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Language Reversal Power In Oleanna English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1975 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Since its debut in May 1992, David Mamets Oleanna, has become one of his most famous and controversial plays and achieved infamous in the wake of its initial production both in US and Britain; it has been the object of more widespread public rage, debate, and celebration. Oleanna has been widely acclaimed for its treatment of issues in American society of the 1990s, such as gender problems and relationships, sexual harassment, political correctness, and the manipulation of power. Oleanna is the good account of bizarre nature of play by David Mamet and its importance in the history of drama arises from its role as a model of a new kind of drama in which produce controversary for which the playwright has no solution and is extraordinary since the proposed solution for its controversary depends upon the audiences’ and readers’ response.. Mamet is significant because his postmodern minimalism leaves so much interpretation open to the viewer and different perception of the same event in Oleanna through different perspectives. Oleanna lends itself easily to gender, national identity as well as hidden language. This essay tries to show minimalism in stage and language as well as reversal power in characters of Oleanna; John and Carol.

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Carol’s opening line” what is a term of art?” foreshadows the language theme of play. It reflects the postmodern view that the words do not precise meaning in the outer world, but rather are dependent on context for meaning. Technically, as John explained it, a term of art is a legal concept:” It seems to mean a term, which has come, though its use, to mean something more specific than the word would, to some one not acquainted with them….indicate”.

In Oleanna, Mamet intentionally uses a number of dialogic devices which reflect varying levels of difficulty through which the problem of impaired communication can be easily traced and diagnosed. Among these devices, the multiple phone calls are significant in the sense that they frequently interrupt the conversation and divert both characters in ways that inevitably distort and hinder clear perception and mutual understanding. From the start, both characters experience difficulty understanding one another, partly due to the difference in language competency between professor and student. Normally, the discourse of university people, especially on campus, is distinguished by a set of constraints and values imposed by academic traditions.

John’s cynical answer and the subsequent repartee illustrate how the dialogue fails to achieve verbal or non-verbal communication. It is not only because of the differences in their linguistic competence, but also because of their manner and mood during the discourse. Because they are irritated and uncertain, they parry and reflect their confusion and mutual mistrust: “Is that what you want to talk about?”. John answers Carol’s question reluctantly, while trying to simplify the diction and clarify the meaning: “Let’s take the mysticism out of it, shall we? Carol? (Pause) Don’t you think? I’ll tell you: When you have some ‘thing.’ Which must be broached? (Pause) Don’t you think . . .”.Ironically, John’s reply adds more mysticism rather than removing it. Moreover, by doing this he leads Carol to develop an implicitly aggressive tone:

CAROL: . . . don’t I think… ?

JOHN: Mmm?

CAROL: … did I … ?

JOHN: . . . what?

CAROL: Did … did I … did I say something wr . . .

In fact, John is devoid of the emotional and intellectual faculties that his status as an instructor requires. Instead, he is very proud of himself, his theories, his affairs, and his career, which he rates above everything. Conceited as he is, John does not properly communicate with the out-of campus world. His frequent assertion that he “can’t talk now” and that he will “call later” makes it clear that things are still hazy and undetermined. John is also disconnected by his isolation in the office space with only Carol whom he sees but fails to understand. However, the only chance for better communication between John and Carol appears immediately before the end of act 1 when Carol starts to open a new channel and tell him about something that she has “never told anyone”. But, as usual, this is aborted by the fifth phone call after which he shifts abruptly to his tenure “surprise”.

In addition to the numerous pauses John makes in his unconvincing explanations, he fails to communicate properly with Carol because of his pretentious terminology: “broached”, “concepts,” “precepts”, “index”, “charts”, “pedantic,” “paradigm”, “The Stoics”, and many other unnecessary phrases which Carol does not understand. When he tells her that a “paradigm” is simply “a model,” she reluctantly asks: “Then why can’t you use that word?”. The responsibility for this whole course of misunderstanding lies not only with John’s choice of diction and vocabulary, but also with Carol’s way of thinking, talking, and feeling. As Christopher Bigsby notes, Carol’s “language is confused and confusing. . . . She seems to fail to understand what he is telling her, or respond to his attempts to put her at her ease.”

