I recently saw a professional production of David Mamet’s Oleanna at a regional theatre near my university. I’ve read both Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, but this was my first exposure to Mamet on the stage – and it was moving. Perhaps I shouldn’t say moving, because if anything, the play stopped me dead in my tracks . . . and it made me angry.
The subtitle for the play is appropriately “a power play” and it was just that – a constant shifting of energy between just two characters for 90 minutes, with an inevitable explosion of frustration between them overwhelming the audience with a catharsis of violence and anger. It was not traditional Mamet, at least not from what I have read: minimal strong language, vulgarities, or obscenity. There was just a simmering, brooding resentment that seemed to be building in the characters for the entire duration of the play (and, it often seemed, within the audience as well). Apparently, the original Broadway production suffered brawling fistfights between audience members in the lobby after the premiere. How can a play, a work of fiction, do this to us?
I’ve known for a long time that the theatre can be a place of extreme provocation. Just look at Brecht, or Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It even goes back to the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and some of the satyr plays of the Greeks. As long as there has been a need for censorship in the theatre, there has been provocation. But at the same time, I’ve probably more commonly associated theatre with a place of entertainment, maybe even enlightenment. Provocation, I feel can be both. Just look at Mel Brook’s The Producers. Springtime for Hitler and Germany? Brooks manages to accomplish much of his humor through almost, but not quite, deeply offending his audiences.
But then, is that really provocation? I think my 21st century, Western notions of theatre can be very comfortable at times. If its a comedy, it’s funny. If it’s a drama, it’s “moving” (whatever that means). To roughly paraphrase something I heard Anne Bogart say, “It is not the theatre that moves me, that I find so interesting, as the theatre that holds me motionless – that takes my breath away.” Oleanna took my breath away, because it provoked me. It made me angry. Alright, so I didn’t get in a fist-fight in the lobby afterwards, but I was deeply concerned about the implications of what I had just seen – because I could see truth in it. Perhaps this is why a play like Oleanna is more than just an “edgy comedy” or an “enlightened drama” – it takes us past a comedic edgy into a realistic edgy and instead of patting us over the head with a neat, little moral precept or enlightened solution, it throws deeply distressing problems in our face and then withholds any satisfactory answers to our questions.
Oleanna stopped me in my tracks, despite the play being nearly 20 years old, because I could see the relevance of the problems it was exposing. And instead of trying to offer a solution to the problem (which I don’t necessarily think is the job of a playwright), Mamet frustrates us to the point of emotional anguish, to the point of an explosion, and then perhaps we realize the irony – we are not so different from the characters on that stage. And unlike them, we are real.