Sex wars live on stage
David Mamet's Oleanna is one of the most controversial plays
of recent years. Kenan Malik explores its themes
Oleanna is a play that has created more drama off-stage than it contains
on-stage. Since David Mamet's work opened in New York last October, it has
become infamous as the play to which you go as a couple and return home
alone. The British critic Mark Lawson recalled watching it in New York.
Men in the audience, he said, greeted the play's climax - when the male lecturer
assaults his female student - with cheering and foot-stamping. 'Teach the
cunt a lesson', screamed one middle-aged man. Feminists in the audience,
meantime, noted who was cheering, followed them out and abused and assaulted
New York critics were as divided as the audiences. Some have hailed Mamet
as America's new Arthur Miller. Others have denounced the play as mysoginistic - 'vagina
dentata comes to college,' as one feminist put it - and as pandering to the
right's basest prejudices about 'political correctness'.
The British, of course, are more restrained. There was no blood in the stalls
at London's Royal Court theatre, where the play opened at the start of July.
But the tension in the audience was palpable. And judging by the arguments
afterwards, as many theatre goers are going to go home alone in London as
in New York.
So, what is all the fuss about? Oleanna dissects the breakdown of
the relationship between John, a pompous, overbearing university lecturer
and Carol, a gauche, confused student. In Act One, Carol comes to see John,
frightened that she will be thrown off the course, worried that she is too
stupid to complete it. John regales her with his homespun philosophy, promises
to give her an A grade at the end of the course, and, when she gets upset,
places a reassuring arm around her shoulder.
In the second act the two meet again. Carol has complained to the college
authorities that she has been sexually harassed and intellectually abused
by John. The seemingly innocent gestures of the first act have become the
evidence for Carol's charges. John's comforting hand on her shoulder, Carol
says, was 'sexual harassment'; a racy anecdote he tells about his childhood
to demonstrate his own stupidity was 'pornographic'; in offering to bend
the course rules for Carol he was 'taking advantage'. Mamet ensures that
there are echoes here of recent real-life cases, in particular the Anita
Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation.
John tries to clear up their 'misunderstanding' and to talk her into dropping
her charges. But instead of the frightened little girl of Act One he finds
himself confronting a confident young woman, buttressed by her newfound feminism
(and by her feminist friends, referred to throughout the play as 'the group').
In the final act, the two meet again. John has lost his job and his house
after having been found guilty of the charges. When he discovers that she
has now charged him with rape (again for a seemingly innocuous act on his
part), John loses control and violently assaults her in the play's explosive
In dramatic terms, Oleanna is a flawed work. Carol's transformation
from gauche student to feminist harridan is barely credible. Mamet loads
the argument against her, setting her up as a wicked witch out to entrap
John. Because we already know what really happened between the two, Mamet
removes the possibility that Carol might be right. In choosing such an easy
target, and in portraying everything in black and white terms, Mamet loses
the force of his argument against political correctness.
But it would be wrong to see Oleanna only in terms of a rant against
PC. The 'sex war' might be the provocative heart of Oleanna, but
the essence of the play arises out of John's increasingly fraught attempt
to make sense of the world. 'I don't understand, I don't understand' is
John's constant refrain throughout the play. It is one that Carol herself
takes up. 'You have lost your job', she gloats. 'You don't understand do
At its simplest level, what John does not understand is why he, the victim,
should be regarded as the oppressor. 'How did I become the bad guy?', Michael
Douglas asks quizzically at the end of the film, Falling Down. It's
a line that Mamet might have written for John. But what John - like the Michael
Douglas character D-Fens - cannot understand is less his own transformation
to villain than the changes in American society which seem to have left
him powerless and without a voice. The real theme of both Oleanna and
Falling Down is what critic Robert Hughes, in his new book The
Culture of Complaint, calls the 'fraying of America' - the fragmentation
of US society into competing special interest groups. It is a process, Mamet
suggests, that leads to anomie and leaves violence as the only form of human
In Oleanna, John considers himself as a liberal and a humanist, a
man who believes in decency and tolerance. His world is one composed of
individuals and driven by a belief in individual rights. 'I'm not a bogeyman',
he tells Carol. 'I don't "stand" for something.' But in the
new America depicted by Mamet, people define themselves through their group
affiliation. 'I have a responsibility', Carol tells him, 'to this institution.
To the students. To my group...I speak, yes, not for myself. But
for the group; for those who suffer what I suffer.'
Once you lose yourself as an individual, argues John, you lose the ability
to communicate. 'The essence of all human communication', he tells Carol,
'is that we both agree to converse. In effect we agree that we are both
human.' That humanity, he says, is lost once society is broken down into
warring groups rather than conversing individuals. But Carol dismisses the
very possibility of communication between people of differing identities.
