THE FEMINIST MISTAKE
No matter where you stand on feminist issues, David Mamet's Oleanna at the Denver Center Theatre Company will tick you off. This is the kind of theater that sends you furious into the night--masterfully manipulative and absolutely scary.
It's scary because we know too much about propaganda--how ideologues throughout history have nailed their victims to intolerant doctrines. The same frame of mind that led to the burning of heretics and infidels during the world's many inquisitions, pogroms and scourges also led to the torture and murder of millions during the Chinese cultural revolution, the Third Reich and most "utopian" societies before or since. The tendency in humans to react to injustice with equal or greater injustice is pervasive throughout history. Mamet recognizes this tendency in the political correctness that is au courant, and his cautionary tale is really an attack on every fanatical impulse to control others.
A student comes to a professor's office for an unscheduled talk about her grade. The pompous ass of a professor doesn't listen very carefully to what the young woman says to him. He is distracted by his imminent promotion and by constant telephone interruptions as he negotiates to buy a house. He's middle-aged, which means he grew up in the iconoclastic Sixties, and is given to pontificating about how bad "the system" is--especially the educational system. The student is none too bright and has difficulty following the professor's high-blown language. She is, in fact, a perfect example of the execrable educational system the professor decries. She can't think, she knows nothing, she's insecure, and she believes that her failure to understand him is his fault.
The whole first act is a little boring; it's not clear just what the old fool and the young dim bulb are getting at. But maestro Mamet knows his subject, and the academic atmosphere is perfect: The professor's pedantic digressions have a purpose, revealed in the second act.
The professor really wants to help the student--he's trying to meet her at her level, to get through to her, but he's not very good at it, and he doesn't grasp either her embrace of the educational system he denigrates or her radical idealism about gender and power. He makes the mistake first of touching her in a friendly--not sexual--way. But when their discussion escalates to argument, he really does shove her, and buys his doom thereby.
As the second act opens, we learn that the student has brought sexual-harassment charges against the teacher. Every single thing he has said, verbatim, is shot back at him with a prurient twist. Her education has taught her how to take notes, but not how to understand what she has heard. He tries to reason with her, but she has her own forms of reasoning, and they are all political, inventive and, finally, fanatical. Mamet is not so foolish as to make the professor overly sympathetic. We don't like him much, and it's a neat trick turning him into the victim.
The end of the play is devastating because Jamie Horton as the mild-mannered jerk turned raging brute and Patricia Jones as the neurotic youngster turned militant womyn are superbly matched. The drama of intimate menace they create on the DCTC's beautifully designed and slowly revolving set is hellish.
But then, Oleanna is about manufactured hell--about the radical inability of people to understand each other and about the predisposition to replace one power structure with an even worse one. Since Mamet can't be dismissed as some neo-Nazi or conservative Rush Limbaugh type, even good liberals are forced to think about it.
It's possible, of course, that Mamet has set up a straw dog. After all, sexual harassment is real. Injustices toward women are commonplace. The radical feminism represented by the student has not arisen in a vacuum. Mamet has indeed stacked the deck against the feminist concerns the student articulates--but not without reason.
All the repressive sociopolitical dialogue he creates has been drawn from reality--anyone who's been on a college campus lately has heard all of it before. And Mamet succeeds finally in demonstrating that though self-righteous ideologues are always willing to sacrifice goats to their gods in the name of justice, one injustice does not heal another--and reactive brutality will never serve as an antidote to oppression.
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