This chapter connects previous analyses of fictional professors to the academics embodied in the under-examined genre of academic drama. The chapter also argues that the unsettled debates about live versus mediated performances can find fertile ground in the adaptations of the professor’s body from stage plays to screenplays. This chapter establishes the subgenre of “academic drama”—as an expansion of the extant categories of academic novels, films, and television—by examining the case studies of four canonical American plays published since 1990. Each of these plays have also been adapted into mainstream motion pictures by Hollywood production companies:

David Mamet’s 1992 play Oleanna (Channel Four Films/Samuel Goldwyn, 1994)

Margaret Edson’s 1994 play Wit (Avenue Pictures/HBO Films, 2001)

David Auburn’s 2000 play Proof (Miramax Films, 2005)

Rebecca Gilman’s 1999 play Spinning into Butter (Screen Media Films, 2008)

Mamet’s Oleanna addresses the “political correctness” and sexual harassment crises interpreted as outgrowths of a diversifying academy. Edson’s Wit shows a childless female academic questioning her devotion to English literature as she battles terminal ovarian cancer, as well as the apparent inhumanity of the practitioners of academic medicine who treat her. Auburn’s Proof examines the academic excommunication of a brilliant but mentally unstable male mathematician, whose self-taught daughter bests his brilliance while rejecting the academy’s unwillingness to recognize the humanity of its scholars. And Gilman’s Spinning into Butter (the least acclaimed of the bunch) takes a flawed but fascinating look at the spectacularization that a historically white university enacts upon a student of color, and the drama that he stages to teach his professors and administrators a lesson.

By comparing each drama in its theatrical and cinematic versions, I am able to isolate how the medium effects academic dramas, which allows me to argue that academic dramas onstage and onscreen do very different work. Namely, when staged, academic dramas denaturalize the “theatrical professoriate”—a habitus which demands that its human actors replicate Hollywood’s star system and pursue selfish individualism to succeed—and also denaturalize the suspension of disbelief that sustains academia’s myth of meritocracy, by instead highlighting the symbolic violence that minority subjects experience in higher education institutions. When presented on screen, however, academic films mirror the long-standing (and rather archaic) “star system” critiqued through the #OscarSoWhite movement, a system emulated by the academy’s equally problematic academic star system.

The films analyzed in this chapter spectacularize the diseased academic body as a synecdochal surrogate for academia itself, thus presenting a compelling argument for the massive withdrawal of public support from higher education that Americans have recently witnessed. However, the same dramatic texts onstage allow performed professors to be seen on a human scale rather than as institutional stand-ins, and thus hold the door open for theatre as social change. Likewise, the slick production values of the Hollywood screen render academic films as pacifying spectacles that further spectacularize the theatrical professoriate rather than demystifying it, as academic plays do on stage. As a result, adapting academic dramas such as Proof and Wit seems to short-circuit theatre’s potential for social change in the institutional context of higher education, and in its public reception.