True West

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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 1998
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 3. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 22
Content Level: (Level 4)

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True West


Sam Shepard’s very successful playwrighting career began in the mid-1960s when his often bizarre and anti-realistic plays were produced in experimental off- off-Broadway theatres such as La Mama and Theatre Genesis at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. The launching of Shepard’s playwrighting career is generally attributed to a 1967 review by Michael Smith in the Village Voice. Smith’s enthusiastic appraisal of the first two of Shepard’s early plays—Cowboys and The Rock Garden (both 1964)—brought the playwright to the attention of mainstream critics and audiences. By 1976, Shepard had more than thirty of these mostly one-act plays to his credit and had become an established cult figure.

With Curse of the Starving Class (1977) and Buried Child (1978), Shepard began producing what are now considered his major plays, works defined by a clear focus on such topics as dysfunctional families and social fringe dwellers. These plays, in contrast to his earlier work, also display a more conventional approach to plot and character. His popularity broadened and by the time True West appeared in 1980, many critics felt that Shepard was at the forefront of new American playwrights and, along with other dramatists such as David Mamet, Marsha Norman, and Beth Henley, was defining a new decade of theatre.

While True West represents a continued movement in Shepard’s drama toward realistic characterization, Page 318  |  Top of Articleplot, setting, and dialogue, the play also has touchstones in his experimental days, retaining a number of unusual, fantastical elements—such as the grotesque violence and the startling transformations of its two main characters. Some commentators refer to these later plays as examples of “magical realism” (a literary genre defined by the works of such writers as Jorge Luis Borges and Federico Garcia Lorca) because they begin with realistic characters and situations but gradually acquire more bizarre qualities until they finally seem to fuse realism and fantasy. In many circles True West was hailed as a breakthrough for Shepard, a work in which experimental drama was successfully melded with the more conventional elements of modern theatre. Though True West is one of Shepard’s most accessible dramas, it retains the unmistakable signature of his earlier adventurous work.


Sam Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers, Jr., in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on November 5, 1943. Because his father was in the military, Shepard’s family moved frequently during his childhood (including one move to the South Pacific island of Guam) before settling in Southern California. As he related in an interview in Theatre Quarterly, Shepard’s adult perception of his early life, especially “that particular sort of temporary society that you find in Southern California,” has led in many of his plays to investigations of the feeling “that you don’t belong to any particular culture.” This sense of rootlessness has led Shepard to explore (and often fuse) two facets of the American experience: the mythical West and the American family.

Noted for his bleak portrayal of American family life, Shepard’s own upbringing was complicated by a very strict alcoholic father. Shepard left home while still a teenager, eventually arriving in New York City in 1963, a period in which the burgeoning and experimental off- off-Broadway theatre movement was experiencing a jolt of energetic creativity. Shepard had gone to New York to pursue a career as a rock musician and perhaps try his hand at acting; he knew very little about theatre. But living in the artistically-charged atmosphere of the Lower East Side, Shepard was soon writing plays that were produced and received enthusiastically by the small, non-commercial off- off-Broadway theatre houses.

Too unconventional in his early plays and still a commercial risk with his off-beat later plays, Shepard is the most successful and respected American playwright never to have had a play premiere on Broadway. (Though a 1996 revival of Buried Child [1978] was directed by noted actor and experimental impresario Gary Sinise, a founder and the creative director of the influential Steppenwolf theatre company in Chicago, and enjoyed moderate success on Broadway.) Shepard’s plays continue to be popular off-Broadway and in regional, educational, and experimental theatres around the country, and he has won numerous awards and honors for his work. Buried Child won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979, and he has received eleven Obie Awards as well as a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for A Lie of the Mind (1985).

In 1974, after returning to America from a three-year stay in England, Shepard launched another successful career as a movie actor and has appeared in many films. Among his better-known performances are roles in director Terence Mallick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), a film that gained him an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of test pilot Chuck Yeager. He has also appeared in such popular films as Steel Magnolias (1989), Thunderheart (1992), and The Pelican Brief (1993), among others. He is also a successful screenwriter and film director, having adapted and/or directed many of his own works, including Fool for Love (1983) and Silent Tongue (1994).

Following the popularity True West in 1980 he again found success with Fool for Love and mixed successes with A Lie of the Mind (1985), States of Shock (1991), and Simpatico (1994). In the 1990s Shepard expanded his writing focus to include prose with the 1996 collection Cruising Paradise: Tales.

In Shepard’s personal life, he married actress O-Lan Johnson Dark on November 9, 1969. Before their divorce, that union yielded a child, Jesse Mojo. During his acting work on the film Frances in 1982, Shepard became involved with his costar Jessica Lange. Though never married, the couple have maintained a longstanding personal and working relationship. They have two children, Hannah Jane and Samuel Walker.

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Scene 1

True West takes place in a kitchen and in the adjoining breakfast alcove area of a well-kept Southern California suburban home about forty miles east of Los Angeles. The alcove is filled with house plants, mostly Boston ferns hanging in planters. In the first scene, it is night and crickets are chirping outside while Austin, a neatly dressed man in his early thirties, is seated at the glass breakfast table in the alcove writing in a notebook. He is working by candlelight while moonlight streams through the alcove windows. His older brother, Lee—dressed in a filthy, white T-shirt, tattered overcoat, and baggy pants—reclines against the kitchen sink, mildly drunk, a beer in his hand.

Austin and Lee are together for the first time in five years, and it is clear that Lee is jealous because his mother chose Austin to take care of the house while she vacationed in Alaska. He is also intimidated by Austin’s status and refinement. Lee’s conversation, with its subdued hostility, bothers Austin, who is trying to write, but Austin remains polite. Lee has just returned from the Mojave Desert, where he visited with their father. When Austin asks how long Lee plans to stay, the older brother reveals that he intends to burglarize the houses in the neighborhood. He requests the use of Austin’s car, and when Austin objects and seems too condescending, Lee grabs and shakes him violently, demonstrating his superior physical strength.

Scene 2

On the morning of the next day, Austin is misting his mother’s plants and Lee is sitting at the alcove table drinking beer. He reports that he went out the night before on foot and scouted houses to burgle. Austin informs Lee that the movie producer he is writing for is coming to visit and Lee agrees to leave for a few hours if he can take Austin’s car.

Scene 3

It is afternoon and Austin is meeting with Saul Kimmer, Hollywood movie producer, who loves the “great story” that Austin has described for him and only needs a synopsis to convince studio executives to bankroll Austin’s screenplay. Lee returns prematurely, carrying a stolen television set. After introductions Lee ingratiates himself with Kimmer and persuades the producer to go golfing with him the next morning. As Austin maneuvers Saul out the

Sam Shepard Sam Shepard

door, Lee tells Kimmer he has an idea for a contemporary Western movie; the producer suggests having Austin write an outline for consideration.

Scene 4

It is night, coyotes bark in the distance, and Lee is dictating his story to Austin, who is reluctantly typing an outline. Austin finds Lee’s story preposterous, “not enough like real life,” but Lee is desperate to finish and subtly threatens Austin if he doesn’t help. Lee has begun to have visions of a steady income and a life filled with middle-class amenities and says to Austin, “I always wondered what’d be like to be you.” Austin responds by saying he used to envy the excitement of Lee’s life: “you were always on some adventure.”

Scene 5

The next morning, Lee is at the table with a set of golf clubs discussing the early morning round of golf he has just finished with Saul Kimmer. He claims that Saul liked the outline so much he gave Lee a set of clubs as an advance. Austin takes a bottle of his mother’s champagne to celebrate and then learns that he is to write the script of Lee’s outline rather than work on his own script. Austin is angry and calls Lee’s story the “dumbest” he has Page 320  |  Top of Articleever heard in his life. At the height of their argument, Lee threatens Austin with a golf club.

Scene 6

That afternoon, Kimmer joins them and admits that he prefers Lee’s story to Austin’s, adding that he likes Lee’s plan to use some of the money from the sale of the script to set up a trust fund for the brother’s father. Austin refuses to write the script, even though Saul says the deal is worth three hundred thousand dollars for the first draft alone. The producer claims that Lee has “raw talent,” that his story about the “real West” has “the ring of truth.” Austin shouts that “there’s no such thing as the West anymore! It’s a dead issue!”

