August: Osage County Essay - Critical Essays

Tracy Letts

Literary Criticism and Significance

August: Osage County found no shortage of praise when it debuted in 2007. It was rewarded with numerous critic’s awards, Tonys, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its Broadway production found its director and cast similarly awash in kudos and nominations. Supporters of Tracy Letts' three-act story of family dysfunction have hailed it as a Great American Play, and this speaks as much about the early millennial theatre scene as it does about August: Osage County. Critics and theaterazzi have long bemoaned the state of Broadway theatre, especially the dominance of big-budget musicals often based on films or cartoons. Plays have long been considered an endangered species as they fail to generate the same level of business that musicals do. In addition, foreign imports have dominated the New York stage to such an extent that audiences and critics were hungry for an important piece of American dramatic writing. Many found it in Letts’s play, admiring its deft mixture of comic and tragic elements as well as its multigenerational casts. The play was also praised as providing plum roles for its large cast, with not one throwaway part in the scripts. Critics also found much to applaud in Letts’s commentary about life in the middle of America and its impact on the individual.

Those less entranced by Letts’s play have criticized some of the very things that their colleagues praised so ardently. Some found the constant fighting to be repetitive and ultimately numbing given that the play ran more than three hours in performance. Others saw the larger-than-life characters as caricatures, and chastised Letts for milking his homeland for cheap laughs. The serious elements in the play engendered disbelief as some critics found the secrets and revelations to be melodramatic. Either way, these criticisms seem to fall largely into the category of tone; the underlying concern seems to be the lack of clarity in Letts’s approach to the material.

Underneath some of this criticism is the inevitable backlash that accompanies any successful, well-regarded play. In other words, some of the criticism of the play is arguably a criticism of the criticism. Theatre scholars who found early appraisals of the play to be too rhapsodic felt the need to focus on the less successful aspects of the script and its production. Regardless of the positive or negative criticism, Letts’s play has renewed interest in the notion of American playwriting and what it means to be a great American play.