In this essay I will be analysing the play Oleanna, with reference to the educational themes of gender, political correctness, power and language. Oleanna was a popular play in the 1990’s that induced outrage amidst it’s audiences, through how the playwright Mamet was able to provoke gender politics between feminists and male chauvinists. The play was blatantly about male versus females thereby instigating debate between its audiences, depending on which character they empathised with as the story unfolds. As Camille Paglia of the Los Angeles Times said, “Mamet is using sex war to explore a much larger subject and that subject is education”.
It is important to consider that as part of the historical context for the play Oleanna, the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings was already in progress. Anita Hill a law professor accused judge Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked as his assistant. Although Mamet already started working on Oleanna before the hearings, the mood of the heighten level of the case at the time could have been a major influence for Mamet at the time. As David Krasner quoted Mamet in his book A companion to twentieth- century American drama “What I write about is what I think is missing from our society. And that’s communication on a basic level”.
In Oleanna a female student Carol approaches her male professor John and ask for help to understand a subject that he teaches her, this practise is often a common between a professor and student in the educational system. The professor however instead of helping her, starts raising questions about the reason behind higher education thereby unintentionally trying to induce a doubt in her belief towards it. This sparks an argument between them as the story unravels, and through miscommunication the fight for power emerges between them.
Before analysing the themes of gender, political correctness, power and language within Oleanna, I would like to briefly define these key terms and how they are used in the play. The definition of gender in general is often mistaken with physicality however, it is more than what people see in front of them or what sex they are born with, but rather how an individual feel at different occasions. It is a combination of biological, psychological and sociological factors. In Oleanna nevertheless, gender is driven more towards one’s sex and does not in cooperate the full definition of it, this is because the play is geared towards the battle of the sexes.
Political correctness is a movement which is historically linked to language, and it is deliberate to cause minimum offense principally when describing groups that are associated with gender, culture, sexuality and race. Within the context of Oleanna political correctness is more focus on Gender and sexuality, this is showed in the Character Carol, who is depicted a radical feminist despite her outrageous accusations, she stills manages to manipulate society into believing her.
Power is defined as gaining total ownership to control and have influence with authority to dominate one or more groups of people. Through power leadership exists and society is controlled, thereby making it a necessity for society to function properly. Power in the play Oleanna is the most evident theme amongst the four to be discussed in this essay, in the play there is continual fight for power between the professor and his student carol. It also focuses on those who are less privilege and those lucky to be in power, as well as how there is no absolute power because the balance of power keeps changing throughout the play between the characters.
Language is a system of communication fundamentally use verbally or symbolic in transferring notions and concepts between humans with the same cultural expectancies. It is a great way to gain knowledge and share emotions with other people using the body. The use of language in Oleanna is shown as a representative of power within the play, the unbalance language between the professor and carol demonstrates such disparity. In Oleanna language dominance and authority is established to empower the characters throughout the play.
Gender in Mamet’s play of Oleanna is a chronological order of acts between the two characters John and Carol, who each take turns in being dominant towards each other. In Oleanna each character’s desired objective is very clear throughout the play, for example in scene one Carol depicted John as a very paramount figure who thrills her because of the power he has over her. She reaches out to him in order to get her desired objective i.e. to get a pass grade in his subject. John however recounts himself as a casualty of the same academic intuition that is exploiting Carol, she however is unwilling to accept this explanation. Carol in the beginning plays the perfect gender norm role for women, by presenting them as being helpless and stupid who cannot do anything for themselves without being helped by males. This is evident in the beginning when carol seeks help from John and said “But I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand what anything means” John’s male dominance is very glaring as superior because of the academic knowledge he holds.