Scene 7

It is night again, and throughout this and the following scene, the dog-like yapping of coyotes intensifies into a frenzy as their pack grows in numbers, perhaps luring and killing pets from suburban yards. Lee is at the typewriter, struggling to type with one finger while Austin sits on the kitchen floor, drunk and singing. Lee complains that he needs quiet to concentrate, and Austin suggests that maybe he will try his hand at burglary now that Lee has taken up screenwriting. Lee scoffs at this, saying Austin couldn’t steal a toaster. Meanwhile Lee is angrily getting tangled up in the typewriter ribbon but calms down to beg Austin to help him get his story down on paper. Austin interrupts to tell Lee the “true to life” story about how their father lost his false teeth.

Scene 8

Just before sunrise the next morning, Austin has reappeared with numerous toasters stolen from neighborhood houses and Lee has methodically smashed the typewriter with a golf club and is burning pages of the script. Both men are now drunk and the house is a shambles. All of the house plants are dead and drooping from lack of water. Austin starts making toast and Lee tries to phone a woman he knows in Bakersfield, California. Austin tells Lee he wants to come with him to live in the desert. Lee agrees to take him if Austin will write what he dictates of his story.

Scene 9

At mid-day, in blazing heat, the house is covered with debris—bottles, toasters, the smashed typewriter, a ripped out telephone, etc. It is like a desert junk yard at high noon in intense yellow light. Austin is scribbling in a notebook while Lee, shirtless and beer in hand, is slowly walking around the room, picking his way through the objects on the floor. When Austin reads back what Lee has dictated, it sounds cliched and “stupid” to Lee and he denies dictating it.

Their mother enters, having returned early from her vacation to Alaska. She is taken aback by the mess in the house, especially her dead plants, but she seems more interested in telling her sons that the famous artist, Pablo Picasso, is in town to visit the museum. Austin informs her that Picasso is dead and that he and Lee are leaving for the desert. But Lee insists that he’s going alone, that he’s giving up on the screenplay, and that he needs to borrow his mother’s china, something “authentic,” to take with him to the desert.

Austin attempts to stop Lee from leaving by strangling him with a piece of phone cord. His mother, meanwhile, calmly insists that Austin should not kill his brother and exits, saying she’s going to check into a motel, that she doesn’t recognize her house any more. When Austin releases the tension on the cord around Lee’s neck it appears that Lee is dead, but after a few moments Lee leaps to his feet and the two brothers square off as a single coyote is heard in the distance and moonlight falls across the room.



At the beginning of the play, Austin is the apparently conventional brother dressed in a light blue sports shirt, a light tan cardigan sweater, clean blue jeans, and white tennis shoes. In his early thirties, he is neat and organized, clearly a responsible adult. He appears to be an accomplished writer and, in fitting with his accountable nature, has been chosen by his mother to take care of her house while she is on vacation in Alaska. In the first half of the play he tries hard to be polite and understanding with his apparently less-refined older brother, Lee, and is dominated by Lee’s violence and superior strength. In the second half of the play, however, Austin’s behavior begins to reflect his brother’s, becoming coarse and sloppy in his demeanor and appearance. By the end of the play, Austin is profoundly Page 321  |  Top of Articledrunk, has stolen numerous toasters from the neighborhood, and is on the verge of strangling his brother to death. As evidenced by Lee’s increasing seriousness and new dedication to writing—traits that Austin displayed at the play’s outset—it is clear that the brothers have exchanged significant aspects of their personalities. Austin, for his part, reveals a desire to emulate his brother’s wilder tendencies, to live a less-structured, more adventurous life.

Saul Kimmer

Saul Kimmer is a slick Hollywood movie producer in his late forties who comes to the house to discuss business with Austin but ends up playing golf with Lee and agreeing to back Lee’s screenplay rather than Austin’s. He is cartoonishly dressed in a pink and white flower print sports coat with matching polyester slacks and black and white loafers. While a significant device in shifting the action of the play—sparking pivotal changes in each brothers’ behavior—the character of Kimmer is little more than a stereotype of a fast-talking, soulless Hollywood executive. It is clear that he cares little about the artistic merits of either brother’s screenplay but is merely interested in which film will make him more money.


Lee is Austin’s older brother and something of a social misfit. He is in his early forties and, at the beginning of the play, appears completely uncivilized. He is dressed in a filthy T-shirt, a pink suede belt, a tattered brown overcoat, and shoes with holes in the soles; he is a poster child for careless slobs. Lee has come to visit Austin following a reunion with the brothers’ estranged father, who lives in the desert. Obviously lacking in financial security and social graces, Lee is jealous of his little brother’s success and refinement. Initially, he swills beer, talks aggressively, plans burglaries in his mother’s neighborhood, and bullies Austin. When Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer arrives, Lee butts in and deflects Kimmer’s interest away from Austin’s screenplay by proposing his own idea for a film set in the “true West.” While Lee appears close to a successful screenwriting deal, he becomes very anxious about success and the prospect of actually writing the script. With no writing—let alone typing—skills, he needs Austin’s help. Just as the older brother is seeing the benefits of emulating his brother’s discipline, however, Austin has become

Amidst the debris of the totaled kitchen, Austin attempts to strangle Lee Amidst the debris of the totaled kitchen, Austin attempts to strangle Lee

too drunk to help him. As Austin has become infatuated with the idea of living Lee’s wild and free life, Lee has glimpsed the possibilities that honest success offers.


The mother of Austin and Lee appears at the end of the play, returning from her vacation in Alaska to discover her house in shambles. In her early sixties, she is a small woman dressed in a conservative white skirt and matching jacket with a red shoulder bag and two pieces of matching luggage.

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  • The Steppenwolf production of True West at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City with John Malkovich as Lee and Gary Sinise as Austin was recorded for the Public Broadcasting System’s American Playhouse series and then released as a feature film in 1987. This 110 minute film can be rented at selected video stores or purchased from Academy Home Entertainment, Shelburne, Vermont, or through Critics’ Choice Video. It is also available in laser disk format from LaserVision.
  • An amateur production of the play directed by Charles Doolittle at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois, in December of 1988 was taped on videocassette, and the college also preserved a series of twenty-two slides featuring selected scenes from the play.

Her response to the disaster is eccentrically muted. She speaks softly, chastising her sons in a tone that makes her seem relatively unconcerned, even while Austin seems to be strangling Lee to death. Having read that a Picasso exhibit was coming to the museum in her home town, she thinks it means that Picasso himself will be there, unaware that Picasso has already died. While appearing a trifle odd, Mother’s reaction to the carnage her sons have wrought indicates that she has grown accustomed to such behavior and no longer feels a need to respond to it. Her detached attitude toward her sons’ irrational actions suggests that this incident is not unique in the brothers’ relationship.


Change and Transformation

Central to a thematic analysis of True West is the exchange of personality traits between brothers Austin and Lee as their conflict over screenplays develops. In the beginning, they are polar opposites, as the clean-cut and conventional Austin confidently prepares his script for the Hollywood producer, Saul Kimmer, and the ill-kept and anti-social Lee announces his plans to burglarize the neighborhood. By the end of the play, however, Lee and his movie idea have won Kimmer’s favor, and Lee is attempting to be industrious while Austin has assumed Lee’s habits of heavy drinking and petty crime.

The catalyst for this transformation is the Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer and the opportunities he represents for each of the brothers. In the beginning, Austin seems to be relatively accomplished and confident as a writer, but Kimmer is offering Austin his “big break,” his opportunity for fame and fortune within the framework of his conventional life. Austin seems to be a steady, middle-class family man. He has a wife and children “up north,” an Ivy League education, and a determination to gain fame and fortune through hard work in the highly competitive entertainment industry. But when Kimmer rejects Austin’s movie idea in favor of his crass brother’s script proposal, Austin loses his sense of superiority. He is transformed as he loses the connection with his familiar concept of self. Confronted with the possibility that his intelligence, drive, and talent may not be enough to attain his dreams, Austin suffers an identity crisis. He is left a hollow shell (as he says in the play “there’s nothing real down here, Lee! Least of all me!”). In this state of mind, Austin tries out Lee’s identity to see how it suits him; he adopts an irresponsible attitude, steals toasters, and talks of ditching his conventional existence for an adventurous life of crime and travel.

