UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A matter of six inches : theatrical and cultural construction of identity and power in David Mamet’s Oleanna Rice, Marnie Dawn.


This thesis examines the construction of power and identity in "Oleanna", David Mamet's controversial play about sexual harassment and political correctness. It subjects the play to literary, dramaturgical, performative, psychological, legal and ideological analyses in order to demonstrate how the play alternatively transcends and is weighed down by divisive issues that construct our historical moment. There has not been, in recent memory, a Vancouver production that generated so much media attention and viewer feedback. Mamet has orchestrated a carefully constructed "participatory" event that manipulates his audience into judging and debating issues concerning sexual antagonism on the basis of oppositions of gender, age, status and privilege. On the one hand, Mamet has infuriated many feminists who see "Oleanna" as a manipulative, misogynist and dangerous play that blames women for causing their own oppression. Other critics, conversely, have described it as a stimulating masterpiece that puts a mirror up to contemporary society to show how we are all prone to the use and abuse of power. The crucial questions here are: why does this play incite such opposing responses, how does Mamet manipulate his reading and viewing audience into taking sides in a hot debate about sexual harassment, and whose position, if any, does he privilege? This thesis uses a four part approach. Part One examines how Mamet, through his body of work, critiques cultural distopias within a masculine theatrical and discursive space. Part Two applies a similar analysis to Oleanna to uncover the play's spatially and linguistically masculine framework. Part Three examines the play in performance. Using a semiotic critique, it demonstrates how these cultural and theatrical challenges were alternatively confused and clarified when "Oleanna" was produced in Vancouver in 1994. Finally, Part Four highlights contemporary ideological issues by delving into "Oleanna's" subtext to ask the question: can a constructive social critique be drawn from a play which is so mired in constricting and antagonistic ideologies?

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