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Review: David Mamet's brilliant professor-student shoot-out

In ‘Oleanna’, the words zig-zag like stray bullets flying off the walls. There is nowhere to find cover, and you love it

Ever had the feeling that the text you have been reading over and over doesn’t make sense to you? You don’t quite grasp the theory. Everyone else seems to understand. But maybe they are just going through the motions; smiling and pretending.

For Carol, a vulnerable, failing student, this is her experience of university. So she confronts John, her self-involved, pretentious professor. She wants to understand his teaching, his concepts, the obscure post-modern academic lingo in his textbook.

At a whim, John decides to help her, offering her an ‘A’ for the course, if she would just take a few extra lessons at his office.

Twists and turns

We all know where it goes from here.

We are in America and at a US university, home of the political correctness movement, and the professor’s fumbling flirtations with his student are not taken lightly.

Carol, who started off as naïve and oppressed, transforms herself through the course of the play into a vindictive fury: Rejecting her professor’s approaches, she complains to his superiors on the tenure committee. Twisting and turning, her naïve academic notes are turned into an indictment: The professor’s boyish, ambiguous advances are made into something else; the premeditated acts of a male chauvinist.

Words left hanging

Playwright David Mamet is a true master of life-like speech patterns. Like in reality, words and sentences are abandoned half way and left hanging in abeyance.

Take, for example, the following passage at the beginning of the play as the naive Carol is honest about her difficulties:

CAROL: I’m just: I sit in class I… (She holds up her notebook.) I take notes…
JOHN (simultaneously with “notes”): Yes, I understand. What I am trying to tell you is that some, some basic…
JOHN: …one moment: some basic missed communi…

Your sweet deposit

If sentences are finished at all, they are in staccato, overrunning each other like choppy waves breaking on a beach. Like towards the end of the play, as Carol defends her actions towards John who is on the verge of losing his job:

»…Do you know what you’ve worked for? Power. For power. Do you understand? And you sit there, and you tell me stories. About your house, about all the private schools, and about privilege, and how you entitled. To buy, to spend, to mock, to summon.«

»All your stories. All your silly weak guilt, it’s all about privilege; and you won’t know it. Don’t you see? You worked twenty years for the right to insult me. And you feel entitled to be paid for it. Your Home. Your Wife. Your sweet ‘deposit’ on your house…«

For all fakes and power trippers

Needless to say, Mamet-scripts are tough on the actors. They have to learn lines that are only partly expressed, and that are passed to and fro as fast as the speed of thought.

This the actors Sira Stampe and Ian Burns do to stunning effect: In the small Krudttønden theatre in Copenhagen, it is if you are in the professor’s office with stray word bullets flying zig-zag off the walls: There is nowhere to find cover, and you love it.

This piece is for all students and professors, and for all those interested in what goes on in between. It is for anyone who has ever tried to feel like a fake, and it is for anyone who has ever felt the rush of power and status.

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