For Lee, Kimmer represents more than a chance for fame and fortune; he represents an opportunity

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  • Research the importance of music in Shepard’s life and the way this interest gets reflected in his plays, especially his early work.
  • Research the statistics of domestic violence in America to see how accurate Lee is when he says, “you go down to the L.A. Police Department there and ask them what kinda’ people kill each other the most. . . . Family people. Brothers. Brothers-in-law. Cousins. Real American-type people. They kill each other in the heat mostly. In the Smog-Alerts. In the Brush Fire Season.” Is this statement an accurate one of domestic violence, explain how closely it reflects (or does not reflect) real violence between family members.
  • Research the subject of dysfunctional families in America and compare some of the more “common” dysfunctional features with the family in True West.
  • Research the rise of the off- off-Broadway theatre movement and read several of Shepard’s early plays to see how they derived from and accurately represented that vibrant atmosphere of New York City in the early 1960s.

for parity with—or even genuine superiority over—Austin as well as legitimacy in the eyes of the conventional world. Initially, Lee approaches Kimmer as a con artist, just as he has approached so many other people in his life, but when Lee sees an opportunity for respectability, he is transformed into a comically desperate man struggling to gain what he has disdained most of his life: a comfortable, middle-class existence.

The simplest explanation for putting his characters through these reversals is that Shepard is demonstrating that things are often not as they seem. Reality is complex and slippery, maybe even hopelessly elusive, and the man who seems to be a steady middle-class provider for his family might not be quite as stable as he appears. Shepard is also suggesting that a violent, animal-like nature might lie just below the surface of all human beings, waiting only sufficiently trying circumstances to crack the shell of a public persona and reveal the capacity for horror underneath.

Ultimately, Shepard is suggesting that what is attributed as personality, character, and a sense of identity might be little more than public role playing that, upon close inspection, does not come close to revealing the true nature of the person. This can be extrapolated to infer that a person engaged in this role playing may even convince themselves that their identity is what they have created. When confronted with the possibility that this role may not be their true self, the realization can often be traumatic—as it is for Austin.

In Lee’s case, the persona he exhibits at the beginning of the play is most likely his true self. He has learned not to care what others think of his behavior and, as a result, has become free to act on any impulse that occurs to him. When his idea for a film receives serious consideration from Kimmer, however, Lee begins to understand the benefits that can be reaped from playing a role. As Austin did at the play’s outset, he learns to control his baser instincts in the service of attaining respect and wealth.

Identity: the Search for Self

At the beginning of the play, Austin and Lee, like most human beings, take their identities for granted and would consider those identities stable and unchanging if they thought of them at all. Austin is a little more self-assured about himself, confidently feeling “in charge,” even in the face of Lee’s threatening behavior. But after Kimmer rejects his movie idea in Scene 6, Austin’s sense of identity is shattered. He repeats the personal pronoun “I” as a way of trying to hold on to his old Page 324  |  Top of Articlesense of himself—“I drive on the freeway every day. I swallow the smog. I watch the news in color. I shop in the Safeway. I’m the one who’s in touch! Not him!”

But in the next scene, Austin is only in touch with the alcohol he consumes as his hazy mind gropes for a new sense of identity. Set adrift from his old persona, he tries Lee’s on for size: “well, maybe I oughta’ go out and try my hand at your trade. Since you’re doing so good at mine.” He also decides that he’s going to live in the desert, like Lee, because he’s now decided “there’s nothin’ down here for me. There never was. . . . I keep finding myself getting off the freeway at familiar landmarks that turn out to be unfamiliar.” Perhaps most significantly, he even begins to taunt Lee physically, testing the idea that he might be able to hold his own with Lee in terms of brute strength. This idea gets evaluated at the end of the play when he seems to have overcome and strangled Lee.

At the beginning of the play, Lee is much more defensive about his self-image. To some extent convinced that Austin’s sophistication is enviable, Lee fakes sophistication of his own: “you got coffee?. . . Real coffee? From the bean?” Stung by his mother’s preference for Austin as a house-sitter, Lee asserts his competence in domestic matters: “she might’ve just as easily asked me to take care of her place as you. . . . I mean I know how to water plants.” However, it is as a natural man, as a desert survivor, that Lee most confidently defines his sense of self. But after Kimmer tempts Lee with the hope of becoming more conventional and sophisticated, Lee temporarily discards his desert-rat identity and tries to assume a new one: “I’m a screenwriter now! I’m legitimate.” But when this new identity fails, Lee shouts, “here I am again in a desperate situation! This would never happen out on the desert. I would never be in this kinda’ situation out on the desert.”

The resolution of these two identity crises comes at the very end of the play when Lee rises from the floor with the phone cord around his neck and it’s clear that Austin has not defeated Lee physically. Lee is still the physically stronger of the two, as well as the more cunning. Lee has given up his attempt to adjust his sense of self and is going back to the desert, though he plans to bring with him “something authentic” so he can feel more “civilized.” As for Austin, the future is less clear, but he will also probably carry with him a more complex sense of self than he had before.

In a 1980 interview with Robert Coe in the New York Times Magazine, Shepard said that in True West he “wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn’t be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It’s a real thing, double nature. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. . . . It’s something we’ve got to live with.”



Shepard’s story of two brothers contending for superiority as screenwriters begins in a realistic style, a style that Shepard rejected in the early phase of his playwrighting career. The realistic style as a conscious literary movement began in the 19th century as a reaction to romantic melodramas. These melodramas were an approach to story telling that offered outlandish situations, characters, and dialogue in the hopes of thrilling and entertaining an audience (and at the expense of presenting believable works of fiction). Mark Twain’s essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses (1895),” is a classic example of the outraged response that realists had to this exaggerated form of storytelling.

As realism gained wider acceptance among readers and critics, however, it became evident that this form also had artistic limitations. Not the least of these limitations is presenting a reader or audience with characters and situations that bear little difference to those that they might encounter in their everyday life; the risk being that such commonplace material could easily be perceived as boring or dull. In addressing this pitfall, writers have embraced, among myriad other styles, the disciplines of both fantastic melodrama and hard realism. Many twentieth century authors have incorporated extravagant elements into their otherwise realistic writing to expand evocative possibilities and express what cannot be so easily suggested in a realistic framework. In True West Shepard has it both ways as he begins the play in a realistic style and gradually introduces bizarre elements to achieve a mythic dimension in his story.

Shepard’s realism begins with a detailed description at the beginning of the play text of what the characters should wear and what the stage set should look like. Shepard’s uncharacteristic attention to such detail includes specifications for costume colors Page 325  |  Top of Articleand fabrics and for set detail as specific as “Boston ferns hanging in planters at different levels.” Some of the specifications could be considered significant in themselves, like “the floor of the alcove is composed of green synthetic grass,” but most of the realistic detail is designed to simply create a neutral backdrop for the evolution of character and situation on stage. In a prefatory “note on set and costume” Shepard specifies that “the set should be constructed realistically with no attempt to distort its dimensions, shapes, objects, or colors” because “if a stylistic ‘concept’ is grafted onto the set design it will only serve to confuse the evolution of the characters’ situation, which is the most important focus of the play.”

In this realistic setting, the characters speak casual dialogue filled with realistically elliptical speech like “you keepin’ the plants watered?” and simple, monosyllabic answers like “yeah.” Shepard specifies dialogue style with orthographic spellings of informal speech—“ya’ got crickets anyway. Tons a’ crickets out there.” As early as 1974, in an interview in Theatre Quarterly with Kenneth Chubb, Shepard announced that “I’d like to try a whole different way of writing now, which is very stark and not so flashy and not full of a lot of mythic figures and everything, and try to scrape it down to the bone as much as possible. . . . it could be called realism, but not the kind of realism where husbands and wives squabble and that kind of stuff.” By starting in a realistic style and gradually adding non-realistic elements, Shepard was able to satisfy his characteristic interest in mythic qualities but in a much subtler way than in his earlier plays.

