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August: Osage County | Study Guide

Tracy Letts

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August: Osage County | Context


American Tragic Dramas Focused on the Family

August: Osage County joins a long-running tradition in American theater: tragic dramas focused on dysfunctional families. Tragedy is the branch of dramatic literature concerned with the terrible downfall of a heroic individual. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) famously claimed that tragedy inspires terror and pity in the audience, leading them to a catharsis, or a purging of emotion that improves people's moral condition. Tragedy began in Ancient Greece, reaching its first peak in the city-state of Athens during the 5th century BCE. Tragic drama is considered to have reached three subsequent peaks after this period. The second peak was in England during the reigns of Elizabeth I (1533–1603; reigned 1558–1603) and James I (1566–1625; reigned 1603–1625) in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The third peak was in France during the 17th century. Tragedies from each of these periods often concern themselves with the downfall of kings or other mighty personages. The genre saw its fourth peak in Europe during the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, with plays such as those of Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) and Russian author Anton Chekhov (1860–1904). These later works focus on ordinary people, but they reveal the tragic flaws and conditions of human society.

More recent plays contain tragic elements but diverge from the tradition in significant ways. Some literary critics have proposed that contemporary life no longer lends itself to tragedy, as the stakes of an individual's fate are no longer understood to be bound up with more powerful forces. In a society where humans have little value, for example, the tragic hero does not have as far to fall. There is also no longer a shared concept of fate, mediated by the gods, as there was for Ancient Greeks. In the 19th and 20th centuries, American playwrights responded to this challenging situation with dramas about downfall in families that are not important or wealthy but are nonetheless bound to forces greater than themselves. American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953) wrote a trilogy of plays called Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) modeled on a Greek tragedy. In the events of several relatively undistinguished American families, O'Neill seeks to show the workings of a subconscious death wish. As playwright Tracy Letts does in August: Osage County, O'Neill also shows characters undone by pessimism and alcoholism in the third play of his trilogy, Long Day's Journey into Night (1956). In Death of a Salesman (1949), American playwright Arthur Miller (1915–2005) represents the humdrum, despairing life of an ordinary salesman as a tragedy.

August: Osage County shares characteristics with these and other American tragic dramas. Like Long Day's Journey into Night, Letts's play features an intoxicated, deranged matriarch. The staging of August: Osage County is similar to that of Death of a Salesman, in that both feature a cut-away, multistory house. Also in August: Osage County, drunken characters lash out at each other with vicious truths, as often happens in the pathos-ridden dramas of American Southern playwright Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). The violent, drunken dinnertime argument of August: Osage County is also a feature of American playwright Edward Albee's (1928–2016) play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Although Letts seems to deliberately reference these American tragic dramas, in August: Osage County the tragic hero, Beverly Weston, leaves the stage in the Prologue and does not appear again. Rather than focus on the absent hero, the play explores the ramifications of Beverly's suicide and the circumstances that could have led to his decision to end his life.


In August: Osage County, a central character, the poet Beverly Weston, takes his own life. The tragic act of this depressed man has terrible consequences for his widow and his daughters. Before Beverly takes this step, he speaks admiringly about other poets who have taken their lives, calling them "Olympian Suicidalists." In various cultures and historical periods, suicide has been condoned, and in others, it has been condemned. Sometimes there is mixed approval and disapproval. In Ancient Greece and Rome, for example, there was not blanket approval for suicide, but it was sometimes viewed as a rational choice. Illegal in the United States, suicide is generally condemned. (In some U.S. states there are exceptions for people with fatal illnesses who choose physician-assisted suicide.)

Mental illness, especially depression, has been linked to suicide. Studies have found additional risk factors that predispose some people to committing or attempting suicide. These factors include physical illness, loss of a spouse, isolation, a high standard of living, and retirement or an inability to work. In August: Osage County it is possible Beverly has all or nearly all of these risk factors. Beverly seems outwardly upbeat in the one scene where he appears, the Prologue, but his dialogue indicates a gloominess about life. As his wife, Violet, reveals in the play, Beverly has not written much of consequence in decades. The aging poet is now retired from teaching, and most of his children have moved away, so he is isolated. He is not personally suffering physical illness, but his wife, Violet, has mouth cancer, and so Beverly is confronted with mortality. His relative affluence is also a possible risk factor. Though not a tremendously rich man, Beverly grew up poor and then climbed to a level where he could send three daughters to college. However, his final act also leaves these same daughters with a troubling legacy. People whose parents commit suicide are three times as likely as others to die the same way.

T.S. Eliot and "The Hollow Men"

The first and last words spoken in August: Osage County are from a poem, "The Hollow Men" (1925), by Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot (1888–1965). Between the beginning and the end of the play there are many references to both "The Hollow Men" and to Eliot, who is Beverly's favorite poet. Eliot was part of the modernist movement in 20th century art, music, and literature that sought to break with the past and discover new forms of expression. In Eliot's case, part of this new form of expression involved filling his poems with many learned, obscure quotations. Eliot's sources for these quotations were as varied as French, German, and Hindu works, ranging across fiction, poetry, philosophy, myths, and religious texts. In bringing together these multilingual passages, Eliot wanted his poetry to be "exact without vulgarity" and "precise but not pedantic." These quotations add an extra depth to the poems. For example, in "The Waste Land" (1922), the speaker of the poem, observing the spiritually empty stockbrokers streaming over London Bridge at dusk, says, "I had not thought death had undone so many." This line is a quotation from The Inferno (ca. 1308–1321) by Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). Dante was writing about the denizens of Hell, so this quotation emphasizes that the spiritual emptiness of these London stockbrokers is akin to eternal damnation. Spiritual emptiness is also the theme of "The Hollow Men."

Letts uses "The Hollow Men" to give broader significance to the spiritual struggles of fictional American poet Beverly Weston. A prominent theme of Eliot's poem is spiritual emptiness, and some scholars have interpreted its titular hollow men as succumbing to gloom and a world-weary sense of the futility of life. This defeat exacts a terrible price: both on the hollow men of the poem and on Beverly in the play. For the hollow men, "life is very long," a line of the poem that Beverly quotes at the beginning of the Prologue. It may be long because of its futility. As the speaker explains in the poem, "Between the idea / And the reality / ... Falls the Shadow." Nothing can be accomplished, according to the speaker, because some disorder or corrosion—"the Shadow"—will always disrupt the realization of an idea. This sentiment is congenial to the depressed poet Beverly, who has not written much poetry in decades. Letts also borrows the poem's emphasis on the dreadfulness of a slow corrosion rather than an abrupt end. This weathering, too, applies to the women in the play as much as to Beverly. As the speaker in "The Hollow Men" says, "This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper." Johnna recites these words at the end of the play, and Barbara also alludes to them when she says, "Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm." Although Beverly's suicide could be called a "bang" or a "cataclysm," the play is about the slow ruin that unfolds through many years and generations of the Weston family.

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