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Sexual Perversity in Viragos

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in Theater Magazine, Number 1, 1993.

In his October 12, 1992 New Republic column, Robert Brustein wrote, “Controversy makes stars of artists for all the wrong reasons, distracting our attention from debates that should be more aesthetic than political.” This comment, typical of Brustein’s oft-stated contempt for “activist plays,” becomes more complicated given his role as coproducer of David Mamet’s Oleanna, which, from its premire at the American Repertory Theatre last May to its run in New York this past fall, has attracted attention primarily because it has upset people.

Oleanna makes a statement by the playwright himself sound even more peculiar. In his essay, “A National Dream-Life,” Mamet wrote, “[A dramatic experience] concerned essentially with the aesthetic politics of its creators may divert or anger, but it cannot enlighten.” Yet anger was clearly Mamet’s goal for Oleanna, in which a female student, Carol, exploits the issue of sexual harassment as a means of imposing the political agenda of “[her] group” upon John, her unsuspecting professor–she is femme fatale and p.c. fascist rolled into one. Oleanna’s working title could have been The Bitch Set Him Up. The actor playing John, William H. Macy, told a class last year at the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training that he thought it was good when several people booed at one of the Cambridge performances. Mamet’s own satisfaction with the controversy is smug and sanctimonious; one of the advertisements for the Cambridge show states that the goal of Mamet’s new theater company is “to support theater as the place to go to hear the truth…”

Not surprisingly, critical dialogue about Oleanna has focused, first, on its provocativeness, and second, on the validity of its sociopolitical statement. Like Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio or Serrano’s Piss Christ, Oleanna‘s aesthetic merit, if it has any, has become parenthetical to its polemics. Meanwhile, Mamet has touted the play as controversial while insisting that its implications are ambiguous, that it does not take sides. Several critics bought this hogwash. Jack Kroll set up his Newsweek review of the play by telling us to remember the Thomas confirmation hearings: “Suppose they’re both telling the truth,” he said, and told us that Oleanna presents that option. In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold called the play a “series of verbal misunderstandings” and insisted that neither character “says a single word he or she does not sincerely believe is true.”

Diehard Mamet fan Frank Rich conceded that it’s “hard to escape [Mamet’s] tendency to stack the ideological deck,” and noted that Oleanna “might be a meatier work if its female antagonist had more dimensions, even unpleasant ones, and if she were not so much of an interchangeable piece with the manipulative, monochromatic Mamet heroines of, say, House of Games and Speed-the-Plow.” Fair enough, but in the next two sentences, Rich said it would nevertheless be “overstating the case” to suggest that Oleanna is sexist because, by the end of the play, Mamet has “at least entertained the possibility” that there is no good guy. Rich refers here to the ‘shocking final catharsis” where, upon having lost his tenure, his house, the right to have his own book on his own syllabus, and the freedom to state his opinions in class, the professor loses all composure and starts to punch and kick the student who has systematically destroyed his career.

Does the “shocking final catharsis” sound preposterous? It is. And it hardly creates ambiguity. As Markland Taylor noted in his Variety review, if both characters in the play are supposed to appear to be attempting to do the right thing, “Oleanna and its production don’t succeed. Audience sympathy clearly comes down in favor of William H. Macy’s professor…” Bruce Weber wrote in his New York Times “on Stage, and Off” column that there was scattered applause after John finished beating his student. Elaine Showalter, writing in the November 6, 1992 Times Literary Supplement, recounted that the man sitting next to her said, “I nearly climbed up on the stage to kick the shit out of the little bitch myself.” But one can expect few other reactions when Carol is such a viper. As several reviewers have noted, her costume and carriage suggest an Americanized Maoist. In the New York Times forum on Oleanna, Enrique Fernandez of National Public Radio called Carol “a kind of Maoist Mr. Spock.”

Many critics found little troubling in putting aside the annoying little problem that one of teh two characters in Oleanna is a cardboard cut-out, a nightmarish phantom conjured by the paranoid fantasies of a patriarchy peering over a cliff to see—gads!—egalitarianism. These critics boldly conceded that they like the play because they like its political statement. John Lahr admitted that Oleanna is a “polemical play,” and as such, a lesser work in “Mamet’s canon.” But Lahr defended the play because he fears and loathes what Carol represents, “political correctness as an intellectual carapace that substitutes dogma for thought, mission for mastery,” a group whose “central paradox” is that it “demands diversity in everything but thought.” Lahr also saw Carol as a Maoist enforcer.

Arthur Holmberg, too, in his October 1992 article for American Theatre, lauded the play for supposedly representing a real-life situation where the “halls of ivy are now patrolled… by the guardians of political correctness, and… semi-literate students… who deploy a brilliant array of blackmail tactics to con a grade.” The same article quoted Brustein as saying that the situation reminds him “of nothing so much as an academic version of the Stalinist purges.”