The Grotesque

The grotesque refers to aspects of a story that are so exaggerated and strange that they call attention to themselves as unreal. By the end of True West Austin and Lee are less like the plausible characters who began the play and more like primal savages as they square off against one another in the final scene. The incongruous qualities that Shepard almost imperceptibly introduces into True West gradually modify the impression of the two brothers and their situation until Austin and Lee become more mythic and evocative than two squabbling brothers could realistically be.

The first hint of the grotesque is Lee’s matter-of-fact announcement that he’s going to burglarize the neighborhood. This, combined with his extremely slovenly appearance and his eccentric assertion, “I don’t sleep,” at the end of the first scene, suggest that he is almost supernatural. Increasing violence also accentuates the play’s separation from the normal, from Lee’s menacing of Austin with a golf club in the fifth scene to his methodical destruction of the typewriter, burning of the film script, trashing of the kitchen, and ripping of the telephone off the wall in Scene 8. Austin adds to the grotesquerie in the opening of Scene 7 when, completely drunk, he shocks the audience with his drastic transformation. Furthermore, his “real” story of his father’s false teeth is so surreal that it adds significantly to the play’s distorted atmosphere.

In this same scene, the sound of the coyotes begins to build beyond natural levels. At the beginning of the play, the sound of the crickets and coyotes is environmental noise and a realistic part of the play’s western setting. However, as the brothers begin their transformations and their situations become increasing bizarre, the coyotes’ howls become nearly oppressive, a clamorous expression of the turmoil each brother feels. The encroaching coyote howls also signal the transformation of the house from a normal suburban dwelling to a wilder, more primitive environment.

In visual terms this is represented by the outrageous mess that Austin and Lee make of their mother’s home. By the last scene of the play, the debris has created a “sea of junk,” in “intense yellow light,” as if the house were “a desert junkyard at high noon.” According to Shepard’s textual directions, by the end of the play “the coolness of the preceding scenes is totally obliterated” and the set is no longer a domestic home. It is now a mythic battlefield. Quite unrealistically, the house plants that have only been without water for a day and a half are now all dead. Austin and Lee’s peculiar mother doesn’t recognize the home as hers and leaves to check into a motel. And finally, “the figures of the brothers now appear to be caught in a vast desert-like landscape.” Austin and Lee have become elemental forces in a mythic struggle and not merely brothers competing for screenwriting honors.


The Persistence of Frontier Ideals in American Culture

The title of Shepard’s play, True West, is significant in many ways but one clear reference is to the American frontier West as an ideal of masculine

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  • 1980: Double Fantasy, an album by former Beatles member John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, is released in 1980, and on December 8 Lennon is fatally shot by a deranged fan with a handgun outside his New York City apartment building. Lennon’s death increases support for laws controlling handguns, but president-elect Ronald Reagan rejects gun control legislation. U.S. handguns kill an average of twenty-nine people a day and fifty-five million handguns are believed to be in circulation.
    Today: Largely due to an assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981 where his Press Secretary James Brady was shot and severely paralyzed for life, the “Brady Bill” requires a five-day waiting period before the sale of a handgun can be completed. Gun violence continues to be an alarming part of American culture, and as Lee says in Scene 4 of True West, “you go down to the L.A. Police Department there and ask them what kinda’ people kill each other the most. . . . Family people. Brothers. Brothers-in-law. Cousins. Real American-type people.” Lee’s remark has significance in that a large part of handgun violence occurs between family members—often children playing with their parents’ weapons.
  • 1980: Ted Turner’s Cable News Network (CNN) goes on the air on June 1 among predictions from many that there can be no reliable audience for a 24 hour-a-day news channel.
    Today: CNN, ESPN, and a host of proliferating cable networks have become international institutions. Nearly everywhere in the world where there is a television set there is CNN reporting the news. In the United States, the cable revolution has succeeding in nearly eclipsing the big-three networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—that used to rule the airwaves.
  • 1980: On July 2, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Richmond Newspapers versus Virginia that the press has a right to attend criminal trials.
    Today: The most publicized and publicly monitored trial in history, the televised O. J. Simpson murder trial, has left many people wondering if jurisprudence is well-served by making criminal cases into media events.

forcefulness and independence. Though cowboys and gunslingers have disappeared, the ideal of rough and ready men continues to persist in America. The characters of Austin and Lee are defined by their relation to the myth of the old West. Austin is a sophisticated city boy, an Ivy League egghead with little apparent aptitude for survival skills or physical force. Lee, on the other hand, is someone who can survive in the desert—who knows the land and can make things happen with his instinct and physical prowess. He, for instance, knows the difference between urban and rural coyotes—“they don’t yap like that on the desert. They howl. These are city coyotes here”—and his movie idea is for a true-to-life, contemporary Western. When Austin has his identity crisis, he wants to leave his wife and children and live on the desert to get in touch with a more elemental self, and when Lee rejects the temptations of civilization it is to the desert (which serves as the closest thing to the unsettled frontier of the old West) he will return.

All through 1980, the year that Shepard introduced his play, the U.S. was engaged in a hostage crisis in Tehran, the capital of Iran. Parts of that situation illustrate the persistence of masculine, frontier ideals in American culture. In November of 1979, anti-American demonstrators goaded by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had marched on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, seized control, and taken sixty diplomats as hostages. Khomeini eventually threatened to put these hostages on trial and execute them as spies. They would not be freed until January of Page 327  |  Top of Article1981, 444 days later. Throughout 1980, this unprecedented takeover of a U.S. Embassy brought howls of protest from the American public and contributed significantly to President Jimmy Carter’s loss in the 1980 election. The American public demanded action, reprisals, or a rescue, and the government’s inability to immediately answer this direct challenge to American sovereignty was perceived as an insult to American honor.

Then, on the evening of April 24, 1980, a ninety-man commando group with eight helicopters and six transport planes took off from Egypt and the Arabian Sea to rendezvous in the Iranian desert in an attempt to rescue the hostages. But numerous problems culminated in the collision of one of the helicopters with a transport plane and eight men were killed and five others were injured. The ignominy of this failed mission was perhaps the greatest blow to American pride during the 1980 hostage crisis. Unlike their counterparts in Western folklore, the calvary (the U.S. government and its soldiers) had failed to arrive and rescue the settlers (the hostages) from the villains (the Iranian terrorists).

The U.S. Elects a President from Hollywood

Another important ingredient in True West is the apparent criticism of Hollywood values. By 1980 Shepard was a fairly successful actor and screenwriter. While his work in Hollywood contributed to his monetary success and allowed him the freedom to pursue his theatre art, many speculate that Shepard’s experience in the movie industry also made him cynical about the business. In True West he is at least somewhat critical of what Hollywood represents.

While the character of Kimmer can be perceived as neither good nor evil, the description of his garish clothes and his dialogue make him sound quite showy and suggest a lack of genuine taste. And his world is obviously a world of shallow commerce rather than of art. When Lee asks Kimmer “what kinda’ stuff do ya’ go in for?,” Kimmer says, “oh, the usual. You know. Good love interest. Lots of action.” Austin eventually calls Kimmer a “hustler “and theirs is an unashamed language of business as they refer to “projects,” “seed money,” and “commercial potential.” And perhaps most importantly, the accountability entailed in their “deals” is as ludicrous as Kimmer’s clothes. They sell movies on a mere synopsis or outline of the plot and demand $300,000 up front for a simple first draft. As Kimmer says so succinctly through Lee, “in this business we make movies, American movies. Leave the films to the French.”

