A warning: it’s a trap.
I am going to write a big rant about this, so press “do not want” now if you wish to eject.
I really enjoyed this play. The writing was excellent: sharp, witty dialogue; cleverly constructed narrative; and excellent use of classic three-act structure. The ensemble were fantastic: especially Robyn Nevin’s titanic performance as the bitter, maddened old matriarch. The design was spectacular: it was as though the family’s sprawling mansion had been ripped open with a can-opener and every inch, every nook and cranny and secret hiding place exposed to the audience’s gaze. From up in the circle the viewer has such panoptic vision that it sometimes feels like you are a giant peering giddily into a doll’s house.
And, with all this technical mastery and imagistic accomplishment, the production left me feeling strangely cold.
I’ve been trying to work this out. I liked the play on first impression. There was so much that impressed me. But then when I went away and reflected on it I liked it less and less… what follows is an attempt to try and work out why at the heart of it this production felt hollow.
Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. These towering dramatists have cast long shadows over American playwriting. August: Osage County is particularly indebted: as a sprawling family drama set in the Confederate South of the USA (in Oklahoma(!) no less…) it traverses the exact terrain that has been so thoroughly explored by Miller and Williams. It’s the sort of terrain that instantly brings to mind the Biblical prose of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the dust-caked strains of Woodie Guthries’ The Ghost of Old Tom Joad.
From the opening monologue I could feel the gravitational pull of classics like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and All My Sons sucking the writing inwards like two dramaturgical black holes. As Arthur Miller famously said “the structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.” And this is exactly what happens in August: Osage County. After the disappearance of the old patriarch (and the subsequent discovery of his death) the rest of the family spirals out of control and a whole walk-in cupboard full of skeletons are exposed. You name it: incest; paedophilia; adultery; racism; madness; addiction…there’s a whole panorama of dramatic horrors that are brought to light over three and a half hours.
And to me this was the first thing that started to really grate. A good piece should have one thing at its heart; one dirty dark secret driving it. I am thinking of All My Sons for example. But August: Osage County has no single theme at its centre. Instead it has a roll-call of them, one after the other, making the tragic content of the piece deeply suspicious. The overall effect, at least for me, was alienation. I found the characters removed from me, blocked by an overload of irony. I felt at times like the piece was wavering on the edge of sitcom (a disfigured Golden Girls say). So, in this regard, it’s a criticism of the writing. It’s postmodernism swallowing it’s tail again and again and again and again. It’s the triumph of style over substance. As I toddled around on a quiet Sunday morning I kept thinking to myself, “What was that play actually about?” And the only answer I could come up with was, “Nothing”.
There were other things that started to swim up into my vision that irked me. Foremost among these (and this is something I never tire of banging the drum about) was the fact that the piece was so thoroughly American. I couldn’t relate to it culturally. It wasn’t my world, my values, the sorts of people I encounter. Now, that’s not a good reason to not like a piece of theatre, but if you happen to see play after play on the mainstage that has been imported from America or the UK then it does start to take a collective toll.
I just don’t understand why Australian audiences should care about another set of characters that speak in pinched American accents. It’s a incredibly frustrating thing to know that Melbourne is bubbling over with talented writers and yet none of them (or a pathetic fraction of them) are being supported or produced by mainstage companies. This is a whole other rant though – for which I will direct you to my brothers and sisters at Melbourne Dramatists.
And the fact that the play was three and half hours long. I don’t mind long plays or long movies. Some of my favourites are three hour sagas. But with every extra minute that passes it raises the bar for how riveting the story or commanding the writing has to be. I mean, seriously, how many people have actually made it through Ulysses? In the case of August: Osage County I didn’t find that the dramatic propulsion was sustained after the closure of Act 2.
My other major quibble would have to be the token role played by the Native American girl. At the apex of the house, literally, she sits and does nothing. She has zero agency. She is a convenient piece of bourgeoisie imagining for a well-off theatre going audience. I detest that sort of thing.
August: Osage County is a remarkable piece of theatre in terms of what it tries to achieve. But, in trying to do so many things at once, it becomes thin and exposes itself. It’s Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams with the heart ripped out.
It’s exactly what the MTC says it will be: a rewrite of the grand American family drama “for our cynical and confused age.”
Our cynical and confused age. I wish it were another.