Although he and Oleanna‘s other fans drew the play’s conflict in Manichean terms, Lahr nevertheless tried to dress Carol as an ambiguous character, and he sounded ridiculous in doing so. At one point, Carol pleads, “Teach me. Teach me.” Lahr thought this was a cunning trap set by Mamet so that the audience would sympathize with the woman, who possesses that “fierce vacancy and ambition which distinguishes [sic] the American undergraduate.” First, what is fierce vacancy? Second, where are the fiercely vacant and ambitious undergraduates? If anyone pleaded, “Teach me, teach me,” to a professor where I went to school, he or she would have been laughed off the campus. Carol provokes the same reaction when she makes such stupid remarks and when she bursts into tears at the suggestion of reading a simple graph. And all this becomes especially reprehensible when, in Acts II and III, she turns into an ideological con artist who decontextualizes Act I in a vindictive and pseudofeminist rage. Lahr said, “This transition is jarring but intentional.” Either way, it destroys the plausibility of Carol’s character. Jon Simon, who called both of the characters “wooden dolls,” posed toe appropriate questions that Lahr failed to answer: “Was [Carol’s] near imbecility in Act One… an elaborate act of entrapment? Or is she a genuine idiot savant whom the Group has coached in some fancy lingo? Or is Mamet simply playing fast and loose with authorial responsibility?”

Lahr supported his argument with quotes form Mamet’s books of essays, which he used selectively in a way that distorted Mamet’s beliefs—and sidestepped Mamet’s misogyny. Only Elaine Showalter dipped into the essays to hint at Mamet’s vast labyrinth of prejudices regarding both sexes. Lahr cited Mamet’s inane but relatively innocuous remark that “men are the puppydogs of the universe.” He conveniently omitted the text that follows immediately afterwards:

Men will waste their time in pursuit of the utterly useless simply because their peers are all doing it. Women will not. They are legitimately goal-oriented, and their goals, for the most part, are simple: love, security, money, prestige. These are good, direct, meaningful goals, especially as opposed to the more male objectives of glory, acceptance, and being well-liked. Women don’t give a tinker’s damn about being well0-liked, which means they don’t know how to compromise… The coldest, cruelest, most arrogant behavior I have ever seen in my professional life has been—and consistently been—on the part of women producers in the movies and theater.

Now read the deifying Newsday feature where the playwright whined: “Why do they think I’m a misogynist? That I can’t write women? Somehow I’ve been stuck with this sexist label.” Mystifying, yes.

Is Oleanna provocative? Does it involve the audience? Some critics made much of the applause when the professor beats Carol, or of the gasps when Carol makes her accusations. When I saw Rocky IV a few years ago, people applauded when Stallone pummeled the Russian boxer, and Basic Instinct fueled many debates beyond the movie theater. But no one is going to defend the merit of either of these two films. William A. Henry III in his Time column and Michael Feingold in the Village Voice fawned, respectively, “the power to incense, like that to sadden or amuse, is reason enough to cheer for the future of the theater,” and, because the play would “furnish New York dinner parties with brawl material for many months to come,” Mamet must be operating at his “cunning best.” In the New York Times, David Richards came ever so close to taking a stand against Oleanna, nothing that it is “rigged” and that its action “slips out of control without our really understanding how or why.” But then he, too, backed off, saying, “Mr. Mamet’s ability to provoke a gut response has to be considered highly welcome.” How to account for such pandering judgment, I don’t know. We can only lament the spread of the anti-aesthetic aesthetic of Howard Stern’s and Don Imus’ shock radio to people who should know better.

Which critics did know better? Aesthetics makes strange bedfellows. The critical split on Oleanna did not fall altogether neatly into gender lines. Just about all the female critics were less than thrilled with the play, but they may have been surprised to find John Simon in agreement with them. They may have been even more surprised to see Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, praise the play in an unusual New York Times critical forum, as a “welcome jolt of nervy political theater.” Of course, Brownmiller deals a sharp blow to her own credibility when she says it si “rare to see woman against man” as a theme in drama, a remark that makes me wonder if she’s read many of the plays that have been written over the last 2,500 years.

The most thorough and well-written piece against Oleanna was Elaine Showalter’s in part because critics such as Alisa Solomon in the Village Voice and Jan Stuart and Linda Winer in Newsday did not have adequate space to discuss the play’s many problems, though their criticism went beyond the assertion made in the Times forum by Deborah Tannen that “we don’t need a play that helps anyone feel good about a man beating a woman.” Tannen is right, but she gives the play too much credit in even discussing its message. The strength of her argument comes through when she describes the impoverished quality with which the message is delivered, calling Carol “all surface: just a stereotype that audiences can join in hating.” Finally, Solomon summed up a complaint of a number of other critics, dismissing what is widely praised as Mamet’s forte: “Mamet’s hiccuping language has become a mannerism.” David Richards, too, complained that the sound of the dialogues “is intrinsically annoying.” Mamet’s action lives in his dialogue, his defenders say. Fine. But any playwright of any merit will have dynamics within any passage of dialogue. Mamet’s are more salient because there’s nothing else to observe.

The critics showed most integrity in their reviews of Oleanna when they explicitly stated their political motivations for liking the play. Kevin Kelly, John Lahr, and Arthur Holmberg certainly made their biases clear. But when a critic writes at length about how drama should not point accusatory fingers in a manner that makes the theater a “place for social reform” or “moral blackmail,” and even goes so far in his complaint to define the “Theatre of Guilt” as a genre, and then winds up coproducing Oleanna, what is there to say? In his March 1992 article in American Theatre, called “The Theatre of Guilt,” Robert Brustein reproved theater whose function is “to arouse the spectator’s guilt,” acknowledging that the targeted spectators come “generally from the white masculine ruling class.” Oleanna targets a woman as an ugly representative of the group that challenges the white masculine ruling class. Brustein implied that his anti-guilt aesthetic is nonpartisan, but after Oleanna, one has to wonder.

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