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‘Do You Understand Yet? Do You See?’

Updated: Apr 16

Why ‘Oleanna’ Won’t Leave Us Alone



Oleanna

Rating: 5 out of 5 Duration: 1 hr 19 min Format: 1 episode Originally broadcast: Feb 18, 2024 BBC Radio 3 (Drama on 3) Availability: Hard to find Cast:

Written by David Mamet Producer/Director: Gary Brown

Production Coordinator: Lorna Newman

Sound Design: Sharon Hughes

Tech Producer: Alison Craig

On the eve of receiving tenure, university professor John (Mark Bonnar) is attempting to close on a new house when a student, Carol (Cecilia Appiah), comes to him distraught about a failing grade. Their discussions about higher education, over the course of several days, devolves into a power play encompassing gender, socio-economics, privilege, and the question of who gets to make the rules in society, and why.



 

Do not the let the name David Mamet fool you. Although there’s certainly a “liberals are unrealistic children” message to be found in Oleanna, you can just as easily come away with the sense that the patriarchy must be dismantled at all costs. 


There is something here to please, and to infuriate, everybody.

It is this very quality that makes the play, and this production in particular, a high-water mark in the history of audio drama. 


Originally broadcast on Radio 3* – the Beeb’s classical music channel – rather than Radio 4, their usual home for dramas, comedies, and other “light entertainment,” Oleanna might be the closest thing the modern English-speaking world has to a Platonic dialogue. And it is delicious.

*Based on my correspondence with the writer of another drama that ended up on this channel, which station develops a production can simply come down to a matter of economics – Radio 3’s budget is generous enough to handle a 1 hr 19 minute drama.


Let's get this out of the way right now: This recording of Oleanna has yet to receive a commercial release. 

I happened upon it quite by chance at the end of February 2024, listened to it twice, and spent the next 20 days frantically looking for a way to make a copy before it disappeared back into the BBC vaults.

 

While I’m happy to say that I was successful, this does put me in the awkward position of extolling the virtues of a drama nobody, at present, can hear.


 

From Stage to Screen to Airwaves

This is hardly my first brush with Mamet’s masterpiece. I recall watching a few minutes of the film version on American cable TV network Bravo in the mid-1990s; and recall (more vaguely still) buying a copy of the script, before forgetting about Oleanna completely. 




The film version, directed by Mamet and starring William H Macy and Debra Eisenstadt, is nowhere near as limp and pointless as some critics (the late Roger Ebert among them) would have you believe.


That said, the play benefits greatly from being shunted to the “theater of the mind.” It is only in this space that the audience can fully concentrate on what’s being said and the way that these words are conveyed. Images only blunt their power and ferocity.

 

As noted by David K. Sauer in his indispensable book David Mamet's Oleanna, much of this drama's magic comes from the sense that arguments and ideas are being formulated in real time. Listening to the actors start out on one course of thought, double back, and begin another in mid-sentence lends a sense of tension and urgency to the proceedings.


An audio-only experience also removes visual cues that, however subtly portrayed, still influence the way in which the action of the drama is interpreted.


And in Oleanna, interpretation is everything.


 

Drama on 3's Oleanna

In the case of the Radio 3 production, the audio format also obscures the fact that actress Cecilia Appiah, who portrays Carol, is an actor of color. Seeing her on stage or film would introduce unintended significance to some of Carol's lines, as well as the way John treats her overall. It would distract us from the universality of its themes.


The power vacuum on display here is neither about race nor gender, but power itself; particularly that of the older generation over the young people preparing to take their place.

Freed from the strictures of plot and the need for anything more than rudimentary sound design – the entire 1 hr 19 minute runtime takes place inside school rooms empty save for John and Carol – the production rises and falls on the strength of its actors, direction, and those ambiguous, ambiguous words. 


 

Performances

To John, Mark Bonnar brings all the pedantry and sense of entitlement this professor, on the eve of tenure, requires.


But he also provides us with peeks into John’s confusion, insecurity, and ultimately his rage, as the power dynamic between teacher and student shifts violently beneath his feet. 

Considering the sex scandals that would engulf the Clinton Administration just a few years after this drama was written, John’s air of a man who feels as though the rules have been suddenly rewritten, with neither his knowledge nor consent, perfectly captures this time in American history.

Carol’s progression from meek student teetering on the edge of failure to empowered punisher is less nuanced as befits the nature of her character – one incapable of seeing shades of gray in what she perceives as the black and white world of higher education. 


Yet Cecilia Appiah’s portrayal also allows us to witness early on, or feel that we do, the first stirrings of the vengeful character she’ll ultimately become. Like John, Carol’s early vulnerability makes us want to comfort her, while her ire demands to know what we want from her in return for the comfort we provide.


 

Why Oleanna Lives On

For those who occasionally find themselves observing our culture's endless output of films, television, and the like and wonder what it's all been for, Mamet's creation is an excellent reminder. At their best, these help us better understand ourselves, and each other.


Inspired, in part, by the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings*  – particularly the Senatorial interrogation of Anita Hill – the play is about so much more than sexual harassment.

*For a compelling dramatization of these hearings starring Ed Asner, check out the audio production Unquestioned Integrity by Mame Hunt.


To the extent that this radio production of Oleanna will be discussed in the world at large, much will be made of its “new significance” in the wake of the “Me Too” movement; the recording’s opening narration says as much.


At this point I should say this article had a very different ending from the one you are about to read.

During the first week of April 2024, something happened that reinforced the importance of this work, and the need for the discussions it sparks.


After charges of sexual harassment led to the cancellation of an art exhibition and the collapse of a longtime business partnership, comic artist Ed Piskor took his own life. In his final communications, he made it clear why he was about to take this drastic step.


As disturbing as the loss of life are the allegations that led him down this road.


What emerges is a picture of a socially awkward person who made some poor decisions, and paid the highest possible price for them. (This piece provides some of the back story.)


Reading a post by one of Piskor's two accusers, it's hard not to hear Oleanna's Carol, newly emboldened by her "group," stridently telling John that whatever he intended in those things he said or did does not matter:


CAROL: Don't you begin to understand? It is not for you to say!

Until such time as men and women can, together, discover some kind of peace, Oleanna will always be with us.


 

Nightwaves is a journal dedicated to radio drama and other aural odysseys.

A passion project, Nightwaves is little more than a few posts at the moment. If you like what you see, please consider dropping me a line for our letters page: "From the Static." (How's that for retro?) -asb

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