In the 1980 Presidential election, America’s tolerance for Hollywood values, shallow or other wise, was demonstrated in its election of Ronald Reagan as the country’s fortieth president. Before entering politics, the sixty-nine-year-old conservative, who also served two terms as the Governor of California, had a long and successful career as a Hollywood actor. In the 1980 Presidential campaign, Reagan made a large impact with slick television commercials that exploited his style over substance cinematic image. Public opinion polls also revealed that he probably gained votes with an impressive showing in the televised presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in October. In November, Reagan won in a landslide, gaining fifty-one percent of the popular vote (43 million) to Carter’s forty-one percent (35 million). The electoral vote was even more lopsided, with Reagan winning 489 to 49 and Carter taking only six states and the District of Columbia.

Many political commentators suggested that Reagan’s overwhelming victory was facilitated by the increasing impact that television charisma was having on American politics. Confronted with a campaign where television presence was perhaps the most important political quality, Reagan’s twenty-year career as an actor in over fifty Hollywood films enabled him to exploit the medium brilliantly. Others speculated that Reagan’s success was strongly rooted in his (or his publicists’) ability to extrapolate his good guy screen persona (which often took the form of a virtuous cowboy) into the arena of world politics. Much as the heroic Hollywood cow boys were able to solve complex problems with simple, manly actions, Reagan’s political style was built around a return to basic decency and noble values. While these attributes performed wonderfully in films, the real world often presented situations in which good and bad were difficult to distinguish and which required complex solutions. Nevertheless, following a declining economy and the rigors of the Iran hostage crisis, the strong, frontiersman image that Reagan offered proved irresistible to American voters for eight years.

The American public’s desire for the simplicity of times such as those in the old West found fulfillment in a president such as Ronald Reagan. In Shepard’s play, Austin also expresses a desire to return to a more basic way of life—although his motivation is based on a different set of circumstances. Page 328  |  Top of ArticleGiven the public climate at the time that True West was written and produced, Shepard had probably encountered more than a few individuals who, for any number of reasons, wanted to return to the true West.


True West has had an interesting production history that suggests the secret to the play’s success might lie in its sense of humor. True West was first performed in July of 1980 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where Shepard had for six years served as the playwright in residence. Directed by Robert Woodruff, this production was performed with well-known local actors and was very well-received. Reviewing the play for the journal Theatre, William Kleb noted that “the comic elements in True West were stressed” in this initial production.

Because of Shepard’s rising status (he had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Buried Child), the play was then brought to New York City where, in the words of the Village Voice’s Don Shewey, the play “had become a media event, breathlessly anticipated as the latest work by ‘the hottest young playwright in America. “‘In December the play officially opened off-Broadway at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, but by that time a rancorous conflict between Papp and director Woodruff over casting and artistic differences had become public and was dominating the critical response to the play. New York movie actors Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle had taken over the roles of Austin and Lee, but the stars were feuding, the official opening had been twice postponed, and after disastrous preview performances the dissatisfied Woodruff resigned from the production. Papp replaced Woodruff as director, thereby alienating Shepard, who joined Woodruff in denouncing and disowning the production (though Shepard never came to New York City to see it because he was working on a movie at the time). Papp insisted that he altered little in Woodruff’s staging, but the controversy succeeded in overshadowing the production itself. Frank Rich, writing for the New York Times, praised Shepard’s play but denounced Papp’s production, saying that the production was “little more than a stand-up run-through of a text that remains to be explored.” Focusing on the Papp controversy, Rich asserted, “this play hasn’t been misdirected; it really looks as ifit hasn’t been directed at all.” He added that “you know a play has no director when funny dialogue dies before it reaches the audience.” Rich concluded by saying “it’s impossible to evaluate a play definitively when it hasn’t been brought to life on stage.”

Some reviewers agreed in part with Rich. T. E. Kalem, writing for Time, said that “certain errors of perception and direction are quite evident, but enough of the true Shepard is here to do him honor. Papp has certainly retained Shepard’s singular gift for lunging simultaneously at the jugular and the funny bone.” Other reviewers, however, dismissed Shepard’s play as well as Papp’s production. Douglas Watt of the Daily News found the play “simplistic,” though he noted that “oddly, most of the first half of ‘True West’ is exceedingly funny.” Writing for Newsweek, Jack Kroll found the play “an unfortunate mess” saying that “the new actors, Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones, are sometimes effective and funny, but they seem distant from the play and uncertain about the effects they’re trying for.” Christian Science Monitor critic John Beaufort found the production “tedious” and the humor “harsh and abrasive.” New York Times critic Walter Kerr simply found the play filled with “pretentiousness,” its thematic issues recycled and unconvincing. The Public Theatre production of True West closed after only fifty-two performances.

However, the critical reputation and vitality of Shepard’s play was saved two years later by a Chicago-based production. The small Steppenwolf Theatre, founded in 1976 and led by fledgling actors Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, produced a widely praised rendition of the play that emphasized Shepard’s sense of humor. It sold out in Chicago for a six-week run and then ran twelve more weeks in a larger, more commercial Chicago theatre. This production then transferred to the off-Broadway, Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City in October of 1982. Sinise performed double duty, both directing the production and playing Austin while Malkovich’s energetic portrayal of Lee astounded audiences. The two actors later went on to considerable movie stardom but were both making their New York debuts in the Cherry Lane production. Mel Gussow of the New York Times called the production” an act of theatrical restitution and restoration.” The critic exclaimed that now one could see that “it was the [1980] production not the play that was originally at fault.” In the Steppenwolf version, the play was “rambunctious and spontaneous,” as well as “uproarious,” with a performance by Malkovich that Page 329  |  Top of ArticleGussow called “a comic original.” Shewey echoed this sentiment in the Village Voice, calling the play “a rip-roaring comic production . . . featuring the beyond-Am’ma/ House performance of John Malkovich.” According to Gussow, Malkovich was “amusing and menacing at the same instant.” Gussow observed that with this production “no one forgets that the playwright means to be playful.” Gussow ended his review prophetically by saying “‘True West,’ revivified, should now take its rightful place in the company of the best of Shepard.” The Steppenwolf production ran for 762 performances, at the time a New York record for a Shepard play. The production was subsequently videotaped and broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System’s American Playhouse series in January of 1984. This version was also released as a feature film in 1986.


Terry Nienhuis

Nienhuis is an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University. In this essay he examines the nature of myth as it pertains to Shepard’s play. Nienhuis also discusses the abundant humor in the work.

As critic Frank Rich pointed out in his New York Times review of the original Off-Broadway production of Shepard’s play, “True West is a worthy direct descendant of Mr. Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child. Many of his persistent recent themes are present and accounted for—the spiritual death of the American family, the corruption of the artist by business, the vanishing of the Western wilderness and its promising dream of freedom.” Critics and scholars have since elaborated on these and related themes, pointing out, for example, that Lee represents the vanishing “old” West and Austin the plasticized, overdeveloped “new” West of Hollywood and its adjacent suburbs. It has been further stated that American myths such as the legendary American West or the tradition of the stable family not only fail to sustain contemporary Americans but often, in their elusive-ness, delude and frustrate them.

The investigation of such themes has also suggested that True West is Shepard’s most personal and autobiographically revealing play—that Austin and Lee’s desert-dwelling father is inspired by Shepard’s own absent parent and that Austin and Lee represent divided aspects of Shepard himself. Henry Schvey, writing in Modern Drama, suggested that “Austin, the successful Hollywood screenwriter, clearly represents the side of Shepard that has accommodated itself to material success, the aspects that have moved him from his counterculture roots in the off- off-Broadway theatre movement of the sixties to a commercially successful career as a film star. Lee, although presented as Austin’s brother in the play, is in fact his alter-ego, the part of Shepard’s divided self that is rough and crude, lives outside the law, and is drawn toward the elusive image of his father. The play, then, is not so much a bout between two brothers as it is an externalized metaphor of the dialectic between the dual aspects of Shepard’s psyche.” Or, as actor John Malkovich has so succinctly and colorfully put it, “Lee is the side of Shepard that’s always been strangled but never quite killed.”

