David Mamet’s Oleanna explores such profound questions and the invisible battle lines drawn within the professor-student relationship. Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, who play John (the professor) and Carol (the student), both give tremendous performances in this stunning look into the complexities of academic hierarchy.
The entire play takes place in the John’s spacious office and opens as he answers a phone call while Carol waits to speak. The first act can be difficult to follow because most of the dialogue is delivered in fragments. We soon discover, however, that John is in the process of gaining tenure. Meanwhile, Carol is distraught because she is lost in the classroom and refuses to fail, at least not without a fight. A simple discussion about Carol’s grades and her inability to understand John’s book escalates into an argument about his teaching methods. Soon enough, the roles are reversed and Carol gains more control over the situation than John or the audience expects. According to her, John is guilty of sexual exploitation and now runs the risk of losing his job. At this juncture, both are sharply abused by the other and push one another to the brink of sanity and us to the edge of our seats.
Oleanna makes immense social and political commentary. Mamet compels us to critically view the educational platform and see that the same problems exist in every leader-subject dynamic.
It is no coincidence that the play, originally written in 1992, was Mamet’s response to the highly publicized Anita Hill - Clarence Thomas hearings. Thomas, currently an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, came under fire during his 1991 confirmation hearings when Hill, an attorney who used to work for him, testified that he had sexually harassed her. He was confirmed despite the allegations, but the truth behind them is still debated to this day.