Contexts in Oleanna

The contexts prevalent in David Mamet's Oleanna

  • Created by: ifarsides
  • Created on: 16-12-14 11:12


Oleanna provides an “ominous commentary on education in America and more particularly functions as a dire warning both to and about those doing the educating.” Most students have to ‘work their way through college’ (ie work to pay their fees etc). This will often mean working during the long summer and during the semester while they are at college. As a very rough guideline, the average cost for studying at a four-year private university is $28,5000 per year. Top universities charge around $41,5000 with additional money needed for accommodation and living expenses. During the 1990s, the American government aimed to increase the number of students attending university. Many students came from less socially and economically advantaged backgrounds. As a result, there was unprecedented anxiety over grades, money and fitting in. Applicants are interviewed by a panel of senior members of faculty, referred to in the play as the ‘Tenure Committee.’ One element of criteria, in appraising the tutor’s status within his or her field would be the reputation of the applicant’s published academic work.

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Harassment/Hill and Thomas

Sexual harassment occurs when one employee makes continued, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, to another employee, against his or her wishes. Apart from the widespread campus debates on ‘PC’ in the 1990s, (including gender politics), much media coverage was given to accusations of sexual harassment in education and the workplace. One of the most celebrated cases was between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. In July 1991, President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Marshall was a Civil Rights hero and the first African American on the high court but, while Thomas was also African American, he was judicially conservative, and his positions on many contested issues were the opposite of those held by the liberal Marshall. A leaked FBI report revealed that University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill had accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him at the Department of Education and the equal employment Opportunity Commission. It was the Hill-Thomas Hearings, conducted by the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, that apparently ‘crystallized and concretized Mamet's latest dramatization of the power dynamic.’ Some argue that the image of a lone Anita Hill facing an unsympathetic panel of all- male and all-white senators was partly responsible for an unprecedented number of women running for and winning congressional seats in the 1992 election.

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The Reasonable Woman Standard

Early in 1991, a court in San Francisco established the ‘Reasonable Woman Standard’. The ruling demanded that cases of sexual harassment be viewed from the victim’s perspective. Further, the court stated that an analysis of the victim’s view requires understanding the ‘different perspectives of men and women.’ The court stated that ‘because women are disproportionately victims of **** and assault, women have a stronger incentive to be concerned about sexual behaviour.’ Thus, according to this legal standard, when John says that putting his hand on Carol’s shoulder is ‘devoid of sexual content,’ his intentions are irrelevant. Carol responds with ‘I SAY IT IS NOT . . . Don't’ you begin to understand?  IT’S NOT FOR YOU TO SAY.’ How Carol feels, not what John means, is the issue. However, the court also states that the employee must prove that the behaviour was such that a ‘reasonable woman’ would find it offensive. But an employer ‘does not have to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of the rare hyper-sensitive employee.’

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Mamet and American Drama

‘What I write about is what I think is missing from our society. And that’s communication on a basic level.’ David Mamet. With Oleanna the protagonists are assumed to be intelligent, erudite people, drawn together for the very purpose of investigating and improving human understanding and knowledge through the means of dialogue. What occurs, though, is a subsequent demonstration of an almost complete lack of communication, resulting in dangerous misunderstanding and vastly conflicting reports of the same event. ‘Mamet emerged on the national scene in the latter half of the 1970s. Politically, America was still coming to terms with Watergate and the Vietnam débâcle. Culturally, the aesthetic and social radicalism of the1960s had faded. The avant-garde theatre (in the form of Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman and Spalding Gray) seemed concerned to explore individual consciousness, to promote the self as the centre of meaning and experience. Broadway, with its emphasis on private anxieties, ranging from the nature of one’s sexual identity to the fear of terminal illness, was scarcely less private in its subject matter. Mamet’s work cut a tangent across this. He offered a critique of America society – its capitalist ethos, its increasing privatism, its loss of spiritual meaning and social will – which made him a natural successor to such writers as Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets and Eugene O’Neill.’

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Production and Reception

'When I saw the play in New York, audience members began to hiss at Carol. In the end when John started to beat Carol, several people actually cheered the assault. I gather from reviews of the production that this was fairly typical of audience response to the play. As Elaine Showalter has pointed out in one critique, Mamet "has written a polarizing play about a false allegation of sexual harassment, and that would be fair enough--false allegations of harassment, ****, and child abuse indeed occur--if he were not claiming to present a balanced case."'
'A balanced approach might deal with the ambiguity of the topic, different interpretations of actions, or conflicting opinions about what constitutes harassment. The very nature of sexual harassment makes guilt impossible to determine in some cases when it is one person's word against another's. The general hype surrounding the play was that it presented a tough issue with no "right side." Advertisements featured silhouettes of a man and a woman, each with a target on their chest. Two playbill covers were printed and distributed--one with the targeted man and one with the targeted woman. Ad copy read, "which ever side you choose, you're wrong." Yet, while neither character is particularly admirable, the play does take sides. Playing to the fears of the audience, the work seems to argue that the real issue of sexual harassment is that an unsubstantiated charge could ruin the career and life of an absolutely innocent individual.'
“Experiencing David Mamet's play "Oleanna" on the stage was one of the most stimulating experiences I've had in a theater. In two acts, he succeeded in enraging all of the audience - the women with the first act, the men with the second. I recall loud arguments breaking out during the intermission and after the play, as the audience spilled out of an off-Broadway theater all worked up over its portrait of . . . sexual harassment? Or was it self-righteous Political Correctness?” Roger Ebert Chicago Sun-Times
Most of the early reviewers and audiences saw Mamet as endorsing John’s position. A typical response to the ending is the suggestion that “[John’s] brutality re-establishes the authority of the old patriarchal system against the insurgency of Political Correctness. Through his physical assault on Carol, John symbolically reclaims his power and privilege”. Deborah Tannen summed up the consensus of feminist reviewers when she wrote, “right now, we don’t need a play that helps anyone feel good about a man beating a woman.” Mamet has insisted that, although many spectators thought the play was slanted towards John’s position, “a lot of people thought the opposite”. The reviews, however, suggest that most audiences for the early productions, and for the 1994 film directed by Mamet, approved and even cheered the beating.

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