“The Way the World Ends:” On 10 Years of August: Osage County and the State of the Family Play

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&#8220;The Way the World Ends:&#8221; On 10 Years of <i>August: Osage County</i> and the State of the Family Play

If you’re one of the 400 lucky followers of @newplayrobot, you’ve been treated to some of the funniest theatrical criticism of the decade in the form of an obscure novelty twitter account. @newplayrobot’s handle speaks for itself; it is a robot that generates “play ideas of the moment,” the kind that artistic directors “love.” For anyone who has found themselves slogging through self-important drafts in a playwriting class or through famous people’s manuscripts as part of a literary internship, @newplayrobot’s mocking attitude towards the stubborn cliches of American drama are incredibly cathartic. Here are a few:

“Home for Easter Susan spends weekend with alcoholic mother/estranged sister. Secrets revealed. Speech featuring ‘but I stayed!’ Title: Her”

“Play: After being disbarred, Sue is forced to confront how she neglected her family. Sitting and talking. Secrets revealed. Title: Side Bar”

“New play idea: Urban couple returns to country roots after inheriting family home. House is character. Secrets revealed. Title: Good Bones.”

It should be noted that though @newplayrobot skewered several genres—it hasn’t tweeted in about a year—every single tweet incorporated “secrets revealed” at some point.

The shared understanding and sense of collective exhaustion that makes @newplayrobot so funny to me is at the heart of the problem many people have with the genre of the “family play,” a term that—over the past several years—has become more and more pejorative.

I once argued with a former boss of mine over this very issue—she had asked me to cover a new manuscript a playwright had sent her. My assessment was that stuck to tired tropes and ended up being a “family play,” in quotes. She took offense to my characterization of a play’s genre as one of its negative attributes, citing many wonderful, classic family plays in its defense. I couldn’t write it off just because it was a “family play.”

I would agree to a certain extent. Personally, I would hate it if someone wrote off, say, a science-fiction film because of its genre. I would probably feel that displayed a short-sightedness and lack of genuine understanding. But I do maintain that when a genre becomes overwhelmed by its own cliches and a new entry into that genre fails to offer any variations on what we’ve already seen, and, indeed, does not even seem to recognize the existence of a genre’s cliches at all, that’s a lazy choice. Genre becomes a negative qualifier. (Think of the way we now react to the term “biopic.” Did you roll your eyes? I did.)

My problem with the family play is that we, the audience, have gotten ahead of it. The same can be said of other genres as well, but the effect of the family play has been specifically dulled. What was innovative is now old-hat. What was once heralded as ultra-real has now, in many cases, to quote experimental playwright Tina Satter, become “deeply fake.”

There are a million family plays and a million more plays that incorporate elements of a family drama. Someone returns home after a lengthy absence. There is unspoken emotional abuse somewhere in the past. There is infidelity. Someone is dying; the air must be cleared. Neighbors and visitors enter just in time to break the tension. Destruction of property. Each sibling is very noticeably different and representative. Plot-altering news is delivered via one-sided telephone call, discovered letters, or overheard conversation. Well-timed suicide. Stuff like that. To be fair, these things are all over literature and film, too. The problem is that the stubborn realism of many family plays forces the action to be confined within a single location (a living room, a dining room), crushing every element and incident into one unrealistic space. The play becomes inherently overstuffed with secrets that need to be revealed. What @newplayrobot reduces to a disparaging “house is character” is really an overall sense of self importance that permeates these plays. Finally, someone has been brave enough to expose the American family as not-really-that-healthy-in-the-first-place.

Which is a little harsh. Of the many plays brought up by my erstwhile boss, you have much of the Arthur Miller canon; A View from the Bridge, All My Sons, and Death of a Salesman. You have Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, who additionally based many of their family plays on aspects of their own family. A Raisin in the Sun, Neil Simon, Fences, Crimes of the Heart, ’night Mother, Dancing at Lughnasa, Robert Schenkkan’s “Kentucky Cycle,” The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Sam Shepard’s “Family Trilogy,” Rabbit Hole—all qualify. Sticks and Bones and The Skin of Our Teeth even offer quasi-parodies of the genre.

But no discussion of the family play would be complete without its arguable progenitor, Chekhov’s Three Sisters; a tragicomic, often melodramatic look at the lives of the Prozorov sisters (and one brother), which gave us the first modern take on the family play’s themes of sibling tension, wasted lives, absent fathers, and homecoming. (It was also, interestingly, the only one of Chekhov’s major plays that he himself explicitly classified as a drama). Nor can you now discuss the family play without mentioning one featuring three not-so-different sisters and their mother that would debut 107 years after Chekhov prevented the Prozorovs from shipping back to Moscow.

It’s been ten years now since Tracy Letts (who adapted/translated Three Sisters in 2009) premiered his Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning opus August: Osage County at Steppenwolf in Chicago. The broadway transfer scooped up much of the original cast and soon you had a play receiving the most unanimous praise since Angels in America.

