Oleanna (play)

Oleanna is a two-character play by David Mamet, about the power struggle between a university professor and one of his female students, who accuses him of sexual exploitation and, by doing so, spoils his chances of being accorded tenure. The play's title, taken from a folk song, refers to a 19th-century escapist vision of utopia.[1][2] Mamet later adapted his play into a film of the same name.

View of Broadway Theaters on 45th Street at night with Oleanna Marquee visible
Written byDavid Mamet
Date premieredMay 1992
Place premieredAmerican Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Original languageEnglish

Plot summary

Act I

Carol, a college student, is in the office of her professor, John. She expresses frustration that she does not understand the material in his class, despite having read the assigned books and attending his lectures. Of particular concern is a book written by John himself, wherein he questions the modern insistence that everyone participate in higher education, referring to it as "systematic hazing".

While talking with Carol, he is often interrupted by the phone ringing. John is about to be granted tenure, along with a handsome raise. Anticipating this, he is about to close on a new house, but his wife repeatedly calls with last-minute issues, demanding that he meet her at the home as soon as possible.

After initially appearing insensitive, John eventually decides to help Carol, telling her that he "likes her" and that he also felt similar frustrations as a student. He takes the blame for her not understanding what he is talking about and agrees to give her an "A" if she'll return to his office several more times to discuss the material. At one heated point in the discussion he goes to put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her, but she violently shakes it off.

Finally, Carol has warmed to John and is on the verge of divulging a secret when the phone rings again and John's wife tells him that the realtor problems were all a scheme to get him back to the house for a surprise reception in his honor. He departs for home immediately.

Act II

Carol is back in John's office, but more poised than before. John's tenure is threatened because Carol has filed a formal complaint with the committee, accusing him of being sexist and pornographic. She has documented daily occurrences of John's sexist remarks toward his students and describes his offer of giving her an "A" if she agrees to meet with him privately in his office. His hand on her shoulder is described as sexual harassment.

John hopes to resolve the matter privately with Carol so that the complaint may be withdrawn from the tenure committee. He says he does not understand how his actions could have offended her so and attempts to convince her that he was only trying to help her without any ulterior motive.

Carol decides it's best that she leave, but John stands in front of the door and grabs hold of her. Carol screams for help.


John has been denied tenure and suspended, with a possible dismissal, and is packing up his office. He has not been home to see his wife and family, staying at a hotel for two days trying to work out in his head what has happened. He has asked Carol to speak to him once more and she has obliged.

Carol is even more forceful to name her instructor's flaws. She finds it hypocritical that a college professor could question the very system that offers him employment and gives him an academic platform to expound his views. She also makes reference to "her group", on whose behalf she speaks and from whom she seems to be getting advice and support as she files her complaints.

In passing, John mentions that he has not been home recently. Carol reveals that if he had, he would have learned that her charges against him now amount to attempted rape. Carol offers to drop her charges if John would agree to her group's list of books to be removed from the university, which includes his own.

John refuses. He angrily tells her to leave his office as his phone rings again. It is his wife, whom he affectionately calls "baby". Carol tells him not to refer to his wife that way. This causes John to finally snap completely and he savagely beats her, screams obscenities at her and holds a chair above her head as she cowers on the floor. As John calms down, realizing what he's just done, he quietly says, "Oh my God." The play ends with Carol saying, "Yes...that's right."


The principal themes of the play have centered on the overall comparison to the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas debate during the Supreme Court hearing of the future Justice, and the amount of veracity which could be associated with the male side of the debate and the amount of veracity to associate with the female side.[3] In the voice-over for the Criterion DVD edition of another Mamet film titled Homicide, Mamet stated that the theme of group affiliation was central to his portrayal of Carol when she announces her joining the activist group on campus.[4]

Original productions

The play premiered in May 1992 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the first production of Mamet's new Back Bay Theater Company.[5] The premiere featured William H. Macy as John, a "smug, pompous, insufferable man whose power over academic lives he unconsciously abuses".[5] Rebecca Pidgeon played the female lead, Carol, described by one critic as "Mamet's most fully realized female character...a mousy, confused cipher" whose failure to comprehend concepts and precepts presented in John's class motivated her appeal for personal instruction.[5]

In October, a year after the Anita HillClarence Thomas hearings[1] which "crystallized and concretized"[5] Mamet's dramatization, it appeared off-Broadway at New York City's Orpheum Theatre, with Macy and Pidgeon reprising their roles. The production included a rewritten third scene.[5] Critic Frank Rich provides a summary of the play in his review of the off-Broadway production:

