David Mamet Shuts Down Gender-Bender Production of Oleanna

What sounds at once like a decadent Ben & Jerry's flavor or a vodka-infused dance party, but is decidedly neither—gender-bender—is a term that conjures all kinds of rhetoric and damn-the-man aesthetics. Gender-bending—which, like transsexualism and yes, even post-genderism—have ceased to be synonymous with Shakespeare and the Globe Theater and become instead a multi-headed hydra of social activism that actively seeks to undermine what "man" and "woman" even means.

It's no secret that in the past 400 years, a bevy of directors have chosen to cast iconic plays in a gender-bending fashion, surfacing latent power dynamics and generally shaking up plotlines and narratives that otherwise have become stodgy and banal. In short, gender-bending forces the audience to re-imagine an often classic tale because—like it or not—a woman playing Julius Ceaser carries with it a very different undercurrent than the typically huge, lumbering man. Or does it? Perhaps the epic monologues of the world's most famous soldier and (maybe) tyrant resonate in just the same way . . .  regardless of genitals.

Gender-bending gets at the very crux of identity and the arguable binary that we're all participating in as a way of categorizing ourselves; more complicated still is the notion that gender is indeed "performed," worn like a constrictive costume that connotes certain things. Many feminists, like Judith Butler, argue that there is actually no such thing as "inherent" gender attributes at all; rather we're all subjected to societal gender roles—men and women alike—that systematically subjugate our individuality.

So one would think that an author might savor a clever re-telling of their work with some good 'ol fashioned gender-bending. Art is, by definition, a rather subjective affair, and once something is released into the public sphere, that creation ceases to exist solely as the extension of the artist who created it. Instead it—hopefully—becomes reinterpreted again and again by different artists, creating an ever-evolving dialogue that is much bigger than it once was. (I mean shit, the entire field of literary or art criticism wouldn't even exist without this concept.) What would we have if everyone took art at its face value and "respected" the artist's original intentions? Interpretation reigns supreme as far as I'm concerned.

Sadly, and not-so-ironically, this is not the case for the Dramatists Guild of America. Their "Bill of Rights" in fact explicitly states the opposite:

You have the right to approve the cast, director, and designers (and, for a musical, the choreographer, orchestrator, arranger, and musical director, as well), including their replacements. This is called "artistic approval."

Enter David Mamet

Now, infamous playwright and American author darling David Mamet—who has won everything from a Pulitzer to Tony and Oscar nominations for his writing—has put his heavy-weight foot down on a Milwaukee production of his play Oleanna. Why? Because they deigned to gender-bend his masterpiece. Boasting only two characters, the play traces the demise of an English professor—John—who gets accused of sexual harassment by his female student Carol. Thus his career (and tenure) crumbles beneath his fingertips.

The Alchemist Theatre had just launched a new mounting of Mamet's drama—apparently fairly clandestinely—casting a boy in the role of Carol. They got one production off the ground before the whole damn thing was kabashed; namely, by a cease-and-desist letter from Mamet's "representatives."

We excitedly brought this story to the stage because even though it was written years ago, the unfortunate story that it tells is still relevant today. We auditioned for this show looking for the best talent, not looking for a gender. When Ben Parman auditioned we saw the reality that this relationship, which is more about power, is not gender-specific but gender-neutral. —Erica Case and Aaron Kopec, owners of Alchemist Theatre

Apparently Mamet pulled a similar stunt in 1999, when a New York theater company tried to mount Goldberg Street—a series of 32, one-act plays and monologues which tackle relationships between men and women—with an all-female cast.

Rebuking Mamet's Totalitarianism

What gives? Why are playwrights allowed to fascist-ly control the presentation of their work when authors have their words minced, chopped up and analyzed til kingdom come? Academics don't ask authors permission to use their words in leveraging their argument; can you imagine the theories that would have been laid waste because an author didn't agree with someone's interpretation? 

In fact, one could argue that because plays, by definition, are designed not just to be read (how boring would that be?) but to be manifested in an entirely other medium in which someone created it, i.e., in real-time in real-life . . . it seems particularly infuriating that some decisions are allowed while others remain forbidden. 

Moreover, Mamet's reluctance to allow gender-bending of his plays reinforces just how deeply important he believes a specific gender is in the telling of his stories; it's as though he actually believes his entire meaning would be rendered moot or overly bastardized if the genders were swapped. And I'm sorry (not sorry), but that's not only arrogant, it's short-sighted and antediluvian. I don't care if I'd written the next Great American Play that starred a vagina; I'd still let a man take a stab at embodying that role because it'd be provocative, and it would spark conversation instead of censoring it.

In fact, I'm going to mount a biographical play starring David Mamet—played by me—and he can put that down his totalitarian britches.

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