This is the way the world ends.
Hot damn, 2009 has gotten off to a good start. I would hate to spoil the play for you, so if you're planning on seeing August: Osage County don't read further; I'm immediately interested in surprises and endings.
There were some moments in August: Osage County (by Tracy Letts and Steppenwolf theatre company), which I saw at the National Theatre last Friday, of collective audience response that rivalled any shared experience I can recall in a theatre or a cinema. I'm more accustomed to such palpable communal responses in a comedy club, where most people laugh at the same time at the same thing and feel like they've shared something. And there's a lot of shared laughter in August, there are some hilarious moments. Yet the collective responses go beyond this: shared surprise when Ivy (Sally Murphy) and Little Charles (Ian Barford) embrace for the first time outside the front door; shared repulsion when Steve (Gary Cole), the youngest daughter Karen's confident fiance who wears shades indoors like a dot-com millionaire (although he's clearly a wannabe at best), slowly groping the neck and face of fourteen year old grand-daughter Jean (Molly Ranson); shared horror when it slowly becomes clear just how few secrets people are able to keep from the hawk eyes of matriach Violet (Deanna Dunagan - in the performance of a lifetime). These responses testify to the pleasures of a communal audience experience; a lot of work can only elicit such extreme social reactions if someone's phone goes off.
It is an enormous work with more ideas and references than I or anyone could hope to immediately comprehend in full, many of which are specifically tied to place - the 'Plains', and more generally America. To this extent it aligns itself with an excellent tradition and history. Rose, who I saw the play with, said afterwards that the only thing she could think to compare it to, in terms of size, was Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.
One of the play's big ostensible themes is power and control. One of the play's signature moments is at the end of Act 2 when eldest daughter Barbara (Amy Morton), after a monumental (at least to an outsider) family feud over dinner, screams 'I'M RUNNING THINGS NOW' - a moment that is referenced, and turned back in on itself, later by Ivy when she says 'You did say you were running things now'. Violet appears to have acquiesed to this hostile takeover of power, yet in the endgame we see that in her head she never relinquished control. For Violet, knowledge is power. Particularly secret knowledge. Time and again she makes others aware that nothing happens in her home that she doesn't know about: she prides herself on this declared omnipotence, no matter how hard people try to operate undercover. It is however a particular brand of knowledge; perhaps it could be described as all evidence and no comprehension, or perhaps knowledge about everything else apart from one's self. She stores and locks knowledge away (perhaps the lock-and-key of the safety deposit box is a good metaphor for this), not thinking to share it for a common good in case it loses its exclusive sheen and can be less effectively used as a weapon of power. The idea is that those who claim to know everything are missing out on more than they care to realise.
This made me think about Douglas Pye's keynote presentation at 'Continuity and Innovation' at Reading University last September, in which he praised Tommy Lee Jones's characters in No Country for Old Men and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada for acknowledging the limits of their own knowledge (and juxtaposing it against a quotation about knowledge from Donald Rumsfeld). Perhaps like Rumsfeld, Violet is a character who doesn't see the limits of her own knowledge - which builds her up for one large dramatic fall.
And the fall is astonishing. In its final moments, the play switches key into a more dreamlike state. As the lights gradually diminish Violet stumbles around the almost-empty house, almost crawling up the huge flight of stairs, and finds Native American housekeeper Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) in the attic. Violet counts those who have left, repeating 'They're all gone', whilst Johnna sings a nursery rhyme (one of the play's distinguishing dramatic devices) 'This is the way the world ends'. It sounds corny, but I found it beautiful. Together, the two voices put a defining exclamation mark on an enormous piece of work.
There's more I want to say about this play, and certainly much more in it than I'm aware of. I want to write about how second-generation cinephilia is referenced and what functions it fulfills. I want someone to tell me about the significance of Johnna, and the history that her presence in the household recalls. I want to find out more about the T.S Eliot references that begin the play, and glide around the house. I've read somewhere that many people find something in this play that rings uncomfortably true for them; if there was anything, it was the attitudes of Barbara and (particularly) her husband Bill (Jeff Perry), the two professional academics.
And I can't see this production again - I'll have to work from memory, and the naked playtext. This is the closest thing to old-time cinephilia that I have experienced; I can't just grab a DVD from the shelf and re-visit or clarify this experience. And for me that makes it exciting, but it also makes me anxious that the memory will slip away and I'll be left thinking 'What was that play about? I remember I liked it...' before long.