Myths of Youth and Gendered Ageing in August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

Imola Bulgozdi

Through the plight of the Weston family, Tracy Letts not only dramatizes rifts caused by the generation gap but also investigates the gendered dimension of ageing and the characters’ attempts at retaining some dimensions of youth in August: Osage County.

Backed by sociological research, Stephanie Coontz debunks myths surrounding the idealized 20th century American family in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, while pointing out at the same time that many of these are “white, middle-class myths, both because middle-class individuals are the predominant mythmakers in our society and because the media tends to project fragments of the white, middle-class experience into universal ‘trends’ or ‘facts’” (6). Through the plight of the white, middle-class Weston family in August: Osage County, Tracy Letts not only dramatizes rifts caused by the generation gap but also investigates the gendered dimension of ageing and the characters’ attempts to retain some dimensions of youth.

The rapid social change of the past decades is a clear indicator of the fact that youth is not so much a biological category overlaid with social consequences as a complex set of shifting cultural classifications marked by difference and diversity. As a cultural construct, the meaning of youth alters across time and space according to who is being addressed by whom. Youth is a discursive construct. (Barker 376)

Therefore, it is not surprising that there are several, even contradictory, myths of youth in circulation, the two most prevalent of which are summed up by Dick Hebdige as “youth-as-fun,” denoting the consuming partygoer, and “youth-as-trouble,” a potential threat to social norms, regularly associated with crime, violence, and delinquency (27-30). The complexity of the concept of youth is due to the fact that it is constructed through various cultural practices, definitions, and values that result in multiple meanings over time (Campbell 1), and Letts addresses these with a twist. Besides the age-old connection between youth, innocence and naivety, he also problematizes the sexualisation of youth, the tendency to look back with nostalgia on one’s youth, as well as the American fascination with youth, that Neil Campbell’s introduction to the volume The Radiant Hour: Versions of Youth in American Culture defines as a lifestyle, a commodified aspiration, no longer restricted to a particular age group (16).

Campbell argues that it was the Baby Boomer generation that started to hold on to youth as a lifestyle choice, manifesting itself in “their choices of music, fashion, their struggles over body-image, their attitudes and, to an extent, their politics (especially environmentalism, multiculturalism, etc.)” (16). The older generation of Letts’s characters, Beverly (69) and Violet (65) Weston, and Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (57), and her husband Charlie Aiken (60), qualify as Baby Boomers but it is rather the disruptive behaviour often associated with youth that seems to define their lives. Beverly was not only “a world-class alcoholic, more’n fifty years” (Letts 122), but this has not been the first time that he disappeared from home, Charlie smokes pot to cope with his wife’s nagging, and Violet is a prescription drug addict. When not involved in a fight with various family members, the two sisters’ concerns are not very different from what they might have been in their youth: Violet constantly berates her daughter Ivy for her appearance and lack of a partner and Mattie Fae has as much tact as a bull in a china shop: as soon as her fourteen-year-old niece arrives, she bursts out: “My gosh, you’re so big! And look at your big boobs! They’re so big!” (47).

Instead of the traditional setup of parents standing for normalcy, stability, and relatively conservative values, it is the middle-aged Weston sisters’ conventional life that is anchored in reality. Letts introduces parents whose credibility is flawed from the very beginning, making one doubt the accuracy of various accounts of the past, which also has a bearing on the myths of youth they construct. Violet is not only high but turns out to be slightly brain-damaged and we find out that Charlie smoked so much pot that he did not even notice that his wife had an affair with Beverly. Mattie Fae seems to be the most reliable witness, but her story of having introduced Beverly and Violet makes her suspect at the very beginning of the play: “You had a date with him and stood him up and sent your sister instead,” claims Charlie (27). Mattie Fae argues that was a form of introduction but the problematic point here is the age of the characters: if Violet is now sixty-five and the eldest daughter, Barbara, is forty-six, she can’t have been older than eighteen when she met Beverly. Mattie Fae, being seven years Violet’s junior, must have been eleven or twelve at most at the time, making a date with twenty-something Beverly highly unlikely.

Elizabeth Fifer’s comparison of Letts’s play and O’Neill’s classic in “Memory and Guilt: Parenting in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night” claims that in both works “the parents’ backward gaze reveals a past neither fully accepted nor resolved.” But, Beverly and Violet are not so much focussed on the past as on the present, since Vi’s main concern is her personal welfare and inability to cope with the present after her husband’s disappearance: “He’s always paid the bills and made the phone calls and now suddenly I’m supposed to handle it? You know this house is falling apart, something about the basement or the sump pump or the foundation. I don’t know anything about it. I can’t do all this by myself” (Letts 39). Her complaint echoes Bev’s words in the Prologue, pointing at their shared wish to escape life’s mundanities: “Y’know . . . a simple utility bill can mean so much to a living person. Once they’ve passed, though . . . after they’ve passed, the words and numbers just seem like… other-worldly symbols. It’s only paper. Worse. Worse than blank paper” (18).

