Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Play #2: David Mamet's Oleanna

What the hell do we do with David Mamet? Some people love him, some people loathe him...for the record, I run hot and cold...I love plays like American Buffalo and Glenngarry Glen Ross and I directed a production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago as my final graduate school project. That production was really the first time I felt like a director, like I had something to offer and I remember it fondly. However, I despise plays like Speed-the-Plow (I saw an up and down production of this play in London at the Old Vic in 2008 with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum. Spacey was BRILLIANT, Goldblum was Goldblum...I kept waiting for him to say "Must go faster, must go faster", somewhere Sanford Meisner rolls over in his grave) and I will admit I think Oleanna is kinda sorta piece of shit...

One of my basic rules for any sort of dramatic event, be it film, TV, the theatre, what have you, is I gotta give a damn about SOMEBODY for me to care about the events unfolding in front of me. That's not the case in Oleanna, as we have Professor Obtuse and Student Idiot debating some sort of class on something at the University of Dumbass...I bet their basketball team is good though!

Here's a short summary of the story:

A male college professor and his female student sit down to discuss her grades and in a terrifyingly short time become the participants in a modern reprise of the Inquisition. Innocuous remarks suddenly turn damning. Socratic dialogue gives way to heated assault. And the relationship between a somewhat fatuous teacher and his seemingly hapless student (who appears to be a borderline retard in Act 1) turns in to a fiendishly accurate (no it doesn't) X ray of the mechanisms of power, censorship and abuse...and he beats her up at the end, hope I didn't ruin it for you...

I gather this play made a bit of a splash in 1992, when it was first produced against the backdrop of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill soap opera of 1991, but as bad as those two came off in their various dances of death, they at least appeared to be operating somewhat NEAR a human level...Mamet's two characters in Oleanna seem about as human as Jeff Bridges' character in that old flick Starman, or maybe closer to Vincent D'onofrio's bug in Men In Black...I mean, they sort of look human...they kinda of talk human (and I know everyone always talks about Mamet's hyper-realistic, highly stylized language but in Oleanna it doesn't work at all), but they do not approximate any real human traits. Just the stupidity of meeting alone after the first meeting should drown the play in implausibility...

Some examples of these two trying to communicate:

Carol: You don't do that.
John: ...I...?
Carol: You don't do...
John: ...I don't, what...?
Carol: ...for...
John: ...I don't for...
Carol: ...no...
John: ...forget things? Everybody does that.
Carol: No, they don't.
John: They don't...
Carol: No.
John: (Pause) No. Everybody does that.
Carol: Why would they do that...?
John: Because. I don't know. Because it doesn't interest them.
Carol: No.
John: I think so, though. (Pause) I'm sorry I was distracted.
Carol: You don't have to say that to me.
John: You paid me the compliment, or the "obeisance" -- all right-- of coming in here...All right. Carol. I find that I am at a standstill. I find that I...
Carol: ...what...
John: ...one moment. In regard to your...to your...
Carol: Oh, oh. You're buying a new house!
John: No, let's get on with it.
Carol: "get on"? (Pause)

Rick throws his hands up in frustration and makes an Eddie Izzard face!!

So John is up for tenure, he's trying to close on a house and his wife and lawyer keep calling because something is going wrong with the house, he has either the biggest moron in the history of college students or one of the most conniving individuals in the history of dramatic literature (dare we call Carol a Machiavel) sitting right in front of him and they all babble on for 3 (thankfully short) scenes.

So, what's the point of Oleanna...here I turn to one of my favorite critics:

From the BRIALLIANT John Heilpern, in his wonderful collection of reviews perfectly titled How Good Is David Mamet, Anyway?:

In a perverse way, he brings out the worst in us. Perhaps, as I did, you found yourselves wishing to kill the sexually harassed victim in Oleanna. "There you are!" Mr Mamet's admirers said at the time. "You're no better than the average male chauvinist pig." The playwright ha
d therefore made his subversive dramatic point: if you sided with the male hero -- the professor who happened to be innocent --- you were no better than an abuser (or were smugly indifferent about important issues). But Mr Mamet had so loaded the dice against the vicious -- and deranged -- victim of Oleanna that nausea was the only response to her, and to the playwright's heavy-handed manipulation."

That is primarily my complaint with Oleanna is that I am being manipulated as a reader (and, if the film version starring the original cast members William H Macy and the stunningly untalented Rebecca Pidgeon, who singlehandedly disproves all of Mamet's acting theories prove, as a viewer as well). Mamet's characters ARE NOT CHARACTERS in any normal sense of the word. They are simply vessels for him to spout his preposterous ideas about academia...

But, I say again, what the hell do we do with the enigma of David Mamet...? Like Bertolt Brecht, he is part theorist, part director and part playwright...I believe his main treatise on acting, True and False is mostly GIGANTICALLY false, but at the same time, it is clear he dearly loves and admires actors, even if he does not understand or refuses to understand, the process by which actors craft their performances...What about his plays? Will we still be seeing them, studying them in 50 years, 100 years? How does he rate on that mythical list of GREAT AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT...

So I will wrap today's post up with my first ever GREAT AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT FANTASY DRAFT...1 Round draft, 10 picks, you get all of their work, good, bad or indifferent...(for the record, I think you can play fantasy anything, it is one of my passions...my fantasy baseball team currently has a 7 point lead heading into the final month of the season, and if my guys can stay healthy, take it one day at a time and hope for the best, good Lord willing, things will work themselves out, yes wonderful sports cliches, even in my blog)...I ask this question a lot, if we opened it up to all playwrights, Shakespeare is kinda Albert Pulojs and LeBron James all rolled into one right? I mean, who gets picked ahead of Will...so the intriguing question there is always who is the #2 pick in the draft, the Kobe Bryant, Hanley Ramirez pick...for me it's Ibsen, but that's just me...thanks for reading this tangent...