However interesting and fruitful these investigations might be, it is possible that such close attention to Shepard’s serious themes has often blinded critics, audiences, and readers to the richly subtle and irreverently unconventional humor in Shepard’s play. Certainly, the production history of True West suggests that it can be disastrous to overlook the play’s sense of humor. Contrasting the 1980 Public Theatre and the 1982 Steppenwolf/ Cherry Lane Theatre productions of the play, New York Times critic Mel Gussow remembered that the original “seemed, for the freewheeling Mr. Shepard, uncharacteristically heavy-handed.” And when critic Douglas Watt reviewed the first New York production of the play in the Daily News, he confidently proclaimed that Austin’s monologue about his father’s false teeth was “phonier” than Lee’s movie idea. Watt also disapproved of the mother’s departure at the end of the play, calling it “symbolism [that] hits you on the head like a 2-wood.” Perhaps sensitivity to Shepard’s sense of humor is important to the viewer or reader of True West because without it the play will seem “heavy-handed” or pretentious rather than an effective exploration of Shepard’s persistent themes—and a biting satire of modern life in the West.

Much of the humor in True West plays off the very serious sense of menace that Lee brings to the action. The earliest manifestation of humor, for example, is a form of comic relief. In the first scene, Lee’s menacing quality has been clearly established when he “suddenly lunges at Austin, grabs him violently by the shirt and shakes him with tremendous

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  • The Rock Garden (1964) is a one-act play that, along with Cowboys, launched Shepard’s playwrighting career. A series of strange conversations between a teenage boy and his mother and father, the play ends with a sexually explicit speech from the boy that some have considered obscene. Shepard says that “Rock Garden is about leaving my mom and dad.”
  • The Tooth of Crime (1972) is a very unconventional two-act play with music that has often been called Shepard’s “masterpiece.” It portrays a battle for dominance in the popular music industry between an established country music idol and the newest rock singer sensation. Their battle resembles a Western “shoot-out,” as well as urban “turf wars,” and investigates our culture’s need for celebrity status.
  • Angel City (1976) is a two-act play by Shepard that even more clearly than True West attacks the Hollywood film industry and the way it can corrupt the artistic spirit.
  • Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth (1950) is a very well-known work of historiography that analyzes the concept of the West in American history and how it translates into elements of modern culture.
  • William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting (1983) is an autobiographical expose of the Hollywood film industry. Goldman is a highly successful screenwriter and the author of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and The Princess Bride, among other well-known films.
  • In the Jungle of Cities (1923) by the great German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, portrays a mythic conflict between a timber merchant and a librarian. In an interview with Kenneth Chubb in 1974, Shepard said that Brecht was his favorite playwright and that In the Jungle of Cities is a conflict, “a bout, between these two characters, taken in a completely open-ended way, the bout is never defined as being anything but metaphysical.”

power.” Austin placates Lee with an apology, there is a “long pause,” and then Lee makes a drastic and comical shift in subject—“those are the most monotonous fuckin’ crickets I ever heard in my life.” This line has been set up by Lee’s implied appreciation of the cricket sound at the very beginning of the play—“ya’ got crickets anyway. Tons a’ crickets out there.” And the relatively small laugh from his profane second reference to crickets is simply a preparation for a much bigger laugh in Scene 4 when an exasperated Lee is arguing with Austin over the validity of the chase scene in Lee’s movie: (Lee turns violently toward windows in alcove and throws beer can at them, screaming) “goddamn these crickets! (yells at crickets) Shut up out there! (pause, turns back toward table) This place is like a fuckin’ rest home here. How’re you supposed to think!”

Much of the humor in the play comes from Lee’s annoyance. We all feel annoyed in our lives but are often embarrassed by the obvious triviality of it, so we enjoy identifying with Lee’s exasperation, especially when it is expressed in clever ways (“now who in the hell wants to eat offa’ plate with the State of Idaho starin’ ya’ in the face. Every time ya’ take a bite ya’ get to see a little bit more.”). In part, we laugh at Lee’s annoyance because he freely expresses feelings that most people are too embarrassed or self-conscious to state aloud. Consequently, the more trivial the causes for Lee’s annoyance, the funnier it is for the audience. For example, in Scene 7, the irritated Lee, the adept desert survivor, struggles with something as ordinarily manageable as a typewriter ribbon. Furthermore, Lee’s annoyance is humorous because it comes from the silly attempt to assume an overnight competence in the Page 331  |  Top of Articlecomplex art of screenwriting. His newfound sense of filmmaking expertise makes him funny: “I’m trying to do some screenwriting here!!”

Saul Kimmer is another source of humor in True West because he is so ridiculously slick and shallow. Thus, it is funny when Lee can manipulate Kimmer (one con man conning another) even though Lee can’t get Kimmer’s name right. From his “inadvertent” early entrance with the stolen television set to Saul’s unctuous exit line, “I’ll give you a ring,” Lee’s triumph over the pretentiously self-important Saul Kimmer is our own joyful and risible triumph over the phonies who surround us in our daily lives.

Beyond Kimmer, however, the movie industry itself is treated humorously for the ridiculous practices it routinely employs. For example, Lee’s description for Kimmer of the pathos in the ending of the film, Lonely Are the Brave, is simply the beginning of hilarious send-ups of movie ideas. When Lee is outlining his story for Austin in Scene 4, for example, it is obvious that he is making the story up as he goes along:

Lee: . . . And number three—
Austin: I thought there was only two.
Lee: There’s three. There’s a third unforeseen realization.

As Austin later says, “it’s the dumbest story I ever heard in my life.”

True West, of course, focuses on transformations, and transformations of many kinds are funny when we see them as postured, opportunistic, and insincere—especially when the transformation is drastic. In Shepard’s play, Lee’s attempt to transform himself into a legitimate screenwriter, though perhaps ultimately pathetic, is funny because he has made such a pretense earlier of disdaining Austin’s comfortable and conventional materialism. Thus, when Lee adopts new and temporary ambitions, his aspirations look pathetically adolescent and ridiculous: “a ranch? I could get a ranch?” An even more subtle example occurs in Scene 5, when Lee suddenly becomes a responsible momma’s boy and says to Austin, “you shouldn’t oughta’ take her champagne, Austin. She’s gonna’ miss that.”

It is perhaps a toss-up as to whether Austin’s or Lee’s transformation is funnier. Lee’s is funny because of his desperation, and we laugh at it out of relief because his desperation is not ours. Lee probably reaches his comic peak in the last scene when he has lost touch with whatever instinctive quality he might have had as a storyteller and in a new and

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false hypersensitivity to language rejects a perfectly colloquial line like, “I know this prairie like the back a’ my hand.” Then, when the inebriated Austin suggests as an alternative the ludicrous, “I’m on intimate terms with this prairie,” Lee says, “that’s good. I like that. . . . Sounds original now.”

Austin’s transformation, on the other hand, is funny because it is a liberation, and we laugh because we would sometimes like to “let go” ourselves. But after Austin becomes liberated through too much drink in Scene 7, much of the humor comes from the irony this liberation creates. Specific lines are funny when they work as ironic echoes from the beginning of the play—now it is Austin who says, “don’t worry about me. I’m not the one to worry about.”

Perhaps the main benefit from examining the humor in True West is that it can explain some aspects of the text that have consistently presented problems for audiences, critics, and readers. Perhaps foremost among these is Austin’s story about his father’s false teeth. Initially the story is jarring because it is so specifically mundane and bizarre, but the story can have a wonderful pathos if it is performed or read with a feeling for its sense of humor. It is delivered, one must remember, by someone who is very drunk, and much of the humor comes from Austin presenting the story as profound when he has temporarily lost his sense of judgment. However, if the story is presented to the audience without its sense of dark humor, it will sound pretentious and even silly rather than twistedly hilarious and, at moments, even profound and moving.

A similar problem occurs with the appearance of Austin and Lee’s mother, which will seem unrealistic Page 332  |  Top of Articleor arbitrary unless it’s played as humorous. Laughter often comes from the incongruous and unexpected and the Mother’s understated response to the phenomenal mess in her house certainly fits this description. But the unexpectedly calm response from the mother is also disturbing to audiences and readers because it is the culmination of the play’s gradual shift from the realistic to the grotesque. Her comically limpid response to the devastation helps to assure that the play will end in a grotesque rather than a realistic style. Realistic responses to such a mess would probably include rage or sorrow, but when she explains her reason for returning early from Alaska (“I just started missing all my plants”) it’s clear that she is not a realistic, conventional mother, for as soon as she sees that all her plants are dead she exhibits a sense of acceptance (“oh well, one less thing to take care of I guess”) that immediately contradicts her stated reason for returning home.

