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Profile: Playwright of oaths and testosterone: David Mamet, on trial at the court of feminism

THERE have been controversial plays before. The Royal Court theatre in London was involved in numerous censorship rows in the Sixties and, in 1956, premiered John Osborne's Look Back In Anger, which redefined English theatre. But Oleanna - the play by the 46-year-old Chicago-born David Mamet, which opened at the Royal Court on Wednesday - is in a different category from any previous theatrical rows, because of the nature of the scenes and atmosphere at its performances. Kenneth Tynan famously wrote of Look Back In Anger: 'I doubt that I could love anyone who did not like this play.' Of Oleanna, people have been far more likely to observe that they could not love anyone who did like the play.

Oleanna is set in the office of a college lecturer on educational theory. In the first act, he lays a reassuring (if patronising) hand on the shoulder of a student concerned about her grades. Audiences return from the interval to find that the student has accused her tutor of sexual harassment and a chauvinistic approach to teaching. In the last act, buoyed up by an off-stage 'group' (of, presumably, feminists), the student has lost the professor his job, and is seeking the removal of his magnum opus from the college reading list. He responds by physically attacking her.

During the nine months of the play's New York run, men have regularly applauded this assault. Other legends surrounding Oleanna include female audiences allegedly chasing down and lecturing those men who cheered the assault and the defacing of the published playscript in bookstores. For a direct theatrical equivalent to the reception of Oleanna, it is probably necessary to go back to the late 19th-century Swedish playwright August Strindberg, whose works - including Miss Julie, a bilious examination of female sexuality and independence - were regularly banned and interrupted by demonstrations. Strindberg was accused of misogyny and put on trial for blasphemy. A century later, David Mamet is Strindberg's heir. He too would regard himself as a man on trial: at the court of American feminism and political correctness.

Mamet was born in 1947 into a Jewish family on Chicago's South Side. His grandparents had left Poland to avoid the pogroms. Particularly after Oleanna, Mamet's biographers are likely to pounce on a background that seems to have been unsually marked by domestic violence. In The Cabin, a recently published book of essays and autobiographical fragments, he describes how his maternal grandfather used to beat his mother, whom he regarded as a 'naughty child', on one occasion throwing her downstairs. The playwright's father insisted - 'almost pathologically', Mamet's sister, Lynn, has said - on the correct use of language and syntax. Mamet's parents separated when he was 11, and his mother's second husband seems to have repeated the sins of the grandfather. He regularly hit Lynn and beat her with a hairbrush. When his style- conscious mother bought a glass-topped dining table, the stepfather smashed it.

Mamet gained a degree in English at Godard College in Vermont, then studied as an actor. He was an indifferent performer - the high point of his career was as a dancer with the Maurice Chevalier troupe - and soon concentrated on writing plays. While subsidising his early efforts, he worked in a junk shop and a real estate office. He also worked as an assistant office manager in a Chicago corporation.

Mamet's first major play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), is about the rows and sexual bouts of an assistant office manager and his would-be artist girlfriend. The play was notable for the expletive-strewn attack of its language, although it also resulted in Mamet's first clash with feminist criticism: the women in the play not only accept rough treatment by men, but blame themselves for it.

For a young playwright, Mamet sought an unusual amount of control over his work. Rather than sending his initial scripts to an established theatre, he set up his own: the St Nicholas Theatre Company of Chicago, named after the patron saint of troubadours. Nor does he seem to have been prone to the insecurities common to most novices. He kept in his office Xeroxed copies of a form letter to be sent to correspondents who objected to his plays. 'Too bad, you big crybaby', it read. In 1975, when Mamet finished a piece called American Buffalo, he announced to the co-founder of St Nicholas, Gregory Mosher, that he would put dollars 500 in escrow (legal custody) until the Pulitzer prizes (the premier American literary award) were announced. If Mamet had not won, Mosher would keep the money.

American Buffalo did not win the Pulitzer, although more than one American critic has called it a masterpiece. Set in a Chicago junk shop - another work experience converted into material - it charts a burglary set up by the shop's owner and two of his friends. A coin collector has bought an antique nickel for a price the three men now believe to have been too low. Rationalising this as 'theft', they conclude that it would be 'justice' to rob his whole collection. They see this as a 'business deal'. The Eighties were full of books and plays excoriating the business world, but Mamet was a decade ahead of the game. What really caught the attention, however, was his dialogue. A heightened Chicago patois, it made inarticulacy melodious and gripping. Sentences stopped after four or five words. Words often failed to get beyond four letters.

