Arts and Culture
Gender + Sexuality

Thank the Gender Wars! The Return of 'Oleanna'

Done with nuance, what Mamet's notorious sexual harassment play tells us today.

By Shannon Rupp 5 Apr 2014 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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Anthony F. Ingram and Susie Coodin in one of two versions of 'Oleana' being mounted in Vancouver. Photo by Adam Blasberg.

I'm not sure who reignited the gender wars, but there's finally something good to report on this front. The relentless coverage of "rape culture" has paved the way for revivals of David Mamet's notorious 1992 play, Oleanna.

This spring Vancouver will see two productions of the play that turns a conflict between a male professor and his female student into an emotional cage match over what constitutes sexual harassment.

The play unfolds in the professor's cramped office as he and his female student debate whether he is guilty of sexual harassment and possibly an attempted rape -- as she claims. Or perhaps she has imagined the assault due to confusing his clumsy-but-innocent displays of concern with something sinister -- as he claims.

When it debuted on the Vancouver Playhouse stage in 1994, as part of a wave of regional productions that always follow a Broadway hit, it had people getting into loud, angry arguments in the lobby. And the normally polite ritual of post-show talkback sessions was turned into a raucous debate that threatened to turn physical.

It wasn't pretty. As New York Times critic Frank Rich put it, "Oleanna itself evokes, however crudely, what one might wish to escape from: a sexual battleground where trust and even rational human discourse between men and women are in grave jeopardy."

Enraging it may be, but Olenna was also one of the most vital pieces of theatre I'd ever seen, albeit rooted in its era. Although the events of the last few years make Mamet's script uncomfortably current again.

'Whatever side you take... '

Oleanna premiered in the wake of Anita Hill accusing U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. And it anticipated the 1997 Rachel Marsden scandal at SFU. That was a case of life imitating art, as the future right-wing political pundit laid a false complaint against her university swim coach, which led to his firing. He was later rehired after an investigation proved that she had been stalking him. In 2007, The Tyee recounted the saga and Marsden's further adventures.

Certainly the twists and turns of that news story brought Oleanna's original tagline to life: "whatever side you take, you're wrong."

Mamet is known for his conservative politics and Oleanna's name is meant to be ironic -- it's taken from a 19th century folk song about a utopia. But more than 20 years after he wrote the play, it's hard not to see it as prescient. Flick on CBC radio's Q and you'll hear a debate over rape culture on university campuses. Oleanna flashed to my mind again when I wrote about the annual chorus of university rape chants, like the one at UBC's Sauder School of Business. Then there's last year's kerfuffle over pompous University of Toronto professor David Gilmour man-splaining how women writers aren't quite good enough to meet the lofty standards of his English lit course.

Topping the pop charts is Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," the hit from last summer that has been widely decried as "rapey," courtesy of the chorus "Ya know ya wannit." Last month, an Ottawa woman launched a petition opposing his Juno nominations for the sexist song.

Although, a film version of Oleanna, starring William Macy who originated the role on Broadway, does seem weirdly dated. It stacks the deck against the female student, portraying her as a sort of stereotypical feminazi who is politically driven to attack this well-meaning-but-gormless man. Even her boxy, asexual wardrobe echoes a Mao jacket, a visual reminder that the term "politically correct" was borrowed from Mao's Cultural Revolution.

Despite the angry rhetoric around the notion of rape culture, most rational people distinguish between bad manners and criminal behaviour -- if everything is rape, then the term rape becomes meaningless. But Mamet's play gets at the impression many of us have: that bad manners might be the tip of the iceberg -- a sign of a much bigger danger.

Which direction?

David Bloom, one of the actors portraying the vile professor locally, has been wrestling with the script for a few years, and he sees that Mamet puts more ambiguity on the page than is often seen on the stage.

"I kind of hated that play [when it premiered]," Bloom says. "I choreographed the violence for two productions and they both ended up being about a guy who gets his career ruined by a feminist."

That interpretation of the script is an affront to his personal politics, and Bloom says he wouldn't have revisited the play if not for one of his former students at Studio 58 suggesting they should do it together.

When Pandora Morgan first proposed he'd be ideal for the role, she was still his student and Bloom thought she was joking. Or, more likely, he hoped she was joking. It's not exactly the ringing endorsement most instructors are looking for -- that professor character patronizes and condescends to the woman student he ultimately beats up.

"I think he's used to the teasing about this," Morgan says, in an email interview. "I see in him some of the attributes [the professor] has -- but it's none of the icky stuff. He was someone who has the same point of view on the play."

Morgan was intrigued by the script while still in high school. She says that the issues in it -- abuse of power, confusion over sexual signals, class-related insecurities -- are as relevant now as they were when Mamet wrote it.

So Bloom did something the character he plays would never consider: he assumed his student was acting with good will and behaving in good faith. And on rereading the script he found the writing was more subtle and nuanced than many of its previous productions would suggest.

"I think it's also about trying to understand the complicated negotiation between men and women and what it looks like when people are just speaking different languages," Bloom says.

While many productions make the prof and his student look like designated combatants in the gender wars, Bloom thinks it's their oh-so-human personal flaws that explain how they escalate from miscommunication to malice in the space of three acts.

He sees it as a modern tragedy in that each of the characters is equally flawed. Both are selfish to the point of being oblivious to the other one's needs. For the student, a university education is the key to upward mobility; for the professor, tenure is the ticket to prosperity and prestige. Each of them sees the other as a means to an end. They're so caught up in their respective agendas that they behave without grace right from the start.

But the actor notes that there's more than just mutual hostility in that script. There are moments when the two move beyond their blindness and see each other as people. But because they're both so obtuse the connections are brief. A jangling phone interrupts them over and over again, and they revert to their pathological behaviour.

"The play is very satisfying to work on -- it's morally complex," Bloom says. "The more you give it, the more it gives you back; it's like Shakespeare in that sense."

Well heeled

I would argue that of the two unsympathetic roles, the student is the most understandable. Although the student is a zealot who has been persuaded that she's a victim by some unnamed support group, she has the one perfect excuse for her foolishness -- she's young and uneducated. Her middle-aged professor with multiple degrees is obligated to behave better, which makes him the real villain of the piece.

As a character, that professor does for male university instructors what Shylock in the Merchant of Venice does for Jews.

But Bloom says that also makes the role irresistible for an actor. And he reminds me that in most tellings of this tale, audiences are inclined to side with the professor who loses his job as the result of an exaggerated description of his actions.

Since the play's reputation precedes it, Bloom expects much of their audience will arrive thinking they know who the bad guy is.

"But if they leave still certain, we'll know the production is a failure."

Bloom and Morgan, directed by Quelemia Sparrow, are doing Oleanna first from April 19 to 27, at Little Mountain Gallery at Main & 26th.

The second Oleanna is produced by Bleeding Heart Theatre, at the Havana Theatre, May 6 to 18. It's directed by Evan Frayne and stars Anthony F. Ingram and Susan Coodin.

The two productions are also planning a joint panel discussion, details TBA. If memory serves, you should probably wear a flak jacket to that.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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