publicity and the revenue. The work is tailor-made for this campus. We have a professoriat anxious to see themselves as victims. We have students who arrive on campus prepared to do battle with the dogmatic forces that Newsweek and Maclean's have warned them about. But all they can find are a few people who spell "women" with a "y", and the sport of mocking them palls after a while. Where real villains cannot be found, fictional ones must be imported. I presume the timing (a review of harassment and discrimination policies on the Provost's desk, a response to the Status of Women report imminent) is accidental.

The joke is on all of us, however. It's clear that Mamet despises the student. It's also clear that he despises the professor, who is weak and self-absorbed, who falls into a trap that Joe Mantegna (one of Mamet's favourite choices as interpreter of his con-man and gangster characters) would avoid easily. The professor is not despised because he attempts to exercise arbitrary power; he is despised because he fails in the attempt. In Glengarry Glen Ross, the office manager is despised until he catches one of the salesmen in a fatal slip; then the salesman becomes the despicable one. The winner is the one who has all the marbles at the end.

In effect, Mamet is saying that sexual harassment codes are weapons wielded by fools against fools. (There are many possible sets of fools here: an outspoken colleague of mine fears not a "group", but the administration, looking for a way around the security of tenure.) The play isn't about sexual harassment at all: as with the rest of Mamet's oeuvre, it's about the exercise of power by people on the fringes, under the floorboards, without hope. There is no sex in this play, no erotic moments, no action or gesture that could be construed as sexual.

Yet sex (what some persist in calling gender) is important in this play. I initially wrote my first brief description of the plot without using sex-specific pronouns, but it didn't sound right. If you reverse the sexes of the two characters in Oleanna, it falls apart, unlike many plays about power (Macbeth being the obvious example). Demi Moore sexually harassing Michael Douglas in the movie Disclosure may be silly (odd how a sex reversal occurs in the first Hollywood film on the topic) but there's at least some real sex involved, and there's a hint of plausibility. Oleanna with a female professor and a male student is just ludicrous. And if you try to alter the text to make it work -- say, to place the professor in a Women's Studies department, and to make the student's "group" one of those "men's rights" lodges -- a peculiar thing happens: the student becomes more sympathetic, at least to this imperfect male.

Upon hearing that I was writing this piece, a friend of mine, a woman who acted in the first Mamet play I ever saw on stage, asked, "Why would you put yourself in that no-win situation?" I denied the assertion, but I knew what she meant. No one really wants to debate Holocaust deniers, or flat-earthers, or (much closer in on the spectrum) those who issue harsh jeremiads against employment equity. No one wants to spend all that time inching towards level ground. In short, no one likes responding to provocation. Yet inevitably someone does, and discussion, if we may call it that, ensues, though it is often discussion about how unfair the terms of discussion are. In this case it has led to the sad spectacle of a man reviewing -- pardon, ruminating upon a play written by a man about a man who is destroyed by something which is supposed to be a woman.

This play is being sold as "controversial" and "thought-provoking". The blurb for the movie in the Princess Cinema calendar (lifted from a review in Rolling Stone) says that debating about it afterwards is half the fun (a notion echoed in the Gazette review). Joel Greenberg, in an interview in the Waterloo Chronicle, spoke of how it stimulated "yelling about the issues" in an advanced acting class, how as audiences left, "they're not talking about the production, they're talking about the issues the play raises." It's a clever strategy. One can be against propaganda, against bias, against demonization. But who can be against discussion? Only the -- no, let's not use the P-phrase until it becomes absolutely necessary. Suffice it to say that the first obstacle a critic must overcome is that they will be seen as wanting to stifle honest debate.

The second obstacle they face is the perception that they condone the student's behaviour. This shouldn't even be an issue. The actions of the student in this play are not defensible, period. (Somewhere, somebody will try. I exempt the intellectually suicidal from the previous statement.) If the critic is sufficiently organized to get this far, the argument hinges on the degree to which the student is representative of those who make such accusations. At this point, all sides are likely arguing without objective evidence, on the strength of ideology, urban myths, and hearsay. This may not be talking about the production. But it is only slightly better: it is talking about the presentation of an issue, not about the issue itself.

