The Chicago playwright Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for drama on Monday for “August: Osage County,” cementing his position among the top tier of living American playwrights and making an inarguable case that “August,” which premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is among the most important works of literature ever to emerge from Letts’ adopted hometown.
“This is just terrific,” the Tulsa-born Letts said. “I’m happy, sad, all of those things.”
This is the first time that a playwright who lives in Chicago has won the Pulitzer for a play that premiered in Chicago, although several other Pulitzer drama winners have had Chicago connections. David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” won the Pulitzer in 1984, but that play began in London (and the Chicago-born Mamet was by then living in New York). And David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof” was set on Chicago’s South Side, but it also did not premiere here.
Letts’ honor, which was widely predicted and officially announced in New York, is the most prestigious American award for dramatic literature (the two other finalists were “Yellow Face” by David Henry Hwang and “Dying City” by Christopher Shinn). The Pulitzer honors the play, an explosive family drama set in Oklahoma, as distinct from the Steppenwolf production that bowed to critical and popular acclaim in Chicago last summer and continues to do profitable business on Broadway.
“This should solidify our intent to take the play around the country,” said Steve Traxler, a Chicago-based producer of the show, “and it emboldens us to find a way to bring it back to Chicago.”
The epic show’s huge success on Broadway has been part of an extraordinary year for the Chicago theater scene - which has also included the Next Theatre’s critically acclaimed off-Broadway run of “The Adding Machine,” a show that began life in Evanston. It also has reintroduced the Steppenwolf name to a national audience.
“What I love about Tracy’s plays is that he’s very comfortable writing a narrative with a beginning, middle and an end,” said Martha Lavey, the artistic director of Steppenwolf and the first person to give “August” a green light. “He’s also unafraid of emotion. His inquiry is into the human heart, around which he has both great compassion and a very robust sense of humor.”
The Pulitzer has a bittersweet aspect for Letts, 42. His father, the actor Dennis Letts, was part of the original cast of “August” in both Chicago and New York. He died in February after a battle with lung cancer, fought in part on a Broadway stage.
“My dad was much more sure of this than me,” Letts said of the award. “He was telling me some months ago that this was a shoo-in. But I didn’t believe him.”
The announcement interrupted a scheduled Steppenwolf reading of Letts’ latest play, “Superior Donuts.”
“It’s in rough shape,” Letts said of his newest drama. “It’s teaching me a lot of humility. Which is good, because I am going to be impossible.”