On the Degradation of Familial Duty
Rarely does a play of such banal proportions (a tale about family gathering and dysfunctionality) achieve such rewarding and exhilarating applause from its audience. Tracy Lett’s play, August: Osage County, is a play about a dysfunctional American family living in a small town in Oklahoma, where family association and friendship take on a radically organic, and abysmal meaning. The setting of the play revolves around the gathering of the mainly female members of the Weston family at their childhood home due to the mysterious disappearance of their father, Beverley Weston. The play infuses themes of alcoholism, loneliness, melancholy, sexual promiscuity, and especially nostalgia. It is common for men to feel ‘safe’ around their family, and primarily direct their frustrations and struggles with outside, foreign society. Lett flips this common notion on its head, when he authentically and masterfully reveals the grinding tension and familial fault lines impacting this archetypal American family. Using a dynamic and searing character development style, heavy dialogue, and tremendously acute stage direction, Lett in August: Osage County, reveals the latent melancholies and destructive mortal sins buried within us all.
Tension, in Osage County, is constructed and perpetuated in a myriad different ways in Lett’s play. One way in which tension is constructed is the way in which the characters bring up and draw on each other’s sensitive past events and experiences. It is especially horrific, most notably during the third act, when it is Violet, the matriarchal mother, who highlights and attacks the pasts of her daughters. Another manner in which Lett’s play constructs tension, is the heavily intentional and personal manner in which remarks and attacks are made within the Weston dynamic – fusing the remarks together with a vocabulary of invalidation, mistrust, and spitefulness.
A character’s psychology and well-being may very well be thriving in hope and rectitude, but it seems no one is safe when he or she squares off with their past blunders and sin. For example, when Barbara and Bill are driving to Violet’s house, they are caught in a heated exchange regarding their daughter’s state of being, and how they ought to be better parents. “While you’re going through your fifth puberty,” Barbara says, “the world is falling apart and I can’t handle it! More importantly, your kid can’t handle it” (Letts 76)! Bill responds with an attack on Barbara’s unhealthy and troubling family union: “our kid is just trying to deal with this goddamn mad-house you’ve dragged her into” (Letts 76). The conflict escalates and tensions grow higher between these very dynamic characters – characters who are married, and presumably in love. Little nuances and subtleties reveal emotional paradoxes which further confuse and escalate the family-strung conflict; such as Bill’s comment to Barbara: “you’re a good, decent, funny, wonderful woman, and I love you, but you’re a pain in the ass” (Letts 77).
The characters also seem to all have quasi-narcissistic personalities, which causes them almost never to back down from colloquial engagements or (constructive) criticism, but always forces them to desire intellectual victory. This narcissism, along with other callous habits reveals the brutal and broken reality of the Weston’s (and Company) familial association. Plato, the great Greek philosopher and ethicist, defines true friendship as, “agreeing about what is admirable and just; deciding on the same way of life; having the same views about moral decision and moral conduct; agreeing on a way of life; sharing on the basis of benevolence…” (Plato 1681). What fair and honest man could ever apply such a high and noble definition to the likes and kind of the Weston’s? The vital and nurturing bonds of filial piety, familial duty and responsibility, and friendly love are wholly absent from