The atmosphere of the Weston clan’s ancestral home is stifling and tightly-controlled, and the effects of such an environment on the individuals made to endure it become increasingly sinister as the play unfolds. As tensions mount and horrible secrets come to life, Letts paints a picture of the mechanisms of responsibility and entrapment that keep people tied to abusive and miserable families. Letts ultimately suggests, through his careful examination of the three Weston sisters—Barbara, Karen, and Ivy, each of whom feel a different level of responsibility for their parents and larger extended family—that the only way to escape a broken family is to sever oneself from their origins entirely, leaving behind any and all chances of being pulled back in.
When Barbara arrives in Pawhuska with her husband Bill and their daughter, Jean, she comments right away on the oppressive heat—itself a symbol throughout the novel for control, suffocation, and entrapment. Barbara, as her parents’ eldest child, is given task after painful task once she arrives home. It is Barbara who has to go identify Beverly’s body, once it is dredged up out of a local lake; it is Barbara who leads the pill raid once she realizes that her mother is, for at least the second time in her life, hooked on narcotics; it is Barbara who must remain with her mother, alone in the house she hates, after nearly everyone else in the family has up and left.
With each task, Barbara is pulled deeper into her family’s web, and towards the end of the play, it seems that Barbara has failed, once and for all, to get herself back out. As the play draws to a close, Violet reveals that she knew all along that Beverly was actually at a nearby motel during the days he went missing, and could’ve saved him from committing suicide by simply picking up the phone and calling him. This revelation is too much for Barbara to bear. Though she has been walking around her mother’s house for days or weeks like a ghost—losing touch with her life outside of Pawhuska—Barbara, in the wake of Violet’s admission, retrieves her rental car keys and leaves without another word, making clear her intent to never look back.
Karen, meanwhile, is characterized as a narcissistic dimwit clinging desperately to a sense of elaborately-constructed optimism. She prattles on about the happiness she has in Florida with her new fiancé Steve. After a lifetime of being treated badly, Karen says, she is finally being treated right. As Karen monologues at her sister Barbara—whom she hasn’t seen in years—while they set the table for their father’s funeral dinner, it is clear that Karen is actively trying to paint a picture of herself as someone who has established both physical and emotional distance from the claustrophobia of her toxic family, and thus, found enlightenment and true happiness.
As the play continues to unfold, though, it will become clear that in trying to establish a life away from home, Karen has aligned herself with someone perhaps even worse than the Westons. Steve comes on to Barbara’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Jean, eventually attempting to seduce her one night in the kitchen. Johnna puts a stop to the assault, attacking Steve with a frying pan, but Karen is quick to defend her beau after the incident. She admits that she herself has done things she’s “not proud of […] ‘cause sometimes life puts you in a corner that way.” By alluding to having taken desperate measures and done bad things in order to escape the “corner” her family had wedged her into, Karen demonstrates how she has stopped at nothing to try and get away from her family.
Ivy’s experience of entrapment at the hands of her parents is so profound that she cannot conceive of a life or a relationship outside of her family; this is reflected in her choice to pursue a romance with her cousin, Little Charles. Ivy is the only Weston girl to have stayed behind in Oklahoma. While Barbara moved to Colorado and Karen went to Florida, Ivy has wasted her life in service to Beverly and Violet. Despite her proximity to home, Ivy feels disconnected from her entire family—except for Little Charles. The play implies that Ivy and Little Charles have always been the odd ones out—Barbara remarks that the two of them have “always marched to their own [beat.]” Ivy tells Barbara that for years she stayed in Pawhuska, “hoping against hope someone would come into [her] life,” but never making any romantic connections. Having become so wrapped up in her parents’ insular world, Ivy chose, when pursuing romance, to burrow even deeper into the mechanisms which have kept her tied, all her life, to her family.
When Little Charles is revealed to be Ivy’s half-brother, it symbolizes that Ivy is even more entrapped within her family that she would like to believe. As the realization of what Ivy has done hits her, she leaves the house, promising Barbara that she is going to run away to New York with Little Charles. Whether Ivy will go through with this remains unknown—but what is certain is that even if she runs away from her family, her relationship with Little Charles will forever serve as a reminder of the insularity of her own world as well as her inability to escape her responsibilities to her family.
