The house has been cleaned and straightened. The hodgepodge of books and papers in the office have been rearranged, and the dining room table has been set for a nice dinner, complete with china, candles, and a floral centerpiece. There is a “kid’s table,” set for two, set up in the corner of the dining room. It is three o’ clock in the afternoon, and Beverly Weston has just been buried. Violet is standing in the study in a black dress. She is sober, for the moment, but holds a bottle of pills in her hand. She speaks in a monologue, directly to Beverly, remarking on how August was always his month. She takes pills, flips through his books of poetry—the most famous of which is dedicated to her—and proclaims that she will not weep for him. This mess is his to answer for, she says, not hers.
Violet, having just buried her husband, seeks refuge in her pills to escape the profoundly sad and harsh reality that her husband killed himself to escape her. She does not allow despair or sadness to catch up with her, though—as she addresses Beverly, or at least his spirit, she vows that she will remain strong in the face of his abandonment, and will somehow force him to reckon with the “mess” he has left behind for her.
In the dining room, Barbara and her sister Karen fold napkins and place them on the table. Karen babbles on and on about her newfound commitment to living in the present moment. After years of pining for a man, and dating loser after loser, Karen has finally met Mister Right—an older man named Steve who is “kinda country club” but is good to her. Every time Barbara interjects, Karen keeps talking over her sister, extolling the joys of living in the “now” and never planning for the future. Karen has had a fantasy of going to Belize all her life, and now Steve is going to take her there on her honeymoon after she is married—Karen cannot believe her good luck.
In this scene, Karen—who clearly has not seen or communicated with Barbara in a long time—attempts to paint a picture of her own delirious happiness. All of this is totally tone-deaf, as the two of them have just spent the day burying their father. Karen is clearly so self-absorbed and narcissistic that she has become disconnected from emotions and, to some degree, reality.
Johnna brings a pitcher of iced tea from the kitchen. Barbara is grateful for it—she is having a hot flash. Karen brings the conversation back to her own impending trip to Belize. She asks Barbara what she thought of Steve when she met him at the funeral—Barbara insists she only spoke two words to Steve, and couldn’t really get a read on him. Karen asks Barbara if she’ll come to the wedding, which will be in Miami, Florida on New Year’s Day. Karen tells Barbara that though the years have led them apart, she wants to get closer with Barbara. When Barbara tells Karen they need to have a talk about their mother, though, Karen deflects, saying that now that she has found happiness she wants to “get to know” her own family.
Barbara’s hot flash indicates that she is feeling trapped, cornered, and stifled by Karen’s inane, incessant prattling. Karen keeps trying to engage Barbara in conversation and get Barbara to agree to attend her own wedding under the guise of wanting to reconnect. When something that the two women actually need to connect about, however—their mother’s health—comes up, Karen proves uninterested in talking or thinking about anyone other than herself.
Upstairs, Violet, Mattie Fae, and Ivy—who is dressed in a black suit—look through a box of old photographs. Violet shows Ivy photos of pretty dresses she used to own and berates Ivy for wearing a suit to the funeral. When the women find a picture of Violet and Beverly in New York City on Beverly’s first book tour, Mattie Fae remarks that her son, Little Charles, has been talking about moving to New York, but she thinks he wouldn’t last a day in the city. After all, she says, he overslept for his own uncle’s funeral. Ivy attempts to defend Little Charles, but Mattie Fae tells her not to make excuses for him. He’s thirty-seven years old, unable to drive, and obviously a large source of shame and anxiety for Mattie Fae.
In this scene, a parallel is established between the put-upon Ivy and the down-and-out Little Charles. Both of their mothers berate them almost constantly, and both seem to exist on the fringes of their family.
Violet goes to her closet and gets a dress for Ivy to try on. Ivy refuses to try the dress on and asks Violet why she’s trying to give away her clothes. Violet says she’s “downsizing,” and is going to get rid of everything she doesn’t need anymore—anything that reminds her of how old she’s become. Violet tells Ivy that if she doesn’t learn how to dress she’ll never attract a man. Ivy replies that she already has a man, shocking both Violet and Mattie Fae, who immediately start asking her who her “man” is. Ivy says she’s not telling either of them anything. When Violet asks Ivy if she’s in love, Ivy lets out a strange, shrill laugh, and goes downstairs.
