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.
It is September 1941. German physicist Werner Heisenberg is visiting his friend and former colleague, Danish physicist Niels Bohr at his home in Copenhagen. Denmark is occupied by the Third Reich, and both men are under surveillance by the Gestapo. What is the purpose of their meeting at this charged time? Did they confer about the potential to build weapons based on the emerging knowledge of nuclear fission? Did Heisenberg wish to warn Bohr about the growing threat to Danish Jews? These questions and more are explored in Michael Frayn’s absorbing play Copenhagen. I’m delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the playwright himself.
John Webster’s 400-year-old play The Duchess of Malfi is a potboiler of courtly love, intrigue and murder. It has endured not just for its bloody plot, but for its poetic language and the indomitable character of its protagonist. The Duchess remains a female paradigm for a patriarchal world. Joining us to explore this classic anew is Professor Emma Smith from Hertford College, Oxford, an expert on early modern drama.
David Mamet’s play Oleanna about the abuse of patriarchal power caused intense controversy and divided audiences when it was first produced in 1992. It is now being revived at the Theatre Royal Bath. How will we see the sensitive issues it raises differently nearly 30 years on in the light of the #MeToo movement? The acclaimed director of this new production, Lucy Bailey, joins me to explore this explosive work.
Note: this episode contains some strong language.
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 …