Violence and abuse, both psychological and physical, have seeped into every corner of the Weston household—and into nearly every line of August: Osage County. The play is about a family that does not know how to be good to one another as a result of generational trauma, addictive behavior, broken promises, and dangerous secrets, and it seems, for much of the action, that violence and abuse are inevitable byproducts of such sadness, tension, and brokenness. As the play unfolds, though, and as the violence ramps up, it becomes clear that Letts is arguing that violence and abuse are, more often than not, consciously-employed methods of securing and maintaining power over other individuals.
From the moment Violet is first shown with her daughters, Letts establishes the emotionally violent atmosphere that Violet perpetuates in order to maintain power over her three children. In her early interactions with Ivy, Violet disparages her middle daughter in cruel, offhand ways. She tells Ivy she is “hopeless” after badgering her to disclose how an earlier phone call with Barbara went, and all Ivy can relay is that Barbara said she was on her way. When Ivy tells Violet—perhaps in an attempt to appease her mother—that she called her middle sister, Karen, as well, and that Karen said she would try to make it home, Violet replies that Karen will “be a big fat help, just like you,” before popping a pill and stating that the only person she wants around is Barbara. When Ivy replies that she doesn’t know what Barb is going to be able to do that Ivy herself couldn’t, Violet begins attacking Ivy’s appearance, telling Ivy that straightening her hair was a mistake, encouraging her to wear makeup, and telling her that she looks “like a lesbian” and needs to “spruce up” in order to attract a man. From this scene alone, it is clear that Violet attempts to beat her daughters down and level their sense of self-confidence in order to retain power over them. She has clearly been successful with Ivy, who has stayed in her hometown all her life and who is single despite being in her mid-forties.
Violet’s abuse of Barbara is different, and more insidious. Violet claims to need Barbara and sees Barbara as the only one who can help her—yet Violet rejects Barbara’s attempts to draw attention to Violet’s addiction, denying it outright when Barbara asks her mother if she is high on pills. Because Barbara is the one who can see Violet most clearly—and is the only one unafraid of speaking up to her or out against her—Barbara receives the most abuse in the form of pointed verbal jabs and screaming tirades alike.
This tension between the two women comes to a head at Beverly’s funeral dinner. Sick of her mother’s treatment not just of herself but of Ivy, Karen, Little Charles, and practically everyone else at the dinner table, Barbara accuses her mother of being an addict in front of everyone. Violet responds by gleefully admitting to the label, brandishing her pills and challenging anyone to try and take them away from her. Barbara lunges for her mother, and a fight ensues—one of the rare examples of visible physical abuse in the play. Barbara is as skilled at verbal sparring as her mother—she learned, after all, from the best—yet there is no longer any chance of either woman securing power through words. The only avenue left, then, is establishing physical dominance—Barbara’s win over her mother is a sure thing, as Violet is weakened both by intoxication and cancer. At the end of the fight, Barbara’s triumphant scream—“I’m running things now!”—is a way of wrestling some sense of agency out of a relationship which for so many years was balanced in Violet’s favor.
Violet is not the only one in the play who uses emotional violence and abuse as a way to establish power—Mattie Fae, who is nearly as sharp-tongued and cruel as her older sister, uses similar patterns to maintain control over her only son, Little Charles. Mattie Fae’s disdain for Little Charles permeates every sentence she speaks about him. Even her insistence on calling him “Little Charles,” in spite of the fact that he is thirty-seven years old, betrays her desire to infantilize him in order to keep him firmly under her thumb.
Little Charlies, like Ivy, lives close to home and has remained unmarried. Like Ivy, Little Charles must daily bear the brunt of his mother’s ire—though the reasons behind Mattie Fae’s abuse of Little Charles are very different than those for Violet’s cruelty towards Ivy. It is eventually revealed that Little Charles is the product of an affair between Beverly and Mattie Fae, and that Mattie Fae’s guilt and shame over this secret has caused her to see her only son as a disappointment. Mattie Fae’s abuse towards Little Charles, then, is motivated by her own self-loathing. By belittling Little Charles, Mattie Fae convinces herself she has power over the secret which has come to calibrate her life—even if the maintenance of that illusion saps every ounce of goodness and kindness from her heart.
The myriad ways in which abuse and violence are used to hold power—or at least create the illusion that one is in possession of power—throughout the play reveal Letts’s curiosity about the efficacy of such struggles. Rather than creating characters who are cruel, abusive, and violent for no reason at all, he creates an atmosphere through his carefully-orchestrated character dynamics in which abuse and violence often yield power. Violet and Mattie Fae’s cruelty is, for each woman, a direct means to the maintenance of the illusion that they have power over their families, their destinies, and themselves.
Violence, Abuse, and Power ThemeTracker
Violence, Abuse, and Power Quotes in August: Osage County
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: 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!
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.
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.)