Osage County, Austro-Hungarian Style

Proof that in drama, familiarity with “other cultures” tends to breed respect, not contempt

European dramaturges nowadays may have as much of a nose for prizes as the arts sections of U.S. newspapers. Tracy Letts’ play August: Osage County – winner of the Pulitzer and five main Tonys in 2008 – was sniffed first by Budapest’s Vígszínház in March 2009 (still in repertoire) but then skipped like a stone across Europe, premiering in Vienna at the Akademietheater in October.

For most dramaturges, familiarity with the literature of “other cultures” tends to breed respect, not contempt. Lett’s three-hour family drama à la O’Neill or Tennessee Williams is set in Pawhuska, Oklahoma in a “large country house” (his Chekhovian description), where the alcoholic pater familias and pill-popping mater familias have fastened the shades to the windows with duct tape. Three restless daughters in their 40s chatter and sweat their way through all-important crises, sometimes pitching the family china over each others’ heads.

Interpretation is control, and translators (in Budapest: Péter Deres and András Maros; in Vienna: Anna Opel) interpret. But Letts’ freewheeling colloquialisms, including the kind of outrageous, absent-minded oaths heard in US restaurant kitchens, are better and more accurate than control. In the china-throwing slam, daughter Barbara, an academic who moved with her English professor husband up to Colorado, crows: “You don’t want to break shit with me, muthahfuckah!”, and her philological abandon seems utterly unpretentious. (She curses less when tipsy: “Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm.” Maid: “Mrs. Fordham, are you firing me?”)

Worlds apart from the punch lines of sitcoms, this is shit too ecstatically free to even hit the fan. It bears a peculiarly American promise of linguistic regeneration—although the heavy-handed plot, with suicide and incest as its trump cards, doesn’t hold out much hope for dramatic regeneration. For starters: Beverly Weston (male, like Tracy Letts), a poet and retired professor, quotes T.S. Eliot to the Native American maid he’s just hired, adding “The four-eyed prick was a genius.” In Vienna, the N.A. maiden has the sleek, peace-love tresses of Cher in the 60s. Before you know it, she’s playing the cello and Beverly has drowned himself in the local fish pond, which is why his daughters descend on Pawhuska.

The Vienna production is populated by meticulous craftsmen: the weaker roles (daughter no. 3: Dorothee Hartinger, son-in-law no.1: Falk Rockstroh), instead of paling as they do in Budapest, are cast in brilliant relief. These actors are never satisfied with parking themselves and pontificating—their limbs always seem delicately alive, explaining and extending the drama away from mere “character.” The enchanting Dörte Lyssewski as Barbara makes up such a mean hide-a-bed you can hear the feathers fly in her voice as she berates her faithless husband. But her gleaming ponytail suggests an overachieving, over-inventive Mary Tyler Moore, in complete contrast to the tousled, Roseanne-like nonchalance of Enikö Börcsök in Budapest, who gives the impression she could hold any play together without acting at all.

It is hard to say whether this playwright took his play out of the oven too soon (you have to read the stage directions to find out the three daughters’ relative ages) or too late. Both directors (Vienna: Alvis Hermanis; Budapest: Enikö Eszenyi) labor bravely over one risible plot twist: daughter 2 learns from Mom that her (secret) lover is not her cousin but actually her bastard brother. In Vienna, Sylvie Rohrer finds an exquisite balance between naiveté and consequence in sticking to her man. Pellucid, almost gasping, she doesn’t seem to be pulling off anything in her big scene; neither shocked nor wallowing in hindsight, Rohrer shows us that with incest, surprise is irrelevant. Perhaps this is the best an actress could do with such an egregious dramaturgical gear shift; at the Vígszínház, Annamária Láng makes as quick an exit as she can, omitting the line about going to New York with her lover “anyway” (“I won’t let you change my story!”)

This and other major revelations are confined to Act III, but Act II belongs to the matriarch (Vienna: Kirsten Dene; Budapest: Vera Pap), who presides over the post-funeral dinner for her dead husband, teetering between charm and abuse (“I see you gentlemen have all stripped down to your shirt fronts. I thought we were having a funeral dinner, not a cockfight”).  In the play’s last five minutes, we learn with Barbara that Mom, self-styled survivor, opted not to call her husband at the motel he repaired to before offing himself, waiting till Monday morning to flush out their joint safe deposit box since “nobody is stronger than me, goddamn it”. After Barbara finally deserts her, Vera Pap keens and sways, but Dene’s dry fury as she drags herself upstairs may be Letts’ true ticket: mere, sheer impatience makes these people drink, pop pills, bed their relatives and then gab forth their secrets.

Is it the famous surfeit of TV commercials that gives modern Americans their lyric-epic urge to be used by language instead of using it? It’s no accident Letts’ run-on opus magnum revolves around drug addiction, alcoholism, but also volleys of casually apocalyptic expletives. (Barbara: “So Daddy was disappointed in me because I settled for a beautiful family and a teaching career, is that what you’re saying? What a load of absolute horseshit.” Mom: “Oh, horseshit, horseshit, let’s all say horseshit. Say horseshit, Bill.” Barbara’s husband: “Horseshit.”)

For these people, the ultimate power trip comes not from verbal putdowns or finding just the right narcotic for the right mood, but from turning the tables, electing to be consumed by what you consume, whether that’s booze or language. Barbara to her over-medicated Mom: “Eat.” Mom: “No.” B: “Eat it, Mom? Eat it.” M: “No.” B: “Eat it, you fucker. Eat that catfish.” M: “Go to hell!” B: “That doesn’t cut any fucking ice with me. Now eat that fucking fish.” Ostensibly frank, this argot strikes a weirdly affectionate, almost lulling note, precisely because the words themselves seem so much more aggressive than the people mouthing them ever could be.

(Of course, complacent, who-me aggression is also a US specialty. Daughter 3’s fiancée, when asked about the “security work” he organizes for Iraq, says, “I think of it more like “missionary” than “mercenary”.“)

This stream-of-unconsciousness is Letts’ radical strength, startlingly different from Williams’ fine-tuned repartee and O’Neill’s bare-boned confessions. It’s no surprise that European actors don’t grab this chance at a new kind of catharsis—they aren’t down home in Lett’s county. But actors can always learn a lesson from people who put their mouths before their minds. When you’re willing to say and sling anything at your family, your speech is sweetened by the fateful precision of collision.

Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » appearance » Widgets » and move a widget into Advertise Widget Zone