Understanding Tracy Letts
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in drama as well as Tony Awards for best play and best actor, Tracy Letts has emerged as one of the greatest playwrights of the twenty-first century. Understanding Tracy Letts, the first book dedicated to his writing, is an introduction to his plays and an invitation to engage more deeply with his work―both for its emotional power and cultural commentary.
Experiencing a Tracy Letts play often feels akin to reading a Cormac McCarthy novel, watching a Cohen Brothers film, and seeing an episode of Breaking Bad at the same time. His characters can be ruthlessly cruel and funny, selfish and generous, delusional and incisive, and deceptive and painfully honest. They keep secrets. They harbor biases and misconceptions. And in their quest to find love and understanding, they often end up being the greatest impediments to their own happiness. As a writer, Letts can move seamlessly from the milieu of a Texas trailer park to the pulsating nightlife of London’s countercultural scene, the stifling quiet of small-town Ohio to the racial tensions of urban Chicago. He thrives in the one-act format, in plays like Mary Page Marlow and The Minutes, as well as the epic scope of August: Osage County and Linda Vista. With a musician’s sense of timing, Letts shifts between humor and heartache, silence and sound, and the mundane and the poetic. And he fearlessly tackles issues such as gender bias, racism, homophobia, and disability rights. Contemporary American life thus becomes a way to comment on the country’s troubled history from Native American genocide to the civil rights movement. The personal narratives of his characters become gateways to the political.
Understanding Tracy Letts celebrates the range of Letts’s writing, in part, by applying different critical approaches to his works. Whether through the lens of disability studies, the conspiracy genre, food studies, the feminist politics of quilting, or masculinity studies, these readings help bring out the thematic richness and sociopolitical dimensions of Letts’s work.
“Understanding Tracy Letts not only delves into crucial biographical details instrumental to Letts’ development as a playwright but also engagingly places his works in dialogue with Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, The X-Files, food theory, quilting, and masculine studies. Fahy’s book is a long needed holistic look at one of America’s most important playwrights.” ―William Boles, Rollins College
“More than an excellent and compelling analysis of the work of one of America’s leading playwrights, a writer whose imagination takes him, and us, on journeys into the private and social tensions of America, Understanding Tracy Letts explores the wider literary and social context of works which have the power to disturb, amuse, unnerve, and even, perhaps, console”―Christopher Bigsby, author of Twenty-First Century American Playwrights and Arthur Miller 1962-2005
“Fahy presents one of the first books to offer an engaging analysis of the playwright.”―Playbill
Dining with Madmen: Fat, Food, and the Environment in 1980s Horror
In Dining with Madmen: Fat, Food, and the Environment in 1980s Horror, author Thomas Fahy explores America’s preoccupation with body weight, processed foods, and pollution through the lens of horror. Conspicuous consumption may have communicated success in the eighties, but only if it did not become visible on the body. American society had come to view fatness as a horrifying transformation―it exposed the potential harm of junk food, gave life to the promises of workout and diet culture, and represented the country’s worst consumer impulses, inviting questions about the personal and environmental consequences of excess.
While changing into a vampire or a zombie often represented widespread fears about addiction and overeating, it also played into concerns about pollution. Ozone depletion, acid rain, and toxic waste already demonstrated the irrevocable harm being done to the planet. The horror genre―from A Nightmare on Elm Street to American Psycho―responded by presenting this damage as an urgent problem, and, through the sudden violence of killers, vampires, and zombies, it depicted the consequences of inaction as terrifying.
Whether through Hannibal Lecter’s cannibalism, a vampire’s thirst for blood in The Queen of the Damned and The Lost Boys, or an overwhelming number of zombies in George Romero’s Day of the Dead, 1980s horror uses out-of-control hunger to capture deep-seated concerns about the physical and material consequences of unchecked consumption. Its presentation of American appetites resonated powerfully for audiences preoccupied with body size, food choices, and pollution. And its use of bodily change, alongside the bloodlust of killers and the desolate landscapes of apocalyptic fiction, demanded a recognition of the potentially horrifying impact of consumerism on nature, society, and the self.
