Academic journal article British and American Studies

Family Carnage Tracy Letts' August: Osage County

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Family Carnage Tracy Letts' August: Osage County

Article excerpt

1. Introduction: A recipe for disaster

Revolving around the family events triggered by the disappearance and death of a patriarchal figure, Tracy Letts' August: Osage County (2007) has been acknowledged by the vast majority of its critics as an exemplary play of family crisis and disintegration. The play premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2007, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008. Five years later, in 2013, John Wells directed a cinematographic version of the play, receiving a significantly less enthusiastic critical response.

My paper will carry out a close inspection of the major thematic structures in Letts' play, trying to reveal some clear similarities with other important plays that explore the same dramatic spectrum. As Edward Sobel, Steppenwolf Theater's director of play development, points out, Tracy Letts seems to be engaged in dialogue with the pantheon of American playwrights, from Eugene O'Neill to Edward Albee, as "their handprints are very much deliberately present in August" (Sobel qtd. in Nance 2007:45). Very much aware of these inevitable connections and contaminations, Letts (qtd. in Nance 2007:45) declares that "some of it's conscious, some of it's unconscious" but there definitely are "reference points". My aim would also be to mirror Letts' August against O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (2002), and, rather collaterally, against Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba (1955). I shall also make references to the film adaptation of the play (2013), written by Tracy Letts and directed by John Wells, as I believe Letts' involvement in the project encourages a closer inspection of the dialogue and the mirroring process between theater and cinema in the specific case of August: Osage County.

The opening scene of Letts' play immerses the spectator in the grim universe of the family patriarch's tired final days. A professor of literature and a poet, Beverly Weston, the alcoholic father of the family, makes one final effort to bring some order into the chaos of the life he shares with his wife: he hires Johnna, a Cheyenne Native American woman to cook and clean for them. Their dialogue is more of a monologue, yet Beverly does not fail in setting the tone of the play by quoting from T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men: "Life is very long" (Letts 2007:10). In Michael Schulman's (2014) view, "he's the embodiment of weary apocalypse", an essential character that exits the stage shortly after offering a glimpse into his social and emotional collapse. Yet, before they are informed by the sheriff that Beverly had committed suicide, his close family reunites around Violet and their three daughters, Ivy, Barbara and Karen. The full house days at the Weston residence are the perfect ground for unleashing decades-long frustrations, voicing unspeakable truths and demolishing the very foundation of a traditional nuclear family. Beverly's death is an efficient catalyst when it comes to exposing the true nature of Violet's relationships with her daughters, their spouses and children, and with her sister Mattie Fae Aiken and her husband and son. Indeed, the stage is very crowded in August, and this density of characters is clearly reflected in the intensity of mutual evisceration. This type of violent destructive behavior becomes the norm of the matriarch's relationship with her daughters (O'Reilly 2009:22). Nobody manages to fly below Violet's unforgiving radar, and, at the same time, nobody misses the chance to express his/her saturation and disappointment with the cruel bindings imposed by family traditions. Letts' play investigates emotional disaster from multiple perspectives, including age, gender or even demographics - ironically, Karen, the youngest Weston daughter is from Florida, hence her tonus seems to be permanently at its best. Nobody manages to escape Violet's deadly verbal grip: suffering from a literal-turned-metaphorical mouth cancer, Violet is a predator on the loose, mercilessly exposing the weaknesses and failures of her closest family circle. …

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