Mamet, David

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Oct-30-2006
  • Last revised: Oct-29-2006


Act One: The professor, John, receives his student, Carol, who is seeking help with an essay. She readily admits that she does not understand the premise of the course. During the interview, he is animated and cavalier about her difficulty. He is also distracted by preoccupations from home and allows their encounter to be interrupted by phone calls about the sale of his house. Insisting that academic work is not as difficult as some would pretend, he suggests that she simply come to see him from time to time.

Act Two: Carol and John meet again in his office. She has reported to his tenure committee, accusing him of sexism, elitism, grandiosity, and offering good grades in exchange for coming to see him. He is upset and angry because he thinks she has misinterpreted his offer. He had considered himself a good and original teacher. More than insulting, the accusations now mean that he is in financial trouble because he had bought a house on the strength of his bid for tenure. He asks how he can make amends. She interprets the question as attempt to force a retraction. She moves to leave, he moves to restrain her, and she screams.

Act Three: Carol comes to John’s office at his request and against advice. There has been an investigation and he is to be disciplined. He refers to her complaints as “allegations,” but she insists that they are “proven facts.” She has asked that his book be banned, and is considering criminal charges for battery and attempted rape. His career and perhaps also his marriage are ruined. Outraged he starts to beat her—but suddenly stops as if he finally understands her position.


A dramatic meditation on the important matter of relative truth, using the example of political correctness and gender relations within the academy. The words and interactions in Act One and Act Three are similar, yet the power relationship has reversed. The teacher and student hold diametrically opposed views of what transpired between them and what they owe, or once owed, each other. But neither is lying. Power goes to the version that finds institutional approbation. Lack of understanding is equated with vulnerability. Multiple truths can occupy the same space and time. In Act Three, the increasingly assertive but no more sophisticated Carol says “YOU FOOL. … I don’t want revenge. I want UNDERSTANDING.” So entrenched is John in his entitled position of power that he cannot imagine the student (and a woman) has a position that requires effort on his part to understand.

The title “Oleanna” is derived from an American legend about a pair of swindlers, a man named Ole and his wife Anna who sold swamp as farmland and disappeared. One implication is that higher education is a swindle; another could be the jeopardy of political correctness. The much acclaimed play was first performed with William H. Macy in the role of John and Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, as Carol. It was received as a literary response to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas U.S. Senate Committee hearings. A film version also starring Macy was released in 1994.

Although this play is about relationships in education, it could well apply to discussions of health-care situations.


Methuen Drama

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