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False Witnesses in Oleanna and The Crucible

Stiles and Pullman divided by a common language

Craig SchwartzStiles and Pullman divided by a common language

“Fucking bitch,” the woman next to me muttered under her breath during the Mark Taper Forum’s production of David Mamet’s 1992 drama, Oleanna, at last Friday night’s press opening. She was referring to the character of Carol (Julia Stiles), an academically challenged student at a public university. The extended one-act play consists of three meetings in the office of her slightly pedantic, very distracted professor, John (Bill Pullman), whose class she is failing. The play’s three scenes occur in that office, and these are the only two characters who appear in the drama.

Through the course of those meetings, John yatters into his cell phone to his wife and his real-estate agent, attempting to secure the purchase of a new home. This purchase is based on the presumption of John’s pending tenure being approved.

From some spontaneous liberal impulse worthy of John Dewey, John offers Carol a guaranteed “A” in the course she’s failing if she will simply visit him, in his office, for regular tutelage. They can start over, even in the middle of the term, he suggests. This is one way for him to transgress the norms of traditional academia — a transgression he finds as appealing as she finds appalling.

Her first complaint stems from the lofty words he uses, that she doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. He does ramble and offer one gratuitously sexual anecdote, of which she takes note — not just in her mind, but in a notebook.

Also, coming from a poor family, Carol takes offense at John’s sarcastic snipes at higher education in general, and his challenge to the presumption that everyone is entitled to it. As she rightly suggests, his joy in mocking the academic ladder while he’s climbing it, possibly at the expense of students like her who have struggled for the opportunity to attend college, is arrogant. She rightly finds him paternalistic and self-satisfied ­— as though such qualities are crimes worthy of ending somebody’s career.

Hers is more than a complaint. Hers is a crusade against his very right to judge her, to grade her, even if that is his job in the university to which she did apply to attend.

Through the play, Carol slowly twists the bewildered man’s words and gestures into a ludicrous charge of sexual harassment that could ruin his career and his marriage.

“I like you,” he says, trying to calm her obviously frayed nerves.

“You like me?” she replies, either incredulous at the compliment, or hearing the threat of a come-on. “Why?”

“That’s my job. To provoke,” he says later with wistfulness bordering on the smug.

“To make me mad is your job?” she answers.

As George Bernard Shaw once postulated about the United States and Great Britain, these are two people separated by a common language. That linguistic divide is the play’s most appealing quality, one that almost compensates for its grave shortcomings as a petulant if not hateful slice of rhetoric against an annoying social movement of the 1990s — “political correctness,” of which Carol becomes a shamelessly despotic representative.

For being so confused, as she appears at the play’s start, she develops, or reveals, an astonishing acuity for the legal nuances of sexual harassment, and what passes for it under the university’s statutes. Either her “stupidity” is a malicious pretense established for reasons having to do with the sadistic, self-affirming pleasure of bringing down such a figure of authority as John, or she’s just the dupe of her “group” that we learn about later in the play. This group — presumably a cabal of women — seems to be giving her legal guidance.

The desperation stemming from the dire consequences of her accusation leads him during one scene to physically block her exit from his office. This brief, foolish gesture becomes the foundation of a new charge against him of attempted rape, that could pass muster according to the university’s policies with which she’s suddenly, horrifyingly well-versed. Eventually, he learns, court officials are getting involved.

From Stiles’ stoic, humorless and intense portrayal, I didn’t get stupidity from Carol at all; rather, an ideological, vindictive intelligence that borders on the inexplicable.

Much of this comes from Doug Hughes’ staging and Pullman’s interpretation of John, so endearingly lost and twitchy that Carol’s absence of mercy is beyond the fray of whatever frayed humanity she might possess.

“Don’t you have any feelings?” he asks her. From her stunned response to that appeal for clemency, you’d think he’d just asked her for blow job.

It would be nice to think that Carol could be a mystery locked inside an enigma. Rather, she’s just vile, and particularly vile in this production because she tries to destroy a sympathetic, flawed man by bearing false witness against him. If she had some tragic emotional reason for this, like Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, related to the tawdriness of the world, John’s office might be something of a courtroom for ideas and emotions, rather than the kangaroo court it is.

In the filmed version of the play, directed by Mamet, William Macy portrayed John with qualities of pedantry and pompousness that, though they didn’t justify Carol’s attacks upon him, came closer to providing Carol with a comprehensible response to a power-wielding professor who would make anybody’s teeth itch. The only line of defense against this play’s intrinsic misogyny is the argument that both characters are equally horrible. Pullman’s affability throws that argument right out the window of Neil Patel’s opulent set.

Oleanna was written in reaction to Anita Hill’s charges against then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of him lacing his conversations and interactions with gratuitous sexual references when she worked as his secretary in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Hill testified in 1991 against her former boss before the U.S. Senate in an attempt to block him from being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mamet was clearly incensed by the way Hill tried to twist Thomas’ words, though unrelated to his jurisprudence, into a noose. The ’90s were a decade in which hypersensitivity to words and images belittling women and minorities led to a kind of Orwellian tyranny in academia and government. And this is the tyranny Mamet attempts to expose in Oleanna, through his condemnation of Carol and her “group.”

In 1953, playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, similarly in reaction to a tyranny of that era — the anti-Communist witch hunts perpetrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy. (Marianne Savelle directed a powerful if sometimes overwrought production that just closed over the weekend at Actors Co-op.) Through the prism of 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, here too it’s a group of women who, in this case, bear false witness against any number of villagers for conspiring with the devil. If the accused don’t confess, they face the gallows; in both plays, the court grants almost holy powers to accusers who make things up. Both plays provide a hardy rebuttal to those who presume that fiction necessarily sets us free.

Miller, however, gave at least some credit to female victims of those abuses. Mamet does just the opposite.

Both hysterias were bone-headed and have since been discredited, though the political-religious zealotry that Miller placed in his sights obviously remains part of the American DNA, whereas the tyrannies of political correctness would seem more of an aberration.

In retrospect, the hysteria in Oleanna now looks like Mamet’s. If he was using his play to assail the lacks of mercy and freedom of thought by progressives of that era, the damage done by Thomas’ 17 years on the Supreme Court, compared to the damage Hill might have inflicted had she succeeded in blocking his nomination, make Mamet’s reaction, and reactionary play, seem socially short-sighted and politically muddle-headed.

OLEANNA | By David Mamet | MARK TAPER FORUM | 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Through July 12 | (323) 628-2772