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Et tu, Mamet? The Misogyny of ‘Oleanna’

As an admirer of David Mamet’s writing style and piercing commentary, I was disappointed when I went, as a guest of a critic, to see the recently-opened production of his he-said, she-said sexual harassment play, “Oleanna”. After suffering through more than an hour of Julia Stiles’ student character, Carol, and Bill Pullman’s professor character, John, foolishly and nastily duking it out, I fear I may have to put Mamet in the Philip Roth club of talented Jewish male writers who fall into the trap of revealing their own misogyny instead of exposing their characters’.

“Oleanna” was meant to provoke, enrage and trouble us, to make us doubt our understanding of power, gender and harassment, and to ponder the difficulty of communication across those lines. Through the first half of the play, we sympathize with the kindly, if idiotic, John as played by Pullman, and later are horrified when Carol turns on him with her accusation of his inappropriate behavior, bolstered, it seems, by a crash course in feminist theory. But as John leans on his class, age, power and male privilege to fight her back with shocking results, our sympathies are definitely meant to shift and, I suppose we are then led to wonder if Carol’s original accusations didn’t have a ring of truth to them. But invariably, we don’t.

And that’s because, as Ben Brantley wrote last week:

Think about it afterward, or read the script, and you’ll realize that the sympathies of Mr. Mamet, a man’s man among playwrights, are definitely with John, however flawed he may be. It also becomes clear that Carol, as a character, is full of holes, most conspicuously in the way she uses words.

So the duel in “Oleanna” is not really a he-said, she-said situation. Instead Carol feels like a feminist bogeyman — a sexless, vengeful, patriarchy-hating monster arising from Mamet’s primal fears, painted over with a veneer of minimal sympathy.

And those fears are legitimized by the intellectual establishment. Here, a male playwright tackles the extremely rare problem of false accusations of harassment, and it’s considered universally relevant and sent to major theaters with big stars. I have to imagine that if a female writer took on the common issue of actual harassment, her play would likely be playing at a small downtown theater and pigeonholed as a feminist play.

Still, I’m willing to cut Mamet some minimal slack. “Oleanna” is a decade-plus-old piece of work, and hearkens back to a time (the early 1990s) when everyone thought the academy would be soon run aground by overzealous, PC censoriousness. Instead, as anyone who’s been at a university recently will tell you, known sexual harassers still walk among the professorial elite, while professors who specialize in women’s issues don’t exactly reign over academic discourse. The nightmare that “Oleanna” predicted never happened. I hope that if Mamet took on the issue today, the results would be a bit different.

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