Oleanna Summary

David Mamet


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Oleanna Summary

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Oleanna is a three-act play written by David Mamet. The play first premiered on stage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1992. The play tells the story of a pompous university professor named John and his student, Carol, who accuses him of sexual harassment. In 1994, Mamet adapted his play into a motion picture of the same name starring William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt. Although the play has generally received good reviews, some critics have accused it of misrepresenting sexual harassment and being anti-feminist.

The first act of the play begins with John receiving a telephone call in his office while Carol sits across from him, waiting to talk to him. John has recently been offered tenure by the college, which comes with a salary raise. Because of the promotion, he and his wife are in the process of buying a new home and she keeps calling him to talk about issues she is having with their realtor. When John gets off the phone, Carol tells him that she came to his office because she is having trouble understanding the material in his class, even though she has done all the assignments and reading.

Eager to get back to his real estate problems, John is at first dismissive and rude towards Carol. Realizing that she is visibly upset, however, he softens and reassures her that she will get an “A” in the class as long as she agrees to meet with him privately to discuss the material. He tells Carol that he “likes her” and that he himself had similar frustrations as a student. At one point during the conversation, he puts his hand on her shoulder to comfort her, but she shakes it off. Carol seems as if she is about to tell John a secret when the phone rings again. It is John’s wife, and she tells him that she invented the realtor issues to try to get him to come home for a surprise party. John hangs up and goes home immediately.

In the second act, it is a different day and Carol has returned to John’s office. We learn that she has filed a complaint with the university’s tenure committee accusing John of sexually harassing her, by putting his hand on her shoulder during their previous meeting, making sexist remarks in class, and teaching pornographic material. Because of her complaint, John’s tenure and the accompanying raise are now in jeopardy. Stunned by Carol’s accusations, John tries to resolve the matter privately with her, and tells her that getting tenure and being able to buy a better home for his family is very important to him. He argues that a few questionable comments shouldn’t ruin his whole career.

Carol says that his behavior is a symptom of a larger societal problem, and that she is being advised by a student group on campus that supports her complaint against him. The phone rings again, and John answers. It is his wife calling to ask whether she should cancel the deposit on their new home in light of the charges against him. He tells her not to cancel it yet as he is dealing with the problem, and hangs up. Carol tells John that she will discuss his behavior at the tenure committee hearing, and attempts to leave his office. John panics and grabs her to try to force her to stay and hear him out. She screams for help.

In the third act, it is revealed that Carol’s complaint was successful and John had been denied tenure as a result. He is also suspended from teaching and may be fired from the university. Against his best instincts, a desperate John invites Carol back to his office to talk things out. During their conversation, Carol keeps correcting John’s language and accusing him of supporting a system that enables his privilege. She tells him that her “accusations” against him are now “facts” because they have been proven. After John tells her that he is close to losing his job, she offers to withdraw her complaint in exchange for him agreeing to ban a list of books from the university, including some that he had written himself. John angrily refuses.

When John casually mentions that he had not been home in two days, Carol tells him that if he had, he would have known that her charges against him now include attempted rape. John tells Carol to get out of his office. John’s wife calls again, and he answers the phone. Carol reprimands John for calling his wife “baby” before trying to leave his office. John explodes at this and beats Carol savagely, holding a chair over her head as she cowers on the floor. The play ends with Carol saying, “Yes…that’s right.”

The main themes of Oleanna include sexual harassment, power, censorship, gender dynamics, and societal perspective. The play was written partly in response to the sexual harassment allegations of former U.S. Department of Education employee Anita Hill against her boss, Clarence Thomas, in the early 1990s. By depicting a power struggle between two self-absorbed individuals with differing viewpoints, the play makes a statement about the ambiguity surrounding sexual harassment and how one’s perception of reality is often filtered through one’s experiences.