There is a Broadway joke - of late Eighties vintage - in which a dishevelled beggar approaches a smart businessman on Wall Street and asks for money. ' 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be' - William Shakespeare,' quotes the dealer pompously. But the importunate New Yorker spits back a literary reference of his own. 'Go fuck yourself - David Mamet.' It is a revealing gag, for it catches the combination of frank language and antagonism of Mamet's plays, as well as the sense, in his early work at least, that he was speaking for an underclass in America. He had also captured a more general sense of bleakness and desperation in the nation. A key line in American Buffalo is: 'We are all cavemen now.'

Mamet's next major success, Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), was a modern version of the conversation in which Caveman A persuaded Caveman B to give him a cow for a patch of scrubland. Drawing on Mamet's time in a real estate office, it follows the competition between four salesmen during one month, at the end of which the most successful will win a Cadillac, the second a set of steak knives, and the bottom two will be sacked.

That play did win Mamet the Pulitzer prize, and established him as a major talent. He was the poet of oaths and testosterone, the only dissent coming from (usually female) critics who accused him of misogyny. Screenplay adaptations - including The Verdict and The Postman Always Rings Twice - made him rich enough to run a farm in Vermont and a home and office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the farm - with his actress wife, Lindsay Crouse (who played the psychoanalyst in Mamet's film House of Games), and their two daughters - he relaxed by target-shooting and cleaning his collection of knives and pistols. The Cambridge office was a word factory - a motto on the wall reads 'To fail to plan is to plan to fail' - from which poured plays poems, essays, scripts. Mamet wrote episodes of the television series Hill Street Blues. He moved on to original film scripts, which he also directed: House of Games (1985), Things Change (1989) and Homicide (1992). These pieces tended to revolve around con-tricks, an obsession of Mamet, who is a keen poker player.

His stage play Speed-the-Plow (1989) had the financial fortune but artistic misfortune to be one of Madonna's experiments with acting - she played a Hollywood secretary in the Broadway production - but was generally regarded as another moral fable with high-octane dialogue, in which the manoeuvres of the film industry symbolised buck-hungry Reaganite America. Madonna's part was played in London by Rebecca Pidgeon, an actress 20 years Mamet's junior, whom he married in 1990. For Pidgeon, Mamet wrote the role of Carol in Oleanna.

In 1992 the play was premiered in Cambridge, the home of the bastion of American liberalism, Harvard University. With typical combativeness, Mamet commented that playing Oleanna there was 'like doing The Diary of Anne Frank at Dachau'. The audience reactions with which the play has so famously become associated - male triumphalism and female anger - were established there.

The main criticism of the play - and by no means only from feminists - is that the charge against the professor is so obviously exaggerated that the debate that the play affects to hold is hopelessly loaded against the woman. In this reading, the play becomes part of a masculine backlash against 'sexual harassment' and 'political correctness'. 'It's upsetting to be a man in our society,' Mamet recently complained to a colleague. One of Mamet's closest friends in Cambridge is Alan Dershowitz, the law professor and attorney who defended the boxer Mike Tyson against the rape charge for which he is now in jail. Like Dershowitz, Mamet upholds Tyson's innocence.

Because controversy is a hotter ticket than literary quality, writers often become famous for their worst work. Oleanna - the first of Mamet's major plays to feature only the articulate middle-classes - is almost devoid of the fiery dialogue that made his reputation. Its success results from its subject and its reception. This makes assessment of his position among dramatists difficult. The current dean of American playwrights is the septugenarian Arthur Miller, who can reasonably claim to have written two of the greatest plays of the 20th century: Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.

Perhaps by accident - perhaps by arrogant calculation - Mamet has shadowed Miller's plays. Death of a Salesman was a parable of American capitalism. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Mamet wrote his own. The Crucible - about the Salem witch trials - was inspired by the McCarthyite red scares. Mamet produced Oleanna in response to what he sees as the McCarthyite feminist witch-hunt of sexual harassment legislation and political correctness. But The Crucible - 40 years after it was written - makes universal points about tolerance and intellectual freedom. Oleanna, by contrast, can all too easily seem a neurotic yelp, destined for lucrative but brief significance.

Mamet is already placed next to Miller in most book shops. But he will need to return to the form of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross - vivid, vernacular reports from the real America - if he is to make the claim more than alphabetical.