The Fury of Oleanna: Visceral Art and Privilege

9 01 2013

What David Mamet “meant” to say with his controversial drama Oleanna is irrelevant, for the purposes here. Divorce the frustrating artist from this powerful work, and you have a compelling artistic rendition of the amorphous concept of “privilege.” Oleanna in its visceral effect on certain audiences is much more interesting than whatever milquetoast political point its author may (or may not) have been trying to make. This disclaimer is necessary because I am not even passingly interested in defending Mamet or Oleanna as a piece of historical/political commentary.

Privilege is often employed in debate as a way to explain why a particular individual or group of individuals thinks or acts the way they do. But it is rarely sufficiently detailed to create a picture of the social relations at play. Being skeptical of the concept of the “privilege,” as I am, is not the same as saying privilege (male privilege, race privilege, heteronormativity) does not exist. It is more skepticism of its power as an explanatory phenomenon in social dynamics.

In other words, privilege as used in discourse can be just a stylized form of ad hominem. But that doesn’t mean privilege isn’t real.

It is very real, and it is pernicious because it is invisible. This is part of the reason why it is so difficult to use it in a meaningful way in civic discourse. As with most such phenomena, art may provide the best way to understand it. Let’s read Mamet’s Oleanna as an exercise in how to communicate privilege.

Divorce David Mamet’s Oleanna from Mamet’s intentions or the historical context of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings (themselves an example of the frustrating complexities of privilege–race, gender, and class all operating in inextricable and even contradictory ways). The play itself is a marvelous way to teach those with privilege, particularly men, how privilege acts.

For those unfamiliar with the play, it has only two characters, John, an elite professor of education on the verge of securing tenure, and Carol, one of his students, a young woman from a humble background. In the first Act, Carol seeks John’s help with his course. She doesn’t understand the material, particularly his book, which he assigned. She’s confounded by his insistence that education is essentially arbitrary, that the institutions of education are worthless. He condescends** to her, speechifying, speaking over her, ignoring her questions and insisting on his completely mystifying points. Her understandable lack of confidence in the face of his condescension makes matters worse; still, she insists that education has to have meaning–she worked so hard to get to this level, she values it immensely, treasures it even, and suddenly this man is telling her its essentially all a joke. She’s so concerned with her grade, and he on a whim offers to give her an A. She refuses, confused–how could she get a grade she didn’t earn? Don’t grades mean something? He persists on condescending to her, sitting her down and putting a hand on her shoulder. By and by she leaves.

In the second Act, John and Carol meet again, only now because Carol has, at the urging of some unnamed “group” (presumably a campus women’s group) filed a complaint of sexual harassment against John. He wants to convince her to withdraw the complaint from the tenure committee. He’s trying to buy a house, after all. This time, Carol is less cowed by his oratory. She insists on her points. She refers repeatedly to her “group” which is supporting her and has, apparently, given her a backbone to stand up to this man. She refuses to withdraw her complaint, and when she tries to leave, John blocks the door and grabs her shoulders. She screams for help before he lets her go.

In the third Act, things have unraveled. John has not only not gotten tenure, he lost his job. They meet again, only this time John is practically begging her to understand his position, his desires, how he’s been hurt. Carol refuses. She’s impossibly cold to him, presenting him a list of books she and her “group” want banned. Not only this, but she informs him that she has upped the ante, and accused him of raping her when he put his hands on her shoulders and grabbed her. When Carol upbraids him for calling his wife “baby” on the phone, John goes apeshit and beats Carol with a chair. From the ground, she looks up at him and says, “That’s right.”

When the play debuted, many people–men–in the audience would actually stand up and cheer when John began to beat Carol, this unreasonable woman who equates an admittedly inappropriate grab of the shoulders with something as serious rape, someone who feels no pity for a man whose ambitions and career have been cratered over a misunderstanding, and who deems to dictate to him how he should speak to his own wife.

The joke of course was on them. The inversion Mamet achieves in Oleanna is in that way a powerful visceral example of the power of privilege as it operates in social relations. Carol has been Act Three John her whole life–or at least, that’s what we’re meant to infer, and what we would know, if she was ever able to get a word in edgewise. In Act One, Carol is looking up, from a powerless position, into an intimidating, mighty institution that seems arbitrary in its exercise of power. This man, who hardly lets her speak, who treats her like an amusing pet, has this make-or-break power over her. He can give her an A or an F, sink her or raise her, and he readily admits right to her that his exercise of this power is arbitrary. Even though she’s doing poorly, he offers to give her an A if she’ll sit and listen to him. Or not. He doesn’t really care. Nor is he concerned with why she cares; he belittles her worry and concern about her grades, her success, her progress in life.

