A Rhetorical Analysis: Linguistic Power Dynamics in Oleanna

David Mamet’s short, two-character play Oleanna deals with the shifting linguistic power dynamics between professor John and student Carol over the series of three separate meetings. Both characters continually trail off, interrupt one another, and digress from the primary issue at hand: Carol’s confusion in the class. John is excessively verbose while Carol, conversely, tends towards vague colloquialisms, but both manage to disastrously miscommunicate. In the beginning, as their interactions become increasingly hostile, John and Carol derive power from interrupting one another and, complementarily, avoiding interruption from the counterpart character.

As the play progresses, the frequency of these interruptions lessens and both characters, each more composed, begin to extract power by repeating and misappropriating their counterpart’s language. In both overlapping circumstances, John and Carol use short, succinct, complete sentences maintain their power. In doing so, they literally limit the number of words available for interruption or expropriation while also articulating their expressions with more clarity. This conciseness merges offensive and defensive rhetorical strategies, making it the most effective power-play. In terms of linguistic succinctness, both characters’ respective power shifts continuously throughout; however only Carol’s makes an intentional and lasting shift towards brevity, ultimately empowering her over John.

As their relationship becomes increasingly contentious during their first interactions, Oleanna and John empower themselves by interrupting one another and manipulating their own language so that it cannot be interrupted. John, as the teacher and authority, begins with the inherent power dominion; Carol, too, accepts her stereotypical role as the confused female student, beginning their interaction with a question. Rather than continuing this question-answer, student-teacher dynamic, John immediately diminishes his pedagogical power with with a vague and pretentious response, sarcastically asking Carol “to take the mysticism out of it.” (9) Backtracking to redundantly, inarticulately reword his original question, “Is that what you want to talk about?,” John also undermines his authoritarian power with self-doubt. (9) Carol, though, does not immediately capitalize upon this vulnerability, maintaining the facade of a helpless student as she speaks only in inquisitive fragments (enclosed by ellipses) that John consistently interrupts. As the play begins, neither the verbose john or bewildered Carol, have significant power; instead they both continue to interrupt one another, neither clearly articulating their point of view. However, as the meeting progresses and John’s language becomes increasingly complicated and digressive, Carol’s syntax shortens and takes on a declarative tone. As she reclaims some power, Carol listens to John’s tangential, “pedantic” arguments and responds with the simple dismissals of “yes” or “no” and pointed questions like, “what do you want from me?,” so concise and imperative that they cannot be interrupted. (29, 30) As the play progresses, John and Carol slowly (though erratically) reverse their inherent roles, Carol gaining linguistic leverage over John.

As Carol uses less interruptible language, the syntax of both characters becomes more complete. Therefore, rather than interruption, the characters begin to derive power from stealing and appropriating their counterparts words. This gives Carol the upper hand because, having already cut down her syntax, she has less words available to steal. John, appealing to her sense of guilt, claims Carols accusations of sexual harassment are “sufficient to deprive a family.” (32) However, repeating his words and saying “Sufficient? Sufficient? Sufficient? Yes,” Carol concurs that is sufficient, but only because of his “vile and classist and pornographic” actions. (32) As John consistently digresses to the topics abstract academics, his house and the tenure committee, he provides more literal words and personal details for Carol to use against him. Claiming to know what John “says to himself” and accusing him trying “to strut…to posture…to perform..to act like a patriarch,” Carol fills her own long speeches with John’s words. (33) Therefore, for John to appropriate and twist these statements, would be for him to refute his own argument. Carol furthers this tactic by beginning her sentences with “you,” making John the subject: “You want me to stay,” “You have done it to me,” “You tried to rape me.” (30, 38, 46) When Carol does speak with personal pronouns, — saying “I’m going” or “I am told” — her sentences are brief and declarative, so as not to give John any ammunition. The play culminates as Carol murmurs “yes, that’s right,” to John’s many final insults, qualifying his words and allowing them to speak for themselves as a representation of his character. (47) This repeated strategy on Carols part empowers her further and, getting the last word, she is ultimate winner of this shifting power struggle.