Furthermore, Gender roles are self-assigned in the play automatically, during John’s phone call to his wife several times in the first act Carol’s responses such as “oh. You’re buying a new home!” hints at the fact she aspires to have a home one day and to some extend jealous of john’s wife who appears to be the perfect cliched homemaker. This is the same vice versa when John assumes his position as the sole provider of the family and shows his superiority by the way his wife and Carol are both dependent on him for assurance and solution to their problems. As the play unfolds it becomes clear that the recurring interruptions during their conversations made it extremely hard to interpret each other’s perspective of things. Mohammed, Ahmed SM in his journal article Dialogic problems and miscommunications said “Contemporary critics in 1990s inclined to analyse the play with provocative Clarence-Hill hearing. Anita Hill’s allegation against judge candidate Thomas Clarence for sexual harassment caused analytic framework of Oleanna to be concentrated on the matter of gender politics” (Mohammed, 2009).
When Carol misunderstands John’s teaching and choice of words, she revolts against him, however John lacks knowledge of why he has been accused of sexual harassment. The Set-up of the play in an educational institution demonstrates the gap between teachers and students, it revels the lack of understanding between males and females by showing lack of empathy towards how they feel for each other. As the play unwinds both characters held onto their beliefs about what that thought was right, Carol believed she was standing up against egotistic and privileged men like John. The professor on the other hand believed that he deserved his position and power as a superior in the social structure. In the end both characters were fighting for a different goal making it rather difficult for them to come to an agreement.
Oleanna’s play was written during the active era of political correctness with the intention of engaging feminist criticism. Political correctness in the play negatively represents feminism through Carol’s character, her ideology and struggle are pictured as very devious, manipulative and negative. This is implied by how Mamet renders the use of feminism towards the hierarchy system, and purely basing it on their radical views to abuse the power given to women. This is evident from the climax of the play when Carol accuses John of sexually harassing her, Carol’s accusation changed the whole dynamics of the play, she started to gain control after being backed by the Tenure committee.
Political correctness in Oleanna emerges through the lack of communication between John and carol even after John tried explaining that he is a victim of the same institution too, Carol refuses to reason with him. The professor became a victim of society’s stereotypical powers that is naturally assumed for example being born as a white male. As a white man he was able fulfil all his moral obligations, such as having a good job in a powerful position and a wife, this made him an easy target to be pounced upon by those less privilege than him. Although unintentional the lack of power by deprived groups, are often blamed on white males and question their integrity as law makers about what is being just. As Karl Marx said in contribution to the critique of economic power “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
Although the professor is unaware of his own arrogance, he constantly refuses to let Carol complete her sentences, by interrupting her. He lacks the ability to listen and understand, he sees himself at a more elevated position, this annoyed carol who in turn vents her anger against him. An example is in act one, when he said to carol “I like you” although he might have said that only to reassure her, but due to the lack of understanding between them, she mistook it as a sexual advancement thereby endorsing the issue of political correctness. In the context of Oleanna through sexual harassment, political correctness is examined in a very controversial manner, by exaggeration. Guidelines developed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1980 define sexual harassment as “Unwelcome sexual advances, submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting the individual; or such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment” (Academic Freedom P 64)..
Language is the main source of misunderstanding between the professor and Carol in Oleanna, they are both constantly conflicting in their capacities and responsibilities. Mamet’s dialect in Oleanna is a fount that is open to more than one interpretation within the positions of the educational system. The professor and her student have both a different comprehension of their respective characters, which is shown by how language is used in the play. The doublespeak of the language in Oleanna is the reason for the cause of uncertainty between John and Carol. As Macleod said in his journal article American Studies “clearly, there is no such thing as casual conversation in Oleanna: every exchange between the two characters bears directly or indirectly on the use or acquisition of linguistic power” (209).
Mehmet’s ambiguity uses of language from the first act of the play, already generated a conflict between the two characters i.e. when Carol seeks help from John. Carols persuasively attempts to make John assist her, when she told him “Teach work. Teach me (Mamet 12). Mehmet exposes her desperation to understand the professor’s work through embedding lots of repetitive words in the play, Carol’s cause for concern lies deeply in understanding the professor’s book for the subject he teaches her. The professor attempts to solve her cause for concern, but he rather ends up confusing her more due to the lack of a familiar interpretation between them thus leading to more frustration.