Oleanna ... is an impassioned response to the Thomas hearings. As if ripped right from the typewriter, it could not be more direct in its technique or more incendiary in its ambitions. In Act I, Mr. Mamet locks one man and one woman in an office where, depending on one's point of view, an act of sexual harassment does or does not occur. In Act II, the antagonists, a middle-aged university professor and an undergraduate student, return to the scene of the alleged crime to try to settle their case without benefit of counsel, surrogates or, at times, common sense.
The result? During the pause for breath that separates the two scenes of Mr. Mamet's no-holds-barred second act, the audience seemed to be squirming and hyperventilating en masse, so nervous was the laughter and the low rumble of chatter that wafted through the house. The ensuing denouement, which raised the drama's stakes still higher, does nothing to alter the impression that "Oleanna" is likely to provoke more arguments than any play this year.[1]

Oleanna's London premiere was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 1993, directed by Harold Pinter.[6] David Suchet played John (in a Variety Club Award-winning performance[7]), and Lia Williams played Carol, in a version that used Mamet's original ending from the Cambridge production. As Pinter notes in personal correspondence to Mamet that Pinter also published on his website:

There can be no tougher or more unflinching play than Oleanna. The original ending is, brilliantly, "the last twist of the knife". She gets up from the floor ("Don't worry about me. I'm alright") and goes straight for the throat. The last line seems to me the perfect summation of the play. It's dramatic ice.[6]

Michael Billington's review in The Guardian endorsed Pinter's choice of ending, saying "by restoring Mamet's original ending, in which the professor is forced to confess his failings, Pinter also brings out the pain and tragedy of the situation".[6]

Film adaptation

In 1994, Mamet directed his own film adaptation of Oleanna, starring William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt. Roger Ebert, whose review of the film is primarily about the off-Broadway production he saw over a year earlier, was "astonished" to report that Oleanna was not a very good film, characterizing it as awkward and lacking in "fire and passion"; this is in contrast to what Ebert wrote about the performance of the play he saw at the Orpheum:

Experiencing David Mamet's play "Oleanna" on the stage was one of the most stimulating experiences I've had in a theater. In two acts, he succeeded in enraging all of the audience – the women with the first act, the men with the second. I recall loud arguments breaking out during the intermission and after the play, as the audience spilled out of an off-Broadway theater all worked up over its portrait of...sexual harassment? Or was it self-righteous Political Correctness?[8]


A 2004 production[9] at the Garrick Theatre in London featured Aaron Eckhart and Julia Stiles[10] and was directed by Lindsay Posner. Julia Stiles reprised the role of Carol in a 2009 production directed by Doug Hughes and co-starring Bill Pullman at the Mark Taper Forum.[11] On June 30, 2009, it was announced that this production would be transferring to Broadway's John Golden Theatre, with previews beginning September 29 before an October 11 opening night.[12] The show was originally supposed to close on January 3, 2010, but due to poor ticket sales the closing date was moved up to December 6, 2009. The show played 65 performances and 12 previews.[13] The play was put on stage at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv in the 2018-2019 season. The Hebrew translation belongs to Ehud Manor, the stage direction to Sarah von Schwartze, and the two roles are played by Dan Shapira and Joe Riger.

Cancelled production

In 2014, a production of the play at Milwaukee's Alchemist Theatre was stopped after one performance when it received a cease-and-desist order from Mamet's representatives. The production had cast a man to play the character of Carol, making the play about same-sex sexual harassment.[14]

See also


  1. Mamet's New Play Detonates The Fury of Sexual Harassment, an October 26, 1992 review by Frank Rich of The New York Times
  2. Parker, Kathleen, syndicated column of July 8, 2008, "While we wait, Bush says little," Albany Times Union, July 8, 2008, at A11, also found at "Bush's dreamscape," by Kathleen Parker, on the Detroit News website. Accessed July 8, 2008.
  3. David Sauer, David Mamet's Oleanna, Series: Modern Theater Guides, Paperback: 128 pages, Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic; 1 edition (January 6, 2009), Language: English, ISBN 978-0826496461.
  4. Homicide, The Criterion Edition, DVD voice-over.
  5. Oleanna debuts at Cambridge Mass., from the website of the David Mamet Society
  6. Oleanna by David Mamet, The Royal Court Theatre, 24 June 1993, from the official. Harold Pinter website
  7. Suchet: Dark star, a June 2002 BBC article
  8. Ebert's review of the film version of Oleanna, from the Chicago Sun-Times website
  9. Stiles and Eckhart to Clash In London Oleanna, Opening April 22, a 2004 Playbill article
  10. Review of Oleanna from The Guardian
  11. , a 2009 "Broadway World" article
  12. 'Oleanna' set for Golden Theater from Variety
  13. BWW News Desk. "OLEANNA Moves Up Closing Date from January 3 to December 6". BroadwayWorld.com. Retrieved 31 July 2015.
  14. Chris Foran. "Mamet letter forces Alchemist to cancel 'Oleanna' after 1 performance". jsonline.com. Retrieved 31 July 2015.
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