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August: Osage County | Study Guide

Tracy Letts

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August: Osage County | Themes



The plot of August: Osage County concerns the decline of the Weston family, particularly the suicide of its patriarch, the pill addiction of its matriarch, and the unhappy struggles of two subsequent generations of Weston children. Beverly's career has long been in decline at the start of the play, and the Westons have both entered their declining years. By giving this fictional family the name "Weston," author Tracy Letts may be making an allusion to the concept of "the decline of the West." This is the title of a well-known work by German philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880–1936). Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918–1922) held that civilizations pass through a life cycle, just like people or creatures, and that Western civilization had already passed through the peak of its life cycle and entered its decline.

In August: Osage County, Barbara recalls her father, Beverly, talking about the decline of the United States. According to Beverly, the country had sunk from being a "whorehouse"—already a lowly condition—to being a "shithole." But Barbara wonders if he was really talking about some other decline, perhaps of his house, his family, his marriage, or himself. Barbara makes an equivalence: the declining country stands for the declining poet himself. Once Barbara makes that equation, it can be run in reverse. When author Tracy Letts presents on stage the decline of the fictional poet Beverly, he is also saying something about the decline of the United States.

Another way August: Osage County presents the theme of decline is through its quotations from "The Hollow Men" (1925), a poem by American poet T.S. Eliot. The speaker of that poem points out that when people succumb to slow spiritual decay, they bring about the end of the world in a way that is worse than its abrupt destruction. In "The Hollow Men," the speaker says, "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper." Johnna also quotes these words at the end of the play. August: Osage County uses the theme of decline to suggest a spiritual corrosion that is worse than violent or abrupt death.

Intergenerational Conflict and Trauma

None of the Weston family members get along with each other, at least not all the time. But the conflicts are particularly sharp along generational lines, especially between the oldest generation in the play (represented by Beverly, Violet, Mattie Fae, and Charlie) and the middle generation (represented by the Weston daughters, among others). In August: Osage County, author Tracy Letts explores intergenerational conflict in two ways. One, it is an inevitable schism that splits every generation from the one that comes after it. Two, it is a particular sorrow of people who were born in the United States in the mid-20th century and whose parents climbed from the working class to the middle class.

The play starts with an epigraph from All the King's Men (1946), a novel by American writer Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989). In somewhat abstract terms, Warren lays out a difficulty afflicting parents and children. Childbearing and childrearing are hard. As Warren puts it, "When you get born your mother and father lost something out of themselves." This means the same children whom the parents love are also their natural enemies, the thieves who have robbed their youth and their freedom. So even after the children have grown up, according to Warren, returning home for a reunion with their enemy-parents is a fraught experience, "like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium." This tension can be seen in many of the relationships between parents and their adult children in August: Osage County. Mattie Fae scorns and belittles her son, Little Charlie, because he fails to be anything like her one-time lover, the smart and capable Beverly Weston. For her part, Violet Weston bitterly attacks her favorite daughter, Barbara, for the crime of growing up to live her own life.

For Warren, parent-child enmity is natural and eternal, an irresolvable conflict that every generation will repeat. But the play also shows how this conflict plays out with particular anguish in the case of once-poor Americans who climbed up to the middle class, only to raise children who seem ungrateful for and uncomprehending of their parents' sacrifices. August: Osage County is set in 2007. Beverly Weston is 69 years old, so he was born in 1938, and Violet is 65, born in 1942. Beverly was homeless as a child, and Violet's stories about her childhood suggest she was also poor. Violet and likely Mattie Fae were extremely traumatized as children by a viciously cruel mother. Violet says plainly, "I'm in pain," and that is how she has lived her whole life. Her badge of pride about being the strongest woman in the family is her way of coping with that truth. Beverly and Violet grew up at a time when class mobility in the United States—the ability to better one's social and economic circumstances—was greater than it is the early 21st century. Beverly and Violet raised themselves up through effort, though they lived at a time when such effort was more likely to pay off than in the early 21st century. Their efforts eliminated the life of poverty they grew up in, but this means their children have grown up in a different world, one of ease and college educations. As Violet yells at her daughters during the funeral dinner, "What do you know about hard times? ... You DON'T know!" In August: Osage County the conflict between generations is eternal, and it also has a particular character at a certain moment in American history.

Truth, Evasion, and Intoxication

In August: Osage County characters sometimes use the truth to attack one another while at other times they evade uncomfortable truths by becoming intoxicated. As Beverly says at the beginning of the play, "My wife takes pills and I drink." In Violet, audiences can clearly see the wasting of the human mind under the influence of heavy drug use. She slurs and stumbles and appears out of touch with the world. But in the course of the play nearly all the characters use intoxicants of some kind. Charles evades the truth of how bitter his wife Mattie Fae is by smoking "a lot of grass," or so Ivy claims. Many of the Westons drink throughout the play. At the same time these evasions can last only so long.

August: Osage County is structured around a series of terrible revelations of truth. Sheriff Gilbeau reveals that Beverly is dead, probably of suicide. Mattie Fae reveals that her son, Little Charles, was fathered by Beverly during a secret affair. Violet reveals that she knew about the affair, and she reveals she knew the whereabouts of the "missing" Beverly in the days after his disappearance. These truths dissolve relationships. Faced with the corrosive truth of Little Charles's paternity, Ivy leaves the family, saying they will never see her again. When she learns her mother did nothing to save her father from suicide, Barbara also leaves her mother, presumably never to return. There is no one in August: Osage County who learns a welcome truth. However some of the relationships may be better off dissolved.

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