The differences and conflicts between generations have always been one of the most important and popular themes in the literature of all epochs. The play August: Osage County written by Tracy Letts and premiered in 2007 explores different aspects of the given issue from a multitude of perspectives, namely general outlook, attitudes towards gender, race, addictions, etc. The author clearly describes the dividing lines between the three generations of the Westons. At the same time, she highlights that family ties can exist in a form of fragile connections that could unite them and harmonize their interpersonal relations.
Letts describes three generations of the Weston family in great detail without making any of the characters a schematic figure, which shows that the purpose of the author is not only to connect different parts of the plot. Each member of the family is a fully-developed character with different strengths and weaknesses. The oldest generation is represented by Violet Weston, her husband, who is physically present only at the prologue of the play, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken and her husband Charles. The children of the above-mentioned characters belong to the middle generation. They are, first of all, three daughters of Violet and Beverly – Barbara, Karen and Ivy – and Mattie Fae’s son Little Charlie. Barbara’s husband and Karen’s fiancée also belong to this category and have quite a significant function in the general structure of the play. The youngest generation is represented only by Barbara’s daughter Jean who is only fourteen years old, but her character communicates important messages about the contemporary generation of Americans.
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One of the most significant differences between generations in this play is their attitude to money and everything connected with the financial responsibility. This issue is addressed many times throughout the play by different characters, but Violet is probably the one who cares about money more than the others. She continuously draws everybody’s attention to the poverty she, Mattie Fae and Beverly lived in, when they were young. During one of the crucial scenes of the play, an episode with family dinner after the funeral, she says, “We lived too hard”. However, she does not talk about her past only to recollect those memories, but primarily to contrast her youth and the way her children lived. Violet aggressively focuses on her belief that neither of her daughters had a right to talk about hardship as they did not feel any. She shouts, “We sacrificed anything and we did it all for you… You worked as hard as us, you’d all be President” (Letts). This speech is especially impressive and powerful in the screen adaptation of the play where Meryl Streep managed to perfectly convey the emotional state of Violet and her attitude towards her daughters. It is difficult not to agree with Violet who believes that financial stability her daughters lived in made a great impact on their personal ideology. However, such laid-back attitude towards the responsibilities, including the financial one, is even better seen in Jean’s behavior. She does not treat anything seriously and does not think about the repercussions of her actions.
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At the end of the play Letts returns to the issues of money. It turns out that Violet had a chance to persuade Beverly not to commit a suicide but opted to go to the bank to take the possessions from their safe as they previously had agreed that it would be the right thing to do. She tries to explain it to Barbara, “You have to understand, for people like your father and me, who never had any money, ever, as kids, people from our generation, that money is important” (Letts). Nevertheless, her approach does not sound as wise as it did before. Violet appears to act too selfish and greedy as she puts money much higher than her husband’s life. With the help of this scene Letts shows that the same differences between generations can be treated both as positive and negative.
Another important contrast between the generations is their attitude to the differences between them. For Violet and Mattie Fae this gap is huge and they are absolutely convinced that their experience is exclusive and no one in their family had experienced similar hardships. However, for Barbara and her sisters this difference is not obvious at all. Barbara speaks of Violet’s ideas with bitter irony. She refers to them as “greatest generation speech” (Letts). Barbara does not understand why differences in the economic status or different living conditions should make them absolutely different people. She says, “Greatest generation, my ass. What makes them so great? Because they were poor and hated Nazis? Who doesn’t fucking hate Nazis?” (Letts). The similar situation occurs during the dinner when Jean is asked why she does not eat meat and what kind of meat she does not consume. She explains her reasons, “When you eat meat, you ingest animal’s fear” (Letts). The older generations do not understand her position and joke and laugh at her ideas. The oldest generation (Charles, Violet and others) believes that their approach to everything is the only correct one, so they treat Jean as a capricious girl who does not understand what she says. The attitude of the middle generation is milder, but, in fact, they do not support Jean’s ideas, as well. These scenes also prove that the characters of the play tend to treat the differences between generations in different ways depending on what seems better for them. Such hypocritical approach does not make any positive contribution to the process of harmonizing their relations.
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However, one of the most important messages of the play is that any generation has its own faults and problems. There is no place for harmonious relations in August: Osage County. Scott aptly mentions, “In addition to the pills and booze already noted, the menu at this particular feast of dysfunction includes adultery, divorce and incest” (Scott). Nevertheless, Letts does not see the great amount of problems that each character faces as the dividing line between them. She believes that family, no matter how dysfunctional it is, can serve as a powerful harmonizing factor. It can be seen in many other plays as “August is necessarily derivative because family is the leitmotif of American theatre” (Choate 105). Letts adds her own interpretation of the family as a unifying element for different generations, but there is little optimism in her play. The final scene shows Violet trying to call the members of her family, but all of them are gone and she is alone with her Native American house-keeper. Johnna’s words “This is how the world ends” imply that family could have united the Westons, but it is unlikely to happen in the future (Letts).
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To conclude, August: Osage County is a bright example of the thought-provoking reflection about the concept of family in the contemporary society. The author explores differences between the three generations of characters and studies how they affect their behavior and outlook. Letts shows that the main differences between the generations of the Westons are based on their past, their attitude to money, and the way they see the differences that divide them. However, she also highlights that they have certain similarities as, for instance, a great number of problems they have to face in their lives. Moreover, the author tries to communicate the message about the significance of family as a unifying and harmonizing element in any society.