Both characters consistently manipulate language so that power dynamics shift erratically throughout, making neither character a clear winner in terms of power. Their language and respective empowerment changes frequently, such that a case could be made for either character. However, John becomes increasingly verbose and personal, playing into his weaknesses, while Carol’s language transitions from vulnerable fragmentation to succinct and declarative speech. Ultimately, the power lies in this specific change. Only Carol effectively shifts her style and flips the originally-assumed power dynamic.

Miscommunication in Oleanna

In David Mamet’s Oleanna, John, a university teacher, attempts to explain to his student Carol how he himself struggled with education as a child, in order to make her feel better about her own hardships and create an emotional connection with her. However, it is clear that no matter how John tries to explain concepts to Carol, he will never fully be able to connect with her due to the differences between them. This could also be seen as a criticism of the modern education system and pf traditional teacher–student relationships, as Mamet shows the audience that they are not always effective. Ultimately, Oleanna appears to be a microcosmic representation of the problem of miscommunication, since the characters pointedly fail to connect throughout the play.

Although John persistently tries to empathize with Carol, the audience sees through the characterization of John that he may be too ignorant of her feelings to make a meaningful connection with her. John uses declaratives throughout one early scene, for example when he states ‘well, I know what you’re talking about,’ conveying the fact that John is patronizing and that his attempt at building a connection with Carol is futile. In fact, it may be seen as a moment of hubris, because Carol, contrastingly, does not know what John is talking about, especially because of the complex lexis that John integrates into his dialogue, for example when he mentions ‘verbiage’.

John reveals further arrogance with the repetition of ‘you will become frightened’ which can be seen as John trying to be controlling, telling Carol how to behave and perhaps even inciting fear in her. The use of the pronoun ‘you’ does signify that he is trying to look at the situation from her perspective, but his comments are alienating, like the hyperbole of ‘you will become the laughingstock of the world’, deepening the divide between them and demonstrating the failure of the little connection they have. This can also be seen as hypocrisy from John because he is talking so negatively about the American Education system, the system that he himself has a connection to.

Furthermore, John does not consider political correctness, a major movement during the 1990s, during his conversation with Carol. Not only does he take long turns, showing his speaker dominance, which can be seen as rude, he tries to speak to Carol on a personal level when he says, ‘I am speaking to you as I would speak to my son’ which appears to be very intimate. John is inappropriate with his words, but in this extracts he holds the power over Carol (who uses political correctness), and this expresses Mamet’s view that the political correctness was restricting and did not allow freedom of speech. The use of the prop when the phone rings shows John is negligent about Carol, again making John appear rude. During his phone call, he uses the term of address, ‘student’ to describe Carol and prosodic features here emphasize the boundary between Carol and John which juxtaposes Johns previous comment where he parallels Carol to his own son.

Carol cannot connect to John during this extract and it may be that she is overwhelmed by John’s lengthy speeches. When Carol does interrupt John, stichomythia becomes prevalent in the form of interrogatives such as ‘why?’ and ‘what?’ which suggest that she is growing frustrated with John. Carol’s minor sentences such as, ‘no you don’t’, show how she is challenging John’s authority, perhaps even challenging his masculinity because she is rejecting his opinions, but this merely severs their connection further because it highlights their different opinions. A modern audience may see Oleanna as sexist because of its portrayal of Carol who Mamet depicts as manipulative in Act 1. Indeed, there is evidence of this in this extract when Carol asks John, ‘why would you want to be personal with me?’ revealing that she has misinterpreted Johns words, foreshadowing events later on in the play when Carol uses Johns hamartia to her own advantage, indicating further that they cannot connect because they do not understand each other. In Act 2, the audience here Carols views which seem to suggest that the cause of their failure to connect is caused by John’s elitism. One problem of communication displayed in this section is the power struggle between the two characters, highlighted by Carol who uses minor sentences such as ‘You. Do. Not. Have. The. Power’ to make it clear to John that she is not of a lower status or class than him and she too can patronize him. Prosodic features reveal Carol’s anger when she asks the rhetorical question, ‘did you misuse the power?’

