Characters and the Essence of Relationships: David Mamet’s Oleanna and Peter Shaffer’s Equus
Relationships are the central point that defines the society, and social roles of people. It is obvious that there is always someone who dominates in relationships on different levels and there are always the ones who are subjective to other’s power and intellect.
The last ones, are they victims or criminals? This is the central question explored by the main characters John and Martin in the plays by David Mamet Oleanna and Peter Shaffer Equus. Power, manipulation, dissembling and misunderstanding are the main traits that characterize relationships described in the two plays.
David Mammet’s, Oleanna depicts the professional relationship between teacher and student that are dominated by unequal social roles and power of influence which skips from one to another. Peter Shaffer’s, Equus dives into the dynamics between psychiatrist and patient (a boy who was accused of a terrible crime committed on psychological grounds).
Their relationships are also complex and can be defined through mutual manipulation. As two professionals are individuals that have a responsibility to their professions that they are trained in; however, at times in both plays John and Martin wrestle with were to draw the line between personal feelings about their students, Carol and client Alan, and at the same time, face situations that cause them questioning their choices and overcome weaknesses to hold the leading positions in the complex relationships.
Thus, the power and dominance in relationships, as well as professional responsibility of two professionals that deal with patients and students are the central issues explored by two authors in two most controversial plays of the twentieth century.
The plays reveal early that both Alan and Carol had problematic childhoods and particular psychological traumas that defined their attitudes towards people and society. The events that harmed their souls, played crucial roles in their relationships in the society and defined their attitudes to life.
Both characters are supposed to be amenable as they are in the subjective positions, a female manipulative student who can’t get on well with the teacher’s lections, and a patient with psychological disorders sometimes take the leading positions in relationships and make their dominant professors feel uneasy and weak in front of their patient and student.
For example, Alan who is supposed to be treated plays tricks with a psychiatrist and, instead of being asked, begin asking his psychiatrist:
“Dysart: Do your dream often?
Alan: do you?
Dysart: It’s my job to ask the question.” (Shaffer 30)
Dysart should protect himself not to become manipulated, as well as John notices that Carol takes a leading position in their conversations when begin using academic vocabulary. In order to save his leading position, professor makes use of physical power.
The professor and child psychiatrist saw their aim to help people within their fields, but in fact, their intentions were different. The rewards for caring about people can come in monetary or personal satisfaction. John appeared fixated on the monetary, whereas, Martin was more concerned about his personal struggle. In the plays the main characters struggle with the balance between a moral responsibility to self, profession, and student or patient.
A psychiatrist and professor success is measured on their ability to help the student and client; however, at what expense? David Mammet refers to John’s need to feed his family often. As John’s student pleads for a chance to improve her failing grade, the phone rings constantly reminding him that he has financial needs to meet at home:
“I think your angry. Many people are. I have a telephone call that I have to make. An appointment that is rather pressing; though I sympathize with your concerns, and though I wish I had the time, this was not a previously scheduled meeting and I” (Mammet 13).
Carol confronts John for help in his office. John is in the midst of talking to a realtor over his home purchase and feels the pressure to get out of the conversation quickly.
The professor tries to explain to get Carol to accept that she is unable to understand the material and not to be ashamed of it. In the conversation John is patronizing Carol. In his mind he takes no professional responsibility for Carol’s inability to understand the material. At this point his professionalism is compromised for the sake of monetary personal gain.
The conversation continues and Carol belittles Johns teaching skills. Carol states his teaching is not for real people. John sees his shortcomings and states “Well, then, that’s my fault.” (Mammet 17) John’s professional integrity wins out and he gives Carol another chance.
John’s job is to teach Carol just as Martin’s in Equus is to make children better, but once again the question is at what personal cost? Martin is also in a fragile professional state not because of monetary reasons, but rather because he no longer feels that children understand the benefits of his treatment. “trt eating him is going to be unsettling.
Especially in my current state” (Shaffer 18). The words are spoken by Martin to Hesther whom chose Martin to professionally treat Alan. Hesther is under a strong opinion that each child deserves to get treatment from their mental anguish. Alan is wrestling with the notion that what he does inflicts more pain to the child; therefore, leaving Martin useless to the profession of Psychiatry.
It is Martin’s notion that Alan is actually happier without the knowledge. Martin has found a perfect justification to abandon his professional integrity. “I shrank my own life no one can do it for you.
I settled for being pallid and provincial out of my own eternal timidity” (Shaffer 80) Martin is reflecting on his life at home and the type of person he has been. His self-reflection is explaining that his life has not been about doing what is right, but rather what is easy.
A continually theme through Equus is Martin trying to give excuses to Hesther of why he should not treat Alan. The “eternal timidity” that Martin feels in his personal life, has entered into his professional. In addition, he feels that he does something wrong. His point is that he “cuts” children souls and minds trying to make them better and socially accepted.
However, he also understands that he takes their individuality, deprives them of their imagination. Does he really help children, or just make “ordinary things” of them? He compares himself to a chief priest of the Homeric Greece, who “fits the knife and slices elegantly down to the navel, just a seamstress following a pattern.
I part the flaps, sever the inner tubes, yank them out and throw them hot and steaming on to the floor” (Shaffer 17). This is an allusion to his profession and what he actually commits to children’s minds.
Both main characters were in search of finding balance between their own personal lives with lives and the professional relationships with Alan and Carol. The empathy John felt for Carol pulled him in a direction that made him stop and rethink the type of professor he had been. Just as exposing the truth to Alan of what he had done, gave Martin personal insight into himself.
Martin and John spent the early portion of the plays fighting with themselves and their own personal demons. Once resolved to doing their jobs they were able to learn from the people that they were to help.
Martin’s job was to expose the truth of Alan’s actions to himself thus revealing his impure thoughts and leaving him normal. “The normal is a good smile in child eyes- all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults” (Shaffer 61). Societal pressures were equally compelling for Carol in Oleanna.
The need to seek higher education and escape from her upbringing was a pressure that Carol felt every day. “Economic, sexual, you cannot begin to imagine. And endured humiliations I pray that you and those you love never will encounter” (Mammet 69)
Thus, we can come to a conclusion that every person has his/her own social role which is defined by many factors. Events that took place in the childhood, education, and upbringing are important for shaping our attitudes to the better world.
The plays analyzed in this paper, provide the insight into the character of relationships between people who play different social roles (professor, student, psychiatrist and patient) and how they can manipulate each other using language, power and situations. There are no victims and there are no criminals in relationships, there are different positions and perceptions of the social norms and beliefs.
Mamet, David. Oleanna. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1993.
Shaffer, Peter. Equus. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.