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August: Osage County | Study Guide

Tracy Letts

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August: Osage County | Act 1, Scene 3 | Summary



In the living room of Beverly and Violet's house, Barbara and Bill get ready for bed. Bill is excited to find a copy of Beverly's most highly regarded volume of poems, but Barbara is unimpressed. When Bill won't drop the subject, Barbara snarls at him, asking him to "shut up about that ... book." She says he is "dripping with envy" over Beverly's acclaim, an aspect of writing she says Beverly cared nothing about. She also criticizes Bill for his affair with a student, a symptom of "male menopause."

Bill tries to change the topic, saying Violet is the reason for Barbara's bad mood, but Barbara disagrees vehemently. She also points out that it's painful to "go from sharing a bed with you for twenty-three years to sleeping by myself." Bill tries to wriggle out of the discussion again, saying they should talk this over another time, "when your father's come home." Barbara says, flatly, "My father is dead." She goes to bed and turns away from Bill.


This brief scene tells the audience something Violet and the other characters don't know yet: that Bill and Barbara are on the verge of divorce. Like a novel with an omniscient narrator, the play's stage set with its cut-away three-story house allows author Tracy Letts to show the audience things before other characters find out. The same can be accomplished, of course, in any play by having other characters exit the stage. But the open house emphasizes the family as an entire ecosystem, like the viciously fighting "octopus tank" mentioned in the play's epigraph by Robert Penn Warren.

Because they are trying to keep their separation a secret, the still-married Fordhams are forced to share a makeshift bedroom. This forced togetherness enables Letts to put their fighting styles on display. Barbara lashes out, taking multiple lines of attack, but she aims well. She is insightful about how Bill's professed admiration for Beverly's poetry just barely conceals a roiling envy. Bill focuses on things slightly external to the poems themselves: the dedication to Violet, the rarity of a hardback edition, the praise of the critics, and how he imagines Beverly anxiously ruminating on that praise. Barbara is right that these things reveals more about Bill's concerns than about Beverly's poetry. Bill, for his part, largely avoids the fight, pleading to put it off under the guise of reasonableness.

A darkly comic moment occurs when Bill reveals just how blind he is to his wife's needs. He asks Barbara, sarcastically, to please choose one topic for their argument because he is having a hard time keeping up. Aggravated, she shouts, "The subject is me, you narcissistic ... I am in pain! I need help!" Instead of attending to Barbara's pain, Bill turns the talk back to himself. "I've copped to being a narcissist," he says, being defensive about himself and obtuse about Barbara's suffering.

One of Barbara's attacks on Bill also continues the play's theme of decline and decay. Barbara accuses Bill of suffering from "male menopause." Since menopause literally means the cessation of menses, it is not possible for cisgender men to experience it. There is some support in the medical community for the idea that men's hormonal changes lead to something like menopause, but that is not important in the context of this play. What matters is the implied insult in the phrase "male menopause," especially in the way Barbara uses it as an insult. The phrase insinuates that he too has aged past his sexual prime and is seeking a younger partner as a kind of denial.

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