In creating a sense of entrapment, claustrophobia, and inescapability, Letts turns the Westons’ home into a house of horrors, which releases the members of the Weston clan only when they have declared their intent to cut all ties to the rest of the family. Though the three Weston sisters are at the center of the play, the other characters are bound to this spell-like code, too. Karen and Steve leave after Steve transgresses against Jean, and Karen speaks of fleeing to Belize on their honeymoon; Bill leaves with the declaration that he and Barbara will never repair their marriage; Charlie leaves threatening to divorce Mattie Fae; Ivy leaves promising to run away to New York; Barbara leaves after telling her mother she is “strong” enough to live—and die—on her own. As the characters realize that to escape their home they must sever themselves from one another, Letts paints a dark but compelling portrait of family as a kind of rat-trap—something one can only escape by destroying a small part of oneself.
Familial Responsibility and Entrapment ThemeTracker
Familial Responsibility and Entrapment 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.
BARBARA: Goddamn, it’s hot.
BARBARA: I know it. Colorado spoiled me.
BILL: That’s one of the reasons we got out of here.
BARARA: No, it’s not.
BILL: You suppose your mom’s turned on the air conditioner?
BARBARA: Are you kidding? Remember the parakeets?
BILL: The parakeets.
BARBARA: I didn’t tell you about the parakeets? She got a parakeet, for some insane reason, and the little fucker croaked after about two days. So she went to the pet store and raised hell and they gave her another parakeet. That one died after just one day. So she went back and they gave her a third parakeet and that one died, too. So the chick from the per store came out here to see just what in hell this serial parakeet killer was doing to bump off these birds.
BARBARA: The heat. It was too hot. They were dying from the heat.
VIOLET: [Beverly] just told me he’s disappointed in you because you settled.
BARBARA: Is that supposed to be a comment on Bill? Daddy never said anything like that to you—
VIOLET: Your father thought you had talent, as a writer.
BARBARA: If he thought that, and I doubt he did, he was wrong. Anyway, what difference does it make? It’s my life. I can do what I want. So he was disappointed in me because I settled for a beautiful family and a teaching career, is that what you’re saying? What a load of absolute horseshit.
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.
BILL: Barbara, please, we have enough on our hands with your parents right now. Let’s not revisit all this.
BARBARA: Revisit, when did we visit this to begin with? You pulled the rug out from under me. I still don’t know what happened. Do I bore you, intimidate you, disgust you? Is this just about the pleasures of young flesh, teenage pussy? I really need to know.
BILL: You need to know now? You want to have this discussion with Beverly missing, and your mother crazy as a loon, and our daughter twenty feet away? Do you really want to do this now? […] This discussion deserves our care. And patience. We’ll both be in a better frame of mind to talk about this once your father’s come home.
BARBARA: My father’s dead, Bill.
KAREN: I guess what I’m telling you is that I’m finally happy. I’ve been really unhappy for most of my life, my adult life. I doubt you’ve been aware of that. I know our lives have led us apart, you, me and Ivy, and maybe we’re not as close as we … as close as some families—
BARBARA: Yeah, we really need to talk about Mom, what to do about Mom—
KAREN:—but I think at least one reason for that is that I haven’t wanted to live my unhappiness in full view of my family. But now I’m … well, I’m just really happy. And I’d really like us to maybe get to know each other a little better.
BARBARA: Three days ago … I had to identify my father’s corpse. And now I sit here and listen to you viciously attack each and every member of this family—
VIOLET: “Attack my family”?! You ever been attacked in your sweet spoiled life?! Tell her ‘bout attacks, Mattie Fae, tell her what an attack looks like!
MATTIE FAE: Vi, please—
IVY: Settle down, Mom—
VIOLET: Stop telling me to settle down, goddamn it! I’m not a goddamn invalid! I don’t need to be abided, do I?! Am I already passed over?!
MATTIE FAE: Honey—
VIOLET: (Points to Mattie Fae.) This woman came to my rescue when one of my dear mother’s many gentlemen friends was attacking me, with a claw hammer! This woman has dents in her skull from hammer blows! You think you been attacked?! What do you know about life on these Plains? What do you now about hard times?