There is room for serious examination of sexual harassment and other human relations policies, particularly in an academic setting, where we professors persist in ignoring the corporate structures around us, where due process is often absent, where we think we are our own bosses, where we are accustomed to thinking ourselves capable of doing everything ourselves. There is room for serious debate on whether procedures should be informal, formal, quasi-legal, fully legal; on the nature and extent of preventative education; on how to lessen the degree of misunderstanding possible between individuals in a power relationship; on how to clearly and effectively specify guidelines, rules, and procedures without stifling, over-bureaucratizing, or rendering impossible intellectual inquiry, individual expression, and normal human interaction. Oleanna does not even attempt to address these issues.

One can't expect every "issues" play, or even one of them, to be a balanced presentation. Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart is anything but balanced. But it does not aspire to generate discussion: it is a cry of rage, a spur to action. Where it succeeds, it succeeds as polemic. Oleanna can't claim this status. It's not a portrait of injustice; there's no indictment of the system, because the "system" in this play consists of a few oblique references to a "Tenure Committee". Oleanna performs a function similar to wartime propaganda: the intent is to demonize, to restrict thought rather than to free it. I realized near the end of the second act why audience leave talking about "the issues"; it's because we are not watching people battle on stage, but archetypes, and we can deal with them only as symbols. There are no epiphanies here, no personal insights that we can apply to ourselves or others we know.

In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss wrote, "Civilization can be described as a prodigiously complicated mechanism: tempting as it would be to regard it as our universe's best hope of survival, its true function is to produce what physicists call entropy: inertia, that is to say. Every scrap of conversation, every line set up in type, establishes a communication between two interlocutors, levelling what had previously existed on two different planes, and had had, for that reason, a greater degree of organization." Yet unsuccessful communication can decrease entropy, widen the gulf. Mamet has made a career out of depicting failed communication; is Oleanna his way of prolonging the life of the universe? Does he expect life to imitate art in this instance, or is that simply an ironic consequence?

Perhaps I am just expecting too much. One of my graduate students, who comes from Mexico, maintains that the level of Canadian political discourse is so debased that anything that gets people talking to each other about something other than Star Trek or O.J. is worthwhile. Is any dialogue, even starting from such a skewed position, preferable to the absence of dialogue that many consider endemic?

Let's examine that starting point. At the end of the play, the professor refuses to acquiesce in the book-banning, or to sign a statement drafted by the "group". Then he learns he is being charged with attempted rape. There is one more aborted telephone conversation with his wife, which prompts the student to tell him not to call his wife "baby". He snaps. He starts to beat her. He says, "You vicious little bitch. You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life?". He throws her to the floor. He picks up a chair, raises it over his head, advances on her, and says, "You little cunt..."

As this happened in Studio 180, I was not watching the actors: I was watching the audience, partly to distance myself from what I knew was coming, and partly to chronicle their reaction. In New York, at this point, audience members applauded and shouted, "Hit her. Hit the bitch." In Toronto, at this point, they laughed as she crawled on the floor. When African-American kids on a school trip in Oakland laughed during Schindler's List, the screening was stopped and they were ostentatiously escorted out while the audience stood and applauded. Nothing happened to the well-dressed patrons on Broadway and on Front Street.

One can't avoid "strong language" in a Mamet play. American Buffalo, with an all-male cast, is larded with obscenity. As far back as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Mamet has a man using this sort of language while speaking to a woman. But in these other plays, it comes across as quotidian ritual or pathetic braggadocio, not as incitement. We have despised other Mamet characters for their weakness, their inhumanity, but we have never been asked -- no, prodded -- to despise a character together with her "group". This is a play which ends with a physical assault on a woman, with action preceding it intended to legitimize the argument that she provoked it, that she deserved it.

But Studio 180 is a small, intimate space, and deans and associate deans know how to comport themselves in public. They did not cheer. They did not laugh. Gone were the snorts and exchanges of significant looks that greeted some of the student's outlandish statements. There were one or two smiles on the faces of some younger members of the audience, but that may just have been the unconscious rictus which sometimes contorts our faces as a defence against disturbing events. I had planned to hang about quietly afterwards and eavesdrop on conversations, but I lost heart and after scribbling down a few notes, I fled into the snowy darkness.

The final irony, which must be abundantly clear to those of you who've read this far, is that I'm attempting through presumably rational discussion to assert that Oleanna inhibits rational discussion. My argument undermines itself, unless I claim a status superior to the average audience member, which I'm certainly not willing to do. I can say no more. It's your turn. Write a letter to the editor. Tell him how enlightening you found the play, how stimulating the conversation afterwards in your salon or dormitory was, how you look forward to more of the same. Someone else will write in and call you callous, and yet another will counterattack. If that's what we must settle for, let's get it over with.

(with thanks to N, JG, and JM)