“In Dining with Madmen, Thomas Fahy aptly illustrates just how ‘conspicuous’ our consumption can be. Fahy explores the staples of 1980s horror with considerable insight, offering an analysis of the disturbing appetites, addictions, and attitudes that menace society, on-screen and off. This volume is an essential read, not only for horror scholars and fans, but for those working in areas such as body image and food studies, as well.” —Cynthia J. Miller, editor of What’s Eating You: Food and Horror on Screen
The Writing Dead: Talking Terror with TV’s Top Horror Writers (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2015)
The Writing Dead features original interviews with the writers of today’s most frightening and fascinating shows. They include some of television’s biggest names – Carlton Cuse (Lost and Bates Motel), Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies), David Greenwalt (Angel and Grimm), Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead, The Terminator series, Aliens, and The Abyss), Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica), Brian McGreevy (Hemlock Grove), Alexander Woo (True Blood), James Wong (The X-Files, Millennium, American Horror Story, and Final Destination), Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files and Millennium), Richard Hatem (Supernatural, The Dead Zone, and The Mothman Prophecies), Scott Buck (Dexter), Anna Fricke (Being Human), and Jim Dunn (Haven).
The Writing Dead features thought-provoking, never-before-published interviews with these top writers and gives the creators an opportunity to delve more deeply into the subject of television horror than anything found online. In addition to revealing behind-the-scene glimpses, these writers discuss favorite characters and storylines and talk about what they find most frightening. They offer insights into the writing process reflecting on the scary works that influenced their careers. And they reveal their own personal fascinations with the genre.
The thirteen interviews in The Writing Dead also mirror the changing landscape of horror on TV – from the shows produced by major networks and cable channels to shows made exclusively for online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Studios. The Writing Dead will appeal to numerous fans of these shows, to horror fans, to aspiring writers and filmmakers, and to anyone who wants to learn more about why we like being scared.
The Philosophy of Horror (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2010)
Sitting on pins and needles, anxiously waiting to see what will happen next, horror audiences crave the fear and exhilaration generated by a terrifying story; their anticipation is palpable. But they also breathe a sigh of relief when the action is over, when they are able to close their books or leave the movie theater. Whether serious, kitschy, frightening, or ridiculous, horror not only arouses the senses but also raises profound questions about fear, safety, justice, and suffering.
From literature and urban legends to film and television, horror’s ability to thrill has made it an integral part of modern entertainment. Thomas Fahy and twelve other scholars reveal the underlying themes of the genre in The Philosophy of Horror. Examining the evolving role of horror, the contributing authors investigate works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), horror films of the 1930s, Stephen King’s novels, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining (1980), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Also examined are works that have largely been ignored in philosophical circles, including Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965), Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (1985), and James Purdy’s Narrow Rooms (2005). The analysis also extends to contemporary forms of popular horror and “torture-horror” films of the last decade, including Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), and The Hills Have Eyes (2006), as well as the ongoing popularity of horror on the small screen.
The Philosophy of Horror celebrates the strange, compelling, and disturbing elements of horror, drawing on interpretive approaches such as feminist, postcolonial, Marxist, and psychoanalytic criticism. The book invites readers to consider horror’s various manifestations and transformations since the late 1700s, probing its social, cultural, and political functions in today’s media-hungry society.
Sleepless (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009)
Emma Montgomery has been having trouble sleeping. Whenever she closes her eyes, all she can see are horrible nightmares … nightmares of gruesome murder. And she’s not alone. All of the students in Dr. Beecher’s secret society have been having terrible dreams and sleepwalking. Now, as their classmates start turning up dead, Emma and her friends race against the clock to keep themselves awake and find out what is causing them to kill in their sleep–before the next victim dies.
“Sleepless is a fun, scary thriller with the power to disturb long after the final page has been turned. With compelling characters, and an innovative plot, Sleepless is extremely engrossing and highly suspenseful.”
–Alex McAulay, author of Shelter Me and Bad Girls
The Unspoken (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008)
On the night of the fire that killed Jacob Crawley and his followers, Allison Burke stood in a circle with the only friends she had ever known and asked, ñWhat if it comes true?î No one looked up or said a word. They just held hands as the air around them filled with smoke and the white ash of burning flesh…
Five years later, one of the friends has apparently drowned, though his body is found in a tobacco field more than thirty miles from the nearest body of water. The news of his death draws this estranged group of teenagers back to Meridian – a small North Carolina town where Jacob first convinced people that he was a prophet.
As each of them returns, they must face the terrible truth about what happened that night and relive the horrifying memories of their time with Jacob, the cult leader who raised them and foresaw their deaths. Now, they wonder if his predictions will come true and if there is any way to stop them before it’s too late…
Alan Ball: Conversations (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013)
Alan Ball: Conversations features interviews that span Alan Ball’s entire career and include detailed observations and insights into his Academy Award-winning film American Beauty and Emmy Award-winning television shows Six Feet Under and True Blood. Ball began his career as a playwright in New York, and his work soon caught the attention of Hollywood television producers. After writing for the sitcoms Grace Under Fire and Cybill, Ball turned his attention to the screenplay that would become American Beauty. The critical success of this film opened up exciting possibilities for him in the realm of television. He created the critically acclaimed show Six Feet Under, and after the series finale, he decided to explore the issue of American bigotry toward the Middle East in his 2007 play All That I Will Ever Be and the film Towelhead, which he adapted and directed in the same year. Ball returned to television once again with the series True Blood — an adaptation of the humorous, entertaining, and erotic world of Charlaine Harris’s vampire novels. In 2012 Ball announced that he would step down as executive producer of True Blood, in part, to produce both a new television series and his latest screenplay, What’s the Matter with Margie?