This discord that Shepard creates with his bizarre mother figure is so extreme that it perhaps tests the limits of humor, but taking her comically is necessary to mute the very real violence that is taking place between Austin and Lee as the play closes. In her disconnected frame of mind, the mother sees her sons’ violence as a commonplace occurrence, a little boy’s tussle, saying “you boys shouldn’t fight in the house. Go outside and fight.” Thus, Shepard’s eccentric portrayal of violence is perfectly complemented by her comic obliviousness: she says the right words but doesn’t feel the meaning behind them—“you’re not killing him are you? You oughta’ let him breathe a little bit.” The humor is certainly dark, but to not see the mother as humorous is to risk an excessively heavy-handed reading of a rich comic line like, “that’s a savage thing to do.”

Source: Terry Nienhuis, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Jeffrey D. Hoeper

In this essay, Hoeper outlines the parallels between Shepard’s True West and the biblical parable of Cain and Abel, comparing the two tales of sibling rivalry.

“Myth speaks to everything at once, especially the emotions,” writes Sam Shepard (American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard, edited by Bonnie Maranca, [New York], 1981). Acting on this indirect authorial invitation, critics have understandably devoted much attention to the mythic elements in Shepard’s work. Most notably, Tucker Orbison has exposed three levels of mythic response in True West: the mythic West of the cowboy; the mythic “mystery of the artist” in which the writer delves into the self to explore archetypal conflicts “fraught with the terrors of nightdreaming”; and finally the mythic conflict of the doppelganger, the “second self,” as revealed in the role reversal of Lee and Austin at the play’s crisis.

Important as these three levels of mythic response are, the play explores yet another—and arguably a more important—myth through its biblical allusions and parallels. The play’s plot harks back to the archetypal story of Cain and Abel—in the Byronic variant in which Cain, the peaceful tiller of the soil, is a sympathetic figure, while Abel, the smug slaughterer of sheep, is inexplicably favored by a bloodthirsty deity. As in Genesis, the action takes place to the east of Eden. Shepard sets his play “in a Southern California suburb, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles.” Lee describes the suburban homes as being “Like a paradise” and Austin subsequently comments, “This is a Paradise down here. . . . We’re livin’ in a Paradise.”

Granted, these references to Paradise have the informality of a cliche and the sibling rivalry between Austin and Lee is a fairly hackneyed literary motif; nevertheless, the biblical story of Cain is part of our common cultural heritage, and any story of fraternal battle recalls it in some measure. Further, the more closely one looks at Shepard’s play, the more reminders there are of the pre-Christian conflict between Cain and Abel. One fairly common interpretation of the story in Genesis is that it was part of an effort by the invading Hebrews to discredit the matriarchal worship of the indigenous Canaanites. According to this interpretation, the story of the Fall is at heart a symbolic exploration of the problem of evil. How does a patriarchal society that assumes the existence of a beneficent masculine creator account for evil? It lays the burden of original sin at the feet of the first woman. And her first offspring is Cain, the original murderer.

By discrediting women and those who serve women or worship women, the ancient patriarchs may have sought to combat the matriarchal worship of the Triple Goddess in her many manifestations as Astarte, Ishtar, Isis, Artemis, Aphrodite, Demeter, Diana, and others. Before the invasion of the Hebrews, the Canaanites worshipped a variety of gods, but fertility rites were central to their religion and the triple goddesses Asherah, Anath, and Astarte were worshipped with special fervor as life-bringers Page 333  |  Top of Articleand harvest-givers. As Pamela Berger has noted, “Almost every major excavation of middle Bronze Age through early Iron Age sites (2000-600 BC) has produced terra-cotta plaques impressed with the nude female holding plant forms and standing in such a position that she can be identified as a goddess” (The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of The Grain Protector from Goddess to Saint, [Boston], 1985). The springtime planting of seed, the summer-long ripening, the fall harvest, the wintery decline into the soil, and the subsequent resurrection were seen as mirroring female fecundity and as most appropriately revered by offering the fruits of the soil in libations and cakes of wheat. Cain’s ritual offerings of grain and libations were characteristic of the worship of the Goddess. Abel’s bloody sacrifice of a sheep from his fold was characteristic of early Hebraic devotion. The symbolic conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal worship in Genesis is complemented by the more directly historical account in the book of Joshua of the efforts to destroy the worship of the Goddess.

At the beginning of True West there are hints of this pre-Christian conflict between the patriarchal and matriarchal orders. The play is set in the mother’s home. Her neighborhood is like Paradise. Her home is filled with vegetation:

The windows look out to bushes and citrus trees. The alcove is filled with all sorts of house plants in various spots, mostly Boston ferns hanging in planters at different levels. The floor of the alcove is composed of green synthetic grass.

Her plants are being served by a dutiful son. Her name is given as “mother” or “Mom,” nothing more.

In coming down from the lush north to write a romantic screenplay, Austin may be said to be acting in the service of love (or Aphrodite) and his earnings will be used to support his wife and children. His decision to write by candlelight reflects his attempt to establish a romantic mood appropriate to the story he is striving to create. Like Cain, Austin is associated with vegetation; in his mother’s absence, he has vowed to lend her flourishing house plants. The first lines in Scene 1 underscore that duty, and Scene 2 opens with Austin “watering plants with a vaporizer.” Like Abel, however, Austin is the younger of two brothers and he is clearly the better brother—kind, industrious, and moral.

In contrast, Lee comes up from the desert, like the nomadic Hebrews at the end of their exodus and the beginning of their conquest of Canaan. Somewhere in that vast desert Lee has communed with

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the “old man”—the father, whom Austin in his prosperity has apparently abandoned. Lee is Austin’s sinister opposite, and his questionable character is clearly suggested by his appearance:

filthy white t-shirt, tattered brown overcoat covered with dust, dark blue baggy suit pants from the Salvation Army, pink suede belt, pointed black forties dress shoes scuffed up, holes in the soles, no socks, no hat, long pronounced sideburns, “Gene Vincent” hairdo, two days’ growth of beard, bad teeth.

Lee is an outcast who prefers the company of the snakes in the desert to that of other men. A virtual illiterate, he makes his living by theft. For Lee, the candlelight by which Austin works is reminiscent of the “old guys,” “The Forefathers.” Most directly, the allusion is to the first settlers of the West, but the somewhat odd phrasing, the repetition, and the capitalization draw our attention to the masculinity of these Forefathers and may recall the Hebrew patriarchs. Like those patriarchs and like Abel, Lee is associated with the sacrifice of animals. In Scene 1 he brags to Austin: “Had me a Pit Bull there for a while but I lost him . . . Fightin’ dog. Damn I made some good money off that little dog. Real good money.”

In Genesis blood sacrifice is required by the patriarchal deity Yahweh, and in True West Lee is clearly allied with the masculine and violent values of this deity. Even Lee’s vocabulary associates him with blood sacrifices. When Austin innocently offers to give him money, Lee furiously rejects the gift, calling it “Hollywood blood money” and accusing Austin of attempting to use that money to “buy off” the “Old Man.” Throughout much of the play, references to the father, who is (like the mother) left unnamed, prompt in Lee a sense of reverence and pride, while in Austin such references provoke an outbreak of hostility, guilt, or disgust. Thus, in the play, as in Genesis, the patriarchal and matriarchal systems clash.

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In the Americanized mythology of True West, however, the biblical story of Cain and Abel undergoes ironic and comic revisions that undermine both the patriarchal values of Lee and the matriarchal values of Austin. The true American deity is Success, and Austin is initially that deity’s favored child. The deity’s agent is a Hollywood producer named Saul Kimmer, who has promised Austin a lucrative movie contract for the love story he is writing.

