Sunday, March 2, 2008

Breaking the rules

For the past couple of weeks The New York Times' Reading Room, described as "Conversations about Great Books," has been tackling Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. As a neophyte theater critic, and as someone who absolutely loved the play, it's been interesting to follow the discussion. I've gained some new and deeper insights into what I saw on stage in November at Broadway's Imperial Theatre.

The panel includes Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich, the paper's chief theater critic from 1980 to 1994; playwright Marsha Norman, author of night, Mother and the books for the musicals The Secret Garden and The Color Purple; and novelist Eliza Minot, author of The Brambles and The Tiny One.

Last week, Norman wrote that August: Osage County is a play whose structure only seems traditional, but when you look at it more closely, it breaks the rules of playwriting. And it works despite, or maybe because, it breaks them. Here are Norman's rules:

Rule #1: No passive central character. "The general idea of this rule is that the main character - and there can be only one - has to want something, and the play ends when the main character gets it or not." Norman says that in August: Osage County, the main character isn't exactly clear. She guesses that it's Violet Weston, the acid-tongued, pill-popping matriarch. Although she says you could make a case that it's her daughter Barbara. But what Violet wants, other than to make her family miserable, isn't very clear.

Rule #2: "On or about page 8, tell the audience why they are here and what is at stake, or to put it more simply, when they can go home." Norman says the audience doesn't really know what the action in August: Osage County is building toward, there are so many twists and turns. We're kind of kept off balance, and that's a good thing. At first, we think the play is going to be about the search for Beverly Weston, the family patriarch who disappears after the first 10 minutes. But it's not. "I think Tracy Letts didn't want you to know what was coming," Norman writes, "any more than any of us do when we go home for the holidays."

Rule #3: "The main character can't be clinically insane." Norman argues that plays with insane central characters kind of cheat the audience because we can't really see ourselves in the person or identify with his or her predicament. "Plays with insane central characters make us feel useless, and we don't like that." It's hard to sympathize with someone who treats everyone around her so horribly. But I guess I still felt some sympathy toward Violet. And even with her insanity at the center, Norman concludes that August: Osage County still works magnificently. "It's not about the tyrant," she writes. "It's about life with the tyrant."

The whole discussion is well worth reading. For me, it points to the reason why I loved the play so much. There's so much to talk about.

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