Ivy is clearly uncomfortable sharing whatever is going on in her romantic life—she wants to carve out privacy and solitude where she can, and with her overbearing mother intruding on every aspect of her life—even her fashion sense—it’s no wonder. Ivy’s refusal of the clothes is symbolic of her desire to refuse the emotional burdens her mother attempts to pass onto her each chance she gets—Ivy is clearly a woman who has nearly had enough of her role in her family.
In the kitchen, Bill, Jean, and Karen’s boyfriend Steve are returning from a grocery run. Jean runs into the house and goes straight to the television, turning it on and sitting close to the screen. Steve is telling Bill about his business—which is shady and nebulous, and seems to have something to do with security, the Middle East, and offshore accounts. Barbara asks Jean what she’s watching on TV—Jean is watching a restored version of the 1925 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. Barbara berates Jean for having been concerned about getting home to watch it all day long—even in the middle of the funeral.
Jean is attempting to retreat into familiar touchstones or comforts only to berated by her mother for shirking her duties to her family. Barbara has done a lot of emotional labor in the past few days, and though she can’t possibly want for Jean to feel the things she’s feeling, she wants—perhaps even on a subconscious level—to drag her daughter down into the muck with her, as her own mother has always tried to do to her.
Barbara leaves the room, and Steve comes in. He starts talking to Jean about the movie, which he’s clearly knowledgeable about—Jean seems impressed. Steve asks how old she is, and she answers that she is fifteen. Steve gets close to Jean, telling her he smells pot on her. She denies smoking. Steve remarks that it is hot in the room, and tells Jean she must be hot, too. He asks Jean once again if she smokes pot—when she denies it, he says it’s a shame, since he has some “really tasty shit” on him. Jean immediately relents, revealing that she is out of weed and needs some more; she wants to get “fucked up.” Steve teases her, asking her to repeat what she wants to do again and again. When she tells him he’s “bad,” he insists he’s just teasing her.
Steve’s sleazy behavior towards Jean demonstrates that he is less of a good guy than Karen has made him out to be. He is preying upon the young Jean, using coercion, double entendre, and manipulation in order to bring her into his orbit. Jean’s desire to get “fucked up” and in this way remove herself from the chaos of her family is a lower-stakes iteration of Violet and Beverly’s addictive tendencies. Jean’s only smoking pot—for now—but she’s still turning to substances to escape from her present circumstances.
Karen enters the room and asks Steve if he remembered to get cigarettes—he laments the fact that he forgot. Jean says they can bum some off her. Karen tell Jean that she’s too young to smoke, but then asks Jean for some cigarettes anyway. Jean gives Karen a couple, and then Karen, overwhelmed by the heat, asks Steve to join her in the backyard so that they can smoke, and she can show him her and her sisters’ old fort. Steve follows Karen out, promising Jean he’ll “hook [her] up later” before rubbing his hand on her face.
Jean clearly wants to be one of the adults, and she has given herself a set of behaviors which make her seem more adult than she really is. She is getting herself in over her head, though—Steve is clearly a bad guy who wants to use, manipulate, and possibly even harm Jean.
Out on the porch, Charlie arrives with Little Charles. Little Charles worries that his mother will be furious with him for missing the funeral. He assures his father that he set his alarm but says that the power must have gone out. Charles worries that Uncle Bev’s spirit will be disappointed in him for missing the event. Charlie reassures Little Charles that Uncle Bev wasn’t spiteful like that. Little Charles cries, and Charlie comforts him. Little Charles says he knows that the whole family says things about him and doesn’t want to bring any more ire upon himself. Charlie tells Little Charles that everyone else in the family just hasn’t gotten the chance to see what Little Charlies is really like. He urges Little Charles to stop being so hard on himself. They tell one another that they love each other, and together they enter the house.
In this scene, we see one of the first genuine, loving interactions between two members of the extended Weston clan. Little Charles is a sensitive man whose own self-loathing and insecurity is so overpowering that he has kept himself at arm’s length from everyone in his family except his father. Charlie’s patience with Little Charles is practically unheard of in the Weston family—he is tolerant, loving, and encouraging, but even this is not enough to make Little Charles see his own self-worth over the emotional abuse enacted upon him.
Barbara and Bill are in the dining room, arguing. Barbara accuses Bill of being an absent parent to Jean and encouraging her to act older than her age. Barbara begs Bill to “be a father” and help her raise their daughter. As the two argue further, their digs at one another become pettier and pettier, and eventually they devolve into arguing about the correct tense of a verb. Bill accuses Barbara of fighting unfairly and erratically. Barbara says she’s sick of being fair—her world is “falling apart.” Bill accuses Barbara of dragging Jean into this “madhouse” in the first place and using her as a “buffer.” As Barbara attempts to bring up Bill’s affair, Bill deflects, telling Barbara that she is “good, decent, funny, wonderful [and a] pain in the ass” before exiting to the porch.