1. Arthur Miller
2. Tennessee Williams
3. August Wilson
4. Eugene O'Neill (whom I loathe)

That's the pantheon...those guys are the best of the best in terms of influence, work created, legacy etc.

5. David Mamet
6. Tony Kushner
7. Sam Shepard (whom I loathe too, sorry Sam, I"ll leave you alone if I run into you in a bar again)
8. William Inge
9. Thorton Wilder
10. Wendy Wasserstein

That's my top ten, how about you?

Anyhow, thanks for reading, feel free to disagree with me about Oleanna, I'd love to hear some thoughts and thanks for the feedback from those of you who commented.

BTW, I think this blog is destined to happen. I finally got some money today, so I am getting my car that has been dead since June fixed. I was cleaning it out waiting for the tow truck to come and in my back seat was a copy of Tom Stoppard's translation of Vaclav Havel's Largo Desolato, one of the 127 I gotta read and one of the few I didn't know prior to looking at the list...well, how the hell did that script end up in the backseat of my car that hasn't moved since June? As Mr Henslowe says, in the Stoppard co-scripted Shakespeare in Love, "I don't know, it's a mystery."

So, Vaclav Havel's Largo Desolato is on deck.

Stay tuned, I hope you come back, and if you don't, to quote Mr Mamet, "...fuck..."

Rick St. Peter
September 1, 2009


  1. Holy shit, mistake #1...Rebecca Pidgeon isn't in the movie version of Oleanna...I swear it was her...She's still a terrible actor, but Debra Eisenstadt plays Carol in the film...Oops!

  2. I rather like Mamet's TRUE & FALSE, but then I'm coming at it from the point-of-view of a dramatist who has seen too many actors put crap between themselves and the playwright. Having started as an actor, I've never found it's not as arcane and mystical a process as so many actors and theorists try to make it. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its own magic to it, but a lot of actors mind-fuck themselves far more than they have to. I think Mamet's TRUE & FALSE cuts away a lot of the bullshit with which actors and, perhaps, acting teachers try to invest the process with and just sort of gets down to the Olivier theory of "Say your lines, pick up your pay, and piss off." Oddly enough, it was an actor who gave me the book to read and he was a fan of it.

    Well, you've made my fantasy draft of playwrights harder, by adding the adjective "American". If this was international, it would be a snap. I'll take your top four as well as Inge. I think Albee would have to be there. I'd add Neil Simon, purely on influence and impact. How about Odets? And going back in time to a couple who were who were influential in their day and in the history of American theatre...S.N. Behrman and George Kaufman (and his various collaborators).

  3. Chazz...I left out some interesting potential choices for draft picks: Albee (probably the most egregious but he doesn't do it for me, other than Three Tall Women), Hellman, Simon, Terance McNally, certainly Kaufman...

    There is an interesting corollary between Olivier's "Say your lines, pick up your pay, and piss off." And great athletes who make terrible coaches/managers (like Ted Williams, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas etc)...It sometimes comes so easy for the great ones, so effortless in appearance that they are not able to really articulate what it is they are doing...so they have a hard time relating to players who lack their natural talent, work ethic, drive and ambition...

  4. Again, I think the process of acting is hard enough without all the pooka-pooka bullshit so many people try to invest it with.

    Re: Practitioners being reluctant to articulate or convey their process. I'm partial to the following quote by British actor Eric Porter when asked by a young actor to explain his technique. "Acting is like masturbation; one either does it or one doesn't, but one doesn't talk about it."

    Re: our conversation about he who thinks I've personally been intent on blighting his career, it's a rather fantastic ego that thinks I give him that much thought.

  5. From my friend Wendy in Texas:

    Today's was good - I think you're finding your voice. And you hit the nail on the head when you said that it's hard to enjoy if you don't care about a character - that's my criteria for any book - if after 100 pgs or 5 chapters I couldn't care less for anyone , I put it down. And I must say it's hard to blame you for not caring after reading that maddening dialogue snippet - wow. I think maybe it's a college for students on the little buses (professors too if that's possible).

  6. From Steve in Indiana:

    Your blog hates me. I keep trying to post there, and nothing.

    I'll keep your top 4, plus Wasserstien, Inge and Wilder.
    If influence is a factor then I gotta throw in Lorraine Hansberry. I know that she wrote very little, but Raisin in the Sun is one of the most influencial plays around, not to mention just a great show.
    August Wilson wrote many great plays, that tied with the entire project of the 10 plays together puts him on the list.... Read More
    Also think Albee belongs there more than Kushner, although Albee wrote (still writing) a lot of crap.
    I can't see past my distaste for Shepard or Mamet (some great stuff but then there was Edmund, I just cannot get past that one).
    I think I might be more influenced by my personal experiences than I should be, but so be it.
    Keep it up Rick, these are great fun.

  7. More from Steve in Indiana:

    Of course had I read your list closer I would have seen Wilson in the original top 4, I should have know better. On the plus side I get one more pick. As much as I hate Neil Simon, there is little doubt that he is one of the better know playwrights, thus probably one of the better known by the lay people. So throw him on, despite my distaste for much of his writing.

  8. really? wasserstein? really? ugh. [[shakes head sorrowfully]]