He believes that Carol’s problem involves the idea of failure which can be seen in his answer to her. The professor is certain that Carol’s issue incorporates the ideology of being a failure because of education, this is shown in how he responses to her, for example in act one he said “If I do not want to think of myself as a failure, perhaps I should begin by succeeding now and again. Look. The tests, you see, which you encounter, in school, in college, in life, were designed, in the most part, for idiots…. They’re nonsense” (Mamet 18). Carol on the other hand is worried about understanding the professor’s language and how he defines their relationship between student and teacher within the educational intuition rather than the idea of failure.
Additionally, Mamet deliberately creates various dialogic forms to determine that there is complication between communications. The phone calls were part of these distractions as they impaired the conversation between the Professor and Carol, the regular interference of these phone calls from the professor’s wife, make it impossible for John to focus on Carol and give her his full attention couple with the differentiation in language competency. The professor’s language competency enabled him to gain power over Carol who can’t understand complicated words, her vocabulary is limited and simple. In act one Carol struggles to understand words such as “paradigm” or “transpire”, the professor contrarily is very articulate in his speeches and demonstrates a higher level of vocabulary. The supremacy of dialect between them in the first act makes the professor more confident and gives him control over her, however in the second and third act carol slowly gains control while the professor slowly loses his power. However, by the end of the play the professor loses his composure by using broken sentence, he totally loses his power by flaring up his anger and resulting to a spiteful conduct, whilst Carol became more fluent with her dialect and comports herself.
One of the most evident themes in Oleanna is the fight for power between males and females, but more importantly on a larger scale between those who have lots of power and those who have limited power. As Karl Marx said “there is a limited amount of power in society, which can only be only be held by one person or group at a time. These “groups” are the working and ruling classes”. In the context of this play Carol is part of the working class and the Professor is part of the ruling class, In the beginning of the play, Carol is vulnerable against the Professor who dominates her throughout the first act due to her lack of confidence. He is portrayed as a man who has money and responsibility. He is constantly trying to solve issues from both his home as well as Carol’s lack of understand for his material, this makes him powerful and absolute as a professor because of how others are dependent on him. Although the professor seemed to have unlimited power, he began to lose it when Carol starts to unveil her power, she uses her identity as a woman to gradually overturn things. She became part of something bigger by joining the tenure committee, this elevated her position, Carol became part of a movement that needed a voice and a purpose to strike, so the timing of the accusation was perfect for its purpose. (quote about feminist movement in 92/Oleanna vibe)
The professor baited himself in the beginning when he was complaining about higher education to Carol “I came late to Teaching. And I found it artificial” (P7). His speech illustrated that education was pointless and so was university, this was also a cause for Carol’s rebellion, because she worked very hard to attend a good university only to be told it was not worth it. This arrogant speech by the Professor made it clear that he was unaware of how ridiculous he sounded, because the power and authority he held were all due to his profession at the university, thereby debunking his own identity. His lack of patience to answer her questions made her uncover his weakness and switches it to her advantage to gain total power by the end of the play. It was easy for Carol to play gender politics and manipulate the Professor to gain power, this coincides with the upraising feminist movement at the time, (Find quote or words about feminist movement at the time of Oleanna) she simply charged the professor of rape because there was an opportunity to gain power. She proved that regardless of all the education and advanced vocabulary, when power is lost helplessness takes control. In the case of the professor he resulted to violence and physical abuse because he could not control himself.
To conclude this analysis, Oleanna alters the positions of student and teacher reversed, the shift of power from the Professor John to the student Carol. Carol is backed by the tenure committee who supports her account of incidents that occurred in the professor’s office. John on the other hand loses to Carol because no can account for his narrative. In a wider context when looking at the world in general this implies there is no veracity and what matters is who is standing as your shield in terms of conflict. Similarly, some people can get away with murder if they have a good social and powerful Influence. In the professor’s office there is no any element of truth about what occurred according to Carol, but rather it became a reality because of the willingness of the tenure committee to accept her statement as the truth. In the beginning the professor was powerful because he had the backing of the university, and his position as a Lecturer that could chose to pass or fail a student if they were not performing to the school’s standard. The switch of dominance clearly gave Carol the confidence to express herself freely without the need to be reluctant in her dialect and criticising the professor for his disregard towards how hard she worked to make it to university as a student.