The Playwright

We are the ones who say it to their faces, and we have a unique responsibility. — Tracy Letts 

The Playwright and His Body of Work

Over the past 10 years, Tracy Letts transformed his identity from struggling actor and unknown playwright to one of the most popular and critically acclaimed members of the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble as well as esteemed Pulitzer prize-winning author and Tony Award winning actor.   In the early 1990s, while looking for work in the theatre, Letts penned his first play titled Killer Joe.  Although this play was not included in my initial study, it offers insight into the development of Letts’s body of work.

Killer Joe, a trailer-park thriller, which Current Biography Yearbook characterizes as “Harold Pinter meets Quentin Tarantino,” tells the ugly and discomforting story of the Smith family living on the outskirts of Dallas not far from the Red River bordering Texas and Oklahoma.  A twenty-two year old self-proclaimed loser, Chris Smith convinces his father and step-mother to collude in a murder-for-hire plot to collect his mother’s $50,000 life insurance policy using his “damaged,” yet innocent, sister as sexual collateral.  Although  Killer Joe did not initially find an audience in the United States, it was well received in the London fringe theatre scene and won the Scotsman Fringe First Award in 1995. Three years later, New Playwrights: the Best Plays of 1998 recognized Killer Joe in their publication, and over the past ten years, a few small theaters in the United States have produced this play. Since the success of August: Osage County, regional theaters and Hollywood have a renewed interest in Killer Joe.  In September 2011, a movie adaptation, scripted by Letts, directed by William Friedkin, and starring Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Shortly after Killer Joe, Letts penned Bug (1996), which employs characteristics of the trailer-trash thriller (i.e. offensive language, nudity, sex, and violence) and weaves these features with dark humor and sci-fi elements to create a quirky psychological horror film about love and paranoia. Bug achieved moderate success on the London stage in the late 90’s and later in the United States. In 2006, Friedkin directed a film version, which was unsuccessful at the box office but continues to have a cult following. As with Killer Joe, since August’s success, regional and local theaters have shown a renewed interest in producing Bug.

In 2003, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre extended Letts an invitation to join their esteemed ensemble of actors, and later that year the theater produced his third play titled Man from Nebraska. Dramatically different in style and tone from his previous work and perhaps a harbinger for Letts and his successful association with Steppenwolf Theatre, Man from Nebraska earned a finalist position for the 2004 Pulitzer for Drama.

This quiet story of a middle-aged, middle class insurance man in search of his spiritual Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 11.27.51 PMidentity reaches an audience that Letts admittedly sought to engage. In a 2008 interview with Teresa Miller, Letts discusses the dramatic departure in style. He explains that Killer Joe and Bug were “strong cups of coffee –dark, violent, gritty” — and perhaps because of “their darkness they weren’t really reaching the audience [middle America] they were intended for in some ways . . . Man from Nebraska was an attempt to find that audience. . .” — an arguable point, considering that it is the least produced of all Letts’s plays (Letts’s Writing Out Loud interview by Teresa Miller).

Three years after Man from Nebraska, Letts penned his tour de force — August: Osage County. This Shakespearean length play opened at Steppenwolf in June 2007, and it later enjoyed an 18-month run on Broadway, a United Kingdom debut at the National Theatre in late 2008, a U.S. National Tour in 2009, and a limited run at the Sydney Theatre (Australia), starring the original cast. Set in Pawhuska, Oklahoma — situated approximately 300 miles from the geographic center of the United States — August: Osage County explores the fallout out after a mid-western family discovers its father missing and later learns of his suicide. As the Weston family returns home to bury its patriarch, a violent unraveling begins as the family transitions from its patriarchal past to its matriarchal future. Presenting the Native American[1] housekeeper as a moral touchstone, Letts develops numerous, multifaceted (arguably Shakespearean-like) themes as he challenges American cultural myths and dramatizes a dysfunctional American family emblematic of the “unwell” Western world (August 13).

