David Mamet


“Oleanna” is a two-character play by David Mamet, an American playwright, essayist, and screenwriter known for his sharp dialogue and powerful socio-political commentary. First staged in 1992, “Oleanna” delves into the themes of power, gender, and political correctness in the setting of academic America. The play, often controversial and provocative, is a gripping exploration of the misunderstandings and manipulative battles between a university professor and one of his female students.

The genre of “Oleanna” can be categorized as a drama, specifically a psychological drama, as it intensely focuses on the complex interaction between its two characters. The play’s title, “Oleanna,” refers to a 19th-century folk song about a utopian vision of equality and justice, which adds a layer of irony to the narrative, considering the play’s contentious and confrontational content. Mamet’s work is known for its distinctive, rhythmic dialogue and its ability to generate debate and discussion about societal and ethical issues, making “Oleanna” a significant and influential piece in contemporary theatre. 🎭

Plot Summary

Exposition — “Oleanna” begins in a university professor’s office, where Carol, a struggling student, seeks help from John, her professor. The conversation is awkward, with John’s language often pompous and Carol appearing confused and overwhelmed.

Rising Action — As John discusses Carol’s performance and offers to help her, the dynamics shift. John, perhaps inappropriately, shares personal information and touches Carol’s shoulder, leading to tension. Carol accuses John of being condescending and elitist, gradually turning the academic session into a power struggle.

Climax — The play reaches its peak when Carol, having consulted with a group, files a formal complaint against John, accusing him of sexism and attempted rape. John’s pending promotion and house purchase are put in jeopardy, intensifying the conflict.

Falling Action — In the aftermath of Carol’s accusations, John tries to reason with her, offering to retract his original grade assessment in hopes of resolving the situation. However, Carol becomes more empowered and confrontational, demanding deeper changes in the curriculum and John’s teaching methods.

Resolution — The play concludes ambiguously, with John, in a moment of rage, physically assaulting Carol after she insists she understands his actions as abusive and part of a systemic pattern. This act of violence leaves the audience questioning who is right or wrong, with no clear resolution, reflecting the complexities of communication and power dynamics in society.

Character Analysis

John — John is a university professor who initially appears confident and somewhat paternalistic. His character is complex, embodying both intellectual arrogance and genuine desire to help his student, Carol. Throughout the play, John’s motivations seem to shift from wanting to aid Carol’s academic progress to defending his own reputation and livelihood. His character development is marked by a gradual unraveling of his professional and personal life, leading to an ultimate loss of control.

Carol — Carol starts as a meek, struggling student, seemingly overwhelmed by academic pressures. However, as the play progresses, she gains confidence and authority, becoming more articulate and assertive. Her motivations might appear initially as a quest for understanding and fairness, but they evolve into a pursuit of power and retribution against perceived injustices. Carol’s character development is significant, reflecting broader themes of power dynamics and victimization.

JohnConfident, paternalistic, flawedHelp Carol, preserve his status and lifestyleUnravels, loses control
CarolMeek, evolving, empoweredSeek understanding, then power and retributionGains confidence, becomes assertive

Themes and Symbols

Power Dynamics — “Oleanna” is a powerful exploration of the shifting sands of power between John and Carol. Initially, John holds the traditional power of an educator and authority figure, but as the play progresses, Carol gains power, flipping their dynamic. This theme questions the nature of authority and its impact on individuals within institutional settings.

Communication and Misunderstanding — The play underscores how communication can be fraught with misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Mamet’s dialogue, with its interruptions and incomplete thoughts, illustrates the complexities of language and how it can both connect and divide people, leading to conflict and confusion.

Gender and Political Correctness — “Oleanna” addresses the contentious issues of gender politics and the minefield of political correctness. The characters’ interactions reflect broader societal debates about gender roles, sexual harassment, and the politics of identity, making the play a lens through which to examine these heated topics.

The Education System — The play is also a critique of the education system, highlighting how it can become a battleground for larger societal issues. The academic setting in “Oleanna” is not just a backdrop but a symbol of the places where power struggles and identity politics play out, reflecting real-world conflicts in educational institutions.

