Teacher to Student: “Higher education is organised, systematic hazing”…“Tests are made by idiots for idiots.”…“It’s just a course.”…“It’s just a book.”…“My job is to provoke you, to force you to listen.”... “What about freedom of thought?”... “It’s not my job to fix you.”
Student to Teacher: “You are not God!”
Ayy…! Somewhere deep inside, that resonates!
StageLight & Magic broke with their usual styles of bigger than, ritzier than, longer than, more daring or flamboyant than, to do a theatrical ‘iris-in’, and focus small. So in the Punchi Theatre, before a punchi audience, with a punchi cast of 2, David Mahmet’s Oleanna was staged. For another change, SLM’s usual director Feroze Kamardeen was on the other side of the lights, playing John the university lecturer, opposite Swarsha Perera as Carol his student, and Ifaz Bin-Jameel was holding the directorial reins.
Sets were absolutely minimal, a desk, two chairs, a bookcase, and changed to give the metaphor of a different perspective: with each chronologically progressive act, and each angle of the furniture, we see a different aspect of the dramatic situation, and progressive changes in the characters.
Let’s teach the teacher!
In the first part, John bumbles and fumbles, verbally and physically, and seems to have trouble constructing one clear, complete sentence, his counselling interspersed with personal phone conversations. Carol, his student, seems inordinately inarticulate for even a freshman, pathetically uncomprehending of almost anything and everything her teacher says. He’s harried, she’s harrowed. Their disjointed conversation is frequently interrupted by the unseen characters who telephone, demanding his attention: his wife, and Jerry. John is preoccupied by tenure, problems with his wife, a new house and school for his child. Carol is living a nightmare in coping with his course, his book, his class, even his conversation. We see John’s relationship and interaction with Carol on stage; the rest of his life comes to us via his telephone calls, which are in part, for some redundant reason, explained to her.
As the lights come up on each scene, time and circumstances have wrought changes in each character. The professor flails about in his imperfection, his impertinence, his impuissance. He’s an arrogant puppeteer, a manipulative tyrant… yet still under the thumb of the Tenure Committee, the Big Brother-like entity overshadowing him. The student struggles on, her earnest incoherence, self-flagellating uncertainty, her timidity vanishing to make way for brash confidence, and calculated, controlled coldness, which counterpoints the burning sense of injustice evidently fuelled by an unnamed group of people who are evidently pushing her buttons in this case. For Carol, her watchful angel is “My Group”.
The teetering balance of power
The opening scenario of condescending pedant and hopelessly-lost student evolves into a frightening, yet almost-comic, role reversal: the student has brought accusations of sexual harassment, racism, and more, against John. He touched her (he says with intent to comfort; she says with sexual intent); he offered her an A for her course for coming to see his office; he said he liked her, he called her “my dear” and complimented her looks … the list rolls relentlessly on. The group’s point of view is that he is elitist, sexist, pompous, patronising, bullying - you name it, it seems he’s accused of it.
John’s professional reputation, tenure, new house, marriage – basically his life, now hangs in the balance. Enquiries, probes, lawyers, court cases loom ahead. The control he had over everything is slipping fast, and in tandem slips his self-control. The penultimate scene has John using physical force on her in response to (what he feels is) her brazen, provocative behaviour. He wants her to stay and listen to his side of the story. He attempts in vain to explain his version more than once. In the final scene, they offer John a trade-off: your life back, charges dropped, if you get these books taken off reading lists. His book is to be banned too. Shades of Nazi-style censorship and the stench of book-burning waft across the stage as John’s tenuous control snaps.
Who was right – or, who was more powerful?
The culminating moments are horrifyingly violent, as John evidently decides he might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. In a moment evocative of Ionesco, the final spot before the black-out is on a bruised and battered Carol, knocked to the ground and cornered by John, who menaces her with upraised chair, as she squeaks “I was right”. I struggled with the idea that he did kill her… I’d prefer to think not. A forthright masculine viewpoint from someone who saw the play: “If she did all that to me, I’d have killed her!” A telling declaration that I didn’t want to deal with either.
The issue of power-abuse, in sexual, racial, physical, intellectual or other contexts is unequivocally presented. Are we like John, preying on hapless students? Throwing our position’s power in their face and abusing it to by-pasas the system when it takes our fancy? Or like Carol, reading things into (maybe innocent) actions? Professional power-abusing pedants versus professional power-abusing victims? The latter scenes make it clear how much scheming and manipulation have been done by Carol and her group. One opinion offered me about her group is that the weak will always gang up to gain power, and do their best to subsequently hunt and drag down the powerful. John has thus been an unknowing target, hunted and clawed down. But is Carol also an ignorant standard-bearer being sacrificed for the cause? Or is she a willing sacrificial lamb?
Then again: how do we see John’s behaviour? Physically comforting an upset female student, alone in his office? Telling her baldly that he likes her? Offering her an A for his course if she will come to this office a few more times to discuss things with him? If it’s “just a course” and “just a book”, why is he outraged at the idea of his book being banned? Just what will he do to “provoke” people to listen? What are they all about, these power-plays and manipulations and jockeying for moralistic high-ground? With Oleanna, we have no high ground; just a moral morass in which we will inevitably sink, for while we may sympathize with each victim in turn, we cannot condone the lengths they go to or the depths they sink to in order to wield their particular brand of iron fist.
Education and its tenets and practices are called into question. Is the intrinsic worth of tertiary education displaced by some other over-imposed value? Is it all just systematic ragging? What is the system of testing and evaluating all about? What do we do to students once they’re caught in the classrooms – widen their horizons, or broaden their prejudices? Teach them about the truth – or what we personally perceive to be truth?
In the end, as Oleanna says, it matters not a jot what was meant; what matters is what we understood. What the author means, or, to use that pernicious and highly-abused expression, the message of the play is of no value in this subjective, emotionally-charged, baggage-laden endeavour called theatre criticism - or appreciation of theatre. It is not for the author or play to say: we weave our own meanings, always. Yeah, what about freedom of thought?
What I took away, what I felt, sitting in the theatre on opening night of Oleanna was distinctly prejudiced by my line of work: I teach.