The American Family

October 14, 2011

By Ed Sobel, >troche Arden Associate Artistic Director and original dramaturg on August: Osage County

“Home is the place where when you have to go there, >ailment they have to take you in.” — Robert Frost, mind The Death of a Hired Man

It’s hard to find a play that isn’t in some way about family.  The great tragedies of ancient Greece (think Sophocles’ Oedipus or Antigone) while pursuing ideas of political power, responsibility, and free will have as their principal advocates members of the same family. (Oedipus murders his father and sleeps with his mother.  Antigone rebels against Kreon, her uncle, because she wishes to properly bury her brother.)  The mighty Shakespeare’s discourses on the ability to take meaningful action (Hamlet) or the vicissitudes of inherited power (Henry IV) look at humanist and existential questions as they play out within family dynamics. (Hamlet seeks to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle.  Young Hal navigates his difficult relationship with his own father, and tests a surrogate in Falstaff.)

The American dramatic tradition is equally, if not more tightly bound to the familial – even plays thought to be primarily of social significance and commentary (Death of a Salesman, Raisin in the Sun) revolve around contests between parents and children or husbands and wives.  With August: Osage County, Tracy Letts draws upon his own family lore, amplifying these stories with an artist’s delight in extreme behavior and moral ambiguity.  But while outrage and outrageousness permeate the play, one should not be so distracted by the emotional fireworks as to lose track of the social critique.  It is not just the pathology of the American family about which Tracy is concerned, but the American family.

Photo by Mark Garvin

The play begins with the interrogation of a Native American woman who agrees to take on the job of caring for this family, descendents of those who have invaded her homeland and destroyed her people.  What follows is not only an investigation into familial betrayals and rivalries, but the diagnosis of dysfunction for an entire class of people. With its large cast of characters and form (a three-act structure) Tracy is not only referencing theatrical days of yore, but also demanding a canvas large enough for individual relationships to take on metaphorical significance and sweep.  In one of our earliest conversations about the script, Tracy told me that the play was partly about what happens when “men abandon the field”.  Certainly the male characters in the play abrogate responsibility for themselves and others in ways both hilarious and damning.  We leave it to you to determine whether the women follow suit.

Sweltering around the arguments, not to mention outright fisticuffs, of the play is the sticky truth that no matter what the members of this family do, they can not extract themselves from their familial history or the family fabric.  Their original sin, as with O’Neill’s great tragic families in Long Days Journey Into Night or Desire Under the Elms, is simply being born.  Their continued afflictions – addiction, greed, self-interest, moral confusion–  are inherited as surely as the mythic American values – the right to happiness, self-determination, ambition, capitalism – of which they are extensions or complements.

Family.  We all have one.  Some may even have one that looks like the Westons.  We all have a country.  Even one that looks like America.

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