By the Third Act, Carol and John have switched positions. Now, she is wielding power arbitrarily, with little concerns for its effects. John compelled her to read his book–she wants to ban books. Obviously it is outrageous to equate a brusque physical contact with rape–not battery, not assault, but rape. Obviously her deigning to instruct a person what terms of endearment are acceptable to use with their loved ones is condescending and inappropriate.

The visceral hatred many men who watch this play felt, and feel, for Carol by the end of the Third Act is a function of identification with John’s powerlessness; of anxiety over ever being in a situation where they lack power; of being treated arbitrarily by those with power; of being disconnected from the operation of power. In other words, with being Act One Carol. And there’s no escaping that feeling of anger in the face of arbitrary exercise of power. Once you’ve felt, you’ve identified not only with John–but with Carol, too, by virtue of the inversion achieved over three acts.

What did John really lose, after all? What misery did he face? What, he won’t get tenure at this prestigious university? He’ll have to be a professor elsewhere? Maybe even teach at a lower level? Can you imagine–crowds were cheering on the beating of this person because she had caused this man to be slightly less powerful than he was earlier.

Until he actually beat her, he hadn’t committed any crimes. He clearly didn’t “rape” her; what he did do would hardly amount to a civil battery. The desolation he felt was over being knocked down a slight notch on the totem–still, it should be noted, way above the Carols of the world. His trivial loss of power turned him in inhuman in a flash.

What about Act One Carol? We don’t even know what she was facing losing. John never gives her a chance to explicate to us the audience what her fears and hopes are. Except as the canvass on which John disgorges his asinine theories of education, she’s nothing–but not for lack of trying. We get snippets of information, that she comes from humble origins, has struggled mightily to get where she is (at a time when higher education was more hostile to women) and now faces some kind of serious setback, loss of everything she’s worked for.

Oleanna is criticized for being a male revenge fantasy against cold, unfeeling feminists, the Anita Hills who would harm the Clarence Thomases of the world–and surely, the Carol of Act Three is a curious, cold, impossible person, a cartoonish villain. What Mamet intended with the play is not as interesting as the logic it relies on, and the inversion it achieves. If Mamet’s point was that feminists are as powerful as men now–or “now”–because they can make false accusations, he’s a nitwit. I suspect that was not his point; and in any case, the effect the play acts in its inversion is independently interesting: Act One John is as curious and cold and menacing a person as Carol ends up. The difference between the two is that Act One John is not impossible: he exists. The world is full of them. Powerful men ensconced in privilege, able and willing to exercise the accumulated power of institutions arbitrary and unfeelingly on people confounded by that exercise, unable to get a word in edgewise; not only do these people exist, they run shit, and have for generations, if not centuries, if not millennia.

What those cheering and angry men in audiences are feeling by Act Three is the rage at powerlessness that typifies the expression of privilege, whether that privilege is race, gender, or class. Welcome to the world as others experience it. The inversion thus achieves something no rational scholarly argument could: it demonstrates to privileged men the situation–despair, confusion, rage–faced by those with no power, no privilege, in a given social dynamic. The alienation of the outside world from the viewer–the tenure committee, “the group,” even the classroom–amplifies these feelings, because all the viewer sees and experiences is the phenomena of power as expressed and felt, no rationale, no ideology, no context.

Power exercised arbitrarily, at the whim of those who hold it, is indistinguishable from deliberate oppression. It is irrelevant from the point of view of those subject to arbitrary power that its holders are unaware of this. There’s no question that John either (a) thinks he is being helpful by “schooling” Carol in his theories or (b) is indifferent to whether she is helped. There’s no apparent malice. That lack of malice aforethought is immaterial, except in a vapid moral sense. Being outside of the power structure creates the fertile ground for the hurt and attendant anger that comes with adverse exercises of power you can’t even understand.

In case anybody takes this as overly valorizing victimization–that isn’t the point. That privilege exists as an important and powerful phenomenon in all human societies is not at question. Lack of privilege is not coextensive with powerlessness or simpleness; to the contrary, it is the very relativeness and context-dependency of privilege that makes it such a facile explanatory tool.


**I’ma go this whole post without using the trivializing word “mansplaining.”


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