August: Osage County


Tracy Letts

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August: Osage County Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tracy Letts's August: Osage County. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tracy Letts

Born in Tulsa and raised in Durant, Oklahoma, Tracy Letts struggled through an awkward childhood fraught with familial strife and generational trauma. His grandfather’s suicide and his grandmother’s subsequent pill addiction when Letts was just 10 years old haunted him throughout his early career as a struggling actor, and would eventually become the framework for his Pulitzer Prize-winning opus August: Osage County. Letts’s parents, writers and academics, encouraged his creative side throughout his youth. Letts moved to Los Angeles in his early twenties to pursue an acting career, but found life in Hollywood both difficult and unfulfilling. He then moved to Chicago and began an apprenticeship at the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where he honed his skills as an actor, writer, and director and composed plays such as Killer Joe and Man From Nebraska. Following the success of August: Osage County, Letts began taking on more and more acting roles. He appeared in a celebrated revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and later appeared in prominent roles in the TV drama Homeland and the indie dramedy Lady Bird. Letts is married to the actress Carrie Coon, and was, in 2018, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play The Minutes.
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Historical Context of August: Osage County

In August of 2007, America was on the verge of great change. The presidency of George W. Bush—during which the September 11th attacks and the retaliatory “War on Terror” unfolded—was about to enter its final year. Bush and his family—including his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and his brother Jeb, a former governor of Florida—had a large accumulation of personal wealth and socio-political power. The idea of familial inheritance, dynastic weight, and the clamor for wealth and control that their family symbolized (and still symbolizes) within American history is evident in the pages of August: Osage County. The play’s central concern—the death of the patriarch of a troubled family—both mirrors and foreshadows the changes that would come to America in the subsequent years in the form of the staggering 2008 financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States.

Other Books Related to August: Osage County

August: Osage County has its roots in the family dramas of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard. O’Neill’s magnum opus Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which takes place over the course of one very long day in the lives of the Tyrone family (whose patriarch is dying of tuberculosis and whose matriarch is addicted to morphine), is, like August, based heavily on the playwright’s own experiences of watching his family fight, fall ill, and disintegrate. Long Day’s Journey notably features a character whose function is similar to Johnna’s in August: a young maid named Cathleen, who serves as an outsider living in the family home and is in far over her head when it comes to caring for such damaged, self-destructive individuals. Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie, a “memory play” also based very closely on the playwright’s own life, takes place in a claustrophobic house dominated by an out-of-touch, delusional matriarch. Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, also a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, deals with themes and motifs of abuse, incest, and estrangement, and focuses on the symbolic relationship between the figure of the patriarch and the idea of the American dream.
Key Facts about August: Osage County
  • Full Title: August: Osage County
  • When Written: Early 2000s
  • Where Written: Chicago, Illinois
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: Pawhuska, Oklahoma; August 2007
  • Climax: Barbara Fordham wrestles her mother, Violet Weston, in an attempt to get the pills to which Violet is addicted away from her. The triumphant Barbara then announces to Violet—and the entire family—that she is “running things” from now on.
  • Antagonist: Violet Weston

Extra Credit for August: Osage County

Hollywood Treatment. In 2013, August: Osage County was adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. With an ensemble cast of lauded actors including Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, and Sam Shepard, the film received mixed reviews but earned Academy Award nominations for Roberts and Streep. Letts wrote the screenplay for the film, and though his nearly-three-hour play had to be cut considerably for the screen, he has stated in interviews that he is proud of the film and grateful that it gave wider audiences the chance to see his story of an American family in crisis.