In Act 2, the audience here Carols views which seem to suggest that the cause of their failure to connect is caused by John’s elitism. One problem of communication displayed in this section is the power struggle between the two characters, highlighted by Carol who uses minor sentences such as ‘You. Do. Not. Have. The. Power’ to make it clear to John that she is not of a lower status or class than him and she too can patronize him. Prosodic features reveal Carol’s anger when she asks the rhetorical question, ‘did you misuse the power? Well someone did’ and the emphasis here on ‘someone’ suggests that Carol is accusing John of being the fault of the corruption. It could be that Mamet here is criticizing the American education system as he may believe those who are at the top of it are corrupt. Carols formality is the antithesis of John’s inappropriate language; she addresses him as ‘professor’ throughout the section reminding him of his position and the environment that they are in. Structurally, this may also be seen as a rejection of John’s previous attempts to connect to her because of Carol’s upholding of the traditional teacher-student divide between them.

Carol continues to clarify that she and John have no connection throughout the section. Her accusations reflect the Reasonable Woman Standard, a law established in San Francisco in 1991, which gives bias to a woman who is deemed ‘reasonable’ in sexual harassment cases, as Carol is not only reasonable but also rather emotive in her dialogue. She speaks fluently (no stage directions indicate pauses in her speech) and uses the rule of three, ’to deviate, to invent, to transgress’ to bring to light what John has done wrong. The polysyndetic listing reveals what Carol’s real impressions of John are; that he is ‘vile and classist, and manipulative and pornographic’. Even modern audiences, after hearing this bold, emotive language, flashback to John’s behavior in Act 1 to remind themselves if John’s actions were really as hideous as Carol claims. However, due to the postmodernist nature of Oleanna, from the very first production it has divided opinions as Johns actions can be interpreted in a multitude of ways.

Peripeteia and gender roles are addressed in this section as the power has shifted from John to Carol, implying that the connection they have is changing. John flouts quantity; expressing his lack of control of the situation and the repetition of the pronoun ‘I’ suggests his selfishness. The many pauses show that he is at a loss for words, contrasting his earlier use of complex diction. It could be seen as John is now weaker, taking on the stereotypical submissive role of a woman whereas Carol has gained ‘masculine’ like dominance, exemplified by her short, abrupt sentences such as ‘good day’ hinting the finality of her speech; a discourse marker to let John know the discussion is, in her eyes, over. This seems to show the turbulence of Carol and Johns changing relationship; making it harder to connect when they have to adapt to the shift in power. Additionally, adjacency pairs, usually a sign of communication are used by Carol and John, when Carol asks ‘is it?’ and John replied ‘yes I think it is’. This exchange appears to demonstrate to the audience the opposite of a connection: hostility.

Ultimately, the plot of Oleanna is driven by a fraught mis-connection between its central characters that leads to chaos and conflict. Mamet presents the problems that appear when two people are unable to properly interact. He also stresses the importance of having a connection to be able to communicate effectively and the relevance of connections in society, especially in the 1990’s, when traditional roles between the student and the teacher (or a man and a woman) were becoming increasingly turbulent.

Purposefully Imprecise: Specificity in Relation to Power in ‘Oleanna’

In the play Oleanna by David Mamet, knowledge is power. The ability to be the more intellectually adept individual in a room allows for both John and Carol to capture and lose the role of teacher in their student-teacher relationship. John, the literal teacher, begins the play by employing this knowledge and subsequent power through vague rhetoric such as noun clauses and indefinite pronouns. Vague language is the currency with which John and Carol trade power, as it signifies knowledge without specifying the exact nature of that knowledge. When John purposefully fails to give exact definition of a word he is enacting his role as a teacher, the authority, whose job is to maintain student interest and inquiry. However, John unknowingly and ironically succeeds at “teaching” this power skill to Carol, allowing the power dynamic within the student-teacher relationship to fluctuate. Ultimately, Carol gradually grows to be even more adept at using intentionally vague language to demonstrate her power and Carol eventually holds power over John. Intentional vagueness, a tool often employed by teachers, exemplifies the power held by John or Carol as it ironically is a sign of intelligence and it reveals the changing nature in the power dynamic between John and Carol: who is vague, and who is forced to clarify.

