Analysis of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County

Originally produced by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in June 2007, August: Osage County opened on Broadway in December 2007 and won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. The play takes place in midsummer in “Pawhuska, Oklahoma, sixty miles northwest of Tulsa,” in the “rambling country house” of 69-year-old Beverly Weston, a retired college English professor and writer whose only book of poetry was published 40 years previously, and his wife Violet.

The play opens with a Prologue in which Beverly is interviewing Johnna Monevata, a young Native American woman, to be a live-in housekeeper and cook. He explains that because “[m]y wife takes pills and I drink,” they can no longer take care of the house. In the midst of the interview, Violet stumbles into the room, speaking incoherently. The Prologue ends as it began: Beverly quotes from T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” giving Johnna the book as he hires her.

As act 1 begins, Beverly has been missing for five days, and the family has gathered to support Violet. Already on the scene are Violet’s younger sister Mattie Fae and her husband Charlie Aiken, and Ivy Weston, Beverly and Violet’s middle daughter, age 44, who lives nearby. Shortly after the act begins, the oldest Weston daughter, Barbara, 46, and her husband Bill arrive from Colorado with their 14-year-old daughter, Jean. Violet seems very relieved to have her oldest child, Barbara, with her at this time of crisis, a fact not lost on Ivy, on whom the burden of the parents has largely fallen. Violet explains that Beverly simply walked out the door, and she hasn’t heard from him since. After three days, she took the precaution of emptying their joint safety deposit box of “an awful lot of cash” and “expensive jewelry” because, she explains, she and Beverly had agreed, “if something were to happen to one of [them],” they should avoid the contents being “rolled into the estate” when the will went to probate. After emptying the box, Violet says, she called the police to report her husband missing.

David Scott as Bill Fordham, Morgan Wainwright as Jean Fordham, Heather Williams as Viola Weston, Kei’la Ryan as Barbara Fordham, Michael Bishop as Sheriff Deon Gilbeau in “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts. Act 1, Scene 4./Pinterest

As act 1 progresses, we begin to see additional conflicts within the family: Violet resents Barbara for living far away, while Barbara resents her mother’s addiction. Meanwhile, Barbara’s daughter Jean retreats to the attic room of the new housekeeper, Johnna, to smoke marijuana, which she says is all right because her father smokes it too. Jean also reveals that her parents have separated because Bill is having an affair with one of his students. Finally, the sheriff, Deon Gilbeau, who was a high school boyfriend of Barbara’s, arrives to tell the family that Beverly’s body has been found in a lake; he tells Bill that he suspects it was a suicide. Violet is too far gone on pills to understand what has happened.

Act 2 opens on the afternoon after Beverly’s funeral. The Westons’ youngest daughter, Karen, who is 40 years old, has arrived from Florida with her fiancé. Violet continues her criticism of Ivy, this time for wearing a suit to her father’s funeral rather than a dress and for not being more attractive to men; the latter causes Ivy to blurt out, “I have a man”—but she refuses to divulge his name. Mattie Fae is similarly critical of her son, whom everyone calls “Little Charles,” mocking his plan to move to New York and criticizing him for missing his uncle’s funeral because he overslept. Little Charles arrives, in tears over missing the funeral and very aware that his family, especially his mother, consider him odd and unreliable.

As the family starts to sit down for dinner, cousins Ivy and Little Charles meet on the front porch. They embrace and kiss; he is the man in her life, but they vow not to tell anyone. At dinner, Violet informs everyone that she and Beverly had agreed to change their wills so that everything would be left to the surviving spouse but they “never got around to taking care of it legally.” Considerable money is involved, and she gets her daughters to agree that their mother will receive all of it. She also reveals to the assembled family that Bill and Barbara are separated; and she scolds her children for complaining about their “rotten childhood,” reminding them of her own difficult upbringing and of the fact that Beverly as a child lived with his parents in the family car. Barbara lashes out at her mother, calling her “a drug addict” and trying to wrestle her pills away from her. Pandemonium ensues, and Barbara orders everyone to engage in a “pill raid,” announcing, “I’M RUNNING THINGS NOW!”

