I FIRST came across “political correctness” when, holding a door open at a department store so that a young women could have free access to the store, I was greeted with: “You wouldn’t have done that if I had been a man.” To say that I was shocked and confused would be putting it mildly – after all, what had I done wrong? I had merely acted in the way that my parents had brought me up.
That was around the time, the early 1990s, that David Mamet wrote this play, prompted by the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearing. Thomas, a nominee to the US Supreme Court, was accused by Hill of sexual harassment.
The subjects of political correctness, and how we interpret that phrase, and sexual harassment are probably even more relevant now than when Mamet wrote Oleanna, giving Lucy Bailey’s taut production a very modern feel.
Probably because of that early political correctness shock to the system, I came to the production, after re-reading the play, with the feeling that this was a clash of gender. But as the story of the complacent lecturer, John, and disturbed student, Carol, developed, that simple clash of gender fitted less and less comfortably with the subject. A long conversation with the 40-plus lady who accompanied me to the production convinced me that, looked at today, the play would be interpreted better by considering the view not of gender but of generation.
Happy to sit behind the status quo, John has no idea how his words and deeds could be, and were being, interpreted from an entirely opposite point of view by his hungry for knowledge student. Carol, in turn, her self-confidence shored up by her “group”, cannot see that, just as John has abused his power as a lecturer, so she, with that group backing to convince the university authorities to dismiss him, is abusing her power to the same degree.
David Mamet’s skillfully written script gives Jonathan Slinger (John) and Rosie Sheehy (Carol) wonderful ammunition to go from an almost frivolous starting point, with John continually interrupted when making an important point to his obviously confused and frustrated pupil, by trivial phone calls from his wife and/or agent/friend about a house purchase, to a physically violent finale that is frightening and shocking.
So realistically is this scene played that for one moment you are tempted to leap onto the stage to restrain John (Slinger), from doing her great physical harm, as he is driven to complete distraction by Carol’s (Sheehy’s) refusal to see one inch beyond the fixed principles laid down by her and her group.
It is at that moment that you realise that, just as Clarence Thomas was in the end found neither innocent nor guilty, so too, by failing to understand each other’s point of view, and in turn both abusing the power at their disposal, John and Carol fail to give clear answers to the questions.
If possible, take someone of a different gender, but same generation and a similar pair from a younger generation to see this brilliantly written play. You will, I believe, find the after-show discussion as fascinating as the 90 minutes of intense theatre. The production continues at the Ustinov Studio until Saturday 3rd July
The Bath production of Oleanna is transferring to the West End. It opens at the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street on Wednesday 21st July until 23rd October.