May 14, 2011

John Defends Oleanna, Mamet's Most Polarizing Play

As presumptuous as it may sound, for years I’ve wanted to rescue Oleanna from its reputation.

For a play that’s presumably about Genderpolitik and sexual harassment, it's surprising just how gender and harassment barely feature in this play.  They’re MacGuffins.  People who leave the theatre arguing over “Did He Or Didn’t He?” are missing the point.  The 1994 film version does itself no favors with its baiting tagline: “Whatever Side You Take, You’re Wrong.”

The genders of the characters could be reversed with only a handful of pronoun changes – this was my original pitch to Jamie and Aimee, which they went for, but was almost immediately shot down by Mamet’s people.  (Playwrights.  Feh.  What do they know?)

Is it automatic that all men in the audience will side with John, and all the women with Carol?  Carol historically had been presented as so unsympathetic, even evil, that the climax of the play brought rousing cheers.  This disturbs me to no end, that a play that really isn't about gender has a tendency to awaken an almost instinctual misogyny.  If I'm attempting anything different -- or if not, at least contrary to expectation -- it's for sympathies to be divided not down gender lines, but inside each audience member's mind.  I want to make it as difficult as possible to take sides.

What is this play about?  Power.  At the start of the play, one person has power and the other doesn’t.  By the end of the play, it’s reversed.  There; the entire play in a nutshell.

Of course, we have to take into account the time in which the play was written (and in which we’re required to set it), the early 90's, during the Clarence Thomas hearings.  Regardless of the veracity of Anita Hill’s allegations, his reputation is forever stained.  Is it fair?

But the play is not a product of its time; it's still thoroughly relevant.  Re-imagined politically, it’s a proletarian uprising against a self-imagined benevolent dictator, himself a rebel in his younger days.  Like that hasn’t been in the news lately…

The most profound and ironic tragedy of John and Carol is that they want to understand each other, and it’s this sympathy and desire for understanding that leads to their downfall.  Carol states it herself: “I don’t want revenge.  I want UNDERSTANDING!”  There are so many instances where their lives might have been better off if she just left the room.  The questions of “why is she here” and “why does she stay” in Scenes 2 and 3 become much clearer (and much more playable) if Carol does indeed have sympathy for John and the position he’s in.  But every time they try to connect, it only makes the situation worse.  Mamet presents empathy as a destructive agent, and this is perhaps the most incendiary theme of the play.  Or at least it should be.

We also became acutely aware of just how much of the plot is guided by external influences.  The phone always seems to ring at exactly the wrong time.  Carol admits that she personally would be inclined to forgive John, but her responsibility to the students and the ‘Group’ prevents her.  Had John been privy to a certain piece of information (spoilers!), Scene 3 would never have happened.

Working on this play revealed many layers of meaning that seem to get lost amidst the din of “He Said She Said.”  Having two excellent actors in Peter and Jess and two supportive producers in Jamie and Aimee made the rehearsal process exciting and rewarding.  Hope you find likewise.

Oleanna by David Mamet, a theatre.unmasked production directed by John Geoffrion runs May 19 - June 4 at the Rebel Chef Café, in the Cocheco Falls Millworks in downtown Dover.  Performances Thu-Sat at 8pm.  Tickets $25/$15.  Order online at

1 comment:

Vox Populi said...

Wow John... You write really well. I'm not surprised, just impressed.