Drama on the stage, outrage in the stalls

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HUGE numbers of theatrical hits - particularly musicals - have sold themselves to couples as a romantic evening out: see the show, then have a nice meal afterwards, holding hands and wondering what other musicals T S Eliot or Victor Hugo wrote. David Mamet's Oleanna, which opens at the Royal Court in London this week, rather refreshingly owes its fame to a reputation as the play to which you go with a friend, and come home alone.

In the first act, John, a pompous college professor, discusses with Carol, a gauche and under-performing student, her learning difficulties. When she laments her denseness, he places a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

In the second act, teacher and pupil meet again, following Carol's complaint against John of sexual harassment and sexist intellectual bullying. In the last act - his job and home and family life about to go following the escalation and validation of the complaint against him - John pleads with Carol, whose stony insistence on his personal and historical guilt provoke him to assault, although he reassures Carol as he beats her that she is far too unappealing to rape.

I have disclosed more of the plot than is usual before a play's opening, because the static surrounding Oleanna is impossible to analyse without such detail. This play sweeps into town attended by a presidential bodyguard of fuss: the armour-plating of controversy, the motorcycle out-riders of hype.

Soon after the play's New York run began nine months ago, stories filtered out of the steady relationships ending in tears on the sidewalk outside the Orpheum Theatre ('She did not get what she deserved, Brad] I can't believe I'm hearing this]' / 'He was framed, baby] That chick's got her teeth in the wrong place]', and so on.)

There were also reports of men in the audience cheering and applauding during the climactic assault and - subsequently - of female spectators tracking down males who reacted in this way and haranguing (or, in the extreme version, attacking) them.

On hearing these tales, my reaction was that the play must have good publicists. It is an axiom of culture - known to any adolescent who sneakily bought a DH Lawrence or Henry Miller at a jumble sale - that serious art billed as controversial always disappoints. This is because the filth or outrage is measured not by the normal standards of filth or outrage but by the normal standards of art. Similarly, rows are judged not by the normal standards of rows but by the normal standards of audience reaction.

I had, for example, in the past read in newspapers that audiences at both Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal were emerging in furious moral dispute; but at the screenings I attended everyone left in the traditional companionable apathy. Hence, when I heard that Oleanna was causing divorces and lynchings and major ideological debate, I thought: oh, there are probably a few swear words in it and some woman shouted at her husband once as she came out. The cultural consumer, after all, likes to believe that he or she, at least, is inoculated against hype.

And I would still believe this about Oleanna were it not for three experiences in connection with it. Twice in the past six months, I have seen Mamet's play in New York. On both occasions, the teacher's violent assault on his pupil provoked a round of applause from men in the audience. On my first visit, this was amplified by foot-stamping and the quite distinct comment - from a man sitting near me, who looked like a retired fund manager - of: 'Teach the cunt a lesson.' A relatively frequent theatre-goer for 15 years, I have never otherwise experienced such an ugly atmosphere at a play.

More recently, in Los Angeles, I bought a copy of the script of Oleanna (published in May of this year in the States) and, halfway through reading it, discovered that it had been defaced. The teacher's more contentious dialogue had been blotted out with red crayon while, on other pages, word- processed rewrites of his speeches had been pasted in. This was, presumably, a feminist revision of the play by someone at the publisher's, the bookshop or among the shop's custom. In 20 years of book-buying, this was the first time I had bought a nobbled volume.

So the provocative qualities of Oleanna are, to me, more than a precautionary aura of publicity. This is an unusually radioactive cultural product. Its success is, I think, attributable to one internal quality and one external one. Its structural power is that Mamet has cunningly subverted two of the most popular dramatic forms: the whodunnit and the courtroom mystery. Oleanna is a thriller about a mind-crime, in which the audience is encouraged to wonder 'Did he or didn't he?', just as they would about the killing in a murder play.

Its cultural impact comes from its dramatisation of what, in the United States at least, are the major current grumbles of the rich white middle classes (from among whom theatre audiences are still largely drawn).

Like Falling Down, the current hit movie starring Michael Douglas - and as also found, though much less crudely, in Robert Hughes's new book, The Fraying Of America - Mamet's play dramatises the terrors of those Americans who have historically been in the ascendant, about the effects of feminism and political correctness on their inheritance of certainties.

In this sense, the sulphurous atmosphere in the theatre during a performance of the play was less a tribute to the power of the drama than the depths of the neuroses of those watching it.

Even so, I have sat through enough tedious evenings of theatre to prefer the heat generated by Oleanna to the stale smell of brain-death found in many modern plays. It is hard to imagine anyone emerging from this play shrugging. Everyone will have a view on it. This, then, is mine.

Mamet - the natural successor to Arthur Miller as the genius of American theatre - has, on this occasion, written a placard, not a play.

Between the first and second acts, Carol has been in contact with a set of female students, whom she refers to as 'my group'. As a result, she undergoes one of the most dramatic character changes in literature outside of Robert Louis Stevenson: she swiches from Miss Freckle to Ms Stride after a single swig of the phial marked 'Feminism'. Furthermore, because we have seen the small evidence on which Carol bases her allegation, the play is weighted against her from the start. If a plane were this loaded, it would crash.

Far more effective might have been a structure in which the audience was forced to choose between conflicting accounts of an unshown incident. As it is, Oleanna, for me, is like a whodunnit in which the audience saw at the beginning that the gun never went off. But for any couple seeking a good row, this is one cultural hot potato which doesn't cool down at once in the hands.