In this scene, Bill and Barbara call each other out on some seriously toxic behaviors which directly affect their daughter. Barbara worries that in prizing maturity, Bill has put Jean on a dangerous path, and she is not wrong. Bill’s indictment of Barbara, though, is valid too—she has brought Jean along unnecessarily to a place rife with pain and discord, and this is also placing too much on Jean’s young shoulders.
Johnna announces that dinner is ready, and the entire family makes their way to the dining room. Their conversations overlap with one another—Karen tells Barbara about how she just showed Steve their old fort, Little Charles attempts to apologize to Mattie Fae for missing the funeral, and Ivy fights off Violet’s persistent inquiries into the state of her romantic life.
The family’s overlapping but not really intertwining conversations as they head in to dinner symbolize the chaos in the house, and their disconnection from one another.
Bill comes back in from the porch and goes to get Jean from the living room. She asks if she can eat in front of the TV; she doesn’t want to get stuck at the kid’s table with Little Charles. Bill tells her she needs to be on her best behavior, and she reluctantly follows him into the dining room. Little Charles, having grown indignant about being made to sit at the kids’ table, has gone to retrieve a casserole his mother made from the car. Johnna volunteers to sit at the kids’ table, insisting she doesn’t mind.
Jean is at a tough age—she wants to isolate herself because she is afraid of being infantilized, and she would rather not participate in her family at all than be made to feel like she is too young to be taken seriously as a member of it. Johnna, though, knows she is an outsider, and willingly shoulders the slight humiliation of being relegated to the kids’ table.
As Little Charles comes back up to the house from the car, Ivy meets him on the porch. He apologizes for missing the funeral, and for not being there for Ivy on “one of the worst days of [her] life.” She cuts him off mid-sentence, insisting they don’t have to ever apologize to one another. She hugs him and kisses him on the mouth. Little Charles pulls away, warning Ivy that she is breaking their rule. Ivy reveals that her family is “on to her”—she wants Little Charles to know she told her mother that she’s seeing someone, but didn’t specify who, in case it comes up. She reminds Charles that they need to let their family know about them “piece by piece.”
The revelation that Ivy and Little Charles are having an affair is shocking, but in a way, understandable. Neither is taken seriously by their family, and both are mightily abused by their mothers. Ivy and Little Charles are seeking refuge in each other—and in a family of addicts and abusers, their incestuous but emotionally supportive and pure union seems like small potatoes compared to some of the other Westons’ transgressions against one another, and against human dignity.
Back in the dining room, everyone but Violet, Little Charles, and Ivy is seated at the table. The men have removed their suit coats. As the family passes food around and makes their plates, Little Charles enters. Almost immediately, he drops Mattie Fae’s casserole. She screams at him, but Charlie urges her to “let it go.” Charlie tries to pass the chicken to Jean, but she says she doesn’t eat meat. Violet enters with a picture of Beverly, which she places on the sideboard before taking her seat. Remarking upon the fact that all the men are in their shirts, she says she thought they were all have “a funeral dinner, not a cockfight.” Without a word, the men put their jackets back on, despite the heat.
The men’s removal of their suit-jackets is symbolic of their desire to escape the miserable heat—itself a symbol of the stifling emotional atmosphere within the house. Violet, though, doubles down on that sense of constriction as she demands the men sacrifice their own comfort for the sake of appearances, even in their family’s own home.
Violet tells Barbara to say grace in Beverly’s absence, but Barbara insists that Charlie, now the family’s patriarch, should be the one to do so. Charlie delivers a wordy, stumbling prayer, and then everyone begins eating.
Charlie is unsure about becoming the new patriarch of the family, and this is reflected in his uncertain delivery of grace.
Violet, pointing out the sideboard, asks Barbara if she wants it—she tells Barbara, as she told Ivy earlier, that she is clearing out the house, getting rid of old things. Barbara says she is “not prepared” to talk about taking her parents’ furniture. Everyone compliments Johnna on the delicious meal—Violet, slurring her words, says that it’s what Johnna’s being paid for.
Violet tried to pawn off her dresses on Ivy and is now trying to get Barbara to take the sideboard—she clearly wants to divest of the reminders of her “old” life and free herself from the past.
