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Mamet for those who don't like Mamet
on 11 September 2011
This play is an electrifying two-hander, set in an American university. Carol is a failing student who copies down all the notes in lectures but doesn't understand what they mean. John is the lecturer who makes his own rules and patronises his students. When he tries to fob Carol off with an A so she'll stop annoying him, she misinterprets his intentions. A seemingly innocent pat on the shoulder leads to a complaint of sexual harassment. What follows is a power struggle between the sexes, classes and generations. Carol and John argue over the use of language and the purpose of education.
One could be simplistic and say that this is Mamet just having a bash at feminists, but the play is about more than that. It raises some interesting questions about higher education. Should everybody go to college/university, even if they're clearly not suited to academic study? The title of the play refers to an idealised American colony which seemed perfect but dense forestation meant that it was impossible for the community to live there. Both John and Carol see university as being a perfect aspiration: Carol sees university as being the key to life and her chance of escape from the life she has at home.
John sees it as an opportunity to preach and covets the bourgeouis lifestyle of a lecturer with tenure.Both John and Carol are unsuited for university life and yet both will cling on to it.
In the premiere of the play, audiences cheered at the violent finale and shouted at Carol. However, though Carol may be the more obvious villain, there's a part of me that wonders whether John didn't deserve his fall from grace. For a start, the stage direction doesn't say whether the pat is intended as sexual or not; only that it's a pat on the shoulder. Throughout the play, John proves himself to be a patriarchal nightmare, preoccupied with appearances. Mamet plays with language and definitions: Carol gives John's actions and words one meaning, and he refutes that meaning.
I have given the play five stars for Mamet's gripping depiction of university and sexual politics but the play is not without faults. What some readers see as a tantalising ambiguity, others see as a frustrating vagueness. Neither the dialogue nor stage directions really betray what the characters are thinking: they debate in rhetoric. Without any indication of whether John had any sexual motive, the audience are forced to side with John. And Carol's jump from an inarticulate submissive girl in Act 1 to fully-fledged neo-feminist who spouts feminist rhetoric in Act 2, which is clearly set not long after Act 1, stretches credibility. Nevertheless, I see it as a misunderstanding which becomes a heated battle for power. The student overtakes the teacher and throws his teachings right back in his face.