BARBARA: I know you had a rotten childhood, Mom. Who didn’t?
VIOLET: You DON'T know! You do NOT know! None of you know, 'cept this woman right here and that man we buried today! Sweet girl, sweet Barbara, my heart breaks for every time you ever felt pain. I wish I coulda shielded you from it. But if you think for a solitary second you can fathom the paint that man endured in his natural life, you got another think coming.
VIOLET: Do you know where your father lived from age four ‘til about ten? Do you? (No one responds) Do you?!
VIOLET: In a Pontiac sedan. With his mother, his father, in a fucking car! Now what else do you want to say about your rotten childhood? That’s the crux of the biscuit: We lived too hard, then rose too high. We sacrificed everything and we did it all for you. Your father and I were the first in our families to finish high school and he wound up an award-winning poet. You girls, given a college education, taken for granted no doubt, and where'd you wind up? (Jabs a finger at Karen.) Whadda you do? (Jabs a finger at Ivy.) Whadda you do? (Jabs a finger at Barbara.) Who're you? Jesus, you worked as hard as us, you'd all be president. You never had real problems so you got to make all your problems yourselves.
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!
BARBARA: You might have told us [about the cancer].
IVY: You weren’t going to tell us about you and Bill.
BARBARA: That’s different.
IVY: Why? Because it’s you, and not me?
BARBARA: No, because divorce is an embarrassing public admission of defeat. Cancer’s fucking cancer, you can’t help that. We’re your sisters. We might have given you some comfort.
IVY: I just don’t feel that connection very keenly.
KAREN: I feel very connected, to both of you.
IVY: (Amused) We never see you, you’re never around, you haven’t been around for—
KAREN: But I still feel that connection!
IVY: You think if you tether yourself to this place in mind only, you don’t need to actually appear.
KAREN: You know me that well.
IVY: No, and that’s my point. I can’t perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood anymore. We’re all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more.
BARBARA: Aren’t you angry with him?
IVY: No. He’s accountable to no one but himself. If he’s better off now, and I don’t doubt he is, who are we to begrudge him that?
BARBARA: His daughters.
BARBARA: And I’m fucking furious. The selfish son-of-a-bitch, his silence, his melancholy … he could have, for me, for us, for all of us, he could have helped us, included us, talked to us.
IVY: You might not have liked what you heard. What if the truth of the matter is that Beverly Weston never liked you? That he never liked any of us, never had any special feeling of any kind for his children?
CHARLIE: I don’t understand this meanness. I look at you and your sister and the way you talk to people and I don’t understand it. I just can’t understand why folks can’t be respectful of one another. I don’t think there’s any excuse for it. My family didn’t treat each other that way.
MATTIE FAE: Well maybe that’s because your family is a—
CHARLIE: You had better not say anything about my family right now. I mean it. We buried a man today I loved very much. And whatever faults he may have had, he was a good, kind, decent person. And to hear you tear into your own son on a day like today dishonors Beverly’s memory. We’ve been married for thirty-eight years. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But if you can’t find a generous place in your heart for your own son, we’re not going to make it to thirty-nine.
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.
IVY: Why did you tell me? Why in God’s name did you tell me this?
VIOLET: Hey, what do you care?
IVY: You’re monsters.
VIOLET: Come on now—
IVY: Picking the bones of the rest of us—
VIOLET: You crazy nut.
VIOLET: Who’s the injured party here? (Ivy staggers out of the dining room, into the living room. Barbara pursues her.)
BARBARA: Ivy, listen—
Ivy: Leave me alone!
IVY: I won’t let you do this to me!
BARBARA: When Mattie Fae told me, I didn’t know what to do—
IVY: I won’t let you change my story! (Ivy exits. Barbara chases after her and catches her on the front porch.)
BARBARA: Goddamn it, listen to me: I tried to protect you—
IVY: We’ll go anyway. We’ll still go away, and you will never see me again.
BARBARA: Don’t leave me like this.
IVY: You will never see me again.
BARBARA: This is not my fault. I didn’t tell you. Mom told you. It wasn’t me, it was Mom.
IVY: There’s no difference.
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.)