In 20th century American dramatic literature, the dysfunctional family has often taken center stage. From Eugene O'Neill to Tennessee Williams to Arthur Miller to Sam Shepard to Neil Simon to Paula Vogel, playwrights have taken great dramatic inspiration from the difficult and tense dynamics that sprout up among family members. Tracy Letts' August: Osage County was written in 2007, but he follows in a tradition laid out by his playwriting ancestors and seeks to expose the tremor of repressed violence and resentment in the American family.
Indeed, plays have been taking inspiration from the fraught dynamics of the family unit since before the 20th century in America, with writers like Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shakespeare all examining this theme. However, the American dysfunctional family of the 20th century is its own corner of the dramatic canon. For example, Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill examines, like August, the dissolution of a family plagued by addiction. Tennessee Williams looked at fraying familial bonds in his iconic plays A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. Sam Shepard showed the violence that can sprout up between blood relatives in Buried Child, True West, and Curse of the Starving Class.
Letts follows up on these ideas with August: Osage County, showing the ways that family members have a unique ability to wound one another. It is a quintessential family drama, and as Steven Oxman wrote for Variety about the original Steppenwolf production, "In style and subject matter, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County self-consciously invites comparison to classics like Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And to its immense credit, it doesn’t crumble under the weight of these parallels. It’s a deep and highly entertaining work, consistently rich, raw and intense, filled with viciousness and vicious wit. The vision is bleak; its expression is scintillating."