The play follows a dysfunctional family, haunted by addiction, suicide, abuse, and disappointment. As a result, there are a number of scenes that show the characters abusing and fighting with one another in profoundly wounding ways. Violet is the main catalyst for the emotional violence in the play, given her own wounds from having been abused as a child, her battle with mouth cancer, and her addiction to pills, especially downers.
Many of the characters, especially Violet, Barbara, and Mattie Fae, have been raised in a world shaped by emotional violence. As a result, they respond to conflict in aggressive and violent ways, which creates a repetitive structure of emotional abuse. Many of the main characters in August: Osage Countyonly know how to respond to conflict by fighting back, which makes for an entertaining play, but not very emotionally well-adjusted characters.
Place plays a vital role in this play as all of the action takes place in Osage County at the Weston family home. Letts uses the Weston house as a place for the characters to dig up the past, and the house physically reflects the emotional dynamics at play. At the start of the play, Violet's addiction is reflected in the shades covering the windows. As the play progresses and Johnna and Barbara begin to take control of the home, the shades come down and the cluttered rooms, reflections of Violet and Beverly's difficulties, get cleaned up. The house is a place that is ripe with memories that cannot be overlooked, a garden of untapped feeling and hurt.
Home is a part of each of the Weston sisters' identities, and their return home on the occasion of their father's disappearance, then funeral, is a thematic centerpiece for the play. The play examines the ways that the family home is a setting for the encounter with ghosts of the pasts, the revelation of devastating secrets, and the perpetuation of unhealthy patterns.
The Fall of the Patriarch
The central incident that occurs at the start, and which lures everyone back home, is Beverly's death. He is the patriarch of the family and as the action unfolds we see that he most likely was the glue that kept any semblance of peace among them. In killing himself, Beverly shows his family that he was unable to endure the difficulty of his codependent relationship with Violet, and selfishly chooses a poetic death over his own family. The play follows the difficulties that accompany the death of the patriarch, and the revelation that he was never so stable a leader as suspected.
Parenting plays a significant role in the drama. For example, the couple Mattie Fae and Charlie have vastly different parenting styles. Mattie Fae is outspoken and belittling towards her mild-mannered and unambitious son Little Charles. Charlie is calmer and more accepting with his parenting, and their differing styles clash on more than one occasion. Barbara and Bill also have different styles of parenting. While Barbara dislikes the idea that Jean is smoking at the age of 14, Bill is more permissive and absent. Their different approaches ultimately drive them apart.
Finally, the most notable parent in the play is Violet Weston, a ferocious and nasty woman who belittles her children for leaving her, tells them she is keeping all of Beverly's estate for herself, and hurls insults at them whenever possible. She herself came from an abusive parenting arrangement and she has passed along the violence she endured to her children. The play examines the ways that parenting styles can wound a child.
Whiteness and History
The emotional violence and abuse of the Weston family is starkly contrasted by the quiet and poised Johnna, a Cheyenne woman who has been hired to pick up the pieces. Johnna is largely silent and subservient, helping through actions rather than words, but in her conversation with Jean we learn a little more about her personal life and her connection to being Cheyenne. She explains to Jean that her parents are both dead, and shows the teenager a necklace that she wears, a Cheyenne tradition. It's a pouch in the shape of a turtle and it holds her umbilical cord. She tells Jean, "When a Cheyenne baby is born, their umbilical cord is dried and sewn into this pouch...And we wear it for the rest of our lives...Because if we lose it, our souls belong nowhere and after we die our souls will walk the Earth looking for where we belong." In this moment we see that Johnna has a very different relationship to family, history, and heritage, a relationship that is notable for its connection to indigenous tradition. The Westons have a fraught and chaotic history, lost souls who are haunted by the ghosts of the past.
As much as the play is about abuse and emotional tension within a family, it is also about the very concrete toll that addiction takes not only on an individual but on their associates. We are introduced to the two main addicts in the play, Violet and Beverly, in the prologue of the play. Beverly describes their codependence to Johnna thus: "My wife takes pills, and I drink; that's the bargain we struck." His description is a description of codependence, in which the two addicts enable their respective addictions and reach a kind of skewed equilibrium together.
It is Beverly's alcoholism, mixed with his depression, that leads him to kill himself. Furthermore, it is Violet's addiction to pills mixed with her own depression, that leads her to have such a callous response to the event, and to hurl such cruel indignities at her own family members. Violet can only be tamed after Barbara takes the upper hand and organizes a pill raid, but her sobriety does not last long, as Barbara herself slips into the role of codependent enabler after staying at the family house for a while.
America as a failed experiment
A major rift between the Weston daughters and their mother is a generational one. In the scene that begins act 3, the sisters complain that their mother is remorseless because she's a member of "the Greatest Generation," and as such, still believes in an American dream that no longer quite exists. Barbara says, "And what makes them so great anyway? Because they were poor and hated Nazis? Who doesn't fucking hate Nazis?!" To Barbara, Violet's main problem is that, like the other members of her generation, she believes she is above blame.
Later, Barbara waxes poetic to Johnna after a few too many whiskeys, recounting a time that Beverly said "You know, this country was always pretty much a whorehouse, but at least it used to have some promise. Now it's just a shithole." She equates her father's disillusionment with life with his disillusionment with the country, the fact that he sees America as a failure. Barbara adds, "This country, this experiment, America, this hubris: what a lament, if no one saw it go. Here today, gone tomorrow. Dissipation is actually worse than cataclysm." In this moment, we see that the Westons are not only mourning the decline of their family unit, but the ways that that decline reflects something about the decline of the country and the failure of the American dream.
August: Osage County Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for August: Osage County is a great
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