Performing the Academy: Alterity and David Mamet's Oleanna
“All one can say of communication and transcendence is their incertitude.”
– Emmanuel Levinas, “Substitution”
In dramatic contrast with David Lodge's academic characters who engage in seemingly endless quests for romance, the protagonists in David Mamet's Oleanna (1992) have little use for love within the more tenuous boundaries of their own, much smaller world. Utterly unable to communicate on nearly any meaningful level, Mamet's characters retreat into their own situational ethos and cede responsibility for their predicaments outward to their academic others. Mamet's pejorative poetics reaches its satirical zenith when he forces his characters, in the play's final act, to confront their expectations about the intellectual – and, in many instances, social – manna that they feel the academy should be obligated to provide them. The resulting tension between each of the protagonist's expectations and their inevitable power struggle allows Mamet to establish the premise for his academic satire in Oleanna. Simply put, the play illustrates his contention that the ethical dilemmas inherent in the academy's various hierarchies find their origins in a flawed system for distributing knowledge and creating genuine learning. While many critics correctly read Oleanna as Mamet's brutal musings on what he perceives to be the vagueness of sexual harassment and the ineptitude of political correctness, the play's title pointedly directs us to the sacred groves of higher education, the playwright's principal satirical target.
Oleanna's title originates from a folk story that refers to Ole, a