If one were mounting a production of David Mamet’s classic play “Oleanna” just at the moment, there is one casting choice that would be almost irresistible. The play features two characters, John, a professor about to get tenure and buy a new house, and Carol, his student who by play’s end is accusing him of sexual harassment. So what is the can’t miss combo for this terse, sexual drama? It would be hard to miss with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.
“Oleanna” opened its first production almost exactly 30 years ago. It’s a simple two-hander, but one that led to audience reactions rarely seen before or since. In the first of two acts we see Carol in John’s office, she is shy, demure, lacking confidence, and apparently failing his class. He is arrogant, self assured, and rarely stops talking. In that first act Mamet lays out an off color story here, a touch or hug there, just enough to plant the seeds of accusation that fuel Act 2.
In that second act we find that Carol, with the support of a campus “group” has level sexual harassment charges against John, threatening his tenure, his new house, and his whole future. His fruitless and futile attempts to talk her out of it lead, in the plays final moments, to a viscous physical attack. When the play was first put on, men in the audience could be heard cheering the brutal assault (they got it), women in the house tended to take Carol’s side. I myself remember standing on 2nd Avenue in New York, smoking a cigarette and arguing with my rather brilliant playwright-of-a-date over the implications of the ending.
In the three decades that have passed since then, our society has not gotten much closer to settling our issues of sexual politics in the workplace and on campus. This reached a head with the #MeToo Movement gaining steam in 2017. The illogical phrase “believe all women” was in the air. And its inverse was too. That is why Amber Heard was so confident in telling Johnny Depp that nobody would believe his side of their sad and sordid story.
But as we now know a jury, perhaps not quite of his peers, and the court of public opinion landed squarely on the side of Depp, with some saying it signaled the end of this #MeToo Moment. Maybe. What the trial really showed, as did Mamet 30 years ago, is that this issue is not simple, it is not something that the collective efforts of HR departments and campus councils can find a system to fix. It is in fact, the very depth of human nature.
At the key moment just before the final curtain, Mamet gives us a gift of insight. John more or less keeps his cool as he deals with losing tenure and his house, even when Carol tells him she will pursue criminal charges he remains his calm and professerly self. The physical assault takes place when, overhearing a phone conversation with his spouse, Carol tells John, “Don’t call your wife baby.” That’s it. That very personal attack, on John, his wife, his marriage, his identity, sparks horrendous physical violence.
The jury in the Depp-Heard case found, it seems, that the former did not physically abuse the latter, saying she defamed him in an op-ed for the Washington Post. And yet, who could see the video of Depp, storming around the kitchen, slamming cabinets, and belittling his wife without finding it to be wrong? Just as the men watching “Oleanna” found John’s assault to be a just dessert, perhaps we too, after years of #MeToo, found some solace in Depp’s vindication, but of course, it is far more complicated than that.
Over the years, “Oleanna” has received myriad revivals, it is a feast of a play for both actors, but more than that, it has proved timeless. Since its debut, the contours of our culture’s understanding of what is and is not appropriate between the sexes in our official spaces has changed, and yet, the solid central point of the play has not. There are no winners in these situations, which is why it was so strange to see so many in the media take a victory lap at the Depp-Heard verdict, and so many others feeling a personal dismay.
Towards the end of Act One we hear this bit of taut dialogue as John seeks to explain his role as a teacher to Carol:
John: …That’s my job, don’t you know?
Carol: What is?
John: To provoke you.
John: Oh. Yes, though.
Carol: To provoke me?
John: That’s right.
Carol: To make me mad?
John: That’s right, to force you…
Carol: …To make me mad is your job?
This could be Mamet talking directly to his audience. His job, at least sometimes, is to make us mad. He’s good at it. Whatever this new moment is – perhaps, “believe all A-list movie stars,” – “Oleanna” reminds us that at the bottom of all of these salacious stories are two human beings, frightened, confused, and unsure. And regardless of social trends, that will never change.
David Marcus is a writer and theater artist based in Brooklyn, NY.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.