After an awkward silence, Charlie begins ribbing Jean about her vegetarianism. Jean insists that when you eat an animal, you “ingest [its] fear,” but everyone just makes fun of her. Violet, misquoting a famous T.V. commercial, begins screeching “Where’s the meat?” Everyone freezes watching her, “stunned” by her odd behavior.
Violet, who is becoming steadily more and more intoxicated, is behaving oddly and erratically—but her addiction and its consequences are the unmentionable elephant in the room.
The conversation turns to the service. Everyone agrees that it was a nice funeral, but Violet insists there was too much talk about Beverly’s poetry and teaching. She tells a vile story about Beverly soiling himself at a university function, illustrating how Beverly’s defining traits at the time of his death were not his academic or artistic successes, but his deep devotion to drinking above all else. Steve attempts to tell Violet that he thought the poems of Beverly’s which Bill read at the funeral were beautiful, but Violet is confused as to who, exactly, Steve is, and she asks him his name.
Violet wants to smear Beverly’s memory, perhaps as vengeance for his having left her with an aforementioned “mess” on her hands. Even polite attempts around the dinner table to discuss Beverly’s life, work, and contributions to American letters are met with cruel remembrances of his failures, and the ways in which his addiction crippled him in his later years.
When Karen reminds Violet that Steve is her fiancé, Violet remarks that it is “peculiar” of Karen to bring a “date” to her father’s funeral. Karen insists that she and Steve are getting married and invites Violet to the wedding in Miami. Violet says she “[doesn’t] really see that happening” before asking Steve about his romantic history. When Steve reveals that he has been married three times already, Violet turns to Mattie Fae and begins laughing, saying she had Steve “pegged.”
Violet does not care about even creating the illusion that she’s happy for Karen or interested in what Karen is doing with her life. This meal is all about Violet showing off how well she knows people, and how in-control she is of her family and their secrets.
Karen attempts to change the subject, telling Violet about how she took Steve out to see the fort where she, Barbara, and Ivy used to play cowboys and Indians. Violet corrects Karen, telling her she used to play “cowboys and Native Americans.” Barbara, seeing her mother’s deepening intoxication, asks Violet what pills she took. Right at that moment, Charlie drops his head, appearing to be choking or in distress. As everyone’s panic mounts, he rises out of his chair, before announcing that he “got a big bite of fear.” Everyone laughs. Barbara jokes that every once in a while she catches Jean eating a hamburger. Jean, indignant, calls Barbara a liar. Violet intensely tells Jean that if she herself had ever called her own mother a liar, her mother wouldn’t “knocked [her] goddamn head off [her] shoulders.”
As this moment unfolds, it becomes clear that Violet will not even let the fallout of a lighthearted joke slip past her uncommented upon. Jean’s offhand remark about Barbara being a liar inspires a dark intensity in Violet, who warns Jean that ill-intended speech could get her “knocked” around. The irony of this moment is intense, as Violet sees herself as being able to say whatever she wants to whomever she wants with total impunity.
After an awkward silence, Violet asks Bill if he has found any “hidden treasure” in Beverly’s office. Bill reveals that he found out the Beverly appeared to be working on some new poems. Though Karen is interested in hearing more, Violet steers the conversation to Beverly’s will. She tells her daughters that though in the written will, everything of Beverly’s goes to the girls, she and Beverly had discussed changing things and leaving it all to Violet herself. Though they never got around to “legally” altering the will, Violet announces her intention to take the money. Violet offers the girls the furniture instead, saying she’ll sell it to them for less than she would at an auction. Barbara suggests that Violet will never get around to the auction, and they’ll all just take the furniture once she dies. “You might at that,” Violet replies, and the two stare one another down.
Violet is unconcerned with the artistic contributions Beverly might have left behind, despite the fact that writing was his life’s work and the root of their success. Instead, she is focused on the material. She is so obsessed with hanging onto financial control of Beverly’s estate that she cruelly informs their daughters that they’ll receive nothing—in front of the rest of the family, with no regard for how this might make her appear.
Little Charles attempts to ask Bill about the poems he found, but Violet interrupts and asks Bill where he’s living, and whether he wants the sideboard—she has intuited that Bill and Barbara are separated. She chides Barbara for thinking she could “slip that one by [her],” stating that no one slips anything by her. She reveals that she herself and Beverly split a couple times, and cruelly tells Barbara that there’s just no competing with a younger woman. Violet asks Bill if a younger woman is involved; Barbara attempts to change the subject, but Bill frankly admits that there is.
