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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.
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