Monday, October 5, 2009

Rhubarb at the Theatre!

We were caught in a near riot that almost erupted into full scale verbal warfare last Saturday night during a post-performance discussion of the David Mamet play about a power struggle between a professor and his female student called Oleanna. Oleanna is a complex and often ambiguous story of a stormy relationship between an almost tenured professor and his troubled student, struggling to pass his course. They seem to need something from each other, as they meet something like four different times during the course of the play, all in the professor's office, but their attempts to communicate with each other only seem to make their situation progressively worse. As everything crumbles around them, especially for the professor who by the time of the fourth meeting has been accused of attempted rape and has lost his chance at tenure, he lashes out at his student when she chides him for calling his wife "baby" over the phone. As the play ends, the furniture is scattered all over the room, the student has been thrown to the floor, and the professor seethes with desperate anger.

The professor, who seems to want to be helpful can also be seen as sexually exploitative, while the student who strikes you as naive and confused during their first encounter comes across as manipulative and revengeful near the end. Who they are and what they really want is never made clear, but Mamet writes the play in such a way as to induce viewers to take sides and reach conclusions about motives and goals that are only partially supported by the action. Is the professor just a pompous and condescending pedagogue or really out to seduce his student? Is the student really as clueless as she seems at first, or is she doing this to somehow hold the professor accountable for his offenses with her, other female students, and institutional sexism in general? We really don't know, but the play seems to bring people's anger about such situations to the surface and tends to accentuate our leanings, either toward the male professor, on the one hand, or the female student, on the other.

In the post-performance discussion, which included a New York City Cultural Commissioner and a moderator, the audience felt restless and upset from the beginning. Before the first question could be answered, someone from the middle of the audience yelled, "go deeper!" and when the commissioner attempted to answer this first question in a somewhat stilted manner, someone else shouted, "you sound just like the people from the play." As the discussion went on, when someone either on stage or in the audience expressed support for one or the other characters, you could hear people exclaiming "Oh, give me a break!" Or "That's not what this play was about!" In general, I would say there was less sympathy for the female student and much more antipathy toward her than toward the professor. A number of men tried to lecture the audience about the true subject of the play - a well meaning professor manipulated by a power hungry feminist - but there were quite a few women as well who interrupted various speakers in mid-sentence, and who said things like: "That professor should have thrown her to the floor. I was glad to see him do that. She was begging for it." On the whole, there was this general unruliness that I guess is not unlike some of the healthcare "discussions" we have heard about lately. Are people more rude or impolite than in the past? Almost certainly not. I mean these are people in their 60s and 70s who are saying these things at the top of their voices. Surely, they learned how to conduct themselves in a public discussion. No, I think it is another sign of how fed up people are with a kind of political correctness, an expectation to act in a certain way, and the consequences that result when you're suckered into helping somebody out. We are entering the age of Ayn Rand again in some ways, where selfishness and self-interest are increasingly regarded as the wisest policies.

1 comment:

  1. For a little historical context and additional analysis, see:
    Frank Rich's original review from 10/26/92.