Written by Tharun Suresh (English Lit + USP, Class of 2023)
Edited by Chloe Yung (Polsci + USP, Class of 2023)
I recently had the great pleasure of attending The Stage Club’s recent staging of David Mamet’s controversial and infamous Oleanna, which in our day and age is about as incendiary as plays can get. I was surprised to hear that Mamet was being produced here and wondered how the trademark fast pace and sardonic wit of his dialogue, or the complexity and moral ambiguity of his characters, would be treated. I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by The Stage Club’s nuanced, probing, yet courageous production. Loh An Lin, the director, did a spectacular job in keeping the production pared down and precise, allowing the performances to come through quite palpably, thereby tautly holding together its provocative atmosphere of unease.
The play was as nervy as I remember it being when I first read it years ago. The plot involves a young college student by the name of Carol meeting her professor, John, after class to clarify why she had done so badly for an essay she had submitted. Carol remains incorrigible and perplexed, while John summons up a litany of pointless synonyms and jargon to convey to her banalities. By the end, John admits that the class itself is a complete bunk, and part of an educational system that itself is utterly hollow and meaningless. Carol does not take kindly to this and grows uncontrollably flustered, convinced that she is somehow too stupid for the course she is in. John tries to comfort her, with strange and meaningless metaphors, and life stories that seem utterly inappropriate. At the end of this awkward and tense back-and-forth, wherein both student and professor step beyond their boundaries and attempt to speak to each other intimately (perhaps, a little too intimately), John offers Carol an eyebrow-raising quid pro quo. Come by the office regularly, and the grade will be improved to an A.
From here on out, the drama escalates beyond control through misunderstandings and resentments. Carol accuses John of soliciting sexual favors and of harassing her, and goes on to make a formal complaint, further backed by a student group of feminists who see John as a part of an irredeemable patriarchy, and thereby elitist, sexist, and privy to a whole other host of “-ists”. John, on the other hand, finds himself at a loss, utterly misinterpreted and misunderstood just as he was trying to reach out and do some good for a change as a teacher, albeit quite ill advisedly. Moreover, his upcoming tenure at the university thanks to Carol is now almost certainly wrecked, and his family life ruined. Despite all this, things somehow do get worse by the end.
The obvious point to make here, clear to anyone, is that Oleanna places us on the knife’s edge of a culture ‘war’ that is still ongoing today. To make this clear, An Lin and her team play familiar news clippings and podcast snippets before the start of the play, as the audience settles in their seats, on the topic of #metoo. Figures like Jordan Peterson can be faintly heard in the background too, weighing in on the supposed hypocrisy of feminists, while women passionately share their all too frequent experiences of workplace sexual harassment and their struggles with gender-based discrimination. The atmosphere was, as you might expect, particularly electric and tense.
In this midst of all this, Oleanna depicts a complete breakdown in communication that, I think, is quite familiar to us today. Mediating and enabling this breakdown is a broken language of smoke and mirrors. Heavy words like sexism, patriarchy and even rape are voided of all their weight and significance by Carol as she stretches them to compass even the slightest and most innocent faux pas. On the flip side, John’s insufferably polysyllabic words thinly obscure his pretentiousness, as well as the meaningless bluster of an academic career that has coasted on a paper-thin knowledge of the world cloaked in obscurantism. Both student and professor have failed; one to listen with grace, and the other to speak with clarity.
If the relationship established on these shaky grounds between Carol and her professor is confused and knotty, it is also cataclysmic. Tragically, we see a disproportionate conflict come out of the professor’s all-too-human desire to speak, for once, without falsity or pretense, to his despairing and despondent student. Of course, after years of obsequious hobnobbing and academic fluff, he finds himself utterly unable to do so and unable to say exactly what he means. Worse yet, the attempt itself proves disastrous and practically unwise. In an institution all too accustomed to stilted and false speech, a teacher’s desire to speak frankly and openly for the sake of comfort can take the guise of a perversion and breach of trust. Both student and teacher, in the glaring light of the possibility of true speech, flinch and return instead to their empty language and carry on their heated and depressing game of words that lead to nowhere and can lead to nowhere.
