David Mamet's Two-Person Play, 'Oleanna'

Oleanna play programs
Sarah-Rose ohsarahrose/ Flickr CC

"Oleanna," a powerful two-character drama by David Mamet, explores the destructiveness of miscommunication and excessive political correctness. It is a play about academic politics, student/teacher relationships, and sexual harassment.

Plot Overview

Carol, a female college student, privately meets with her male professor. She is concerned about failing the class. She is frustrated because she doesn’t understand the professor’s overly verbose lectures.

At first, the professor (John) is callous with her, but when she explains that she feels incompetent, he expresses empathy for her. He “likes her” so he bends the rules and decides to give her an “A” if she agrees to meet with him to discuss the material, one-on-one.

Act One

During most of Act One, the teacher is abrupt, interruptive, and distracted by continual phone calls about real estate problems. When the student does get a chance to speak, it is difficult for her to express herself clearly. Their conversation becomes personal and sometimes upsetting. He touches her shoulder on several occasions, urging her to sit down or to remain in the office.

Finally, she is about to confess something deeply personal, but the phone rings yet again and she never discloses her secret.

Act Two

An unknown amount of time passes (probably a few days) and John meets with Carol again. However, it is not to discuss education or philosophy.

The student has written a formal complaint about the professor’s behavior. She feels that the instructor was lewd and sexist. Also, she claims that his physical contact was a form of sexual harassment. Interestingly, Carol is now well-spoken. She criticizes him with great clarity and mounting hostility.

The teacher is astounded that his previous conversation was interpreted in such an offensive way. Despite John’s protests and explanations, Carol is unwilling to believe that his intentions were good. When she decides to leave, he holds her back. She becomes scared and rushes out the door, calling for help.

Act Three

During their final confrontation, the professor is packing up his office. He has been fired.

Perhaps because he is a glutton for punishment, he invites the student back to make sense out of why she destroyed his career. Carol has now become even more powerful. She spends much of the scene pointing out her instructor’s many flaws. She declares she is not out for revenge; instead she has been prompted by “her group” to take these measures.

When it is revealed that she has filed criminal charges of battery and attempted rape, things get really ugly!

Right and Wrong

The genius of this play is that it stimulates discussion, even arguments.

  • Is the professor attracted to her in Act One?
  • Does he behave inappropriately?
  • Does he deserve to be denied tenure?
  • What are her motives?
  • Is she doing this simply out of spite?
  • Is she right to claim her professor is sexist or is she merely over-reacting?

That’s the fun of this drama; it all about the perspective of each audience member.

Ultimately, both characters are deeply flawed. Throughout the play, they rarely agree or understand each other.

Carol, the Student

Mamet designed her character so that most of the audience will ultimately loath Carol by Act Two. The fact that she interprets his touch on the shoulder as sexual assault shows that Carol may have some issues that she does not reveal.

In the final scene, she tells the professor not to call his wife “Baby.” This is Mamet’s way of showing that Carol has truly crossed a line, prompting the enraged professor to cross a line of his own.

John, the Teacher

John may have good intentions in Act One. However, he doesn’t seem to be a very good or wise instructor. He spends most of his time waxing eloquently about himself and very little time actually listening.

He does flaunt his academic power, and he does unintentionally demean Carol by shouting, “Sit down!” and by physically trying to urge her to stay and finish their conversation. He doesn’t realize his own capacity for aggression until it is too late. Still, many audience members believe that he is completely innocent of the charges of sexual harassment and attempted rape.

Ultimately, the student possesses an underlying deviousness. The teacher, on the other hand, is overtly pompous and foolish. Together they make a very dangerous combination.

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Your Citation
Bradford, Wade. "David Mamet's Two-Person Play, 'Oleanna'." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/david-mamets-two-person-play-oleanna-2713508. Bradford, Wade. (2021, August 9). David Mamet's Two-Person Play, 'Oleanna'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/david-mamets-two-person-play-oleanna-2713508 Bradford, Wade. "David Mamet's Two-Person Play, 'Oleanna'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/david-mamets-two-person-play-oleanna-2713508 (accessed May 31, 2023).