The disappearance of the Weston clan’s patriarch, Beverly, structures the play’s first act, and the void left in the wake of his loss forms both the logistical and emotional framework of the rest of the action. Beverly becomes an almost mythical figure as the drama unfolds—an archetype symbolic of the death of a vision of America that no longer exists. Set in mid-2007—a crucial moment in American patriotism and paranoia—August: Osage County uses Beverly’s death to simulate the end of a certain era in American life, to suggest the irrelevance of the “Greatest Generation”—those who grew up in the Depression and went on to fight in World War II—and to reject the idea that America’s most important years are in its past.
Beverly only appears in the play’s prologue, as he interviews Johnna Monevata for a job as a live-in housekeeper. During this peculiar introduction to the Weston home, Beverly declares he will soon depart from the world due to his inability to live the quintessential American life he always believed he’d have. This is established through a number of things Beverly says, and by his metaphorical passing of the baton to Johnna, a Native American woman. Beverly begins the interview by quoting memorably bleak lines from T.S. Eliot (“Life is very long”) and John Berryman (“The world is gradually becoming a place where I do not care to be anymore”). His “affinity with the damaged” is evidence of his own exhaustion and brokenness.
Beverly admits he is not “entirely comfortable” with bringing in help, but explains he is “join[ing] the ranks of the Hiring Class”—a “class” he seems, from this language, to view derisively—because his and Violet’s addictions have become so overwhelming that they can no longer participate in “the maintenance of traditional American routine.” The scene ends as Johnna accepts the job and Beverly gives her a volume of T.S. Eliot to read, telling her it is not a “job requirement,” but merely for her own enjoyment.
This moment, in which Beverly metaphorically renounces his role as patriarch and puts the care of himself and his wife in the hands of a Native woman from a younger generation, is not only symbolic of Beverly’s preparation for his own literal demise, but of his preparation for the figurative demise of the control his generation has exerted over America. In lending her the volume of Eliot, he is making one final half-hearted attempt to pass on the wisdom of his own generation. The irony in this gesture is that Eliot, though born in America, defected to England at an early age and renounced his American passport. A member of the generation before Beverly’s, Eliot had already seen the fruitlessness and death in “American routine.”
As the play progresses, Johnna’s presence is seen by many members of the Weston clan as disorienting. More than anything, they simply aren’t sure how to talk to or treat Johnna. Their reactions reveal an anxiety about the presence of otherness in their lives, and symbolize, on a larger scale, American anxieties about a more inclusive future which attempts to atone for the mistakes of generations past—even those of the so-called “Greatest Generation” to which Violet, Beverly, Mattie Fae, and Charlie all belong.
Violet is particularly baffled by Johnna’s presence. She repeatedly points out Johnna’s otherness by referring to her as an “Indian.” Despite Barbara’s attempts to clue her mother in as to the politically correct nomenclature, Violet keeps referring to the “Indian in her house” and making pointed reference to Johnna’s status as an outsider. When Karen later refers to the old fort in the backyard where she and her sisters used to play “Cowboys and Indians,” Violet angrily makes a point of correcting Karen, urging her to revise her sentence—“You played Cowboys and Native Americans.” The correction is really a pointed attack on Barbara; Violet is angry with her eldest daughter for her progressiveness—progressiveness that, to Violet, signals the end of her generation’s era of power, and the end of a way of life that blatantly privileged white American while paying little attention to the needs of marginalized populations. Johnna’s status as a live-in housekeeper has already made Violet feel useless, and watching her family privilege Johnna’s comfort and sense of belonging over Violet’s own is too much for her to bear.
At the end of the play, Violet has been forsaken by her husband and daughters, and has no company but her pills and Johnna, “the Indian who lives in [her] attic.” Violet crawls up the stairs to Johnna’s room, where she lays her head in Johnna’s lap and begs for comfort. In one way, the play has been about Violet’s struggle against the forces of addiction and abuse; in another, more symbolic sense, it has been about Beverly and Violet’s journey towards the acceptance of the fact that their generation’s power is coming to a close, and that a new era of American life is about to begin. The image of Violet taking emotional refuge in the arms of her hired help—a woman whose people have systematically been taken advantage of and decimated by white Americans—is symbolic of the wounds between oppressed and oppressor that may never heal. As Johnna cradles a quietly weeping Violet—who is herself repeating, over and over again, “And then you’re gone, and then you’re gone”—Johnna invokes T.S. Eliot, saying, “This is the way the world ends” over and over. Johnna is quoting an American poet who renounced his ties to America, and who foretold of the world ending with a “whimper”—indeed, Violet’s world is ending to the soundtrack of her own pitiful whimpers.
As his characters wrestle with political correctness, the death of their dreams and aspirations, and the demands of modern American life, Letts uses the canvas of August: Osage County to examine the anxieties unique to a world in flux. The symbolic death of the Weston patriarch sets the stage for the play’s larger symbolic tilt: the death of the received social order of contemporary America.
Patriarchy and American Memory ThemeTracker
Patriarchy and American Memory 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.
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: 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.
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.)