Original text can be found HERE.
When he learned I wanted to write a play, Jon Jory, who was then Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, took me out to lunch and said, “OK, here are the three mistakes you don’t have to make.” And that’s pretty much the way I teach to this day — telling writers the traps they don’t have to fall into, not saying how it has to be done, just trying to save them some of their precious time. Over the years people have yelled at me for teaching the rules, or even for suggesting that there are rules. But I never expect these rules to be followed absolutely. They serve the same purpose as the boundary flags in ski resorts. You can ski in the ungroomed powder if you want, but you’d better know what you’re doing, and be willing to take the risk. Still, we do not turn on the television to watch average skiers take safe trips down the green trails. We turn on the X Games to see heli-skiers land on the top of glaciers and shoot off the edges of the cliffs, or watch the great Shaun White “shred some gnarly terrain”, as my son says. And that brings us to “August: Osage County,” a play that only seems traditional, but actually creates its excitement by breaking the rules.
Rule #1: No passive central character. The general idea of this rule is that the main character — and there can only be one — has to want something, and the play ends when the main character gets it or not. Hamlet wants vengeance and everybody ends up dead. “A Doll’s House” is another good example. Nora wants the love of her husband, but when she doesn’t get it, she leaves. Lear does learn who loves him most; “The Three Sisters” don’t get to Moscow; Cinderella gets her prince; Macbeth doesn’t end up King. This list goes on and on.
But in “August,” it’s not clear who the main character is. I guess it’s Violet, but it’s certainly not clear what she wants, other than to keep everybody off balance. Does she want them all to go away? I don’t think so. Does she want them to love her? No. Does she want them to take care of her? No. Did she want Bev to die? I don’t think she cared. But as a pure destructive force, you can’t take your eyes off her. Watching Violet is like being glued to the Weather Channel during a hurricane. Or rubbernecking on the highway. Or sitting through “Titus Andronicus.” Violet is hell on wheels, and part of the pleasure in watching her is knowing at least you’re not in her family. I suppose you could make the case for Barbara being the main character, and maybe in another production she might appear to be. But in this one, from the moment Violet clomps down the stairs, you know she is the boss. But does she get what she wants? Does she know what she wants? No more than a flash flood does, I think. But perhaps that is part of the fascination. She is, in the words of a startling new book, a “Black Swan,” an improbable thing that has immeasurable impact.
Rule #2: On or about page 8, tell the audience why they are here and what is at stake, or to put it more simply, when they can go home. In my play, “‘night, Mother,” you stay to see if the mother can stop Jessie from killing herself. In “Wicked,” the musical, you can go home when you find out whether the two girls stay friends. In “Fiddler,” you stay to see if tradition will be enough to hold the world together. In the “Faith Healer,” you can go home when you know exactly how Frank Hardy dies. In “Proof,” you can go home when you know whether the girl is insane or a genius. In “Mauritius,” you can go home when you find out if the girl can survive the greed of the guys. Once you set up the audience’s expectations, they have to be met. Romeo and Juliet have to feel the effects of their romance; they can’t just wander off and date other people. Cyrano has to finally confess his love to Roxanne; he can’t just die in the street and let her hear it from someone else. Rule 2 says tell the audience what they have come to see, and then show it to them.
Once again, “August” ignores the rules. After the first scene, we think we are here to see if Bev’s decision to hire Johnna will save the situation. It never occurs to you that you won’t see Bev again. Letts gives the most precious ten minutes the audience has to a man who is not in the play. So when the second scene begins and we learn that Bev is missing, we have to start over. So now we think we’re waiting to see what happened to Bev. Did Violet poison him? Did he just run off? And while we are waiting for that information, we meet the family: we see whose marriage is falling apart, who’s smoking weed and who is holding what grudges and why. But at the end of the act, we learn that Bev killed himself. So at the top of the second act, we start over again with our expectations. Now we guess we are waiting to see the effect his death will have on the family. Will they have to move out? Will someone go to jail? But we don’t get those answers. What we get instead is one of the most riotous family dinners ever written. You should see this thing on the page: there are three columns of dialogue, all spoken simultaneously, and all accomplished with extreme brilliance by the acting company. At the end of the act, Barbara takes charge of the situation, accuses her mother of being a drug addict and directs the family to round up all the drugs in the house. Is this what we were waiting for, someone to control this witch? It doesn’t feel like it. So then Act 3 begins and we start over again, this time wondering if Violet will get straight. But what happens is the final terrible secrets of the family are revealed, extinguishing any hopes anybody had for happiness, and everybody leaves. The fantastic unpredictable part of this act is that Barbara, for a moment, seems to be turning into her mother, and then we wonder if that’s what the play has been about: whether we ultimately turn into our parents. But I don’t think that’s it either. I think Tracy Letts didn’t want you to know what was coming, any more than any of us do when we go home for the holidays. I think he was asking the questions: what do our families have to do with us? And when can we get away from them? The answers to which are: nothing and never.
Rule #3: The main character can’t be clinically insane. The idea of this rule is that a character who is clinically insane, or addicted to drugs or alcohol, cannot really be held responsible for his or her actions, so there’s nothing for us to do but watch. We can’t perform our audience-as-jury role, or learn from how people respond to their fate, or watch as a good man is undone by his fatal flaw or enjoy any of the other pleasures of attending a piece of tragic drama. Plays with insane central characters make us feel useless, and we don’t like that. Plays are supposed to involve us somehow, be our stories somehow, help us understand the world or give us a look inside a part of it we wouldn’t otherwise know.
This play breaks that rule with a profound effect. It features a vicious, drug-addicted woman who is completely without concern for consequence. So I didn’t care about her. I kind of wished she’d died instead of Bev. But I did find myself watching, out of the corner of my eye, to see how and if anyone would be able to escape. And this is the power of this work. Violet is like a kind of Cyclops, eating the sailors for lunch as Barbara, taking the role of Odysseus, tries to figure a way to get everybody out of the cave. I do know this feeling. It’s how I’ve felt living in America with George Bush in the White House. Powerless and defeated. It’s actually how I felt growing up the way I did, with a violent mother and no one there to protect me.
So “August” represents rule-breaking at its finest here. Take an insane, violent character, give her all the power and see how the little people handle it. It’s not about the tyrant; it’s about life with the tyrant. And that, I fear, is something Americans really needed to hear about long before now. This is a cautionary tale. And it is an important piece of political drama, whether it is seen that way or not. This is what happens when you give the drunks the keys to the car, or the crazy people the power. This is trouble you can’t think your way out of.
Marsha Norman is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, a screenwriter and novelist. She wrote the book and lyrics for The Secret Garden which garnered her a Tony Award in 1991 and also wrote the libretto for The Color Purple.