In the first act, John’s demeaning tone paired with noun clauses and general nouns establishes his role as the teacher; the one who exercises power. John carries himself with authority and superiority, and he feels that his vagueness is justified by his supposed preeminence. One of the questions John first asks Carol is “what” she wants “to talk about” (8). This mundane and superfluous question consists not only of a patronizing tone, but also a noun clause. The vagueness of the noun clause allows for John to simultaneously control the discourse while also invest minimal person effort and attention into the relationship which he considers beneath him. John continues this trend in the purposefully imprecise pronoun “something” in order to leave Carol uneducated and less informed on the subject matter than he is (14). Every time John uses an imprecise word, he coerces her into asking a question in order to understand John’s meaning. This leads to John becoming the sole influence on her opinions, as John’s ambiguity requires a definition only John can explain, allowing him to be the instructor. This vagueness even carries over into “what [Carol] thinks” (21). The use of a noun clause to describe Carol’s thoughts not only means that they are undefined and obscure, but also that those thoughts will ultimately be defined and explained by John, her teacher. The power John attains through his unclear rhetoric provides for his facile mastery of the direction of the dialogue and also ironic success in his greatest love: teaching.

By the second act, Carol has begun to learn from John’s skillful and power-wielding vagueness and attempts some teaching of her own. As John recognizes Carol’s growing disposition for the role of the teacher, he attempts to reassert his superior role. He strains to accentuate his power through ambiguous pronouns such as “it” and “that”, using the obscurity of those pronouns to distort his true craving for power and disguise that craving (28). Indefinite pronouns become even more vague and complex in order to elicit a question, or sign of dependence from Carol. However, Carol also begins to employ a vagueness of her own. By not specifying the identity of “that word”, Carol coerces John to ask for specification (29). The roles of teacher and student are now beginning to blend together and the power dynamics seem to reach equilibrium. In this act, the relationship between Carol and John seems relatively equal; a relationship between two peers instead a student and teacher. Both Carol and John attempt to exercise power through their vagueness and these attempts begin to come into conflict with each other. When John intends to establish power by the usage of a noun clause, “What wrong have I done”, Carol responds with the equally enigmatic pronoun “whatever” (30). As John continues to practice esoteric rhetoric, Carol only continues to learn and improve from him, and this is ironically the exclusive skill which John is able to teach her. Carol’s finesse and ingenuity with intentional vagueness persists to develop exponentially, and by the third act, she has surpassed John, both as a teacher and as an equal.

In the final act, Carol is finally able to engage her power, as she is able to transform into the role of a teacher, becoming the dominate and proficient master of vague language. Paired with a consistent use of action and command verbs, Carol is able to demonstrate her capability of using her acquired knowledge, which she ironically absorbed from John, to replace and surpass him in the role of the teacher. Carol states that “it is not for [John] to say” (43). Carol’s strong verbs allow her to demonstrate her ability to take action with the knowledge she has attained. The indefinite pronoun “it” only allows for her statement to become more powerful, as “it” can be construed as anything, negating any voice that John retained. Carol not only embodies the idea of power through vagueness, she uses it more effectively than John ever did. Carol is able to proclaim that “what [she] says is right” and allows the undefined meaning of “what” to inscribe an infinite number of possible arguments. Through the use of increasingly strong verbs and intricate ambiguity, Carol masters the art of teaching by leaving John in the position where she started: undefined and asking questions.

The proportional relationship of vague rhetoric and power, along with knowledge and specificity, highlight the ironies in the poignant relationship Mamet invented. In this ironic world, the more ambiguously a character speaks, the more power he or she possesses. The more knowledge a character acquires, the less he or she exhibits it. With the teacher as the securely more powerful person, both John and Carol fight to say less, and define even less of what they do say. The world of Oleanna ultimately reveals one simple truth: the power of a character is fundamentally established by what she or he does not say.