For the uninitiated, the basic idea is this: outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, the patriarch of the Weston clan, a once-famous poet, disappears and is later found dead of an apparent suicide, drawing the family back home for the funeral. Present are Barbara (his eldest daughter, dragging along her estranged husband and their obnoxious daughter), Karen (the youngest daughter, along with her sleazy fiance), and Ivy (the middle daughter, the only one to stay near home), in addition to their cousin Little Charles and his parents Charlie and Mattie Fae, all of whom can’t help but wither under the increasingly unhinged behavior of Violet, the mother of the Weston sisters. It’s all a little confusing, but clears up right around Act Two, where a funeral dinner becomes a violent central set piece and the play’s calling card.

Violet, addicted to the pills she uses to combat Oral Cancer, unleashes a terrifying rant directed at the rest of the family, prompting a physical fight with Barb. Things only spiral out of control more as the play goes on — Ivy is in a secret relationship with Little Charles, later revealed to be her half-brother due to her father’s affair with Mattie Fae. Karen’s fiance attempts to seduce Barbara’s daughter, only to be caught. In the climax of the play, Violet and her daughters basically destroy the kitchen during a prolonged tantrum. Secrets are indeed revealed, prompting all three daughters to abandon their mother to die by herself. For a play that displays an uncanny eye for human behavior, it is all completely over the top.

However, despite incorporating every family play cliche known to man, it works incredibly well. It’s excellent, in fact. Just as good today as the raving critics claimed back in 2007. This is largely thanks to Letts’ own ability to push our buttons. Before August (and ignoring his modestly reviewed Man From Nebraska, which critics acknowledge mostly as a bridge between his early plays and later success) Letts was known as a brilliant Chicago actor and the writer of Bug and Killer Joe, two plays more depraved and disgusting than August could ever claim to be. These traits are on full display in their film adaptations by The Exorcist’s William Friedkin, which underline Bug’s status as a paranoid motel thriller and Killer Joe’s as a fucked up Upside Down family play in its own right — the behavior of the Smiths make the Westons look like the Andersons.

But because of all that, Bug and Killer Joe are written off as genre experiments. August took the same sense of horror and slipped it under our noses when we weren’t looking. August does indulge in cliches, but Letts’ commitment to making those cliches twenty-percent worse than we were expecting leaves us with a sense of nausea. It’s so close to our own family life, and yet immeasurably worse. August became a home-cooked nightmare, and we could not look away. The age old trap of having too much stuff happen in one location is nimbly avoided as well; the house becomes a believable pressure cooker. We buy that the proximity pushes the family into conflict organically, and we see how the house pulls those who would rather be anywhere else in the world back into its web. By rotting out every individual element, Letts renders the play fresh.

The overall effect of August on the theatre-going public was that of an overdose; a play so effective that it became synonymous with its genre. It defied our expectations of what a family play could be, and yet it solidified those expectations at the same time. For this reason, the tropes of the family play don’t work on us anymore. August was too brutally effective. We can no longer take a play that even remotely reminds us of August quite as seriously (with a few notable exceptions). We couldn’t even take the film adaptation of August that seriously. It’s star-studded cast felt like a distraction and all claustrophobia inherent to the play was dissolved by John Wells’ direction. It opened to decidedly mixed reviews in 2013—an adaptation that felt like another knock-off. I can’t tell you how many new family plays came across the desks of the literary managers I’ve worked for that make you say “oh, it’s like August, but not.” The eerie fragment of T.S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men” that live-in housekeeper Johnna repeats to Violet in the play’s closing moments—“this is the way the world ends”—ends up not only signaling the doom of the Westons who were not able to escape Pawhuska, but eulogizing the genre altogether. (Though it’s fair to say that August imploded the family play with a pretty significant bang, rather than a whimper.)

I don’t mean to sound fatalistic; this is a very good thing. August hasn’t just prevented us from going back, it’s forced us to move forward, and the early results from the past decade are more than promising. The newest generation of family plays has toyed with the genre even more significantly than August—Stephen Karam’s The Humans, for example, is frequently compared to August, but for the wrong reasons. Both share a family-reunion setup, but The Humans mines a far more psychological and almost supernatural sense of terror from its family’s financial instability. Secrets are revealed, for sure, but (to quote Marilyn Stasio) “instead of erupting in bitter hatred, Karam’s characters respond to these revelations with deep love.” Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels Trilogy dwarfs other family plays in sheer scope and worldly resonance (it looks at one family throughout the course of the 2016 election). Young Jean Lee took a more experimental approach with Straight White Men, flipping a polemic on its head in a way no one expected. And Will Eno, of course, launched an all-out attack on the genre in The Open House.

So things are slowly changing—tectonically shifting—as these plays push and reinterpret and mess with what made Three Sisters and August: Osage County so compelling in the first place; not the sudden swell of incident, but the crushing absence of it.

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