Oleanna: Context

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  • Created by: A. Person
  • Created on: 15-03-14 18:19

Behind the name

  • The title of 'Oleanna' refers to part of a settlement created by succesful Norwegian musician Ole Bull in 1852.
  • Bull bought 11,000 acres of land in for Norwegian immigrants.
  • The land was divided into four settlements, one of which was named 'Oleanna' - a portmanteau of Bull's own name, and the name of his mother, Anna.
  • People flooded into the settlement, eager to claim a place on the new, free land.
  • But the land was unsuitable for farming, and it was located in a valley between two forests.
  • By the late 1850s, all the settlers had left.

There are clear parallels between Mamet's 'Oleanna' and Bull's failed colony - 'Oleanna' depicts the failure of the Utopian plans to open American universities to more students. Just as the Norwegian settlers saw the Ole Bull Colony as a chance for a new life, students saw university as a new hope, a ticket for success - but in reality many students were crumbling under pressure.

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Changes to the American University System

  • During the 1990s, the American government aimed to increase the number of students attending university - a target of 50% of school leavers attending was set.
  • Many of the students who were encouraged to go were the first people in their family to have ever gone to university.
  • Furthermore, many students came from less socially and economically advantaged backgrounds.
  • As a result, there was unprecedented anxiety over grades, money, and social worries about fitting in.
  • Many students believed that provided they did well in university, they would be able to secure themselves a comfortable future - so there was huge pressure to succeed.
  • Mamet, in an interview, claimed that when he was writing Oleanna, young people like Carol were afraid'They wonder why they're in college, what they're going to do when they get out, what has happened to society.'
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Sexual Harassment in the Late 80s and Early 90s

  • In the late 80s and early 90s, accepted codes of behaviour between men and women were being challenged
  • Remarks which had once been regarded as socially acceptable, were now being labelled as sexist and demeaning.
  • What would have been seen as an innocent flirtation was now labelled sexual harassment, and could result in prosecution, through a lawsuit or internal disciplinary hearings.

What caused the changes?

  • The politicized issue of political correctness resulted in pressure to censor language, to avoid causing offence. 
  • Economic recession in the USA in the early 1990s - young people could not see a financially secure future for themselves, in which they could settle down and start a family.
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Sexual Harassment: Impact on Universities

Impact on Universities:

  • The University of Virginia placed an official ban on teacher-student relationships. When Mamet had taught at Goddard College, Vermont, in the early 90s, many of the professors had been romantically involved with their students.
  • A survey by America's Centre for Women's Policy Studies found that one in fifty female undergraduates had been offered higher grades in return for sexual favours.
  • In the same survey, 20% of female undergraduates claimed to have been sexually harassed at university.
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Clarence Thomas Vs Anita Hill

  • In 1991, Clarence Thomas, a conservative African American, was appointed to the United States Supreme Court
  • Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma came forward, accusing Thomas of sexual harasment, when she had previously worked for him as a secretary when he was the head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commision
  • Thomas reportedly discussed sexual acts and pornographic films, after Hill rejected his invitations to date him
  • Despite the allegations, Thomas was still appointed to the Supreme Court
  • However, Hill's accusations raised awareness of sexual harassment - cases more than doubled between 1991 and 1996
  • The media described 1992 as 'Year of the Woman' - a record number of women ran for public office and won, possibly as a reaction against the 98% male senate which elected Thomas despite the accusations against him
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Mamet on Sexual Harassment

  • Mamet, in a 1995 issue of Playboy, said: 'You can't become committed to somebody because you can't support a family, and recreational sex is out because AIDSs might kill you. As a result, society is going to bring us some sort of intermediary mechanism, something to keep people from getting involved with one another. Here it comes - sexual harassment.'
  • Mamet lived in Cambridge, Massachusestts, home to Harvard, a prestigious Ivy League University. 'I used to hear all these stories about sexual harassment ... so I sat down and started making up an interchange between a young woman who wants her grade changed, and a professor who wants to get her out of the office so he can go home to see his wife.'
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Political Correctness in the Late 80s and Early 90

  • In 1992, the year of the first performance of Oleanna, a collection of essays was published - 'Debating PC - The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses'
  • This collectio identified the PC debate as 'the most important discussion in American education today ... which has grown into a major national controversy'
  • There was a reaction against the perceived dominance of a white, male middle-class elite deciding university course content and reading lists
  • 'The traditional curriculum teches all of us to see the world through the eyes of priveleged, white, European males and to adopt their interests and perspectives as our own' - Paula Rothenberg, professor of philosophy and women's studies

