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  • Memory and GuiltParenting in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night
  • Elizabeth Fifer (bio)

How does a copy relate to its original? First it draws attention back. Questions about inspiration and originality blur the links between the two. Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County (2008) does not try to replicate Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (written 1940–41; produced 1956), but his borrowings create the shiver of recognition: a family reunited, the exposing of hidden secrets and truths about characters, contrasts between the aspirations of one generation and the failure to realize them in the next, a doomed matriarch, a tragic patriarch. All this combines to create something not quite unexpected.

In many ways the Westons in Letts’s play echo and parallel the Tyrones in O’Neill’s, written more than half a century earlier, as has been observed since the first production of the play. E. Teresa Choate writes that it is “blatantly derivative” of O’Neill’s play, as well as “of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart.1 Edward Sobel, Steppenwolf Theater’s director of play development, says Letts is “in dialogue” with “the pantheon of American playwrights.”2 Comparisons veer wildly. Benedict Nightingale, writing in the London Times on November 27, 2008, hears echoes of King Lear, while on the same date in the Evening Standard Nicholas de Jongh finds the voice of Sam Shepard.3 It is true that Long Day’s Journey casts its shadow over many playwrights who seek to portray family disintegration for their own times. And Letts’s vision mirrors the struggles of the families of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee, placing the source of [End Page 183]

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Fig 1.

(Left to right) Ensemble members Rondi Reed and Amy Morton in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s 2007 world-premiere production of August: Osage County by ensemble member Tracy Letts, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro.

Credit: Michael Brosilow.

the children’s individual failures on the parents who are themselves victims—of poverty, idealism sacrificed for survival, art abandoned for the drudgery of daily living. But Letts owes his greatest debt to Long Day’s Journey for its emphasis on the persistence of the past into the present and the legacy of parents, both living and dead.

As the action unfolds around Beverly and Violet, and Mary and Tyrone, their images and reflections form the substance of the two plays. The parents’ backward gaze reveals a past neither fully accepted nor resolved. The isolated figures of Beverly and Violet recapitulate the insular nature of the lives of Mary and Tyrone, cut off from the next generation and from other families who might give comfort. Mary asks for “someplace I could go, to get away for a day, or even an afternoon, some woman friend I could talk to.”4 Inside both families, conflict puts up insurmountable barriers to intimacy. While it is not necessary to know the text of O’Neill’s play to understand August: Osage County, reading them together enriches an appreciation of the dilemma of parents whose efforts to raise successful and independent children seem to have failed.

Absent figures, each causing regret and recrimination, loom over both plays. Dysfunctional families use each other as targets for private grief. Artistic [End Page 184]

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Fig 2.

(Left to right) Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave in the 2003 Broadway production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night directed by Robert Falls.

Photography by Joan Marcus.

characters face the fact that their best work is behind them. A common theme of addiction pervades, whether prescription drugs or alcohol. Death haunts each family, by suicide, illness, or age, yet they hold hope for regeneration, at least for a while. And both families—both plays—rely on memory to fill the emptiness of present time.

In both plays the family matriarch becomes the focus of discussion and self...


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