When a play about Oklahoma begins with “This is the Way the World Ends” as opposed to “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” you know that you are not in that Oklahoma anymore. Instead, this is August: Osage County which I had a chance to see during its national tour (with the great Estelle Parsons in the leading role as Violet Weston, the matriarch of a disintegrating family) at the Eisenhower Theatre (Kennedy Center) in Washington, DC, this week.
August had won major awards, including the Tony and the Pulitzer and critics have compared it to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tennessee Williams’s A Street Car Named Desire. And like those plays it is about the wacky members of a large dysfunctional family who engage in nasty shouting matches, who discover that you shouldn’t fall in love with your cousin because he is actually your brother, and who end-up drinking themselves to death (and that is the lighter side of the play).
Most of the American reviews of the play that I’ve read describe it as some sort of a black comedy about a family in the final stages of meltdown, which it is. “All happy families are alike, “Tolstoy told us, and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own. But I’d bet the farm that no family has ever been as unhappy in as many ways — and to such sensationally entertaining effect — as the Westons of ‘August: Osage County,’” is the way Charles Isherwood opened his review in The New York Times.
But I saw the play more as an allegory about the decline and fall of America, and I discovered that I was probably right after reading an interview with the author Tracy Letts in the Times of London. The Westons are America, a political and cultural experiment that has failed, Letts explains. And what he seems to be suggesting that the time has come to return the territory on which the United States was established back to those who were there before the white man showed up.
Indeed, Johnna Monevata, a Cheyenne who is hired as by Beverly, the drunken family patriarch (before he drowns himself) as a housekeeper, seems to represent all the cherished American ideals of hard work, strong family ties, traditional values, a thirst for education, and a willingness to cultivate and fight for one’s own land. And then there is the Weston family of Osage County, Oklahoma, your contemporary wholesome American family where divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, incest, pedophilia are part of everyday life.
The youngest member of the family, 14-year-old Jean, smokes pot when she isn’t glued to the television. She is sexually promiscuous and hates her mom and dad who are separated; and she is just so, so stupid. Compare her to the unassuming yet very intelligent Johnna who reveres her parents, reads the T.S. Eliot (while Jean is watching Phantom of the Opera on television) when she is not taking care of the Westons. And unlike the members of this decadent and dying family , she wants to stay in Osage County. That’s where she belongs.
According to Letts, Johnna and other Indians are just waiting. They “were there before the white people, and that they were going to be polite and help them and nurse them and do what they had to do. But they would still be there when the white people had gone.” The Westons (re: America) are transients. Hence, the play opens with Beverly reading the line of from Eliot’s The Hollow Man, “This is the Way the World Ends.” And the play ends with Johnna reading the same line the abandoned and mad Violet.
The play reminded me of Clinton Eastwood’s Grand Torino, in which Eastwood plays a Polish-American Ford factory worker and Korean War veteran who discovers that it’s the Other, his Hmong neighbors, with whom he seems to have more in common when it come to what it means to be an American (again, the values of duty, strong family ties, hard work, local patriotism) than with his materialistic and son and daughter-in-law and spoiled and stupid grand kids.