A day that is supposed to be about remembrances of Beverly has quickly become all about Violet’s desire to hang all her family’s dirty laundry out to dry for her own amusement. Perhaps exposing everyone else’s pain helps Violet to feel better about her own, or perhaps she simply wants to solidify her power as her family’s matriarch now that Beverly is gone.
Charlie asks Violet why she’s being so “adversarial,” but she insists she’s just telling the truth. Barbara admonishes Violet for “viciously attack[ing]” the entire family. Violet stands up and begins screaming—she says that Barbara has never been truly attacked once in her “sweet spoiled life.” She urges Mattie Fae to tell Barbara what a real attack looks like. Mattie Fae attempts to quiet her sister down, but Violet refuses. She begins telling a story about how Mattie Fae rescued her, once, when one of their mother’s “many gentleman friends” was attacking her with a claw hammer. She claims that Mattie Fae still has dents on her head from the encounter. She asks Barbara what Barbara knows about life “on these Plains.” Barbara admits that she knows her mother had a hard childhood, but somewhat provocatively asks “who didn’t.”
Barbara and Violet have very different ideas of what an “attack” is. Violet’s anecdote about being physically and brutally attacked by one of her mother’s “gentlemen friends” makes her own verbal abuse look simple, to be sure, but her denial of the fact that her words have consequences, and that a hard childhood isn’t only one defined by physical abuse and endangerment, shows her obliviousness—or her contempt—of the effects that her own actions have on those around her.
Violet tells Barbara that her heart breaks for “every time [Barbara] ever felt pain,” but that Barbara cannot imagine the pain of Violet’s own childhood, or of Beverly’s. She reveals that Beverly, from the ages of four to ten, lived with his family in a Pontiac sedan. Violet says she and Beverly worked hard and sacrificed everything for her girls, who have done nothing with their lives in return. They never had any real problems, Violet says, so the three of them have gone around making up problems all their lives. Barbara asks Violet why she is continuing to scream at everyone. Violet answers that it’s time their family told some truths.
Violet—a member of a generation whose childhoods were defined by the Great Depression and whose adulthoods were shaped by World War II—has no patience for the emotional “problems” her daughters have. She accuses them of squandering their lives and failing to make use of the gifts she and Beverly sacrificed so hard to give them, demonstrating that she is either oblivious or contemptuous of the miserable emotional world they ultimately created for their children.
Little Charles abruptly stands up. He announces that he, too, has a truth to tell. Ivy quietly begs Little Charles to sit back down—“not like this,” she says to him. He tells his family that his “truth” is that he forgot to set his alarm clock for this morning, and then goes out to the porch. Mattie Fae says she gave up on Little Charles a long time ago. Ivy quietly says that his name is just Charles. Violet pats Ivy’s hand, calling her a “poor thing,” and lamenting how Ivy always roots for the underdog. Ivy begs her mother not to be mean to her, but Violet continues.
The complicated relationships between Mattie Fae and Little Charles, and Ivy and Violet, are shown here in a moment of profound tension. The relationship between Ivy and Little Charles will become a major focal point of the next act, and the tension created in this moment will cause all four characters to question what they know about one another as the play progresses.
Barbara tells Violet that she’s a drug addict. Joyfully, Violet shouts, “That is the truth!” She pulls a bottle of pills out her pockets and tells her whole family that her pills are her “best fucking friends.” If anyone tries to take them away from her, she says, she will eat them alive. Barbara lunges for the pills, and Violet screams that she will eat Barbara alive. They wrestle on the floor, while the others try to pull them apart.
Eventually, Barbara wrestles the pills away from a sobbing Violet. She announces that she is starting a pill raid and instructs Ivy and Bill to go upstairs and start going through “everything” Violet owns. She orders Karen to call Dr. Burke and tell him that they have a “sick woman” on their hands. Violet cries that Barbara can’t do this—this is Violet’s house. “You don’t get it, do you?” Barbara asks, getting in Violet’s face, towering over her. With a triumphant scream, Barbara tells Violet that it is she is running things now.
This cataclysmic transfer of power is as triumphant as it is completely in vain. Barbara is laboring under the illusion that she could possibly “run” such a chaotic, violent household overrun by emotional abuse, distrust, and cruelty. Barbara is in over her head—and whether or not she knows it, her desperate statement demonstrates just how unprepared she is to usurp her mother as matriarch of the family.