Considering David Chase: Essays on The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure, and The Sopranos (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007)
A compelling and innovative television writer, David Chase has created distinctive programs since the 1970s, each reflecting his edgy humor and psychological realism. These critical essays examine Chase’s television writings, placing particular emphasis on how his past works have shaped and influenced the current cultural phenomenon of HBO’s The Sopranos, and studying Chase’s use of identity, community, and place in defining his on-screen characters. Topics explored include Chase’s constructs of the urban L.A. environment in The Rockford Files, the portrayal of hybridized American archetypes in Northern Exposure, and the interpretation of sexual identity/masculinity in The Sopranos. An appendix containing complete episode guides for The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure, and The Sopranos is also included.
Considering Alan Ball: Essays on Death, Sexuality, and the American Dream (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006)
Academy Award-winning screenwriter of the film American Beauty and creator of the HBO series Six Feet Under, Alan Ball has consistently probed the cultural forces shaping gender, sexuality, and death in the United States. Through gritty dialogue and edgy humor, Ball centers much of his social critique on the illusory promises of the American Dream. For many of his characters, a belief in the American Dream–including idealized notions of the family, heterosexual norms, and the acceptance of prescribed gender roles–proves stifling and self-destructive. Considering Alan Ball is the first book to explore the impact of Ball’s works on contemporary film, television, and western culture. The essays herein examine Ball’s writings for theatre, television and film, with emphasis on his best-known work. They offer insight into both the captivating and problematic dimensions of Ball’s work, while drawing connections among his diverse writings. An interview with Ball is included.
Considering Aaron Sorkin: Essays on the Politics, Poetics and Sleight of Hand in the Films and Television Series (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005)
This collection of essays on the work of Aaron Sorkin affords greater insight into the complexities of his writing, drawing connections between the film and television output of today’s most prominent and influential screenwriter. Scholars from various fields-film, literature, art history, political science, and more-examine the thematic content and rhetorical strategy of Sorkin’s writing. Eleven essayists explore the subtle, pervasive and often contradictory messages woven throughout Sorkin’s work, from politics to portrayals of women, and consider his impact on film, television and culture. An interview with Aaron Sorkin precedes the essays, each of which has notes and a bibliography. An appendix covering film and television credits is included. (Spring/Summer: 2005)
Understanding Truman Capote (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2014)
Truman Capote – along with his most famous works In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s – continues to have a powerful hold over the American popular imagination. His glamorous lifestyle, which included hobnobbing with the rich and famous and frequenting the most elite nightclubs in Manhattan, makes him the subject of ongoing interest for public and academic audiences alike. In Understanding Truman Capote, Thomas Fahy provides a new direction for Capote studies that offers a way to reconsider the author’s work.
By reading Capote’s work in its historical context, Fahy reveals the politics shaping his writing and refutes any notion of Capote as disconnected from the political. Instead this study positions him as a writer deeply engaged with the social anxieties of the 1940s and 1950s. Understanding Truman Capote also applies a highly interdisciplinary framework to the author’s writing that includes discussions of McCarthyism, the Lavender Scare, automobile culture, juvenile delinquency, suburbia, Beat culture, the early civil rights movement, female sexuality as embodied by celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, and atomic age anxieties. This new approach to Capote studies will be of interest in the fields of literature, history, film, suburban studies, sociology, gender/sexuality studies, African American literary studies, and American and cultural studies.
Capote’s writing captures the isolation, marginalization, and persecution of those who deviated from or failed to achieve white middle-class ideals and highlights the artificiality of mainstream idealizations about American culture. His work reveals the deleterious consequences of nostalgia, the insidious impact of suppression, the dangers of Cold War propaganda, and the importance of equal rights. Ultimately Capote’s writing reflects a critical engagement with American culture that challenges us to rethink our understanding of the 1940s and 1950s.
