Analytical Essay Sample on Oleanna by David Mamet: Sexual Harassment and Power

Posted on August 11, 2009

Drama is perhaps one of the most significant forms of human entertainment preserved throughout the centuries by scribes. Since approximately 500 B.C. drama produced such renowned authors as Euripides, William Shakespeare, and today’s David Mamet. Mamet, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, wrote Oleanna, an extremely controversial play, involving sexual harassment and power. Instead of using conventional sexual harassment scenarios which continually made front page news during the early 90’s (Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill), Mamet elects to centralize the subject of sexual harassment within the relationship of a college professor (John) and his student (Carol). Even though it is apparent to the audience that John is a genuinely nice and honest man who enjoys power and authority he possesses as a college professor, his ability to be extremely naпve in such a delicate situation (private one on one meeting with a student of the opposite sex) is his ultimate downfall.

John demonstrates his kindness and sincerity when he tries to comfort Carol by revealing secrets from his past, during their first initial conversation. By sympathizing with his student, John tries to build a foundation for communication: I’ll tell you a story about myself. (Pause) Do you mind? (Pause) I was raised to think myself stupid I was brought up and my earliest and persistent memories are of being told I was stupid (15-16).

JohnТs consideration towards others inevitably leads to his demise. The communication barrier which is initially broken when John become extremely open, revealing a story from his past, leaves him vulnerable to manipulation from outside influences. Throughout the play, power becomes a significant characteristic in John’s personality. During John and Carol’s first private meeting in John’s office, he demonstrates both his power and superior knowledge, using words unclear and foreign sounding to Carol. John repeatedly employs an artificially-heightened vocabulary that draws attention to his academic status, favoring words like “obeisance” (5) or “paradigm” (45), instead of their simpler synonyms. Although a majority of individuals would perhaps tailor their selection of words to fit their intended audience, John uses his vocabulary purposely to help reassure himself of his advanced academic position. JohnТs confidence in his ability to make others feel intellectually inferior stems from the overwhelming satisfaction he retains from maintaining and demonstrating his superiority.

One might recognize John’s disparagement of a traditional student-teacher relationship in which the teacher operates as a flawless prophet. However, this does not transpire here, for we discover in John’s actions a professor who extremely enjoys his power. From the very start of Oleanna, John decides in Carol’s presence whether to answer his phone, symbolically controlling the conversation by alternating between live student audience and other unseen voices. He even makes a show of not answering the phone at one point, “(The telephone starts to ring)” Let it ring. I’ll make you a deal” (The phone stops ringing)” (25) another gesture that reinforces his role as determinant of the action. This seemingly casual overture deprecates the studentТs college experience and demeans any real future achievement that might occur, for it suggests that teachers do not evaluate a studentТs work objectively, but instead assign random grades on a notion. Although he protests early on in the play that he is not Carol’s father (9), John later falls quite comfortably into this paternalistic, authoritarian role when he tries to comfort Carol with the admission that “I’m talking to you as I’d talk to my son” (19). When John decides he has had enough of the conference, he again asserts his power by telling Carol, “though I sympathize with your concerns, and though I wish I had the time, this was not a previously scheduled meeting” (13). Although John attempts to sound sincere by sympathizing with Carol’s concerns, he has demonstrated his ability to end their conference at his will.

In addition to John’s selective vocabulary, imaginary father role, and complete control of the conversations, he establishes his authority (within what he assumed is a generous alternative to failing his class) by making a risky proposal: I’ll make you a deal. You stay here. We’ll start the whole course over. Your grade is an A.” Your final grade is an A. “Your grade for the whole term is an A.” If you will come back and meet with me. A few more times. Forget about the paper. You didn’t like it, you didn’t like writing it (25).

What seems like a harmless and charitable offer between a professor and student actually proves exactly how naпve John is when dealing with an extremely touchy situation. Power John enthusiastically exhibits with his gracious offer and his total lack of academic policies paves the way for his significant role in the play. John reveals his fatal mistake by suggesting, “I’ll make you a deal. We’ll start the whole course over. If you will come back and meet with me. A few more times” (25). With his simple proposal, John is subconsciously stripped of power, which he holds so valuable, and assumes the role of a naпve and reckless man oblivious of irreparable damages his arrogance has caused.

John’s power hungry ways and, more significantly, his ability to unconsciously be tremendously naпve, are stereotypical characteristics, which cause sexual harassment. By the end of the play, it becomes obvious to the audience that John is no longer portrayed as a superior individual in the ranks of the educational field. Mamet uses John to subconsciously educate people in the necessity to avoid being naпve in troublesome situations, which may include sexual harassment. Since John lacks experience in dealing with potential situations which may or may not escalate into sexual harassment charges, his inexperience causes three notable physical incidents which never would have happened if he wasn’t tremendously naпve. Two of the three incidents involving physical contact between John and Carol can be interpreted as innocent contact. Although the two incidents in which John physically touches Carol seem innocent, “he goes over to her and puts his arm around her shoulder” (36) and, during a desperate plea to resolve their misunderstanding “he restrains her from leaving” (57).

While neither of John’s two events of physical contact posses any sexual intent, he still is responsible for educating himself about which boundaries should never be crossed in a teacher-student relationship. John’s physical acts are those of a normal person, one who is not terribly self-conscious of contact, and therefore he discovers first hand that being naпve no matter how nice and generous you may appear can ultimately cause your downfall in life.

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