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August: Osage County | Study Guide

Tracy Letts

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



Barbara and Johnna are in the study. Presumably it is the same night, moments later. Barbara is drinking whiskey, and she recalls the last time she spoke to her father. He spoke of the decline of the United States, which he said had gone from a "whorehouse" to a "shithole." He sounded hopeless, and Barbara wonders if he was really speaking about something else: "This house? This family? His marriage? Himself?" She says it's much worse for things to slowly decline than suddenly end.

Johnna asks if Barbara is firing her. Barbara says no, she is apologizing for her own bad behavior. She would understand if Johnna wants to quit, since the work of caring for Violet will be very hard. But Johnna is welcome to stay. "I'm still here," Barbara adds. Johnna says she will stay because she needs the work. Barbara asks what Beverly said to Johnna—presumably, during the job interview, or perhaps in the few days she worked for him. Johnna says Beverly spoke about his daughters and granddaughter (Jean), saying they were "his joy." Barbara says she wants Johnna to stay and will pay her salary. Johnna leaves the room, and Barbara repeats that she is "still here."


This brief scene serves several functions. On a practical level, Barbara's taking over the responsibility of paying Johnna's salary has consequences for later plot developments. If Johnna's pay remained tied to the now-dead Beverly, and/or if Johnna quit, there would be no one to care for Violet. Therefore, when Barbara leaves later in the play, she would potentially be condemning her cancer-afflicted mother to death since Violet seems in no condition to care for herself. With Violet's care secured by Johnna, Barbara will be free to leave later, even though that is not Barbara's conscious motive in this current scene.

But there is more going on than plot mechanics. Barbara asks whether Beverly was talking about something besides the United States when he spoke of its decline. By offering multiple possibilities—house, family, Beverly himself, etc.—Barbara's speech establishes a parallel among all these things. Beverly's decline is the decline of the house, of the family, of the country. Barbara's supposition is that "maybe [Beverly] was talking about talking about something else" when he talked about the country's decline. But the supposition can be reversed. Maybe playwright Tracy Letts is talking about the decline of the United States, or of civilization, when he writes about the decline of Beverly and the other Westons.

The theme of decline is also represented in an allusion Barbara makes to a poem by T.S. Eliot, her father's favorite poet and one frequently referenced in this play. Barbara says, "Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm." Although Barbara is not consciously alluding to Eliot with these words, playwright Letts is. They echo an idea in Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men" (1925), a poem quoted at the beginning and end of this play. In "The Hollow Men," the speaker says, "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper." The poem's "whimper" ending to the world is equivalent to Barbara's idea of "dissipation," and the poem's "bang" is equivalent to Barbara's "cataclysm." Barbara affirms that the world (or the Weston family) ends in slow decline rather than sudden cataclysm, and she also adds the judgment that the decline is worse.

That there was perhaps some love in the Weston family before this decline can be seen in the character of the young Native American housekeeper. Johnna is telling Barbara a well-intentioned fib when she says Beverly spoke to her about his daughters and what a joy they were to him. Certainly what audiences see of Beverly is far from joyous, and he doesn't mention his daughters at all during the job interview in the Prologue. However, when Beverly gives her the book of Eliot's poetry, Johnna essentially becomes Beverly's surrogate in the rest of the play, often intoning the words of Beverly's favorite poet. It is possible Beverly showed her another side of himself and that Letts uses Johnna to embody this loving side of Beverly.

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