August Osage County and Sheltering in Place

Some people believe art models human nature. Like the mirror held up to one’s face, a written page or acted stage can refract the finer wrinkles of a multi-faceted life. In our own disconcerting times–viruses, cancellations, and the like–the idea of stopping to contemplate these facets might seem pointless. Yet it is only through a major shift in our daily standard that we are forced to pause for a second and reevaluate our interpersonal underpinnings. At home, a quiet moment away from the masses can spark a rare consideration of our status at large; perhaps it steers us to seek out the aforesaid art. Owing to the current fact of “self-quarantine,” the topic of close family relations–a situation undoubtedly playing out right now–remains joltingly apropos. Written by Tracey Letts, the play August: Osage County employs a similar circumstance in terms of how families are bound together. A drama, the 2007 masterwork focuses on a haggard, drug-addicted woman from Oklahoma whose husband has just passed. The woman, Violet Weston, faces the suicide of her beloved, though embattled Beverly, a writer with both literary poise and a shady history of affair. From a third-person viewpoint, audiences learn that Violet’s extended relatives, including her three middle-aged daughters and their partners, will be visiting to help bury their father. Naturally, the house in Oklahoma grows into a petri dish of human behavior. As the story takes a bitter turn, family member upon family member lashes out at each other, rehashing old grievances and suspicions. At the core of the malignancy is Violet. Like the strain induced by an invisible virus, the ghost of a dead man haunts if not guilts the protagonist. When those around her invoke his memory against her, she slips into a self-conjured hatred, partially fueled by pills. 

All the while, the context for this descent, the sere grasslands of the Osage Valley, unfurls harshly. In the play’s movie adaptation, viewers take in transcendent panoramas imbued with mature blues and yellows. Despite the “wide-openness” of the fields, there lives a sentiment of sequester among the great southwestern tableau. Vast boundaries stretch on forever and, still, by their very horizons, circumscribe a vacuous prison. No one can flee from the nothingness. If this locale gave air to any more austerity, the few “darkly comedic” moments in Osage County would devolve into pure masochism for the soul. Read cynically, the play proffers a simple tale about the spoils of death; those who survive quibble over one man’s last will and testament. At the liminal level, Letts tries to insert a number of subtle witticisms to break the ongoing tension of this sometimes morose fever. The forefront of the exposition, for instance, culminates in the revelation that Violet, shown to be both foul-mouthed and physically afflicted, has contracted a fitting amount of mouth cancer. Make no mistake–each of these quips is dissolved in the same instantaneous air that the family’s interactions shift from even-keeled to sharply discordant. Taken in whole, the Weston conclave seizes the essential question posed at the start of the film and twists it backwards. What begins as a didactic on the fallout of loss suddenly morphs into a much more startling query: Would these individuals otherwise be together? One wonders if August: Osage County is attempting to engender atheism toward the sanctity of the nuclear structure.

In many ways, Letts breaks with the standard narrative system archetypically found in cinema. As a week on the prairie goes by, characters stand defiantly static, just as the stalks of grass have remained in the fields for eons. Having a lead figure undergo change is an almost requisite feature of major art productions, but, in this story, the vector for each character becomes a circle. Clear to distort the funeral at hand, these pathways include a number of personal side-threads frivolously fraught between smaller cliques. Half-way through the piece, viewers grow uncomfortably aware that Jean, the daughter of Violet’s eldest, Barbara, has been courted by Steve, the forty-year-old fiance of the youngest and, arguably, most ditzy sister Karen. Meanwhile, middle sibling Ivy struggles to keep Barbara from exposing her affair with first cousin Charles, an ironic bit that serves as the only shred of good-will in the house. Given their short time together, the Westons come to atomize themselves in a matter that runs against the seeming closeness afforded by the four walls of the craftsman manse. In the end, the dead stay dead, and the rest either leap to each other’s throats or abscond with their emotions. The upshot of this interaction is that, despite the obvious surface appearance, no tangible villain exists here. True, Violet propels the family’s fissure through her addict’s veil and amoral tendencies, but the critical mechanism in play involves little more than circumstance: a particular group of people is arranged at a single place in time. Ultimately, one man’s fatal choice pulls back the curtain on the randomness of nature, which, in our own time, has disarrayed a functional social machine by conjuring a new disease. By the term “nature,” one must not let scientific predictions or human rationale cloud the finer chaos underneath. The tenuous mechanics of life introduced by the Osage County ordeal clearly fails to reach its protagonists. On the Oklahoma plains, the perfection found within the harmony of a setting sun or a grainstalk’s symmetrical spines can hide the jolting absurdity of natural existence, especially with regard to death. Early on, the play’s use of suicide emphasizes the deep mysteries that lie beyond the realm of Man’s apparent reason–nature expressed through the brain fibers. Cerebrally, the nerve impulses that goad Beverly Weston to choose death under a lake find little etiological explanation except in that of the abstract. Letts knows this reality well as he echoes its far-echoing outcome across a canvas of personages. In both the play and the real world, research aided by human psychology and broad patterns of habit may explain the proximate social triggers of an event, but the exact cause of a metaphysical stimulus–one that connects mind to matter–eludes our ultimate understanding. A burning doubt as to “why now” and “under whose direction” soon emerges from the mental fray. It is this type of invisible force that swirls around the Westons as they refuse to acknowledge that chaotic part of physics directly responsible for Beverly’s final choice and their resultant position. Here Violet Weston becomes the mouthpiece for her entire family’s bitterness as she simmers from her bully’s pulpit. A veritable podium rather than a piece of furniture, the dinner table allows Weston to deliver the work’s summative line, a sharp comment intended for the audience as much as old Uncle Charlie: “in my day, families stayed together.”

Tragically-induced or not, this story’s overriding plot piece–-close cohabitation–does not in all cases strengthen a group’s bond. Even when mortality strikes in August: Osage County, the characters never appreciate that Nature’s fickle ways can, at any point, upend the fragile familial order. Their conviction to misery as well as a number of far-gone concerns works to truncate any sense of T.S. Elliot’s old poetic verse, “life is very long.” These days, in the jaws of an unruly pandemic, the best insight one can gain may be simpler than any hand-washing technique. Once the curves have fallen and the broken-hearted have risen again, will we view the world as a place where some things just cannot happen? Though families may savor a much-needed respite in the thick of a shutdown, not all will learn to value the thin strings that already hold them together. Notwithstanding familial strife, sheer ignorance will drive members back to their respective corners, lacking a renewed connection–back to cubicles and back to standardized tests scored from office parks in Iowa. Just as America rebuffed predictions of becoming the mask-wearing, lame-duck host of the virus, little did individual families believe that their conjugal fabrics, however degraded by internet chatrooms and smartphones, might be swiftly torn in its wake. Perhaps the unpredictable tools of suffering used by this scourge will re-etch the temporal nature of family into the national conscience.