Adapting the American Dream: A Q&A with Tracy Letts
Image courtesy of Emma Welch and cast
Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer prize-winning play August: Osage County debuted at Chicago’s Steppenwolf theater in 2007, and has since gone to Broadway and been adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. Well known for Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the play’s powerful, manipulative matriarch Violet Weston, August is a generational nouveau “southern gothic”-style ensemble piece. It is also a dramatization of Letts’ own life and, consequently, his most personal work. August: Osage County details the dissolution of the white, working class American family--and the American dream itself--in the wake of political turmoil and familial despair. And so it is perhaps more than a happy accident that this year’s faculty production at Bennington is Letts’ ars poetica, which seems even more satirically prophetic and hauntingly relevant in the wake of Clinton v. Trump.
Letts, aside from being a talented actor (most notably appearing in the 2012 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the Steppenwolf company), an award-winning screenwriter and a critically acclaimed playwright, is also an old friend of my mother’s. He kindly tuned in via email--a few days before election day, when the outcome was still unknown--to answer a few questions about the show from Literary Bennington and the Bennington College cast.
Literary Bennington: This question, by now, is probably the bane of your existence. But I just wanted to ask about the film of August. You wrote the screenplay; what was that like? Can you talk a little bit about the process of adapting theater to film?
Tracy Letts: Adapting theatre to film is challenging. The mediums value different things. Language has a primacy in the theater that it doesn’t have in film. The challenge as I began the adaptation was to find those places where images could substitute for language, where a close-up could substitute for a monologue, while still not losing those things about the play that made people respond to the work to begin with. And then the challenge AFTER I wrote it was trying to preserve my screenplay while the director and producers were trying to make extreme cuts — I was not wholly successful in that fight.
LB: I think there’s an intuition inherent (or curse?) to actors who are also playwrights. What was your experience like, working small acting jobs in Dallas and then, I imagine, the storefront scene in Chicago, and then to Steppenwolf, and then to Broadway. Were you writing while you were acting? How did the two influence each other?
TL: I’ve always had parallel careers, usually writing between acting jobs. You have a lot of down time as an actor. Both my acting and writing career have been slow uphill battles, marked with incremental successes. But the journey up the river is where you learn your craft. Thank God I wasn’t successful before I had a chance to learn my craft. I never made any money in this business before I was 40. And while being broke and struggling for work is exhausting and agonizing, I also had the time of my life, spent with funny, interesting, charismatic people. I felt successful before I had any success, just because I wasn’t working in a bank.
The two crafts do influence each other. First of all, film, TV, and traditional narrative theatre all rely on the same tenets of storytelling. And ultimately, both as a writer and actor, that’s what I do: I tell stories. With time and education and experience, you begin to learn some of the most effective and efficient ways to tell a story.
I also think it’s helped that I haven’t tried to do both things at once, meaning I intentionally keep the two disciplines very separate. I’ve never written something for me to act in. The reason is simply that I don’t think I would do either job as well if I were trying to do both things at once. It’s also why I don’t direct my own plays. I need to concentrate on making the play better and let the director concentrate on the actors and the production.
Another shot from the Bennington production of August: Osage County. Courtesy of Emma Welch and cast
LB: August takes place in 2007--as the cast have discussed in rehearsals, this is right before the Great Recession, right before Obama and the movement of ‘hope,’ and right before Sarah Palin, the birth of Birtherism and the New-Right. Looking back almost ten years, how does this play speak to the political, cultural, and societal moment of 2007? What does it tell us, in 2016, about the way we live now?
TL: August certainly speaks to the moment in history in which it was written. But plays lose and gain their referential power with the passing of years and there’s nothing you can do about that. If you’ve written something with some universal truth in it, that truth will be relevant for a long time to come. Certainly, I wrote the play feeling very grim about the American political landscape — but it would be impossible for me to feel any worse about that landscape than I feel right now. I think Barbara’s lines about America now being “just a shithole” will make a brand new sense in Trump’s America.
LB: Violet quotes some poetry at the beginning of Act Two. What the cast couldn’t identify was the line “Summer psalm become summer wrath.” Is that from the Starks poem? They like attributing it to Beverly’s Meadowlark poems. Do you think of Howard Starks’ August: Osage County as the basic content Beverly Weston collection, Meadowlark?
TL: That line is in fact my invention. She’s quoting Meadowlark. No, Howard’s beautiful poem was one of many inspirations for my play but he is not the author of the fictional Meadowlark.
LB: The theme of generations of women under the same metaphorical roof: flawed, strong, powerful, etc. How personal is that to you? How do you think that cacophony of female energy plays into the fate of the family, as well as their environment?
TL: The women of August are a reflection of the women in my Oklahoma family, as well as other women I’ve encountered in my life. I love women and I love writing female characters. Sometimes as a male writer you struggle to get the voice and concerns just right but that’s part of the beauty of working in the theatre. It’s a collaborative medium and I have a host of wonderful women working on a play with me to use as a resource.
The female energy you describe is key to August. The men have abdicated. They are no longer leaders or patriarchs. Women are expected not only to clean up the messes, but to endure, to remain constant.
LB: And the women talk over the men for the most part. Some of the men (Bill) work that to their advantage. Did that dynamic fundamentally interest you and did it inform your interest in and work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
TL: Any similarity to Virginia Woolf is unconscious though the truth is, there’s no way to write a fight between a husband and wife in the American theatre that doesn’t owe something to Mr. Albee.
LB: How do you feel - given the themes of the presidential election - about the idea that the American Dream already died (a strong metaphor in the play) and its death has yet to be recognized? And what do you think it will mean to the USA if Donald Trump wins?
TL: I kind of answered this above but I’ll amplify: It depends on your definition of the American Dream. Some would tell you that the American Dream involves decency and compassion. Others would tell you that it involves home ownership. And others still would tell you that it involves our Constitutionally described freedoms. Are those dreams dead? Maybe, maybe not. But ask Native Americans and African-Americans if those dreams were ever made possible for them. We built this country on their backs, using their sweat and their blood. White people can argue with themselves about the American Dream, we can dither and scream and weep, we can fight over elections, etc. But if we don’t take into account our own participation in a society that was built on a foundation of injustice, we’re just blowing a lot of hot air.
-Jesse Osborne ‘19