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August: Osage County | Study Guide

Tracy Letts

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August: Osage County | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



One week later, at night, Ivy, Mattie Fae Aiken, and Charlie Aiken sit in the living room, talking about Beverly Weston's disappearance. Mattie Fae says Beverly has done this—left without a word— before. She also mentions she is the one who first introduced Violet and Beverly, long ago. Charlie replies that Mattie Fae stood Beverly up and that's how Beverly ended up with Violet, perhaps foreshadowing the truth about Little Charles. Changing the subject, Mattie Fae says she thinks Beverly will come back, but Ivy is skeptical. Mattie Fae says Beverly "was a complicated man," and Charlie reminds her to use the present tense when talking about Beverly. He and Ivy think Beverly is similar to Charlie and Mattie Fae's son, Little Charles. But Mattie Fae rejects the comparison. "Little Charles isn't complicated, he's just unemployed," she says.

The house is hot because the windows are shut. Additionally, the shades are taped to the windows, blocking the light. Violet enters. Sheriff Gilbeau has told her that Beverly has not turned up at the hospital and his boat is missing from the family's dock, though it might have been stolen. Ivy and Violet go upstairs and talk, while downstairs Mattie Fae and Charlie bicker. Violet takes a pill. Ivy announces she has also called Karen, who will "try" to come to Oklahoma. Then Violet carps about Ivy's appearance, picking on her hair and makeup. Violet takes another pill and asks Ivy how many pills that makes, but Ivy says she isn't keeping track. Violet says her mouth is burning "like a son of a bitch." Ivy points out she's smoking. They wonder about Mattie Fae and Charlie's marriage. Violet says Charlie copes with her by smoking grass, "a lot of grass."

Barbara and Bill arrive and they stand on the porch arguing while their daughter, Jean, sits in the car smoking. Barbara complains about the heat. Violet is opposed to air conditioning, and she once had several pet parakeets who died of the heat in her house. "These are tropical birds," Barbara points out. She wonders why Europeans settled the Plains anyway. She compares the Plains to "a state of mind, a spiritual affliction." Then Barbara remarks she is having a hot flash.

Barbara, Bill, and Jean enter the house. Mattie Fae greets them affectionately, asking Jean and Bill for "some sugar." She also comments on Jean's having grown up and even remarks on the size of Jean's breasts. Violet comes downstairs and tearfully embraces Barbara. She tells Barbara and Bill she needs them to help her with Beverly's paperwork. Violet asks Charlie which room they're staying in, but Mattie Fae says she and Charlie need to drive back home and feed their dogs. Barbara asks if Jean can stay in the attic, and Violet says, "No, that's where what's-her-name lives," meaning Johnna. Just then Johnna enters and says, "Welcome home."


One of the themes of August: Osage County is truth and evasion, and the chief way the Westons evade the truth is by intoxication. Almost everyone in the extended Weston family is using some kind of intoxicant. Fourteen-year-old Jean is smoking—a mild stimulant, but still a drug. Maybe she smokes in an effort to rebel, or to be closer to her father, who seems to appreciate her precocity. Charlie is apparently in the habit of smoking "a lot" of marijuana to cope with his wife. Violet and Beverly have already been introduced to the audience as addicts, though that is not evident this scene.

The Westons avoid confronting reality; nonetheless, the truth seems to be pressing in on them as hints of Beverly's possible death emerge. Officially there is as yet no word of Beverly's death and no real reason to believe he is dead, but some family members appear to be anticipating his demise. Mattie Fae speaks of Beverly in the past tense, as if he were dead. Violet's request that Bill and Barbara go through Beverly's paperwork also seems rushed. And Ivy thinks that although her father has taken off before, this time is different. One fact that goes unsaid is that Violet has marshaled the entire clan. Although Mattie Fae and others try to act as if Beverly has disappeared before, it is not clear that the entire family usually gathers when he does. It seems unlikely that they are called every time Beverly takes a long weekend away from his burdensome life. The anecdote Mattie Fae recalls of a similar event does not include the family gathering to await his return. Instead she recalls an act of bitter retaliation on the part of Violet, who had gathered her husband's books on the lawn and burned them.

Another way the family avoids the truth is by busying themselves in the logistics of a family gathering. It is clear that Ivy is her mother's adjutant or second in command, dutifully making all the phone calls and gathering the scattered family together. The women also absorb themselves in the logistical details of who will sleep where. The Westons' family life combines ritualistic displays of affection with suffocating conformity. Mattie Fae asks Jean and Bill for "some sugar" and pries into the details of Jean's development as a woman, commenting on her breasts. But the closeness of the family can be suffocating, as symbolized by the house's stultifying heat. The window shades also symbolize the way the Westons, especially Violet, shut out the truth. With the shades taped to the window, no one can tell if it's night or day.

Barbara's hot flashes are symbolic of the increasing heat or pressure she experiences inside this tinderbox of a home. The heat itself is symbolic—things are reaching a fever-pitch. The fact that the parakeets (tropical animals) died in the heat is symbolic of the terribly difficult conditions inside the house. These women are stronger than the parakeets, but Barbara is getting to the point where she cannot take the heat.

Violet has cancer of the mouth, which emphasizes the play's theme of decay. Author Tracy Letts could have given Violet any number of fatal illnesses, and they all would have adequately signaled decay. Violet's particular form of cancer, however, strikes at the ability to speak and seems fitting given the damage that Violet has done and continues to do with her words. Her husband, Beverly, is a non-writing poet in the decline of his career. Violet is on the edge of no longer making verbal sense. Her mouth is "burning" from cancer, and the pills sometimes, as in the Prologue, turn her speech into nonsense.

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