Sun, May 23, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Sex and power in the classroom

Twelve years after the London opening of `Oleanna,' universities still struggle to take sexual harassment of students seriously

By Lisa Jardine  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

When David Mamet's Oleanna opened in London in 1992 at London's Royal Court Theatre, the violence of audiences' response to the play made headlines. Couples almost came to blows in the foyer, women were close to tears as they argued indignantly over whether the accusation of sexual harassment levelled by college student Carol against her professor -- which undoes his successful tenure application, loses him his new house and ruins his career -- was really his fault, or merely malicious fantasizing on her part. Notoriously, when their onstage struggle degenerates into violence, and the cornered professor lashes out against his adversary, men in the audience cheered. The play seemed to capture something visceral about the struggle around political correctness in the classroom.

There were no cheers at the end of Lindsay Posner's new production of Oleanna at the Garrick Theatre in London this week. In fact, the night I was there, there was an audible intake of breath from near where I was sitting when John, the professor, raised a chair above his head as if to bring it down on Carol's cowering form.

Neither the production nor the quality of Julia Stiles and Aaron Eckhart's acting can account for this striking lowering of temperature in this year's audience's response. Mamet's representation of an insecure young woman out for revenge against a professor who humiliates her remains as powerful and as infuriatingly partisan as ever. Eckhart's John is disturbingly well-judged. Stiles' performance is luminous. In the opening act she captures perfectly Carol's vulnerable stillness as she sits tensely, legs awkwardly angled, while John argues interminably with his wife on the telephone. Her increasing assertiveness retains an anxious, edgy quality which makes her metamorphosis plausible, deftly counterpointing John's clumsy, blustering incredulity.

It would appear that what has changed in the 12 years since Mamet wrote this lastingly intriguing play is the attitude of the audience.

A group of young women told me at the end of the show that they thought the reason the play was no longer disturbing was that it had become dated. Perhaps in the 1990s sexual harassment had been a fraught issue. Today, universities have explicit sexual misconduct codes that protect students and faculty from one another. By implication, Carol and John's mutual misunderstanding could no longer arise.

When I spoke to Julia Stiles, herself a student at Columbia University, she concurred that the rules of engagement between students and faculty are now clearly set out. That clarity is apparent in the rule that when a student meets her teacher for a tutorial in his private office the door must always stand open.

And yet my own experience is that the play's central dilemma remains potent. Two years ago a bright young woman from an British inner-city state school with which I have an association gained a place to read English at a leading UK university. A week after the start of her first term she telephoned to say she had packed her bags and left.

At her first meeting with her personal tutor -- alone and with the office door firmly shut -- he had harangued her, aggressively and inappropriately, implying that she might not have gained her university place on merit. He had "talked dirty" and launched into a long, self-absorbed exposition of the sexual dynamic that would be bound to govern relations between himself and a good-looking female student like herself.

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