Staging Modern American Life: Popular Culture in the Experimental Theatre of Millay, Cummings, and Dos Passos (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011)
Staging Modern American Life: Popular Culture in the Experimental Theatre of Millay, Cummings, and Dos Passos examines the integration of and challenges to popular culture found in the theatrical works of these writers. Their plays, which have largely been marginalized in discussions of theatre history and literary scholarship, offer a hybrid theatre that integrates the popular with the formal, the mainstream with the experimental. This emphasis on popular culture is an attempt to offer new readings of these works with an eye to American cultural studies, highlighting Millay¹s, Cummings¹, and Dos Passos¹ insightful examination of mass entertainment and the tensions surrounding it at the time. This book also argues that these works play an important role in the development of American theatre more broadly.
Freak Shows and the Modern American Imagination: Constructing the Damaged Body from Willa Cather to Truman Capote (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006)
Freak Shows and the Modern American Imagination examines the artistic use of freakishness between 1900 and 1950, mapping its rather sudden shift from a highly profitable form of entertainment to a reviled one. Throughout this period, the public reassessed freak shows, gradually seeing them as something shameful, and artists responded to this cultural shift by using the freakish body as a tool for exploring problematic social attitudes about race, disability, and sexual desire in American culture. Unlike other studies that tend to focus on the literary and visual uses of freak shows in the second half of the twentieth century, I am interested in the most volatile period for this entertainment–when those writing about freak shows had the opportunity to see them. These writers and artists were responding to the changing perception of freak performers at the time. They wanted to explore how profound contemporary events, such as the Great Migration, World War I, and the Great Depression, were shaping widespread interpretations of difference. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Continuum Press, 2003)
This study features a biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a full-length analysis of the novel, discussion questions, a critical bibliography, and a great deal more. If you’re studying this novel, reading it for your book club, or if you simply want to know more about it, you’ll find this a helpful and informative guide.
Captive Audience: Prison and Captivity in Contemporary Theater (New York: Routledge, 2003)
Captive Audience examines the social, gendered, ethnic, and cultural problems of incarceration through the lens of contemporary theater. The essays in this collection engage a broad range of plays by African-American, Latino/a, British, and other American playwrights who give voice to those long hidden behind prison walls. Topics related to the intersection of theater and imprisonment are explored from a variety of critical perspectives, illuminating the dark worlds portrayed in captivity dramas by Migdalia Cruz, Miguel Pinero, Tennessee Williams, Naomi Wallace, and Samuel Beckett, among others. Thomas Fahy and Kimball King have assembled a distinguished group of contributors, including the renowned playwright, screenwriter, and social activist Harold Pinter.
Peering Behind the Curtain: Disability, Illness, and the Extraordinary Body in Contemporary Theater (New York: Routledge, 2002).
When the disabled, suffering, or freakish body appears on stage, it raises unsettling questions for the audience – How did this happen? Is this condition permanent? Can this happen to me? Is the actor really disabled? The spectator cannot escape the self-conscious act of looking and having an actor return the gaze. The immediacy of this exchange compels the audience to question its assumptions about physical difference and to reconsider the ways in which it participates in sustaining widespread stereotypes and prejudices. Editors Thomas Fahy and Kimball King examine the powerful effects generated by the presence of extraordinary bodies on stage and screen. This volume comprises thirteen original essays from a variety of disciplines that reflect the broad impact of disability in theater and film. Special topics include the creation of disabled theater groups; the role of disability in works by major contemporary playwrights, television commercials, and blockbuster films; and the intersection of disability and eroticism. The collection concludes with personal essays, interviews, and a short play by James MacDonald. Students, scholars, movie buffs, and theatergoers are invited to peer with curious gaze into this fascinating subject, usually hidden behind the curtain of neglect.
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Thomas Fahy is a novelist, nonfiction writer, and professor of literature and creative writing. His young adult horror novels, Sleepless and The Unspoken, both received American Library Awards for Reluctant Young Readers. His edited collection, The Philosophy of Horror, which the New York Journal of Books called “an intelligently written, perceptive, engrossing work,” has earned high praise in journals, newspapers, and magazines across the country. The Writing Dead: Talking Terror with TV’s Top Horror Writers features original interviews with the writers of today’s most frightening and fascinating shows such as American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, and The X-Files. Some of his other nonfiction books include Understanding Tracy Letts, Dining with Madmen: Fat, Food, and the Environment in 1980s Horror, and Understanding Truman Capote. He has also published pop culture essays on everything from Paris Hilton and 1980s vampire films to the television series Stranger Things.
His works have been translated into several languages, and he has been interviewed by Salon and other publications, as well as radio hosts in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and Malaysia. He was a recent guest on the BBC radio program “Literary Pursuits” about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. He has also appeared in several episodes of the Spanish television series Creadores Prodigiosos.
When he is not writing, Fahy performs regularly as a classical pianist and has appeared in recent concerts at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Merkin Concert Hall, and other venues in New York City. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.