When John claims that his act of putting a hand on her shoulder was 'devoid
of sexual content', Carol retorts: 'I say it was not....Don't you begin
to understand? It's not for you to say.'
Deprived of his voice, John (like D-Fens) descends into violence as the
only way of expressing himself. But herein lies the ambiguity of Oleanna.
In assaulting Carol, John becomes the man she always held him to be.
Suddenly Mamet seems far less sure of who is right and who is wrong. Mamet
despises what he sees as the new America, yet feels compelled to accept,
at least in part, Carol's vision of the world. He rails against political
correctness, but yet is caught in its grip.
This ambiguity exposes the hollowness of the debate between Mamet and the
defenders of PC. Both are tilting at windmills. In making an issue of language
and gestures, the PC lobby trivialises oppression. Mamet, on the other hand,
absurdly inflates PC into a mortal threat to liberal values, imagining that
women and minorities now hold social power in the new America. Neither can
grasp the real problems confronting American society. In the end you feel
that John and Carol deserve each other.
As the annual debate begins about the decline of the Edinburgh Fringe,
Robert Lennon and Louise Thomas ask what was so great about it to begin
'There are whispers and grumblings and backbitings; the tune varies but
the theme is the same, wherever you ask. There is a palpable nostalgia for
the way things were and an overwhelming consensus that, frankly, the Fringe
ain't what it used to be.' (Carol Sarler, Times, 15 August 1992)
If there is one thing that is fairly predictable about this year's Edinburgh
Fringe, it is that there will be a debate about its decline. However funny
the comedians, however challenging the new plays, some old Fringe stalwart
will complain that things were better in their day.
When former Festival director Frank Dunlop stepped down in 1991 he described
the Fringe as being in danger of becoming the 'Blackpool of the arts'. Good
work was being squeezed out, he said, by the 'multifarious hysteria of the
alternative comedy circuit'. The Festival, he said, should be about the
'discovery of things on the most intelligent and thoughtful level'.
While most commentators detected Dunlop's resentment that his official Festival
was being swamped by the Fringe, in one way or other there was agreement
that the Fringe is not what it used to be. The Guardian's Nicholas
de Jongh felt that 'the sheer expansion of the Fringe has meant that there
is now far more of the tried, the tested and the familiar'.
Nostalgia, of course, has become the mainstay of chattering class discussion
in Britain. From cricket to the Windsors nothing is what it was. But just
as there never really was a golden age of English batting, and the royals
have always been amoral, bed-hopping scroungers, so the Fringe never was
the radical ground- breaking forum that it has become in fond memory.
The Fringe was largely an outlet for student comedy and theatre. Like most
student productions, it was made up of the puerile, the bizarre and the
attention-seeking. The show that did most to bring the Fringe to wider notice
was 'Beyond the Fringe', a revue brought together for the official Festival
in 1960 and featuring the best of the Oxbridge performers of the time. The
stars were Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. The
defining features of their show were satire and silliness, the parodying
of the conventional, establishment institutions they came from. In a period
when Britain's imperial image and class system were badly tarnished, this
style keyed into a middle class desire for self-mockery. Monty Python and
the Goodies, both groups of Oxbridge students, were later to follow the
Some of this material was, and remains, classic examples of British comedy.
But there was nothing particularly outrageous about it. After all, even
Labour Party leader Harold Wilson was into this type of anti-establishment
mockery, as when he sneered at the Tory prime minister Alec Douglas Home
as the 'thirteenth Earl of Home' in a party political broadcast in 1964.
In any case the Fringe has always been less a vehicle for those who want
to challenge conventional norms than a stage for those seeking official recognition.
Many of the early stars of the Fringe have become stalwarts of the theatrical
establishment. Dunlop himself is a good example, a Fringe pioneer who went
on to work with the New Vic and eventually got to run the official Festival
itself. The Fringe, in short, became famous because of well-made shows by
ambitious performers who took as their theme the foibles of a self-doubting
In retrospect we can see that what had seemed radical in the early Fringe
was really just a new wave of writers and performers creating a niche for
itself. But once the absurdities and injustices of the class system had
become a spent theme, there was little room for the kind of shows on which
the Fringe had built its reputation. And, paradoxically, while the Fringe
made a name for itself through its ironic response to British decline, its
institutionalisation on the Edinburgh scene has ensured that the Fringe
itself has become the subject for a debate about declining values today.
In terms of sheer size the Fringe has done anything but decline, growing
from 19 groups in 1959 to well over 500 today. It is probably true that
many performers and writers are not as sharp as in the past, but in essence
the Fringe plays the same role today as it did when Peter Cook and Dudley
Moore trod the boards - as a clearing house for new theatrical talent. Nobody
in the Fringe, not even the big acts in the big venues, makes much money.
But this is immaterial. As one Fringe veteran observed, 'it is essentially
a trade fair for the entertainment industry.'
Today the Fringe has become the stepping stone for 'alternative' performers.