Set of _August:Osage County_ designed by Todd Rosenthal

august-osage-county-poster

In addition to the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama, August collected both the 2008 Tony for Best Play and the New York Drama Critics Circle award, making it one of six plays in history to secure this “triple crown of American playwriting.”  [2] It also garnered Chicago Jeff awards, Drama Desk, Drama League, and numerous other Tony awards including Best Scenic Design of a Play. As testament to its critical and commercial appeal, a film version is slated for release on December 25, 2013.

The year following August’s Chicago debut, Letts wrote Superior Donuts, which Steppenwolf Theatre’s artistic director Martha Lavey affectionately refers to as Letts’s “love letter to Chicago.” More comic than tragic, stylistically Donuts seemingly bears little resemblance to Letts’s previous work. However, beneath the surface of what Hilton Als refers to as a “‘Chico and the man’ aesthetic,” one can discern remnants of Letts’s confrontational style as well as his recurring social-political themes and challenges to cultural myths. Donuts exposes a Polish-American “child of the ‘60s” wrestling with a crisis of social consciousness as a gentrified neighborhood and ebullient young black employee challenge his beliefs and financial future. Bonded by personal crisis and a “racist test” to name ten black poets, Arthur Przybyszewski and Franco Wicks form an unlikely friendship that transcends class, race, and generation.

Michael McKean (as Arthur P.) and Jon Michael Hil (as Franco Wicks) in Steppenwolf”s production of _Superior Donuts_ (2008).

Perhaps because of its Chicago setting, Superior Donuts enjoyed a successful run at Steppenwolf during the summer of 2008 and quickly moved to Broadway the following year. Unfortunately, the Broadway run was limited and the play only received one Tony nomination; nonetheless, regional theaters across the U. S. continue to find it worth producing. In fact, Theatre Communications Group reports that Superior Donuts was produced 9 times to August’s 10, and, excluding productions of Shakespeare, these combined productions make Letts the second most produced playwright for the 2010-2011 theater season.

In early 2016, CBS announced it would develop a comedy series based on Superior Donuts; in May 2016, CBS decided to re-pilot the comedy series replacing Judd Hirsch (as Arthur P.) and continuing with opposite Jamie Fowler as Franco.

Letts’s Place in American Drama

Despite the commercial success and critical acclaim of August and E. Teresa Choate’s assertion that the play has “joined the [American] canon,” the value of Letts’s work continues to arouse debate among critics. Many theater critics compare his plays to those of Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, and Eugene O’Neill (specifically, noting August’s similarities to Long Day’s Journey into Night), and Choate notes that many critics find August “blatantly derivative.”   Letts readily acknowledges the similarities. In a 2010 interview, he admitted that the thematic focus of his work, like that of Shepard, is the family, observing, “As Sam Shepard – still to this day Steppenwolf’s most produced playwright – said when asked why he writes so much about family: ‘What else is there?’” (“On Writing August”). Likewise, Letts has commented on the overlap in his work with that of O’Neill and recognizes his indebtedness to literary tradition: “O’Neill wrote great masterworks that I doubt seriously I will ever approach. . . . I’m sure I’ve been influenced, if, in fact, I’ve not stolen outright from him . . . to be compared is very flattering but not necessarily appropriate” (Letts’s Writing Out Loud interview by Teresa Miller).

Yet critics remain uncertain. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune seems to speak for the theater community when he questions whether Letts is “heir to the O’Neill model,” or simply the writer of “over-praised melodrama” (60). Jones contends that with August, Letts has “thrown down the gauntlet by challenging one of the most sacred traditions in American theater: the ambitious epic on the horror of family life” (59). Nonetheless, some critics insist that Letts “cheapened the form,” while others, like Choate, maintain that August is the “first great American play of the 21st century” (Jones 60).

