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August: Osage County | Study Guide

Tracy Letts

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August: Osage County | Epigraph–Prologue | Summary




The text begins with a long epigraph from the novel All the King's Men (1946) by American writer Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989). The epigraph suggests human families are always estranged from one another, unlike the animal families in "happy brute creation." So family reunions are always fraught with conflict, "like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium."


The setting is a large old house in rural Osage County, Oklahoma, outside the town of Pawhuska. It is an August day in the year 2007. In his book-lined study, poet Beverly Weston is interviewing Johnna Monevata for the job of housekeeper. Beverly does most of the talking, rambling about poets who have committed suicide and about his favorite poet, American writer (1888–1965) T.S. Eliot. From offstage, Violet can be heard cursing. Beverly explains to Johnna that he drinks and his wife takes pills. With their two addictions, they can no longer keep up with the housework.

Violet enters, drug-addled and muttering something about the police ("pullish"). At first she bristles at the idea of a "hired" woman, but then she takes to Johnna, flirting with her. Violet reveals to Johnna she has cancer of the mouth. Beverly lists some of the many pills Violet takes. Johnna accepts the job, and Beverly gives her a volume of T.S. Eliot's poetry.


The Weston family is atypical in some ways, but author Tracy Letts gives hints that they are meant to represent more than just these particular individuals. The epigraph from Robert Penn Warren puts the tragic aftermath of Beverly Weston's suicide in the context of other families. In all families, Warren suggests, there is a conflict between the generations. "When you get born your mother and father lost something out of themselves," Warren writes, and the parents try to get this "something" back from their children. Getting this something back involves a terrible struggle. Thus families are necessarily at each other's throats, both Warren and Letts suggest. The family's name, Weston, is similar to West, suggesting their downward trajectory parallels a broader social or civilizational decline.

The first words spoken on stage are a quotation from the poem "The Hollow Men" (1925) by Beverly's favorite writer, T.S. Eliot. "Life is very long," says Beverly, quoting the poem. "The Hollow Men" is about moral and spiritual paralysis. In the part of the poem that Beverly is quoting, long life is not joyous but painful and beset with failure. The speaker of the "The Hollow Men" says that life is long because something always intervenes between our plans and their fulfillment. "Between the potency / And the existence / ... Falls the Shadow," writes Eliot. This means that between the possibility of an act and its fulfillment, something negative or evil intervenes, putting life in disarray or leaving it unfulfilled.

This poem by Eliot resonates with the situation of poet Beverly Weston. He may seem to be a success, sitting in his book-lined study with enough money to hire someone to do his chores. But later in the play the audience will learn he has not written much poetry in decades. He also seems weary of life. This weariness is reflected in his allusions to two American poets who took their lives. He calls American poets Hart Crane (1899–1932) and John Berryman (1914–1972) "Olympic Suicidalists." Just as Beverly will, both these poets took their lives by drowning. Beverly calls them "Olympian," perhaps because the manner of their death was effortful and athletic. Hart leapt from a ship into the Caribbean Sea, and Berryman leapt from a bridge into the Mississippi River. Berryman was an Oklahoman like Beverly, which may strengthen Beverly's identification with him. Beverly's admiring description of both poets as "Olympian" also suggests that in his distorted, depressed way he sees their deaths as great achievements. Since he has ceased writing much poetry, perhaps he imagines that imitating their deaths will secure his own literary legacy. The allusions may indicate Beverly is already intending to take his life, days before he does so. It is also possible Beverly himself is unaware, at this point, of his desire to end his life, but the mention of these "Suicidalists" betrays his unspoken despair.

Violet's name hints at T.S. Eliot's wife's name, Vivienne, or Viv as she was known and as Beverly refers to her. Speaking of Eliot's wife, Beverly remarks that other poets, less strong than Eliot, would have been driven to suicide by her. Thus Beverly's suicidal despair is not located only in himself. At least in Beverly's eyes, Violet is driving him to his death. Just before the scene ends Beverly quotes from "The Hollow Men" once more, saying, "Here we go round the round the prickly pear / Prickly pear prickly pear." The cactus, a desert plant, suggests aridity, the opposite of flowing, abundant life. And Beverly has just identified himself with the desert plant, telling Johnna he is "a sort of human cactus." Beverly gives Johnna a volume of Eliot's poems, saying she can "read it or not," as if it didn't matter. But it matters structurally to the play. Johnna does read the book, and later she will quote from it. She takes over Beverly's voice by quoting Eliot just as he once did. This is one of the ways the absent Beverly casts a long shadow over the whole play.

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