Manipulation of Language in David Mamet’s Oleanna

In this essay, I will introduce how language can be manipulated as a weapon during conversation, and how the issues such as gender and power can be attributed to the language manipulation.

As a two-character play, Oleanna possesses the simplest plot: a student came to her professor, asking him desperately in order not to be flunked. Carol and John, sharing the private talk in a private office, have been through different passages during their talk. Clearly, in Act One, the two of them know little about each other, and they have extensively divergent ideas about what really happened. Since Carol and John have the most fundamental acquaintanceship to each other, the block of conversation must be a breakdown or hinder to communication. For instance, “I don’t understand” might be said countless times by both of the characters. Besides, John, who stands in a higher social class, speaks in a more prestigious way and full of bombast. Since his concentration on the phone with a realtor, he carelessly ignored

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Carol, which reveals John’s authority as a teacher. While the first phone call has been hung up, they began to talk. Instead of starting from talking about the grades, their conversation is launched by the topic on “term of art.” John began to show off his profession as a teacher. During their conversation, Carol has been interrupted so many times, by John, and, by the phone calls. Rings interrupted a lot, which distracted John’s concentration on the teacher-student conversation. John’s superiority and profound knowledge as a college teacher seemed no use while negotiating with the realtor. The mastery of language has been challenged. Meanwhile, Carol kept taking notes on John’s words all the time, no matter how irrelevant to her schoolwork. To my amazement, I have no idea that Carol’s habit of taking notes will become the leverage against John afterwards! David Mamet discloses the clues to what is going to happen later. While Carol keeps her eyes on watching every detail on John’s daily life, she takes advantage on John’s language as a weapon to achieve her goal. Meanwhile, Carol cannot stop being irritated by John, not only by the ignorance he made, but also his linguistic offense against Carol’s faith. Carol’s attempt to enter college has been challenged by John. John kept breaking down Carol’s expectation on the so-called “Higher Education.” “What is higher education? It is something-other-than-useful.” “what is ‘something-other-than useful?’” “It has become a ritual, it has become an

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article of faith……, there all are entitled to Higher Education……”After Carol articulated the ignorance she had suffered, John began to pay more attention on her. Through her dialogue, our confusion on why Carol looks so clumsy, awkward, and the lack of confidence might be relevant to her troubled background, could be resolved. Due to the same feeling of marginality, Carol motives John to confess his own troubled background. “……I was brought up, and my earliest, and most persistent memories are of being told that I was stupid. ‘You have such intelligence. Why must you behave so stupidly?......’” For me, it is just the turning point that what John is doing is trying to eliminate the boundaries between teacher and student. By doing so, we could see John’s sympathy as a fellow who had suffered a mutual misery. In comparison with his mastery of language at the beginning of the play, the softening language reveals the incapability as a tool of communication and, on the other hand, a symbol of the authority decline.

 Language agitates the crowds. In Act One, Carol’s mumbling and inferiority aroused the audiences’ sympathies. Initially, we readers are sympathetic over Carol since John does not take Carol seriously. John initially dismissed her eagerness to pass the course, which irritates the audience’s a lot. Slowly, John’s softening in language afterwards could be considered the transition of authority. However, in Act Two, the

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tone has been totally switched. Carol claimed that John undertakes the “sexual harassment” over her, which his tenure might be threatened. John and Carol, at this time, their language does not dissolve their boundaries; instead, more and more misunderstandings have been brought out. Their conversation became alien to each other. They tend to possess divergent explanations among things. According to Carol’s notes, she took advantage on John’s words to treat John. There were moments when the teacher-student relationship strikes a balance and the line in the middle becomes vague. The sympathy has been set aside on the very verge of realization. Gradually, the audience’s identification with justice has been altered. Finally, the justice does not exist anywhere. There are no easy answers, just as the tagline said, “Whichever side you choose, you’re wrong” (, which is according to the network resource.) In Act Three, the power of language turns out to be physical abuse. The language is useless anymore: the communication breakdown. Clearly, the demonstration of disjunction has been displayed by the language breakdown, which irritated the audience’s identification, compassion, and the faith in justice.

    Through my own reading, I was totally irritated by this play. With the collapse of communication, my compassion toward Carol collapsed, too. My sympathy emerged on seeing how the gap once been bridged, and how the equivocation of language

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separated the two kinds of social classes. John’s superiority to language, comparing to Carol’s mumbling follows later by John’s elliptical sentences and Carol’s use of vocabulary full of craft. We could see David Mamet’s use of language as a weapon to signify power and how language disarmed itself in Oleanna.


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