Beverly admits that he decided to hire a housekeeper exactly because he wants to eschew these responsibilities, since they are “getting in the way of my drinking” (Letts 18), while his wife has not turned on the stove for years. As for what he thinks of the past, we only have other characters’ conjectures to go by. In fact, Beverly’s life seems to have stopped after the publication of his first and only volume of poetry in 1965 and the eulogy would have been appropriate if he had died around 1974, as Violet observes. She does not, however, feel nostalgic about her own, or Beverly’s youth, as most people do. Letts, surprisingly, does not include a single pleasant memory, deconstructing one of the most powerful myths associated with youth. The first to have finished high school in their families, Beverly and Violet’s stories are about poverty – as a child he lived in a Pontiac sedan with his parents for years –, emotional abuse by a mother Violet characterises as “a nasty, mean old lady” (146), and the very real danger of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of mother’s “many gentlemen friends” (130). What is more, she is not even tempted to sugarcoat the past as many elderly people tend to do.

Although he has not published anything for decades, Beverly’s figure partly conserves the promise associated with youth: his wife reminisces about how she fell in love with his “mystery” that she found “sexy as hell. You knew he was the smartest one in the room, knew if he’d just say something . . . knock you out. But he’d just stand there, little smile on his face . . . not say a word. Sexy” (Letts 55). Violet also declares that men retain their sex appeal, a kind of “cragginess, weary masculinity,” well into old age, whereas “women are beautiful when they’re young, and not after” (92), ruthlessly exposing the double standard. “Truth is, sweetheart, you can’t compete with a younger woman, there’s no way to compete. One of those unfair things in life” (129), she tells Barbara, whose husband left her for one of his students, a woman half her age.

By becoming a commodity, youthfulness of body and mind is no longer associated with alienation and subordination, claims Campbell, who also points out that youth came to represent a social position and attitudes that connote vitality, fun and open-mindedness (16). He does not, however, elaborate on how men and women are affected in different ways by this myth of youth. Through Violet’s brutally honest running commentary Letts keeps reminding the reader/viewer of the gendered dimension of ageing, which, in her view is kept at bay by “lies we tell to give us comfort, but don’t you believe it…  Women just get old and fat and wrinkly” (93). Despite this realistic and seemingly nonchalant attitude, in one of her relatively lucid moments Violet confesses that coming to terms with ageing is more difficult than she lets on: “Secret crushes, secret schemes… province of teenage girls. I can’t imagine anything more delicate, or bittersweet. Some part of you girls I just always identified with… no matter how old you get, a woman’s hard-pressed to throw off that part of herself” (145).

Bearing in mind that another main trait of youth is promise, Violet’s constant pestering of Ivy to wear makeup and dress more stylishly in order to attract men takes on another dimension. In spite of her own failed marriage, Violet urges Ivy to try and use what remains of her youth to find happiness in the most traditional way, though, at the same time, she is keenly critical of her daughters’ partners. Being given a much more sheltered childhood and far better education, Violet claims she expected her daughters to do better than she and Bev, though she is also aware of the fact that early success destroyed them: “we lived too hard, then rose too high” (Letts 131). Little Charles, unemployed and ceaselessly belittled by his mother is another example of unfulfilled promise, as is Johnna, the American Indian housekeeper, who could not finish her nursing degree due to her father’s death. Through the use of multiple characters whose lives do not pan out according to the American Dream, the author undermines both the false expectations many young people grow up with and the widespread idea that success equals happiness.

Letts also problematizes the link between youth, naivety and innocence in the play. Karen, the youngest sister, has a rude awakening when comparing actual men and relationships to the dream of” happily ever after” that society is so keen on selling to young girls. Her story sums up the disappointment and self-blame felt by millions of women who are unable to live up to ingrained role models that still shape their teenage expectations:

I think I spent so much of my early life thinking about what’s to come, y’know, who would I marry, would he be a lawyer or a football player, would he be dark-haired and good-looking and broad-shouldered. I spent a lot of time… pretending my pillow was my husband and I’d ask him about his day at work…, and did he like the dinner I made for him and where were we going to vacation that winter and he’d surprise me with tickets to Belize and we’d kiss—I mean I’d kiss my pillow, make out with my pillow, and then I’d tell him I’d been to the doctor that day and I’d found out I was pregnant. (Letts 84)

Letts contrasts forty-year-old Karen, who spent most of her adult life coming to terms with such unrealistic expectations, with her fourteen-year-old niece, Jean. Not at all the daydreaming innocent girl Karen used to be, she smokes pot and is sexualized by Mattie Fae’s remark the moment she enters the scene. Steve, Karen’s fiancé, sniffs her out, offers some of his own marijuana then makes a pass at her while everyone else is asleep. Far from an ingénue, Jean, who considers herself a virgin technically but not theoretically (159), calls the fifty-year-old “an old perv” (158) and is neither shocked nor afraid. Steve ignores Jean’s warning that they will both get into trouble and pulls the white male privilege card: “I’m white and over thirty. I don’t get in trouble” (159), laying claim to the “youth-as-fun” definition while denying the “youth-as-trouble” association, despite his transgressive behaviour.

