August: Osage County - Is It A Comedy? Is It A Tragedy? The Answer Is Yes!
By Naomi Greenberg-Slovin, Dramaturg
When August: Osage County, written by Tracy Letts, premiered in June, 2007 at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, it took the theatrical world by storm. After only seven months it was whisked to New York, cast and all, and landed at the Imperial Theatre.
With an enthusiasm seldom, The New York Times theatre critic, Charles Isherwood wrote:“August is probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Oh forget the probably: It is, flat-out… with no qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.”
Everything about this play is bigger than life; the size of its cast; the length of the production (three enthralling hours) and a vitality that doesn’t let up from beginning to end. “A play that will lift you out of your seat with laughter one mom
ent and stun you into silence the next,” wrote another reviewer.
But August: Osage County is more than a good evening’s entertainment. There is a deeper and more enduring quality that merits it being considered by many, the first ‘American Classic’ of the 21st century.
Through the small but pivotal role of Johnna, a Native American young housekeeper, it brings into focus the conflict between two cultures: the quiet compassion and strength of Johnna in contrast to the ravaging disintegration of the Westons, a modern dysfunctional American family , futilely fighting for control and power. As the artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theater said, “something is rotten at the core of the family-- -and Tracy may be suggesting in August, something is rotten at the core of our American identity.”
But there is still more that contributes to the breadth and depth of the play. One cannot underestimate the important part that literature has played in Tracy’s upbringing. His father was a professor of English at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and his mother, who also taught there, is a successful novelist n her own right. The play starts and ends with poignant quotes from T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, Wasteland.
It was inevitable that August: Osage County would be compared with Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? And like those plays, it is fundamentally autobiographical.
Tracy grew up with parents who were caring, creative and socially aware. But his mother’s early life was nothing short of child-abuse.
As an only child, she lived in a chaotic, physically violent household. By the time she was 7 or 8 years old, she said she took on the role of homemaker (cleaning, cooking, etc) and peacemaker, when she sensed a physical fight coming on. But in spite of all of this, she somehow had the remarkable personality and resilience to weather those formative years and come out on top.
Tracy was 10 years old when his maternal grandfather committed suicide while his grandmother who was a drug addict spent her days in and out of detox clinics; he remembered seeing her in a state of delirium.
Even with the passage of time, these memories of his grandparents stayed vividly etched in his mind and finally immerged in this play as his models for Violet and Beverly, the parents of the Weston family.
Finally, there was another critical influence that had much to do with Tracy Letts’ writing style.
He is a product of what has been called the “in-yer-face theatre” that began in Britain in the 1990’s and spread around the world. As the British founders describe it, “it’s the kind of theatre which grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message.” Or, as the Oxford English Dictionary states more staidly: (it is theatre) that is “blatantly aggressive or provocative, impossible to ignore or avoid.”
August: Osage County is all of the above.
When this new breed of playwrights came upon the scene they broke down the barriers of inhibition in regard to language, images, emotional frankness and the questioning of moral norms.
They permitted themselves a freedom of expression and choice of subject which, when used effectively, raises contemporary drama to another level -- as “Osage County” proves.
“In-yer-face theatre” was the lynch pin for Tracy’s amazingly skillful use of fast-paced dialogue, side-splitting humor, incredibly drawn characters and surprising shifts in the plot that don’t let up until the last word has been uttered. And yet, for all the theatrical fireworks, it is a play with a touching pathos.
August: Osage County has garnered just about every prize imaginable starting with the coveted Pulitzer Prize, as well as the ‘big three’: the Drama Desk Award, the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play.
A film version starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts is slated for release in 2013.
(Top Photo: Tracy Letts; Bottom Photo: Everyman's production of August: Osage County)