In much the same way as working men's clubs provided us with Jimmy Tarbuck
and Bernard Manning, the Fringe has given us Sean Hughes and Paul Merton.
Much of television comedy is written and staffed by Fringe performers today,
as it has been for 30 years.
There is no need to mourn a Fringe that never was. Such nostalgia is better
left to royal watchers and cricket lovers.
Not the Edinburgh Military Tattoo
The Edinburgh Military Tattoo is the biggest single event during the official
Festival. In the past it was presented as just part of the entertainment
for tourists. Since 1991, however, when the Tattoo boasted of the role of
Scottish soldiers in the Gulf War, it has become an increasingly open celebration
'Not the Edinburgh Military Tattoo' is the title of a series of counter-events
being organised in Edinburgh by the Campaign Against Militarism, to coincide
with this year's Festival. For a brochure giving details of the planned
exhibitions, meetings and other events, contact Louise Thomas on, (031)
The beast within
Alan Harding finds there were no flies on William Golding, a novelist
for his times who died in June
I read William Golding's first and most famous novel Lord of the Flies
as an 'O'-level set text in 1967. A couple of years earlier, by special
dispensation, the whole school had been allowed to see Peter Brook's X-rated
film of the novel at a matinee performance in the local Granada. The novel
which Golding initially found impossible to publish had, within a decade,
become a classic text and an icon of postwar English literature.
When it was published in 1954, Lord of the Flies came like a breath
of fresh air into the stuffy parlour of the English novel. Its exotic location,
and more especially its total commitment to great themes - human nature itself - set
it apart from the turgid renditions of English middle class life that characterised
fifties literature. But the paradox of the novel is that its treatment of
the 'timeless' subject of the battle between civilisation and barbarism
was very much of and for its time.
The plot of the Lord of the Flies - a group of English public schoolboys
find themselves abandoned on a deserted island - is lifted from a classic
nineteenth century adventure story 'Coral Island'. But whereas in the Victorian
yarn the little chaps spontaneously reproduce the customs and mores of the
mother country and help bring civilisation to a dark corner of the globe,
in Golding's version the boys themselves become the savages, eventually
killing their own.
An unthinking Victorian optimism born of the unparalleled success of Empire
had given way to a world view darkened by the shadow of Nazism, the Holocaust
and Hiroshima. The beast, Golding suggested, was not out there waiting to
be tamed by civilised man, but was here within us, all of us. In the novel,
the Lord of the Flies is a dead airman, hanging from the trees on the island,
with flies buzzing in and out of his head; a symbol of rotten humanity.
Golding often claimed that he was not a political writer. But the very act
of eschewing politics was itself a reflection of the political context of
the postwar world in which he wrote. Golding would often say that the Second
World War drove all the idealism and optimism from him. He could no longer
subscribe to a belief in human betterment and perfectibility. In the Lord
of the Flies, as in all of his work, there exists what he describes
as an abyss which is barely covered by the order of civilised life.
Golding had been born into the more intellectually curious section of the
middle class. His father taught at Marlborough Grammar School. The family
supported the suffragette movement and inclined towards socialism. Golding
himself briefly joined the Communist Party before the war. After reading
English at Oxford Golding had a commission in the Royal Navy and commanded
a small warship at the D-Day landings. After the war Golding did his time
teaching in a minor public school.
From rural Wiltshire to His Majesty's Royal Navy and back again seems a
quintessential English life. Golding's own polite manner, traditional dress,
and devotion to horse riding seemed to confirm this. Yet the themes with
which he dealt ensured that Golding was never caught in the parochialism
which marked the lesser writers of his generation.
What set Golding apart from his contemporaries was not simply his themes
or the darkness of his vision. It was also his imaginative vision. Each
new story was told with a fabulous ability mentally to construct and enter
a new and different world. He was once asked whether he had done a great
deal of research into the building of medieval cathedrals for his novel
The Spire, which describes in minute detail how a man's dream of
building a great cathedral spire came to be. No, he replied. He had just
gone to Salisbury Cathedral, looked up at its famous spire and imagined
what it was like to build something like that.
It is a much-abused word but Golding's work is essentially mythic. From
the wonderfully imagined world of Neanderthal Man in The Inheritors to
the Promethean experience of the all-but-drowned sailor Pincher Martin clinging
to a rock in mid-Atlantic, his work is a constant reworking of the themes
of human evil, struggle and the loss of innocence.
Golding once said of The Lord of the Flies that its theme was 'grief,
sheer grief, grief, grief, grief'. Grief for the loss of purer worlds. Grief
for the knowledge that they could never have existed. Grief at the horror
that human beings can and do cause. The amiable English schoolmaster Mr
William Golding was a voyager into the remote and strange places of our
imagination. At times the concentration of his language and this peculiar
vision is oppressive but at his best his work is incandescent.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993