The person to put a stop to this is Johnna, who calmly knocks Steve out with a skillet, but he was ultimately right, there are no repercussions: Karen leaves with him and even suggests that Jean might not be totally blameless and “she might share in the responsibility” (Letts 166). This turn of events resonates with Alan France’s conclusion on the construction of youth in Understanding Youth in Late Modernity, in which he discusses the inseparability of notions of dangerousness and concerns over the vulnerability of the young, who tend to be seen “as being in a ‘stage of deficit,’ where they lack morality, skills and responsibility” (152). Jean, although a counterpoint to the young and naïve Karen of the past, is not a teen vamp either; she does not try to draw Steve’s attention to herself in any way. On the other hand, she is facing the exact opposite of what the older generation of women experience: it is Jean’s young and desirable body that acts as a marker of the sexual subject regardless of her age or behaviour, while the ageing body equals the loss thereof.

The figure of Steve is yet another reinforcement of the gendered dimension of ageing, a fact that Judith K. Gardiner sums up in “Theorizing Age With Gender: Bly’s Boys, Feminism, and Maturity Masculinity” by pointing out that “older men with power, wealth, or a modicum of physical fitness remain accepted as sexual subjects who are also sexually desirable in a way that older women are not” (98). Letts not only evinces how society condones male sexual excess and even exonerates child molesters but also dramatizes the dangers of the consumption of youth as a commodity. By earlier equating beauty and sexiness with “taut skin, firm boobs, an ass above her knees” (Letts 92) in Violet’s words, the youngest woman in the play becomes willy-nilly the embodiment of the myth of youth, regardless of her age. Jean’s body is inscribed. The fact that after this incident Jean tries to fend off her parents by retorting she is only a few years younger than her father’s partner shows that the irony of the situation is not lost on her and that she feels for Barbara, with whom she admittedly has a very close relationship (65).

The only person who seems to be unaffected by these concerns is Johnna, who, according to Mollie O’Reilly’s review of the play, is “a reminder (if an ambiguous one) of the local and historical context in which the Westons’s struggles play out.” Yet, the way she protects Jean from Steve with a skillet recalls Mattie Fae’s rush to Violet’s aid with a claw hammer. Despite her age and Native American ancestry, the social hardships she experienced link her to the generation of Bev and Vi, but unlike them, she belongs to a community, as symbolized by her reversion to the Cheyenne family name and the traditional pouch containing her umbilical cord, which ensures her soul would not be lost after she dies (66). Therefore, her presence also stands for a life ordered around myths and values that are not constructed by the white middle-class, providing an alternative to the concerns over youth and ageing that dominate not only the existence of the dysfunctional Westons but also that of the majority of present-day American society.

August: Osage County digs deep into the fabric of youth-related American myths, linking it with the very current problem of ageing that it tries to mask and counteract. Letts’s elderly characters are, in fact, far more unruly than Jean, the teenaged granddaughter and, in a surprising role reversal, it falls to the middle-aged adult children to cope with the effects of alcoholism, suicide, past sexual promiscuity and drug abuse in their own parents. Although it is the “youth-as-fun” aspect that the American youth as a lifestyle connotes, Beverly and Violet are much closer to the definition of “youth-as/in-trouble” in Hebdige’s terminology. Since the play continually underscores the gender-specific nature of ageing and women’s disadvantage when trying to live the heterosexual married life traditionally associated with happiness, Letts dramatizes the harmful effects both of the deeply entrenched double standard of sexual desirability and of the myth of youth at the same time.

 

 

Works Cited

“August: Osage County.” Broadway.com. Web. 23 Jun. 2015.

Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. London, Thousand Oaks & New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005. Print.

Campbell, Neil. Introduction. “The Radiant Hour: On Youth Cultural Studies.” The Radiant Hour: Versions of Youth in American Culture. Ed. Neil Campbell. Exeter: U of Exeter P, 2000. 1-29. Print.

Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books, 1992. Print.

Fifer, Elizabeth. “Memory and Guilt: Parenting in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Eugene O’Neill Review 34.2 (2013): 183+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 June 2015

France, Alan. Understanding Youth in Late Modernity. Maidenhead: Open University P, 2007. Print.

Gardiner, Judith K. “Theorizing Age With Gender: Bly’s Boys, Feminism, and Maturity Masculinity” in Masculinity Studies & Feminist Theory: New Directions. Ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner. New York: Columbia UP, 2002, 90-118. Print.

Hebdige, Dick. Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things. 1988. London & New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Letts, Tracy. August: Osage County. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2008. eBook.

O’Reilly, Mollie W. “Domestic Disputes: God of Carnage & August: Osage County.” Commonweal 136.11 (2009): 22+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 June 2015.