Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Art, Artists and Outtakes.

In Tracy Letts’ ‘August: Osage County,’ the writer has inserted many sly references to things outside the mechanics of the action. Nevertheless, they are a big part of what makes the play exciting to a critic. Unfortunately, doing justice to this invisible dimension would throw the review out of balance and deprive readers of the rewards of their own discovery.

Fortunately, citing such connections – whether vertent or inad – falls perfectly within the odd parameters of this column. There is nothing inadvertent about Letts’ efforts, however. (Though some of these sightings likely ripple beyond his intentions.)

The fun begins with the first scene, in which blocked poet Beverly Weston conducts a one-sided interview of the Native American woman he hires as his housekeeper. It continues through the last tearful lines, wept by his widow into the lap of this housekeeper. The first scene ends with“Here we go ‘round the prickly pear,” which begins the fifth and final section of T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Hollow Men.’ The last scene, and with it the play, ends with “This is the way it ends,” a slight alteration of the last lines of 'Hollow Men.' The actual line is “This is the way the world ends," and continues with the oft-quoted “not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

This bookending underscores some of Letts' key points: the importance of poetry as a vehicle to embrace and encapsulate; the concept of hollow men, who seem to populate the play exclusively; encouragement to the audience to project the Westons' situation onto the larger social canvas; and certain parallels between the Westons and the Eliots.

Parallel lines. Letts chose to name Beverly's wife Violet, and abbreviate it as Vi, to invoke T.S. Eliot’s wife. Vivien, Viv. suffered from mental illness, tormenting "Tom" to the point that he "disappeared." He first went to America but eventually returned to London, never telling Viv he was alive. Eventually she made contact at a public engagement, but they never reconnected and she died in a sanitorium. That is the reason Letts chose "Vi." But that prompts the question, did Bev choose to marry a woman with such a name because his adoration of Eliot was turning to emulation? And, in that case, was Violet’s downward psychological spiral, shall we say, not discouraged by a man seeking the trappings of the timeless poet?

For art’s sake, forsake the artist. In the first scene Bev makes a passing reference to differentiating art from the person behind it."Gapping" the creative process this way, between source and product, is something alluded to in that same fifth section of 'The Hollow Men': "Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response / Falls the Shadow." (While this is not quoted, the line that follows it, "Life is very long," is.)

This important distinction is not a new concept. The first time I heard it was about 30 years ago. The reference was to Ezra Pound, from a friend old enough to have been his contemporary. Pound the artist was a seminal poet, an indispensable part of 20th Century literature. As a man, however, he made statements supporting anti-semitism and fascism. My friend, who was both an intellectual and a Jew, had to separate his awe of Pound’s poetry from his revulsion at his public person. Not an easy thing to do.

Though Pound – as I recall – is not mentioned in the play, it is safe to conjure him up when reflecting on Weston’s opening remark. Not only was he very important to Eliot, Pound was descended from the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow through his mother’s family – the Westons.

Writer’s Block is a Fatal Dis-ease. Two other poets are alluded to in 'Osage County': John Berryman and Conrad Aiken. Aiken is there in the family name of Violet’s brother-in-law, Charlie Aiken. Berryman is discussed at length in the opening speeches. These are also signposts to Letts’ core concerns.

Berryman’s father shot himself, as did Aiken’s. The latter, however, did so after murdering his wife. Aiken, a lifelong friend of Eliot’s, attempted suicide, but survived to die naturally at 83. Berryman killed himself by jumping off a Minnesota bridge at age 57. Eliot died peacefully in 1965. There is much more to savor what Letts has written, and what he has let lie between the lines. What the character of Johnna, the Cheyenne housekeeper, represents is enormous. But a final note here regarding that year 1965. It may be a coincidence, but the year Eliot died was the year Beverly Weston stopped writing. It was also the year Tracy Letts was born.

There is much more, of course. Any other ideas?

Above – Robert J. Saferstein's photo of Jon DeVries and DeLanna Studi, with portraits of Berryman, Eliot and Pound