Oleanna

David Mamet, playwright and screenwriter extraordinaire is at it again. His electrifying play Oleanna is back in New York. When it was last here, at a time when political correctness was far more charged as a topic, couples left the theater polarized, some people even came to blows! The subtitle of the play warns you that whichever side you take, you’re wrong.

Perhaps that’s because this isn’t a play about “sides”. There is no one to cheer. As one commentator said in the “Talk Back” series that takes place after every performance on Broadway (with a facilitator and two panelists), “He’s a fool and she’s a tool.” Hmmm.

Okay, a bit of background. “Oleanna” is probably “Oleana”, the settlement that Ole Bull, the famed Norwegian virtuoso violinist established for himself and fellow Norwegian emigres in the 1800’s to escape the strictures of their home country. Alas the land was unsuitable for farming, much money was lost by the settlers, and most, including Ole Bull had to flee back to Norway. Today the site is commemorated by “Ole Bull National Park” in Pennsylvania. An “Oleana” now refers to any hopeless pursuit of a Utopian state of affairs where it is naively believed anything is possible.

One wonders if Mamet is chastising society for having myopic views of political correctness or relations between the sexes, or if he’s referring to an idealistic view of education held by the professor, or an idealized view of “class” and “elites” and “power” expressed by the student and the political support group she seems to be a part of. Perhaps all of the above?

On the surface, a student on the verge of failing, desperate not to, visits her teacher and vacillates between self-pity, hopelessness and accusation towards the professor, who in turn seems to trivialize her plight, evidently distracted by a pending house purchase and the hen-pecking telephone attentions of his wife. However in her flailing the student says he is implying she is stupid and will never succeed. This triggers a reaction, as the professor then cathartically (it seems) reveals how he was accused of stupidity growing up, and then proceeds to regale her with a narcissistic diatribe about the shortcomings of college education, equating it to a form of “hazing” where education is secondary to protocol. With an evident Savior complex, he claims that if she will re-engage relative to the course with him, he will give her an A to remove any stress and they’ll start over — he’ll ensure she gets the education she deserves from this course  because he “likes her”.

In the second act, we find she has lodged a complaint of inappropriate conduct and sexual harassment! His tenure which was all but confirmed, is now on hold, he can’t close on his house, which seems to vex his wife above all else, and he attempts to psychoanalyze the student’s accusations as “anger” at various aspects of life. She is having none of it, calling what she has claimed, not allegations but  “facts”. Towards the end as the encounter escalates, he tries to stop her from leaving , she struggles and cries out very vocally, if arguably excessively, for help.

By the third act, he is a mess. He’s being dismissed — after the last incident the university committee has come to believe her (we now know why offices today have glass walls and why people leave doors open or have third parties present!) — and now she explodes with derision at him, pointing out that she now has power as he once did, and making demands that his book be expunged from the curriculum — this apparently is a demand from her “group” who all feel each others pain we are told and clearly have an agenda. Some have described this as also a play about “intellectual terrorism”.

She calls him sexist, elitist, feeling entitled to a house, and advantages for his son and more. He keeps saying “I feel…” and she explodes, “I don’t care what you feel!”  Indeed, neither of them do care in that way about the other, and that’s the wick running through this.

The final violent confrontation is precipitated when she starts telling him not to call his wife “baby”. By so doing, she crosses a line that triggers him to cross the line too. He erupts into physical violence, leaving her to say in the aftermath, with grim if shaken satisfaction, “That’s right.” She’s wrung it out of him at last — he now has to obey her dictates and that of her group, or his life is irretrievably over.

He was indeed a fool. He frittered away his power by continuing the discussion when he could have ended it initially, by not listening fully when he then opened the door for her to share, and then made her a “project”, a demo for his own evangel. He never saw her as a real person, with her specific fragility, flaws and needs. He never sought to serve her, but his own vision of her when she mentioned feeling “stupid”, because suddenly he could personalize her plight, and the thought of helping her through this may even have been therapeutic for him.

For her, rather than aim to succeed in her subject and ask for real help, she translated her despair into anger, her scholastic challenge into a holier-than-thou sense of victimhood in search of an oppressor to bring down. She saw him as someone whose need for the status quo in life (tenure, family, home) made him vulnerable and able to potentially be manipulated.

The ultimate sin of both of them was to look at each other as objects, as means to their own ends — be those ends emotional, educational, career or political agenda related. She became an obstacle to a house closing (which seemed the only real relevance of tenure to him, certainly not pride in a calling), and he became a mode of dissemination of certain ideas and a means of censoring others. Martin Buber would have called this an “I-It” relationship rather than an “I-You” much less “I-Thou” relationship (from objectifying to respecting boundaries to valuing intrinsically someone else’s needs and feelings).

Let us all beware. People come to us for help. If we don’t wish to and don’t need to help them, don’t prolong their agony, don’t drag it out. Focus on the house closing or spousal phone call or whatever. Or reschedule if you want to help but can’t at that moment. If you opt to help, listen to them, look at them, feel with them — don’t look for undue parallels in your own life — no one has invited you to kick-off an emotional strip show. You might share a vulnerability, but know your motives, and your boundaries.

In engaging each other, let’s see if we can find and locate value in each other’s worlds, anxieties, hopes and dreams. We have to make sure that ISN’T an “Oleana” but a real possibility.