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Oleanna Summary

Oleanna is a three act, two character play by David Mamet, depicting a power struggle between a university professor, John, and a female student, Carol, who initially petitions him for help after finding his material difficult to understand. She later accuses him of sexual harassment – thereby derailing the impending award of his tenure by the university. In their subsequent meeting to resolve the issue, relations between the two break down further - exacerbated by John’s hubris and frustration, eventually leading to a physical and verbal attack.

The first act of Mamet’s play begins with Carol coming to see him in a private meeting in his office. She does not understand some of the learning material, and has a particular issue with a book that John himself authored. Being proud and stubborn, John is initially reluctant to sympathise with Carol, but eventually agrees to help her. Their discussion becomes heated at times, and on one occasion John tries to calm Carol by putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder but Carol, a radical feminist, reacts angrily and shakes it off. This incident leads her to file a report of sexual harassment upon leaving the office.

Act two covers a second meeting between the two, in the same location, after it emerges that Carol has filed a formal complaint with the university committee. The complaint brands John as a chauvinistic, and includes numerous examples of sexist remarks made by him towards female students. Carol refers to his putting his hand on her shoulder as sexual harassment. During the course of their discussion, Carol can understand John’s point of view (though she continues to disagree), whereas John cannot conceive of any opinion other than his own. This is indicative of his hubris and stubbornness. Carol decides to leave, whereupon John blocks the exit and grabs hold of her.

Act three depicts a final meeting between professor and student. Carol conjectures that his building rage and frustration hinges on his holding of power over others. John has been denied tenure and mentions that he has been staying at a hotel for two days, trying to clear his mind. Because of this, he is unaware that Carol has since accused him of attempted rape, but she offers to drop the charge if he will discontinue his book. On the phone, John calls his wife ‘baby,’ and when Carol objects to this, John physically attacks her.