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Different between Pinter pauses and Mamet’s is that Pinter’s starting point is that whoever speaks loses in a struggle for dominance. Dominant characters, when forced to speak, simply rattle of jargon, a kind popular language, filling space without giving anything away. But the loser is revealed in the “Pause” stage direction. These characters simply run out of things to say, can no longer fill the void. The other person refuses to help out by breaking the silence. Mamet’s characters, by contrast, are thinking so quickly, especially in Oleanna, that the ellipses that come between phrases actually indicate that their minds are working s o fast and furiously that they cannot come up words quickly enough. In both cases, however, the audience fills in the gaps since the characters cannot. Missing parts are an important technique for both playwrights.

In 1992 Oleanna revealed national fears about empowerment of women, political correctness and gender equality in same way. The form of their dialogue expresses a power relationship here. At first act John has the power in his hand and It is John that does most of interrupting, exerting his dominant over Carol conversation. Near the beginning of the first Act, John tries to define “term of art” for Carol, but does not actually knows the phrase’s meaning. This is indicative of his character; he’s overbearing and interrupting her and often not responding to what she actually says, talking instead on a topic important to him. John is almost entirely output, with very little input; until she is forceful, Carol can get at most a few words out before he assumes her meaning. Carol’s lack of understanding in the first act is pointedly, displayed whenever John refers to “theory” or “concept” or “let’s see if we can wring some worth from the statistics, Eh?”. Each time she reacts strongly, cutting him off to say she does not understand. All the references are to words which require interpretations, which are not simply facts, but are theories, and require more than routing learning. Here is John who knows all these words and as a result he has the power to give the meaning to these words and Carol is the one who does not understand and is slave of John’s power.

Her behavior seems to confirm John’s theory- when she thinks of herself as stupid, she is stupid; when she gain confidence and thinks of herself as smart, and she is smart. The “Group” to which she alludes must have made her into someone different- a strong and powerful feminist. John has just begun to explain a particular theory of education when Carol interrupts to ask about her grade.

John is trying to give a new attitude towards knowledge which is that is not based on the traditional routine method: ” learn, study retain”; instead his view of education has to do with teaching students’ self-esteem, rather than betraying them for failures which led to anger and frustration but Carol cannot yet grasp this and she is looking for some tangible knowledge that she can hold on to, rather than an attitude towards learning and towards herself as a person. Throughout Act two, she has let John rise from low self-esteem without interruption; when he begins to re-enter explanation of academia, however, she interrupts, concerned not with learning but with grades. In Act two, Carol ignores this previous concern with grade and simply passing the class. Now it is Carol’s turn to hold the power and reverse it.

It is not obvious that, if we call this play as an Aristotelian tragedy, which character has a tragic flaw in itself. Who is right or wrong is not the matter of intention; meaning is determined, at least in the postmodern decentered world, by who has power; there is no more agreement on who is right or wrong.

John comes to a tragic recognition and reverses at the end of play but he never acknowledges that he is at fault in any way. Even if he has no intention of sexually harassing Carol, he must see that what he says and does is open to misinterpretation. On the other hand, Carol never comes close to recognizing her own tragedy that of being swept away by power. There is no real recognition, though there is clearly a reversal. John recognizes that he has finally destroyed so he beats Carol rather than seeing or accepting any fault in himself.

The title of the play, Oleanna, refers to a Norwegian folksong about creating a utopia. While academe may construct itself as a utopia, in Mamaet’s play it is dystopia. And it is not the characters fault that the tragedy ensues; Mamet argues rather the fault in the world they inhabit. The fault is endemic to the system which empowers them in to “protecting their own positions”.

“The end of the play reverses the roles of the student and the teacher reversed–now the student has power and the teacher is powerless. Now Carol has a student group who backs her versions of the events that took place in her professor’s office. Her professor has lost his job because no one backs his version of events. This suggests that there is no truth, it only matters what sorts of social institutions back the individuals in conflict. In other words, all that matters is who society says is powerful and who is powerless. There is no singular truth as to what occurred in the professor’s office, what matters is which person has a group to back him or her version of the events up. Once the professor was backed by his position in the university and the other faculty, he was within his rights to fail a student. Now, a powerful student group backs Carol’s version of events and she has more power and her version of events is deemed to be correct. Also, now that Carol has more power, she feels free to speak more clearly to her professor. Rather than hesitating in her language, she now feels free to contradict her professor and express her anger at the nature of the grading system and her anger at his contempt for the hard work she has devoted to gaining a position at the university as a student.”


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