Thoughts on “August: Osage County”

I saw a play last night and here are my thoughts on it:

1) “August: Osage County” is really a horror story. I didn’t expect this, despite that my sole reason for going to see it was that it was written by Tracy Letts, whose play “Bug” (which I didn’t see) was the basis for an immensely powerful movie (which I did see) that fit easily within the realm of horror and was directed by William Friedkin (who also directed “The Exorcist”). “August” was marketed as a family melodrama/comedy, and it is that, too. It’s completely engrossing, novelistic even, with hairpin turns to the plot and vivid characters and plenty of laughs.

But I ultimately read it as horror, where the driving fear is that of being left alone when you’re old. Have you given any thought to what might happen to you if you become too old to take care of yourself? Your spouse/friends might die before you, or be in no position to help. Your children will have no obligation. You’ll be abandoned, removed from all that is familiar, just when you are at your most vulnerable. That’s fear, that’s horror.

Underneath the play’s hugely entertaining soap-opera histrionics there’s a stark evocation of nothing less than the dissolution of the American family. It’s set in Oklahoma, the inhospitable plains, where Europeans invaded not so long ago and removed the natives and put down roots that didn’t hold. “This country. This experiment. This hubris,” one character observes, has disappeared, or is in the process of disappearing. Nobody has ties to anything anymore. It’s every man for himself. Nobody is connected.

2) “August” does a lot with the somewhat tired dramatic fodder of the dysfunctional American family.  As homosexuality becomes ever more acceptable, writers have to find dramatic conceits for family dramas other than the increasingly cliched gay reveal. “August” goes for incest, and the dramatic effects are largely the same. Maybe an ounce of shock filters through the audience followed, eventually, by sympathy once one realizes the true love of the characters in question, and that their love hurts nobody. I think it’s only a matter of time before consensual incestuous relationships become socially acceptable, and when they do playwrights will have to find some other taboo to exploit. For now, though, incest is the new gay.

3) Many critics have incorrectly observed that one of the issues dramatized in the play is pedophilia. What they are referring to is a fantastically creepy and fraught subplot where an uncle-type goes whole hog after his 14-year-old niece. But as we know, because the girl in question is post-pubescent, the uncle-type is not a pedophile. There is a distinction. It’s important that people get this distinction through their heads if they are to have an intelligent conversation about pedophilia and consent and the implications of each.