University Response

  • Academics responded through the National Organisation of Scholars.
  • They denounced the vindictive climate which forced experienced teachers to move to different departments just to carry on with work they had been performing for years
  • President George Bush Senior gave a speech defending campus freedoms against 'politically correct censors'
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Political Correctness: Examples

  • Minority groups campagined to change university reading lists beyond the traditional canon of literature by 'dead white males'
  • 1990: The University of Texas introduced a new syllabus for a compulsory first year English course, which included a left-wring anthology entitled 'Racism and Sexism'
  • The University of California introduced 'speech codes' for staff and students, which aimed to ban 'offensive language', including derogatory references to 'race, sex, sexual orientation or disability'. Breaching this code was punishable by a formal reprimand, or dismissal from the university.
  • Newsweek magazine ran a cover story labelling the political correctness movement a modern descendent of the Thought Police from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
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Greek Tragedy

Structurally, Mamet's play has been compared to a Greek Tragedy.


A  reversal of fortune - the tragic hero is brought down from their elevated state

Occurs for both John and Carol - Carol is assaulted; John has lost his authority by Act 2


 The moment when a character makes a critical discovery; a moment of sudden awareness and discovery

John: learns of **** charges; Carol: discovers that John has not been home for days


The tragic hero has one 'fatal' flaw - known as hamartia

The most common form of hamartia is hubris: excessive pride.

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Greek Tragedy: Part Two


The moment of catharthis is the audience's purging of emotion

It provides a release of tension, as a result of witnessing the hero fall

The Greek Chorus

In Greek theatre, the chorus represented society as a whole; they provided advice, opinions, and posed questions to the audience and actors.

In Oleanna, the phone acts as the Greek Chorus; it often acts as a kind of alarm, warning Carol and John when they are approaching dangerous territory. (This is somewhat ironic - phones are symbols of communication, and yet the phone often prevents communication)

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Mamet's Views

'I never really saw it as a play about sexual harassment

'The points she [Carol] makes about power and privilege - I believe them all. It is a play about two people, and each person's point of view is correct. Yet they end up destroying each other.'

'Critics say the play is unclear and it occurs to me that what they mean is that it is provocative. That rather than sending the audience out whistling over the tidy moral of the play, it leaves them unsettled.

'I think they're absolutely both wrong, and they're absolutely both right. And that's the extent to which the play aspires to - or achieves - the status of a tragedy.'

All quotes from 2001.

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Production History

Tiffany Theatre, Los Angeles, 1994

  • John played by an African American
  • Carol was portrated more sympathetically - given that John, as an African American (and therefore a minority within the university system) would have faced similar hardships to her, and yet he offered little support

Royal Court Theatre, London, 1993

  • Sympathy for both John and Carol
  • The stage directions caused Carol to gradually gain more space onstage; by Act 3 she almost appeared to be sitting at John's desk
  • Used Mamet's original ending, in which John, having assaulted Carol, says 'O Lord forgive me', and is later shown reading a confession, admitting to 'failing the young'

Missouri Rep, 1997

  • John more popular with the audience; cheered when he attacked Carol
  • Took place on a university campus with a PC code
  • Distorted soundtrack between each act, emphasising muddled communication
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Mamet's Experiences

  • Mamet worked as a drama instructor at Goddard College, Vermont, in the early 90s
  • In 1993, he told The Times that before he started writing 'Oleanna', a friend told him about a young academic who had made a 'loose' remark in class
  • The academic was prosecuted through the university's disciplinary system for 2 years
  • The student involved didn't want to press charges, but was pressured to by her advisors
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Production History Part Two

London Garrick, 2004: 'Carol's leap to self-assuredness comes across as that of an intelligent but inexperienced person struggling to connect to new language and the academic rules of engagement.'

Missouri Repertory Theatre: 'At the onset, the worst the professor can be accused of is self-involvement and pomposity, hardly crimes punishable by utter devastation.'

Maidment Theatre (New Zealand, 2008... Therefore distant from the contextual background): 'In the first act she [Carol] is needy, insecure, and terrified of being defeated by an education system she cannot comprehend. She could come across as a 'manipulative feminist ogre', but instead her 'performance elicits sympathy as she delivers a heartfelt appeal for recognition ... of her emotional experience'

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