August: Osage County is fundamentally a story about the inheritance of trauma. As the extended Weston clan comes together under one roof for the first time in years after the death of their patriarch, Beverly, the relationships most keenly tested are those between parents and children. Through his examination of several fraught parent-child relationships under pressure, playwright Tracy Letts suggests that behavior both benign and abusive, and legacies both mundane and traumatic, are inevitably passed on from one generation to the next.
Letts examines the burden of inherited trauma through the relationship between Violet, the Weston family matriarch, and her eldest daughter Barbara. Violet is a cruel woman—an addict who stumbles through her house in a haze, spewing vitriol at anyone who will listen. Violet’s cruelty is eventually revealed to stem, at least in part, from her own mother’s meanness. At one point, for example, Violet tells her daughters about her mother pulling a prank one Christmas, gifting Violet a pair of dirty, feces-caked work boots after she’d asked for a pair of shiny cowboy boots. Ruminating on this story, Violet calls her mother a “nasty, mean old lady” and supposes she’s the source of her own cruelty.
Violet has clearly passed her pain on to her own three daughters—most of all, to Barbara. After being home for only a few hours, Barbara begins picking a fight with her husband Bill about his infidelity. As Barbara insults Bill every chance she gets, Bill remarks that “Violet really has a way of putting [Barbara] in attack mode.” This quotation illustrates the effect Violet has on Barbara, and the ways in which being home exacerbates the baggage Barbara has inherited from her mother. Barbara also spars with her sisters Ivy and Karen and her own daughter, Jean, further proving herself to possess Violet’s appreciation of a down and dirty battle of words.
Through the relationship between Violet’s sister Mattie Fae and her son Little Charles, Letts also demonstrates how parents’ self-loathing is inherited by their children. Mattie Fae displays outsized disdain towards Little Charles throughout the play. The source of this cruelty is not revealed until Act Three, when Mattie Fae suspects that Little Charles and his (supposed) cousin Ivy are involved romantically and comes to Barbara with her suspicions. Barbara confirms Mattie Fae’s fears, prompting Mattie Fae to reveal the truth: Ivy and Little Charles aren’t cousins, but half-siblings; Little Charles is Beverly’s son from an affair with Mattie Fae.
As she confesses this, Mattie Fae self-reflectively admits that she doesn’t know why Little Charles is “such a disappointment” to her—she wonders if she is really just “disappointed for him,” and has been hard on him as a result of her guilt over hiding such a secret. In this way, Mattie Fae’s pain has been passed down to her son. Though he doesn’t know the truth of his parentage, he has had to bear the burden of his mother’s ire for nearly four decades, and has become insecure, introverted, and emotionally stunted as a result. Little Charles has internalized the worst of his mother and built his entire identity around this sense of inadequacy.
While Barbara and Beverly never appear together onstage, the echoes of their unique relationship reverberate throughout the play. Beverly passes down two things to his oldest daughter: his talent for writing, and his inability to use that talent. Beverly came to prominence after the publication of his first book of poems, Meadowlark, in the 1960s. Though the play never delves into specifics, Letts hints that Barbara herself is a writer—and a failed one at that. Violet tells Barbara that Beverly always said his daughter had talent; this information shocks Barbara, who refuses to believe that her father would ever have said such a thing—or, even if he had, that such a thing could be true. The fact that Beverly never told Barbara himself that he admired her writing reveals a disconnect between the two, but also suggests the inheritance of talent—whether it was passed down through genetics or through Barbara’s active effort to be like (or to impress) her father is never revealed. Talent, then, is a different kind of “trauma” here—Beverly’s early success became a burden when he failed to produce a second book that held up to his first, and the pain of flailing as an artist is a legacy to which Barbara has, perhaps unwittingly, become the heir.
This connection between Beverly and Barbara’s artistic lives is symbolic of a deeper emotional connection between the two, hinted at when Barbara and Johnna (Beverly and Violet’s housekeeper) convene in Beverly’s study in scene that mirrors the play’s prologue. In the prologue, Beverly offers Johnna the job of housekeeper and caretaker, before launching into a half-drunken monologue about his disillusionment with his life, his writing, and his country. Later in the play, Barbara sits Johnna down in the study for a meeting. Barbara nurses a glass of whiskey—as her father did in the prologue—while waxing poetic about her father’s disappointment in America, his family, and himself. After dismissing Johnna, Barbara pours herself some more whiskey—demonstrating that she may stand to inherit her father’s alcoholism, as well—and talks to herself circuitously, mirroring his behavior twice over. Barbara, unaware of the manner in which Johnna was hired, unknowingly mimics Beverly’s actions, suggesting the patterns and behaviors she has inherited from him are not just copied—as her writing career may be—but transmitted genetically or spiritually.
Trauma, talent, self-loathing, and predispositions toward addiction make their way from generation to generation in a combination of genetics, behavioral influence, and an element—at least in the world of this play—of fate. As the Westons struggle to understand the traits their parents have thrust upon them—and indeed the things they have forced, willingly or not, upon their own children—Letts highlights the inevitability of inheritance, and all the burdens contained within it.
Parents, Children, and Inheritance ThemeTracker
Parents, Children, and Inheritance 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.
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: 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.)