Oleanna Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on David Mamet's Oleanna. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of David Mamet

Born in Chicago, David Mamet grew up in a largely Jewish neighborhood and attended a progressive independent school in the city’s affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood before matriculating to a low-residency college in Vermont. After school, Mamet worked odd jobs while he chased his dream of becoming an actor—but when few roles materialized, Mamet decided to write and stage his own plays while teaching and directing in Chicago, Vermont, and New York. In the mid-1970s, Mamet began achieving success as a playwright, and he won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his famed play Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet went on to form the prestigious Atlantic Theater Company in New York in 1985 alongside William H. Macy. In the 1980s, Mamet continued to achieve success as a playwright while moving into screenwriting and film directing, adapting his own plays Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna for the screen and receiving acclaim and award nominations for his adapted screenplays of The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Verdict. A controversial but pivotal figure in American theater, Mamet is known for his cynical, clipped, and often even vicious dialogue, which critics have termed “Mamet-speak,” and for his controversial perspectives on gender roles, political correctness, and world politics.
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Historical Context of Oleanna

Oleanna’s clearest historical parallels are the 1991 confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, and the allegations of sexual harassment brought against him by Anita Hill—a law professor who had worked with Thomas at the US Department of Education as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court of the United States, the already-controversial nomination hearings were further complicated when Hill alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her. Hill’s testimony, which detailed sexually provocative statements Thomas had made to her during their work together, was cruelly and callously questioned, belittled, and ultimately dismissed, and Thomas was later confirmed (albeit by a narrow majority.) The media frenzy about sexual harassment and political correctness reverberated throughout American society—and as of today, women’s allegations of sexual harassment or even abuse, such as those leveraged by professor Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, are still regularly overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant.

Other Books Related to Oleanna

Oleanna is a controversial work of art which holds at its heart the assumption that people in general—regardless of gender—are power-hungry, covetous, and cruel. Plays which feature an examination of moral decay at the heart of society stretch back through time all the way to ancient Greece—Euripides’s Medea and Aeschylus’s Agamemnon feature characters, male and female, whose own personal ambition, casual cruelty, or desire for vengeance turns them into monsters. Mamet no doubt drew inspiration from classic Greek theater in developing the two complex, hateful forces at the center of the play. In contemporary theater as well, examinations of moral ambiguity, lust for power, and imbalances in gender equality are frequently featured on some of the biggest stages in the world: David Ives’s 2010 play Venus in Fur owes a great deal to Oleanna, as the entirety of the play features an extended argument between a director and an actress over the political, societal, and sexual ramifications of a nineteenth-century novel about sadomasochism.
Key Facts about Oleanna
  • Full Title: Oleanna
  • When Written: Early 1990s
  • Where Written: New York, NY
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: John’s office at an unnamed university
  • Climax: When Carol overhears John call his wife “baby” on the phone and tells him not to use such nicknames, John snaps and beats Carol up, stopping himself just before breaking a chair over her head.
  • Antagonist: John and Carol are dual protagonists and antagonists.

Extra Credit for Oleanna

Origins. The title Oleanna refers to a satirical Norwegian folk song written in the mid-1800s. The lyrics to “Oleanna” satirize a dream of a beautiful, plentiful utopian settlement. The real life Oleanna was founded by Norwegian composer Ole Bull as part of the New Norway colony in Pennsylvania, and it famously failed, forcing the Norwegian immigrants who’d begun to make their homes there to move away. The folk song’s indictment of unachievable, untenable ideas about how society ought to be mirrors Mamet’s investigation into how American society, too, is in failure because of its desire to become a utopia.