Saturday, March 24, 2007

On Oleanna and Education

I saw a performance of Mamet's Oleanna today. If you are unfamiliar with the story, well... at its barest bones, it is this:

A female student (Carol) visits her male professor (John) in his office after receiving a poor grade on a paper. John attempts to engage Carol what he considers a "personal" level. Carol files a sexual harassment suit with the university. John calls Carol to his office again to try and explain that his actions were non-sexual. He ends the meeting by grabbing Carol's arm as she turns to leave his office, which prompts her to take her case to the state (as technically his action could be considered both assault and attempted rape). John calls Carol to his office a third time to beg her to stop the charges, as he has now lost his job and will soon lose his home and family. She refuses, and the play ends as John, enraged, breaks the rules he's thus far only been accused of breaking and attacks Carol, beating her to the ground.

Many people say this play is about sexual harassment. Depending on how a director chooses to stage the opening scene, John's actions could be interpreted as friendly or predatory, as the stage directions simply say "he puts his arm around her." Likewise, it's a fair consideration whether or not any touch between teacher and student is appropriate, and a case can be made for Carol's choice to interpret John's actions as harassment.

Not to mention that during the course of the meeting John tells a dirty joke, intimates that if Carol returns to his office for private tutoring she will get an A in his class, and states repeatedly "I like you." All which he states casually but which Carol chooses to interpret as sexual innuendo -- and with good reason. Many women have experienced that moment with a superior where their sexuality suddenly becomes the stated or implied focus of the conversation, and few are as courageous as Carol is to name it and report it.

On the other hand, people also have analyzed the play as an example of political correctness gone to extremes; of an innocent man taken down by a young woman who uses the only weapon she has to hurt him; of an educational system which bans touch, bans familiarity, bans all of the interpersonal communication professors like John deem necessary to connection and learning. It's also been read as a commentary on a legal system in which the accuser is always believed (remember the spate of false accusations of sexual abuse in the mid-1990s) and the accused loses job, money, and social standing regardless of whether or not the occurrence actually happened.

After watching it, though, I don't think the play is about sex. It's about education. It's Mamet's critique of the educational system.

Here's why. It has to do with Mamet's structure, something I missed in my readings of the play but which became abundantly clear when I heard it spoken aloud. The play is in sonata form (Mamet, like many playwrights, is a classically-trained musician). Exposition-development-recapitulation-coda.

The exposition is the first act; John and Carol's first meeting. The development is the second act, when the two of them argue over the themes of the first meeting, passing them back and forth and altering them just as a composer alters a melodic line. The recapitulation is the third act, but this time (like many sonatas) the key is switched -- lines spoken by John are now spoken by Carol, and vice versa. And the coda (or cadenza, if you'd prefer) is the beating at the end of the play.

What Mamet does in this play is take the traditional, accepted interaction between student and teacher and, through the use of recapitulation, flip it around.

He reveals that when a teacher tells a student she is wrong, or when a teacher takes individual sentences from an essay and says "these are bad," we believe him; although the student protests that her sentences are misunderstood or the class lecture was unclear -- but when the interaction is flipped; when a student tells a teacher he is wrong, or when a student takes individual sentences from a conversation and says "these are bad," we distrust her, accuse her, vilify her.

Yet what John does to Carol is exactly what Carol does to John: takes a sample out of context and assigns a grade to it. John fails Carol's paper; Carol fails John's professorship. Carol's choice of words (in class discussions, on the paper) will get her kicked out of school; John's words (in his office) will get him kicked out of his job. And both of them argue that it's unfair; that a sample so small should not determine the course of one's future.

We miss it because we are so focused on the sex story to understand what he's doing. But it's right there.

If you'll let me riff for a moment: let's break down the sonata form even further -- the first and third acts each begin with John/Carol postulating to each other about learning/morality, each telling the other what he/she "knows" to be the One Right Way.* Halfway through (that would be the modulation to the second theme, often in the dominant, usually opposite in dynamic and articulation to the first theme) a single statement is made.

Carol says "I just want to know about my grade."
John says "I just want to know about my job."

And then we are off into the B theme, in which John/Carol lectures Carol/John about the idiocy of focusing only on the grade/job, and their lack of understanding of the true issue at hand, which is that taking responsibility for one's education/actions is solely upon the individual, and the only reason that Carol/John isn't learning/treating women with respect is because Carol/John chooses not to do so...

In the words of Mr. Mamet: "Don't you see?"

*There's the "studying India" connection. ^__^


sashi said...

This reminds me of Coetzee's novel "Disgrace", and something I read in a book of essays, about professors looking at the ceiling or the walls in order that they be not accused of "visual" assault!

Blue said...

Sashi -- yeah, the lines are too broadly drawn as of late. Visual assault. Right. What's next, "air stealing?"

Shripriya said...

Intriguing. I must read this. Looking right now on Amazon...