Style and Tone

  • Economical Dialogue — David Mamet is renowned for his distinct, terse style of dialogue, often termed “Mamet speak.” In “Oleanna,” this style is characterized by short, clipped exchanges that are loaded with meaning, reflecting the characters’ tensions and miscommunications.
  • Realism — The tone of “Oleanna” is starkly realistic, focusing on the nuanced and often painful interactions between John and Carol. This realism is enhanced by the setting—a mundane university office—where the high-stakes drama unfolds, making the events feel more immediate and relatable.
  • Ambiguity — Mamet intentionally leaves much of the play’s conflict and character motivations ambiguous, forcing the audience to draw their own conclusions and question their biases and assumptions. This ambiguity adds a layer of complexity to the narrative, engaging the audience in the debate at the heart of the play.
  • Provocative — The play’s tone is intentionally provocative, challenging the audience’s preconceptions about power, gender, and authority. Mamet uses the interactions between the characters to ignite discussion and controversy, making “Oleanna” a catalyst for broader societal debates.

Literary Devices Used in Oleanna

1 — Irony

Irony in “Oleanna” is evident in the way the characters’ intentions and the outcomes of their actions drastically differ. John’s attempts to help Carol result in his own downfall, while Carol’s search for understanding leads to conflict and accusation.

2 — Foreshadowing

Mamet uses foreshadowing to hint at the play’s climax, with early tension in John and Carol’s conversations indicating the power shift and the impending conflict, subtly preparing the audience for the dramatic conclusion.

3 — Symbolism

The title “Oleanna” itself is symbolic, referencing a utopian land in a folk song, which contrasts sharply with the play’s themes of misunderstanding and conflict, highlighting the irony of an idealized world versus the harsh reality.

4 — Metaphor

The university setting serves as a metaphor for society at large, with the power dynamics between John and Carol symbolizing broader social and institutional power struggles.

5 — Dialogue

Mamet’s dialogue is not only characteristic of his style but also serves as a device to advance the plot and develop the characters. The broken, interruptive dialogue mirrors the communication breakdown between the characters.

6 — Paradox

The paradox in “Oleanna” lies in the characters’ perceptions; each believes they are in the right, yet their actions increasingly lead to moral ambiguity and questionable ethics, reflecting the complex nature of human interaction.

7 — Conflict

Central to “Oleanna” is the conflict between John and Carol, which evolves from an academic disagreement to a personal and legal battle, driving the narrative forward and highlighting the themes of power and justice.

8 — Characterization

Through Mamet’s precise characterization, John and Carol evolve from stereotypical roles to complex individuals, revealing their flaws, strengths, and vulnerabilities as the story unfolds.

9 — Tone

The tone in “Oleanna” shifts dramatically from professional to personal, academic to legal, reflecting the changing dynamics and escalating tension between the characters.

10 — Allegory

“Oleanna” can be seen as an allegory for societal conflicts over power, gender, and authority, with the characters and their dispute representing larger cultural and institutional battles.

Literary Device Examples


  1. John’s intention to help Carol understand the course material ends up being interpreted as patronizing and inappropriate, leading to accusations against him.
  2. Carol’s initial confusion and vulnerability turn into assertiveness and power, ironically using the learning process to dismantle her professor’s authority.


  1. The initial awkwardness and tension between John and Carol suggest that their relationship will lead to significant conflict.
  2. John’s repeated interruptions and dismissals of Carol’s understanding foreshadow the power reversal and the coming accusations.


  1. The term “Oleanna” symbolizes an idealized world, contrasting with the play’s conflict and highlighting the unattainable nature of such a utopia in the face of human misunderstanding and corruption.
  2. The office setting symbolizes the academic power structure and becomes the battleground for the play’s conflicts.


  1. The educational system, represented by the university setting, acts as a metaphor for societal structures, where power dynamics and authority are constantly in flux.


  1. The dialogue’s fragmented, overlapping nature reflects the communication breakdown and the escalating misunderstanding between John and Carol.


