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August: Osage County | Study Guide

Tracy Letts

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August: Osage County | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary



It is much later the same night—actually dawn, although that is not apparent at first. Johnna comes to the living room and wakes Barbara up to tell her Sheriff Gilbeau is there. Jean wakes up too, but she is shushed and told to go back to bed. Bill and Barbara wake up Violet, but she is high on drugs, slurring her words and babbling nonsense. They leave her in her bedroom, and Barbara goes back down to the living room to talk to the sheriff.

The sheriff turns out to be someone Barbara once dated, Deon Gilbeau. He tells Bill and Barbara that Beverly has been found dead, drowned in the lake. He also says somebody needs to come identify the body—at the lake, not at the station house. Bill volunteers, but Sheriff Gilbeau says it has to be a relative. Barbara quails, saying, "I can't do it." Jean volunteers, but then Barbara says she will do it. While Barbara goes to get ready, Bill pulls Sheriff Gilbeau aside. He asks whether there is any way to tell whether Beverly died accidentally or took his own life. Sheriff Gilbeau says they can't tell for sure, but he thinks it was suicide. He adds that Beverly's body has been in the water for three days, so Bill should try to prepare Barbara for the sight.

Upstairs in her bedroom, Barbara tells Jean about her high school prom date with Deon Gilbeau. On prom night Deon's father got drunk and "stole his own son's car." When Deon showed up for their date, Barbara could see he had been crying. They set out on foot, planning to walk three miles to the dance. Tired and sweaty, they gave up on the long march, bought some beer, and drank it in a chapel. They "stayed up all night talking and kissing." At the end of the story Barbara asks Jean to promise her something: "Outlive me, please."

Violet comes downstairs to the study, where she joins Sheriff Gilbeau. She is half-incoherent, slurring her words. "Did sum Beer-ly come home?" She asks for a cigarette and keeps rambling, "I'm in the bottom. Izza bottom of them. Inna ... ell." Then Violet shuffles to the living room, where she puts on an Eric Clapton song, "Lay Down, Sally." She dances jerkily, and then she asks Sheriff Gilbeau the time. He tells her it's 5:45 in the morning. Violet shouts Barbara's name, and then she goes back to talking nonsense, repeating the phrase "and then you're here, and then you're here."


Sometimes the play's theme of decline is presented in comic terms, as with Barbara's frequent mentions of her hot flashes or Bill's so-called "male menopause." But in Violet's addiction and Beverly's suicide, the decline of the Weston family is shown to be tragic. August: Osage County has some similarities to The Tragedy of King Lear (1608) by William Shakespeare (1564–1616). In that play, King Lear abdicates his throne while trying to hold onto his role as family patriarch. The greedy infighting occasioned by his abdication leads Lear into a hellish night of madness in a storm. Like Lear, August: Osage County is a tragedy about old age—a difficult period of life in which to set a character's fall from greatness, since that fall is generally assumed by the audience to have already happened by the time one reaches old age. If August: Osage County can be considered a version of Lear, there is a key difference. In this version the patriarch, Beverly, abdicates by taking his own life, and it is the matriarch, Violet, who both tries to hold onto her sovereignty over the family and endures a night of hellish madness. But in Violet's case the "night" of hellish madness stretches over several weeks in August. Her erratic and—to Sheriff Gilbeau—horrifying dance to Eric Clapton echoes Lear's night of derangement. Her slurred words, "I'm in the bottom... Inna... ell," might mean "I'm in hell."

Violet's nonsensical repetition of the phrase "and then you're here, and then you're here" is an inversion of what she says in the final scene of the play: "and then you're gone, and Beverly, and then you're gone, and Barbara." At the very end the names drop out and she simply repeats "and then you're gone"—just as here in Act 1, Scene 4, she repeats the phrase "and then you're here." In piling up phrases connected only by end, playwright Tracy Letts is using a literary technique called parataxis. In its strictest definition, parataxis means to pile up phrases without using conjunctions to connect them, as in "I came, I saw, I conquered." Violet uses the conjunction "and," but she seems to using parataxis to narrate a life devoid of any order or logic. Repeating "and then you're here, and then you're here" is similar to the saying "one thing after another." The interpretation of Violet's speech as a narration of a meaningless life is supported by Letts's repetition of the technique at the end. There Violet seems to be numbly recounting the losses of her life: "and then you're gone, and Beverly, and then you're gone, and Barbara."

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