As act 3 begins, the three sisters are debating how best to cope with their mother. Ivy tells the other two about her relationship with Little Charles and of their plan to move to New York together. She scolds her sisters for moving away and leaving her to care for their parents. Ivy and Little Charles have a moment alone in the living room. They are interrupted by his parents; Mattie Fae chides her son for watching too much TV and for having recently lost his job—causing Charlie to explode at her in their son’s defense. Soon afterward, Mattie Fae asks Barbara if “something” is “going on between Ivy and Little Charles.” When Barbara confirms the relationship, Mattie Fae exclaims, “That can’t happen,” explaining that Little Charles is Ivy’s brother, the child of an illicit relationship between her and Beverly.

In the next scene, as 14-year-old Jean and her aunt Karen’s fiancé, Steve, smoke marijuana together, he makes a crude pass at her, only to be discovered by Johnna brandishing a skillet. Barbara, Bill, and Karen enter, and when Johnna explains what she has seen, Barbara attacks Steve physically and lashes out at Jean verbally, the latter much to Bill’s dismay. Karen, still intent on marriage despite Steve’s transgression, hurriedly prepares to return to Florida with him; and as Bill and Jean also leave, Bill and Barbara acknowledge that their marriage is over. The divorced sheriff Deon Gilbeau comes by to ask Barbara if they can have lunch together one day and also to tell her that a local motel owner, having seen Beverly’s photo in the newspaper, has notified him that Beverly spent two nights there after he left home.

Ivy stops by to tell Barbara that she and Little Charles are leaving for New York the next day. Barbara tries to dissuade her from going and from telling Violet of their plans; but Ivy persists and gets as far as saying to her mother, “Little Charles and I—,” when Violet interrupts: “Little Charles and you are brother and sister. I know that.” The distraught Ivy rushes away, telling Barbara, “We’ll still go away, and you will never see me again.” Violet tells Barbara that she has known about Beverly and Mattie Fae for a long time, adding that if she had reached him at the motel she would have told her husband that if his depression was due to guilt over the affair, he should “quit sulking about this ancient history.” She also reveals that Beverly left her a note telling her she could call him at the motel but that she waited to call until she had emptied the safety deposit box; when she finally called, he’d already checked out. When Barbara asks if the note indicated her father was contemplating suicide, Violet lashes out at Barbara, saying one reason he killed himself was because Barbara had “abandoned” her parents. She adds that Beverly was “cruel” to make her responsible for his death, to test who was stronger, adding “Nobody’s stronger than me, goddamn it.” At this point, Barbara leaves the house. Having driven everyone off, Violet stumbles about, “terrified, disoriented,” crawls up the stairs to Johnna’s room, and “scrabbles onto Johnna’s lap.” Johnna holds her head, smoothes her hair, and “quietly sings” Eliot’s lines from “The Hollow Men,” “This is the way the world ends.”

The play’s mixture of the comic and the lurid generally captivated audiences and critics. In a frequently quoted and undeniably influential review in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood described it as “harrowing” and “hilarious” and called it “the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years” (December 5, 2007). Kerry Reid in the Chicago Reader deemed it “riotously funny” but also “heartbreaking in its attention to emotional nuance and captivating in its gruff compassion” (July 13, 2007). Among the naysayers was Peter Marks of the Washington Post, who complained that “there is nothing close to the kind of shattering payoff that you anticipate from a work of this scale and ambition”; he felt “worn down by the sheer volume of revelation, and . . . by the ordinariness of what’s revealed” (December 13, 2007). What are undeniable, however, are Tracy Letts’s ear for dialogue—the play is full of quotable phrases—and his gift for scenes that hold the audience’s attention. Typical of the former is Barbara’s rejoinder after hearing her mother lament how hard her generation had it: “Why were they ‘the Greatest Generation?’ Because they were poor and hated Nazis? Who doesn’t . . . hate Nazis” or one of Mattie Fae’s many put-downs of Little Charles, when her husband compares him to Beverly: “Little Charles isn’t complicated. He’s just unemployed.” And Karen’s lines to an incredulous Barbara after Steve has been discovered with Jean—“it’s not cut and dried, black and white, good or bad. It lives where everything lives: somewhere in the middle.”— serve as a succinct and accurate expression of Letts’s nonjudgmental view of the characters and situations in his play.

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