Perhaps then, the dispute about the value of Letts’s work derives from the tendency among critics to oversimplify and assign a ready-made category to an artist and his or her work, rather than undertake the daunting task, particularly in the case of Letts, of critically examining that work – especially when the object of examination blasphemes a “sacred tradition” (Jones 60). Rather, scholarly inquiry might be served by heeding the observation and advice of playwright Edward Albee, who, when presenting Letts with the 2008 New York Theatre Critics Circle Award for Best Play, advised Letts: “Don’t listen to any of that [comparisons to Albee and O’Neill], Tracy; your work is very much your own. It’s a danger to listen to too many comparisons” (Miller interview). To that end, this study examines the work of Tracy Letts without drawing comparisons to previous playwrights, instead exploring and analyzing it based on its own merits, in particular the idea that Letts’s style, themes, and structure achieve a synthesis of masculine and feminine principles and characteristics.

In Hélène Cixous’s “feminist manifesto” The Laugh of the Medusa, she repudiates men and “male writing” or “marked writing,” claiming that “far more extensively and repressively than is ever suspected or admitted, writing has been run by a libidinal and cultural, hence, politically, typically masculine – economy”; a “self-admiring, self-stimulating, self-congratulatory” phallocentric tradition silencing the repressed in culture (1944-1946). Cixous cites few exceptions and observes that “there has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity” (1945). In fact, she criticizes female writers who have simply reinforced classic representations. However, she reserves an honor for the poets: “only the poets— not the novelists, allies of representationalism. Because poetry involves gaining strength through the unconscious and because the unconscious, that other limitless country, is the place where the repressed manage to survive. . .” (1946). While Letts’s writing is hardly “poetic” and his structure closer to “narrative,” he focuses on “the repressed” – both emotionally and socially –and the redeeming qualities of poetry. Thus, I argue that Letts’s dramatic works, specifically Man from Nebraska, August: Osage County, and Superior Donuts, do not merely challenge the gaps, ruptures, and contradictions in the “master narratives” of Western culture, but also suggest an alternative to the traditional American “narrative” focusing on the individual by advocating a “poetic perspective” focused on the community. This perspective urges a shift from a rigid, linear, individual-goal oriented principle (as depicted in August: Osage County) toward a principle of flexibility, unity, and synthesis (as advocated in Man from Nebraska and Superior Donuts).

Acting Career and Personal Life

Letts was born in Oklahoma to a literary family that includes his mother, novelist and educator Billie Letts [3] and his father, English professor and actor Dennis Letts [4].  Letts’s father, who played Beverly Weston in the original Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County, died in February 2008, shortly after the show’s debut on Broadway. His mother, Billie died in August 2014.

Photo Op - August: Osage County opening - Dennis Letts - (mom) Billie Letts - Tracy Letts

Tracy Letts (right) with his father Dennis and mother Billie at the Broadway debut of August: Osage County. (photo credit: Broadway.com)

After what he refers to as a “drug-addled semester,” Letts left Oklahoma and university life to pursue an acting career that eventually landed him in Chicago. As mentioned above, in 2003, Letts was invited to join the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble.  For his biography and acting career: see Steppenwolf Theatre -Letts Ensemble Member profile

Just before the 2013 Tony Awards, Letts announced his engagement to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf co-star, Carrie Coon; the couple married in late 2013.

Letts and Coon.Whos Afraid.Michael BrosilowLetts and Coon in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

[1]        In her 2011 article discussing the role of Johnna in August: Osage County, Courtney Elkin Mohler uses the term “Native American.” Likewise, eco-critic Thomas C. Gannon, in Skylark Meets Meadowlark: Reimagining the Bird in British Romantic and Contemporary Native American Literature (2009) employs the term “Native American” throughout his study.

[2]         August: Osage County joins the esteemed list that includes: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller, The Diary of Anne Frank (1955) adapted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Long Day’s Journey into Night (1957) by Eugene O’Neill, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1993) by Tony Kushner, and Doubt, A Parable (2005) by John Patrick Stanley.

[3]         Billie Letts is an American author known for her award-winning novels Where the Heart Is (which became a major motion picture) and Shoot the Moon.

[4]      Dennis Letts originated the role of Beverly Weston in August: Osage County and portrayed the character in both the original Steppenwolf Theatre production and the Broadway production until his death in February 2008.

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