I’m off to Oleana, I’m turning from my doorway,
No chains for me, I’ll say good-by to slavery in Norway.
They give you land for nothing in jolly Oleana,
And grain comes leaping from the ground in floods of golden manna. …
What we call Norway was jointly ruled with Denmark, Sweden or both from the 14th century until 1905. In the 19th century, virtuoso violinist Ole Bull tried to found New Norway, a utopian colony for fellow Norwegian emigrants. He bought a great deal of heavily-wooded land in Northern Pennsylvania near Coudersport, though not as much as he thought. He named one of four new towns, Oleana, or Oleanna, after his mother. Bull soon found that he had been cheated in the land deal, and after only a year, sold his remaining interests and returned to performing. Most of the 150 settlers also moved on, though three families remained. New Norway’s failure led to a long, satirical ballad (1st and 2nd verses above) which was later shortened and sung by Pete Seeger.
Much later, David Mamet named his two-person play, Oleanna. The name was not used within the play, so it has been assumed that Mamet believed that something about the failed colony tells us something about the play.
I rented the film version of Oleanna in the late 1990s. Mamet himself directed William H Macy and Debra Eisenstadt, and it was a blitzkrieg of dialogue. John and Carol kept interrupting each other or finishing each other’s sentences, but the timing was just a bit off. The “naturalistic” style of dialogue didn’t seem natural because you could tell he was stopping for her and she was stopping for him. Otherwise the words would have been jumbled. Nevertheless I was drawn in, if only to see if anyone could finish a thought before the phone rang again. I was shocked at the changes in the second act, and even more so in the third act. I kept thinking there would be if not a happy ending, at least a cessation of hostilities, or some sort of understanding.
I’ve read that Macy and Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, had been much better on stage. Over the years I’ve often daydreamed about performing the role of John. For Carol I’ve imagined any of a dozen young actresses I’ve known, but John wouldn’t care who played the student. Not at first.
Things Unseen, a local theater group, performed Oleanna last weekend at The Church in the Middle of the Block (Chitmob) in Altoona PA. They offer two more shows next weekend, Oct 19th and 20th. If you’re going, please read the rest of this afterwards.
Half my wife’s family volunteers at Chitmob, and I’ve worked more than a few shows with director Valerie Stratton, so I was curious to see what the show was like on stage. I brought my wife and 18 yo daughter, each of whom have spent some time on stage themselves. My goal was to see where John goes wrong, because even though I had a great deal of sympathy for him, he clearly did screw up. I recalled having very little sympathy for Carol.
The set was minimal, which was fine. John now had a notebook on his desk. Carol wasn’t glued to a PDA, but I do believe she was wearing headphones while John was on the phone. I had completely forgotten the house purchase subplot. Again there was rapid fire dialogue, but it seemed less stilted than I recalled. Carol seemed pretty vacant, but John wasn’t helping much because he wouldn’t let her start to speak without saying, “Go On!” In short he treated her like a puppy. I hadn’t caught that the first time, either.
I was reminded of an anecdote. When I was in college in the late 1970s, an older man lectured my class of architectural students in Structural Engineering. He was old school, in that he would lecture with his arms out wide, as if he was offering a benediction, or beseeching us. We would write our names on the attendance list and he would lecture for a while, then ask questions. He didn’t know us, so he referred to the list. After one lecture some of the five or six women in the class complained that he was mostly calling on women. The male students hadn’t noticed, of course. We were just glad he wasn’t asking us about the reading.
We all decided to sign the attendance sheet with our first initials and last name. After the next lecture when the prof picked up the attendance sheet, a look of consternation clearly flashed across his face. He pointed at one of the women, and said, “You — what determines the bending moment?” Sometimes the blinders do fall off.
At the intermission, I wondered how my daughter would react to the Prof’s unhelpful helpfulness because she’s dealt with a stream of psychologists and TSS aides. I was a bit surprised that she fully considered John’s behavior to be sexually inappropriate. My wife agreed.
In the second act, as the worm turned, I started to think about what group Carol might have consulted. These days it could be anything from a women’s support group to the campus chapter of Occupy. And I started thinking about Dmitry Orlov’s articles, In Praise of Anarchy.
Anarchy is tough sell. Anarchy has always sounded like chaos and disorder — something that couldn’t possibly work. Though I respected many of the folk I spoke to at Occupy Baltimore, whenever I visited it seemed clear that there were grim-faced anarchists running the show from inside the tents and behind the megaphones, actually making decisions despite the general assemblies. John Michael Greer is convinced that Occupy fizzled out once the young unemployed middle-class folk became as disenchanted with the anarchist apparatchiks as they were with Wall Street banksters.
Orlov, however, describes anarchy as cooperation rather than hierarchy. Kropotkin, he says, claimed that, “Anarchy represents an attempt to apply results achieved using the scientific method within the natural sciences to the evaluation of human institutions.” Anarchy leads to innovation and creativity instead of following stupid orders, and instead of taking classes from self-absorbed professors like John.
The term “anarchy” is commonly used as a slur against things that are thought to be disorganized because it is incorrectly thought to imply a lack of organization. Anarchists are also confused with communist revolutionaries, and the typical anarchist is imagined to be an antisocial and violent terrorist who wishes for the violent overthrow of the established order. Anarchy is also incorrectly conceived to represent the embodiment of a coherent ideology of Anarchism, making the argument against anarchy a straw man argument based on a false choice between an implied yet manifestly nonexistent system and a very real oppressively huge hierarchically organized régime. The only grain of truth visible in all of this is that Anarchism as a political ideology or a political movement is, and has been for centuries now, rather beside the point.
Had Mamet meant for Carol to be seeking anarchic cooperation, there might have been that better ending that I had hoped for on my first viewing. Instead he had her grasping for power, or dominance, which made her and her group ultimately no better than John and the college hierarchy, just a different choice. By the end of the show, my wife and daughter were very angry with Carol — just as I had been. But just as I would have preferred to see Occupy follow the ideals of their general assemblies, I wish that John had turned off the phone and listened to Carol.