Oleanna – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on Oleanna include a clue to the arcane title of the play, a reminder of one of the real-life sources of the play’s gender politics, and how the theatre may reflect our national sub-conscious.
The play’s title
It’s a strange name. What does the title of the play refer to? Oleana or New Norway was the name given to a settlement founded in 1852 in the Allegheny mountains in Pennsylvania by Norwegian violinist Ole Bull. Despite his idealistic intentions and much publicity in Norway, the settlement failed within a year because the land was not arable. The high-profile failure of the project inspired a Norwegian folk song satirising its utopian dream. The song was translated into English as Oleanna, and popularised by Pete Seager.
So what does this reference signify in the play? Perhaps the naivete of the professor and the university elite who have complacently assumed that they have created a utopia of learning and privilege in their campus world, which proves to be vulnerable to intrusion and challenge from the real world.
Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, among others
In 1991 in Washington the Senate Committee hearings into the appointment of Justice Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court were shocked by the testimony of respected university professor Anita Hill that she had been sexually harassed by Thomas when working for him at the Department of Education some years previously. Hill’s account provoked intense and divisive reactions. Supporters of Hill accused the Chairman of the Committee of a cover-up when he ruled that supporting witnesses could not be called. The Chairman was none other than one Joe Biden. Thomas’s appointment was narrowly approved, and Hill was subsequently hounded from her position at the University of Oklahoma Law School.
David Mamet said that he wrote the first draft of Oleanna eight months before the hearings, but was inspired to take it out of his drawer again by the Hill-Thomas scandal. Mamet has consistently avoided being drawn on his specific views of the Hill-Thomas hearings or of the play’s interpretation of the issues raised, insisting that the play does not deliberately take sides. What is certain is that the ugly events aired at the Hill-Thomas hearing cannot be dismissed as ancient history. Witness the dismayingly similar scenario and result that played out in the Senate Committee hearings of 2018 for the appointment of another Supreme Court judge, Brett Kavanaugh, who was approved by the same narrow margin as Thomas despite the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford that she had been sexually assaulted by him, as well as reports from two further women who accused Kavanaugh. It is difficult not to conclude that little has changed in the balance of institutional patriarchal power.
National Dream Life
David Mamet has suggested that the theatre can act as a reflection of what he called America’s “national dream life”. That is that it can play out in some way unconscious collective issues, bringing them out into the light for conscious debate. In the case of Oleanna, perhaps there are deeply rooted attitudes to gender relationships that are present in our individual and collective sub-conscious that need to be aired and addressed. Do we recognise any of the attitudes or the anger that is on display in Oleanna in the sub text of our society? Or perhaps these things are not so deeply hidden. It is simply as Shakespeare would have it, that the theatre is holding a mirror up to the world. Either way, there is little doubt that Oleanna disturbs some deeply felt truths.
The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.
The main characters in Nina Raine’s play Consent are barristers contesting a brutal rape case. As the case unfolds the lawyers’ marriages come unravelled and they themselves cross the line of honour or even of the law. Consent explores some of the most charged issues of our time: the sources of sexual betrayal and violence, the ambiguities of consent, and the failings of the justice system to account proportionally or sensitively with cases of sexual abuse. I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the author of Consent, Nina Raine, and by actor Adam James, who appeared in the National Theatre production in the role of Jake.
Footnotes Volume 2 is a selection of facts and observations culled from the library of information that we’ve compiled to accompany each of the plays in the past ten episodes. These include fascinating bits of trivia as well as more extended exploration of specific aspects of the plays. A smorgasbord of dramatic intelligence befitting of the best kind of Footnote.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …