The inciting incident of August: Osage County—and almost all the action that follows —is calibrated around the emotional and logistical vacuum created by addiction. In the play’s prologue, Beverly Weston hires Johnna Monevata to look after him and Violet, whose addictions, according to Beverly himself, “have over time made burdensome the maintenance of traditional American routine.” As the play unfolds, Letts—whose real-life family was plagued by addiction—demonstrates the ways in which addiction cripples not just individuals, but families as well. Through his searing portrait of the Weston clan’s matriarch, Violet—an emotionally violent and verbally abusive pill addict—Letts ultimately suggests that addiction often masks other impulses, tendencies, or shameful secrets, and that without attending to those demons, the specter of addiction can never be defeated.
Violet is the most obvious and outlandish addict in the play. While Beverly was a self-admitted alcoholic at the time of his death, and had chosen to nurse his addiction rather than try to escape it, Violet spends much of the first half of the play denying her narcotics addiction to everyone around her—even as she pops pills in plain sight. As the open secret of Violet’s addiction is dissected piece by piece, her behavior is revealed to be a cover for much darker impulses, and a way for her to numb herself to the painful secrets of her own past.
When Violet first appears, she descends the stairs in a state of disarray, mumbling incoherently, lurching around the house erratically, and lashing out against Beverly in abusive verbal attacks. This behavior provides context for Beverly’s twinned senses of hopelessness and desperation. Violet is a woman beyond saving—her recent diagnosis with “a touch of cancer” of the mouth has allowed her to legitimize her use of pills as a practical antidote to the hellish side effects of chemotherapy—and Beverly knows that he cannot do anything to stop his wife from pursuing her addiction, which seems to be her one joy in life.
When the audience next sees Violet, she is disturbed but not incoherent. Nevertheless, as she anxiously awaits Barbara’s arrival, she pops pills one by one, eventually losing count and asking her daughter Ivy how many she’s taken. Ivy, though, has not been able to keep track either. This scene demonstrates how Violet’s serious addiction has become just another banality in the Westons’ lives—it is part of their family’s world, as ubiquitous as furniture. When Barbara arrives soon after this moment, she can tell almost immediately that her mother is high. Barbara warns Violet that she will not go through “this” again—implying that Violet has wrestled with addiction for many years, and demonstrating that her family’s previous attempts to intervene and get her clean have failed spectacularly.
As the play progresses, the depths of Violet’s addiction become more fully realized. She refers to her pills as her “best fucking friends,” and warns her family that if any of them tries to take them from her she will “eat [them] alive.” Violet’s vicious protectiveness of her addiction suggests that it is masking something even more terrible—and as the drama continues, the reasons for her attachment to that mask become clear. It is eventually revealed that Violet has known her family’s most terrible secret all along: that Little Charles is in fact the child of Beverly and Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, not Mattie Fae and her husband Charlie. Violet claims to have always known this truth, but to have never discussed it with Beverly. Clearly, the shame, guilt, and pain of this secret has eaten both of them alive; Beverly is dead by his own hand, and Violet is recklessly toying with her life each day she remains addicted to narcotics.
By the end of the play, Violet has seemingly returned to her addiction, despite her promises to her daughters that this time she would get clean for real. Her erratic, violet, bizarre behavior in the play’s final moments might also reveal an even darker truth: that her addiction has left her brain so addled and damaged that the real Violet, whoever she was, is gone forever. In this reading of the play, the mask that Violet wore in the form of her addiction has become her real “face”—the only visage that remains.
Through Violet, Letts is making a larger comment on what addiction can do not just to individuals, but to families. By the end of the play, Violet has lost everyone she claimed to love—her daughters, her sister, and her husband. Each and every one of them is as much a victim of Violet’s addiction as she is herself; each pays the price for her cowardly disappearance into the use of substances to disguise the truths that, had they been aired in a loving, respectful, honest way, might have been the family’s salvation, rather than its destruction.
Addiction Quotes in August: Osage County
BEVERLY: The facts are: My wife takes pills and I drink. And these facts have over time made burdensome the maintenance of traditional American routine: paying of bills, purchase of goods, cleaning of clothes or carpets or crappers. Rather than once more assume the mantle of guilt … vow abstinence with my fingers crossed in the queasy hope of righting our ship, I’ve chosen to turn my life over to a Higher Power … and join the ranks of the Hiring Class.
CHARLIE: Ivy. Let me ask you something. When did this start? This business with the shades, taping the shades?
IVY: That’s been a couple of years now.
MATTIE FAE: My gosh, has it been that long since we’ve been here?
CHARLIE: Do you know its purpose?
MATTIE FAE: You can’t tell if it’s night or day.
IVY: I think that’s the purpose.
VIOLET: I’m not hooked on anything.
BARBARA: I don’t know if you are or not, I’m just saying I won’t go—
VIOLET: I’m not. I’m in pain.
BARBARA: Because of your mouth.
VIOLET: Yes, because my mouth burns from the chemotheeeahh.
BARBARA: Are you in a lot of pain?
VIOLET: (Starting to cry.) Yes, I’m in pain. I have got... gotten cancer. In my mouth. And it burns like a … bullshit. And Beverly’s disappeared and you’re yelling at me.
BARBARA: I’m not yelling at you.
VIOLET: You couldn’t come home when I got cancer but as soon as Beverly disappeared you rushed back—
BARBARA: I’m sorry. I … you’re right. I’m sorry. (Violet cries. Barbara kneels in front of her, takes her hand.) You know where I think he is? I think he got some whiskey…a carton of cigarettes, couple of good spy novels… aannnd I think he got out on the boat, steered it to a nice spot, somewhere in the shade, close to shore…and he’s fishing, and reading, and drinking, and if the mood strikes him, maybe even writing a little. I think he’s safe. And I think he’ll walk through that door…any time.
BARBARA: You’re a drug addict.
VIOLET: That is the truth! That’s what I’m getting at! I, everybody listen … I am a drug addict. I am addicted to drugs, pills, ‘specially downers. (Pulls a bottle of pills from her pocket, holds them up.) Y’see these little blue babies? These are my best fucking friends and they never let me down. Try to get ‘em away from me and I’ll eat you alive.
BARBARA: Gimme those goddamn pills—
VIOLET: I’ll eat you alive, girl!
BARBARA: Okay. Pill raid. Johnna, help me in the kitchen. Bill, take Ivy and Jean upstairs. (To Ivy.) You remember how to do this, right?
BARBARA: (To Jean) Everything. Go through everything, every counter, every drawer, every shoe box. Nothing’s too personal. Anything even looks suspicious, throw it in a box and we can sort it out later. You understand?
CHARLIE: What should we do?
BARBARA: Get Mom some black coffee and a wet towel and listen to her bullshit. Karen, call Dr. Burke.
KAREN: What do you want me to say?
BARBARA: Tell him we got a sick woman here.
VIOLET: You can’t do this! This is my house! This is my house!
BARBARA: You don’t get it, do you? (With a burst of adrenaline, she strides to Violet, towers over her.) I’M RUNNING THINGS NOW!
MATTIE FAE: Y’know, I’m not proud of this.
BARBARA: Really. You people amaze me. What, were you drunk? Was this just some—?
MATTIE FAE: I wasn’t drunk, no. Maybe it’s hard for you to believe, looking at me, knowing me the way you do, all these years. I know to you, I’m just your old fat Aunt Mattie Fae. But I’m more than that, sweetheart … there’s more to me than that. Charlie’s right, of course. As usual. I don’t know why Little Charles is such a disappointment to me. Maybe he … well, I don’t know why. I guess I’m disappointed for him, more than anything. I made a mistake, a long time ago. Well, okay. Fair enough. I’ve paid for it. But the mistake ends here.
BARBARA: If Ivy found out about this, it would destroy her.
MATTIE FAE: I’m sure as hell not gonna tell her. You have to find a way to stop it. You have to put a stop to it.
BARBARA: Why me?
MATTIE FAE: You said you were running things.
BARBARA: One of the last times I spoke with my father, we were talking about … I don’t know, the state of the world, something … and he said, “You know, this country was always pretty much a whorehouse, but at least it used to have some promise. Now it’s just a shithole.” And I think now maybe he was talking about something else, something more specific, something more personal to him … this house? This family? His marriage? Himself? I don’t know. But there was something sad in his voice—or no, not sad, he always sounded sad—something more hopeless than that. As if it had already happened. As if whatever was disappearing had already disappeared. As if it was too late. As if it was already over. And no one saw it go. This country, this experiment, America, this hubris: what a lament, if no one saw it go. Here today, gone tomorrow. (Beat.) Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm.
VIOLET. You had better understand this, you smug little ingrate, there is at least one reason Beverly killed himself and that's you. Think there’s any way he would’ve done what he did if you were still here? No, just him and me, here in this house, in the dark, left to just ourselves, abandoned, wasted lifetimes devoted to your care and comfort. So stick that knife of judgment in me, go ahead, but make no mistake, his blood is just as much on your hands as it is on mine. (No response. Violet enters the study. Barbara follows.) He did this, though; this was his doing, nor ours. Can you imagine anything more cruel, to make me responsible? And why, just to weaken me, just to make me prove my character? So no, I waited, I waited so I could get my hands on that safety deposit box, but I would have waited anyway. You want to show who's stronger Bev? Nobody is stronger than me, goddamn it. When nothing is left, when everything is gone and disappeared, I'll be here. Who’s stronger now, you son-of-a-bitch?!
BARBARA. No, you're right, Mom. You're the strong one. (Barbara kisses her mother… exits the study, returns to the living room.)
VIOLET. Barbara? (Barbara grabs her purse, digs out rental car keys.) Barbara? (Barbara stands, listens to her mother.) Barbara, please. (Barbara exits the house.) Please, Barbara. Please. (Violet shuffles into the living room.) Barbara? You in here? (She crosses to the dining room.) Ivy? Ivy, you here? Barb? (She crosses to the kitchen.) Barb? Ivy? (She turns in a circle, disoriented, panicked. She crosses to the study.) Bev? (She reenters the living room, stumbles to the stereo, puts on Clapton ... stares at the turntable as the album spins ... attacks the record player, rakes the needle across the album. She looks around, terrified, disoriented.)