  1. John sees himself as a rational and fair educator, yet his actions lead to irrational and unjust consequences, embodying the paradox of perceived self versus actual impact.


  1. The central conflict between academic freedom and personal grievance encapsulates the broader societal debates on power and rights.


  1. John’s transition from a confident professor to a desperate individual mirrors the shifting power dynamics and adds depth to his character.


  1. The shift from a formal academic tone to a contentious legalistic tone mirrors the escalation of the stakes for both characters.


  1. The entire narrative acts as an allegory for real-world power struggles, with John and Carol representing opposing sides in ongoing cultural and institutional debates.

Oleanna – FAQs

What is the main conflict in “Oleanna”? The main conflict in “Oleanna” is between John, a university professor, and Carol, his student. The conflict centers on issues of power, miscommunication, and sexual harassment, evolving from a simple academic concern to a complex legal and personal battle.

Who are the main characters in “Oleanna”? The main characters are John, the university professor, and Carol, his student. The play is a two-hander, meaning it only features these two characters, making their dynamic the central focus.

What themes are explored in “Oleanna”? “Oleanna” explores themes of power dynamics, communication and miscommunication, gender politics, political correctness, and the complexities of the educational system.

Why is the play called “Oleanna”? The title “Oleanna” refers to a 19th-century folk song about a utopian land, symbolizing the idealized and conflict-free world that is starkly contrasted by the play’s contentious narrative.

How does “Oleanna” end? “Oleanna” ends ambiguously, with a violent confrontation between John and Carol. The resolution leaves the audience questioning the nature of right and wrong, as well as the justice of the situation.

Is “Oleanna” based on a true story? “Oleanna” is not directly based on a true story but reflects real-world issues and conflicts within academic and power structures, making it relevant and resonant with real-life themes of authority and misconduct.


  1. What is the setting of “Oleanna”?
    • A) A university office
    • B) A high school classroom
    • C) A corporate boardroom
    • D) A public park
  2. What causes the tension between John and Carol in “Oleanna”?
    • A) Financial disagreements
    • B) Academic and personal misunderstandings
    • C) Political differences
    • D) Family issues
  3. What genre does “Oleanna” belong to?
  4. How does Carol change over the course of the play?
    • A) She becomes more timid and unsure
    • B) She remains the same
    • C) She becomes more empowered and assertive
    • D) She leaves the university
  5. What literary device is predominantly used by Mamet in “Oleanna”?
  6. Why does Carol file a formal complaint against John?
    • A) For giving her a low grade
    • B) For sexual harassment
    • C) For not attending her meetings
    • D) For stealing her ideas
  7. What is a major theme in “Oleanna”?
    • A) Love and friendship
    • B) Adventure and exploration
    • C) Power dynamics and communication
    • D) Technology and future
  8. How does Mamet use dialogue in “Oleanna”?
    • A) To show characters’ backstories
    • B) To create poetic imagery
    • C) To drive the plot and reveal character flaws
    • D) To provide comic relief
  9. What symbolizes the power struggle in “Oleanna”?
    • A) The office
    • B) The university
    • C) The book
    • D) The chair
  10. What is the outcome of the play’s conflict?
    • A) A clear resolution and understanding between characters
    • B) An ambiguous and tension-filled conclusion
    • C) A happy reconciliation
    • D) A change in university policy


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from “Oleanna”:

“John: You come in here with a scatter of… of… pre-digested ideas—improbable, accusatory, irrelevant. You call that ‘being a student’. I call it… I call it ignorance.”


  1. Metaphor: “a scatter of… pre-digested ideas” – John uses this metaphor to describe Carol’s thoughts and arguments as something that is not originally processed or thought through by her, suggesting they are borrowed and not well understood.
  2. Irony: John’s accusation of Carol’s ignorance is ironic given the play’s developments, where his supposed wisdom and authority are questioned and undermined.
  3. Dialogue: This piece of dialogue illustrates Mamet’s style of using conversation to reveal character traits and conflict, showcasing John’s frustration and condescension towards Carol.