Oleanna, unable to find her own voice, and preoccupied with the superficial diagnoses of her political allegiances, accuses the professor of heinous crimes he had patently not committed. Yet these diagnoses of the groupthink she subscribes to, and the words “patriarchy”, “sexism” and “classism” that she blindly wields, are just band-aids for the lack of a substantial and serious education that could have taught her to speak confidently, with poise and dignity, and so to see and speak the truth, instead of retreating to empty and, consequently, irresponsible language as inappropriately used. That this voice has been denied her is, however, inextricably bound up with the failure of the educational system itself; a failure which John himself opportunistically and cynically relies on to climb up the ladder of his department and secure his tenure at the expense of his perplexed and lost students. His perversion seeds the monstrosity of his student. Hence the play’s subtle and brilliant reversal, wherein Carol takes the place of John at the start of the play, now in a position of power and control, offering a pathetic and equally illicit quid pro quo that smacks of cynicism and hypocrisy. Carol is, in a way, the perfect student in all the wrong ways.
Mamet thereby reminds us that the empty language of modern political consciousness is a paper-thin bandage obscuring the gradual loss, we now feel, of a shared political community wherein we can act, debate, and reflect upon the common good. Unsurprisingly, those of us today with strong opinions about the world and its situation, or about the political beliefs of others, find ourselves unable to speak without the hazy apprehension that we cannot ever avoid preaching to the choir. It is no wonder, then, that a great deal of us today feel a kind of disillusionment with democracy, as though the solutions to our problems can be only found in turning away from this dream of a political community to the cold and arbitrary reassurance of authority. We would rather silence and submission than to speak truthfully to one another. This goes both ways, politically, to those who cynically wield the law and its institutions to amass power, as well as to those who somehow believe that blindly silencing those who disagree suffices for activism and change. Carol, incidentally, wavers between both extremes in her libelous case against the professor.
Nonetheless, those who believe that democracy is moot misunderstand crisis. Political and communal life is, after all, always full of tensions and contradictions. The catch is whether we have at our disposal the institutions and tools to negotiate these lines of division and repair them, or if these institutions have, thanks to our negligence or through the gradual decay of shared spaces of collaboration and trust, collapsed. Language, for instance, used to serve this role though now it is flattened and hollowed out. Those who crush debate or wield the bully pulpit thereby are blindly causing the destruction of the very thing they claim to be disillusioned by. It is not democracy that’s the problem but our indifference to its upkeep, and our belief that it could somehow sustain itself without our active participation to maintain it. Yet I think not all hope is lost. Watching Oleanna has reminded me that the theatre and the arts are a space where truth and genuine reflection can still find a voice amidst all of this.
In my view, staging Oleanna during these nervy and fractious times is a daring and reparative gesture. It quite deliberately recalls for us, through its vaguely Hellenic-sounding name, the great Greek tragedies which presented for their publics a ritualized aesthetic form through which otherwise irreconcilable tensions and contradictions could receive a cathartic release and a space of negotiation. Just as Antigone dramatizes the inevitable tensions of Greek politics, pertaining to the conflict between one’s obligations to the hearth (the laws of the Gods) as well as to the state (the laws of man), so does Oleanna foreground the fractious politics and divisions of our time in the hopes of prompting reconciliatory dialogue.
Theatre in this way offers us a crucial space to speak truthfully and frankly with one another to arrive at a deeper understanding of things. It can, albeit only tentatively, repair the damage we have done to those shared spaces of dialogue and learning wherein we could speak and live with one another. This is because Oleanna is not just a shared, public experience but a dialogic one as well. By that I mean that it never fully resolves the tensions and aporias of the contrasting opinions and voices it foregrounds. To the very end, Oleanna in this provocative production is carefully directed to preserve its ambiguity and sense of complicatedness. Never reductive and never one-dimensional, it ends off with an image of doubt and uncertainty. Without giving too much of the play’s plot away, Oleanna’s ending, while certainly dark, is in a way also profoundly clarifying. At last, both of its shallow and insipid characters unveil themselves to each other through a cathartic albeit frightening revelation, wherein underlying modes of violence, power and resentment come fully to light and are set in order. In a way, the play exemplifies the ideals of redemptive parrhesia (to speak truthfully) which is almost always a dangerous and risk-taking endeavor as Socrates well knew. As Foucault writes,
“If, in a political debate, an orator risks losing his popularity because his opinions are contrary to the majority’s opinion, or his opinions may usher in a political scandal, he uses parrhesia. Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the ‘game’ of life or death.” (Foucault, Fearless Speech)
Oh, if only we could be so bold. Either way, I could not recommend reading or watching Oleanna enough. It is a powerful play, and Loh An Lin and The Stage Club have done great justice to it and its themes, giving us a space to feel, on our own terms, uncomfortable and unsettled enough to finally turn to one another and truly speak our minds.
About the Author
Tharun Suresh is a third year undergraduate in English Literature with a minor in French at the National University of Singapore. He loves films, poetry and medieval history; and can’t live without his coffee.