In contrast, Lee offers Saul a Western about a man’s confrontation with his wife’s lover and involving a bizarre chase in which two horses are taken by trailer to the Texas panhandle and then ridden into the desert at night. Lee seeks Austin’s creative assistance in writing an outline of the plot, but he angrily rejects the notion that Austin’s contribution is important or inspired: “Favor! Big Favor! Handin’ down favors from the mountain top.” The implication is that Austin is not like God handing down the tablets to Moses; what Austin hands down, Lee is quite prepared to reject. Cliched as Lee’s story is, it holds out the promise of a bloody duel at the end, the blood offering that Abel presented to Yahweh. As one might predict, the god of Hollywood eventually rejects Austin’s comparatively wholesome love story and smiles on Lee’s Western, just as the Old Testament deity accepted Abel’s blood sacrifice and threw down the altar of Cain.

In Genesis, Saul is the king of the Hebrews who proves himself incapable of controlling the Philistines (I Samuel 31). The allusion works well within True West. With the rejection of Austin’s script, Saul abandons all efforts to control the Philistines in American culture, whose indifference to refinement and art is well illustrated by their taste in movies. While Austin had been initially pleased to hear Lee refer to his romantic screenplay as “art,” Lee desires no esthetic (i.e., feminine) qualities in his Western. He approvingly quotes Saul as saying, “In this business we make movies, American movies. Leave the films to the French.” Further, when Saul promises to produce a movie based on Lee’s story, Lee arranges to have “a big slice” of his profits (perhaps a tithe?) turned over to the father.

In the second half of the play, Austin becomes more and more embittered and increasingly similar to his evil brother. Having in a sense been failed by the matriarchal deity, Austin neglects her rites. He lets his mother’s plants go unwatered, forgets about returning to his wife and children, and begs Lee to take him into the desert.

Meanwhile Lee, the creature of night, the desert, and the patriarchy, begs for Austin’s creative assistance. Despite Austin’s chiding that Lee is creating only “illusions of characters” drawn from “fantasies of a long lost boyhood,” Lee’s optimism about his story remains strong until Scene 7, when Austin tells him about his last encounter with their father. Lee’s confidence is apparently shattered after he hears Austin’s ludicrous description of their patriarch as a toothless, drunken beggar staggering from one bar to another and searching for the doggie bag of Chop Suey that contains his false teeth.

Scene 8 opens upon a tableau of defeatism and desolation, framed by their mother’s “dead and drooping” house plants. That this opening tableau is symbolic and imbued with the irrationality characteristic of myth is borne out by the chronology of the play, which suggests that only forty-eight hours have passed since Austin was watering the flourishing house plants in Scene 2. Both brothers have lost faith in themselves and in the values that had allowed them to define themselves. Austin has transformed himself into a pale imitation of Lee by stealing toasters instead of TVs. Meanwhile Lee has become an even more frustrated writer than Austin had been in Scene 1. He stands before us smashing a golf club into Austin’s typewriter with the regularity and impassivity of a metronome. Allen Ramsey aptly points out that this scene presents us with “the symbolic destruction of the West called Hollywood, with Shepard’s three symbols of that world—the golf club, the typewriter, and the manuscript” (Publications of the Arkansas Philological Society, fall, 1989). For both brothers Hollywood has proven to be no Paradise.

Brutal and insensitive by nature, Lee is incapable of writing a screenplay for the same reason that he is incapable of treating women with tenderness or concern. Claiming that he needs a woman, he fumbles through his collection of scribbled telephone numbers, desperately dials the operator, and rips the telephone from the wall when even she hangs up on him. Clearly, Lee is no favorite of many-named Astarte. Just as clearly, Austin hasn’t got the hang of male machismo. Having lost faith in the power of romance, Austin assures Lee that “A woman isn’t the answer. Never was,” but Austin is too wrapped up in his conscience and too concerned about his victims to be a self-satisfied liberator of small appliances. Nor can he treat women as casual Page 335  |  Top of Articlesex objects; when Lee asks if he knows any women, Austin can only answer, “I’m a married man.”

As this penultimate scene unfolds, Austin’s strangely devotional attitude towards toast becomes the primary focus of dramatic concern. Lee finally demands angrily, “What is this bullshit with the toast anyway! You make it sound like salvation or something.” And Austin replies, “Well it is like salvation sort of.” Lee then concludes, “so go to church why don’t ya.” In a comic and incongruous fashion, the scene presents a veiled allusion both to the ritual offering of grain in matriarchal religion and to the breaking of bread in Christianity. The contrast between the two brothers, as well as the matriarchal and patriarchal systems of belief, is summarized by their own synopses: Austin loves beginnings (birth, creativity); Lee counters that he has “always been kinda’ partial to endings” (death, conclusions, conquest). The conflict between the brothers reaches a new level of intensity as Lee knocks away Austin’s neatly slacked plate of bread and then methodically crushes each piece of toast. Finally, their temporary alliance in creating a script about mortal battle in the desert is ratified in a parody of communion when Lee “takes a huge crushing bite” of toast while staring raptly into his brother’s eyes.

The final scene presents a mockery of matriarchal religion to balance the dismissal of the patriarchy in Scene 7 and the parody of communion in Scene 8. First, we see the comic ineptitude of both brothers as writers. They argue over the cliched line “I know this prairie like the back a’ my hand”—eventually changing it to “I’m on intimate terms with this prairie” even though they are aware of the sexual connotation of the words. Is it too fanciful to see in this sentence a parody of matriarchal religion, with its emphasis on the planting of seed in the soil of Mother Earth? Perhaps. But then Mom arrives like a deus ex machina at the very moment that Lee repeats, “‘He’s on intimate terms with this prairie.’ Sounds real mysterious and kinda’ threatening at the same time.” Yet if Mom is Mother Earth amid her wilted plants, hasn’t she become trivial, irrelevant, comic, and a little mad?

Mom says she has come back from Alaska because she “just started missing all [her] plants.” The greatest power of the Goddess was the ability to bring the dead back to life—possibly as an emblem of the annual rebirth of life in the spring. Thus, Isis resurrects her husband Osiris and is “responsible for the rebirth of vegetation.” Similarly, in the ancient Ugaritic mythology of Canaan, Anath brings about the resurrection of her brother/lover Baal. Although the plants remain dead in True West, Mom does announce a resurrection of sorts. She claims that “Picasso’s in town. Isn’t that incredible? “When Austin points out that Picasso is dead, she merely reiterates, “No, he’s not dead. He’s visiting the museum. . . . We have to go down there and see him. . . . This is the chance of a lifetime.” With the patriarch rendered toothless and the matriarch demented, both brothers seem lost. The play concludes with Lee and Austin warily circling each other “in a vast desert-like landscape” while a single coyote yaps for the kill.

True West is, of course, Shepard’s attempt to synthesize the characteristics of the “true West”—a West that is represented neither by the love story of Austin nor by the implausible chase sequence of Lee, but rather by the play itself, in which good is warped until it is indistinguishable from evil and craftsmanship of any kind is scorned in the pursuit of popularity. Later, in A Lie of the Mind, Shepard will begin toying with a synthesis of the masculine and feminine into what Beth calls a “woman-man.” In True West, however, mothers and fathers, as well as matriarchy and patriarchy, are equally irrelevant to modern life. The modern West is a place guided by false materialistic gods who misjudge the efforts of men and set them at each others’ throats. Mothers, fathers, gods, and goddesses are all equally comic, trivial, insignificant, and insane in the true West of Sam Shepard’s True West.

Source: Jeffrey D. Hoeper, “Cain, Canaanites, and Philistines in Sam Shepard’s True West,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 76-81.

Frank Rich

In this review of True West’s Broadway debut, Rich offers a mixed assessment of the play, praising Shepard’s text yet lamenting the shortcomings of this particular production.

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Source: Frank Rich, review of True West, in the New York Times, Vol. 130, No. 44807, December 24, 1980, p. C9.


Beaufort, John. Review of True West in the Christian Science Monitor, December 31, 1980.

Chubb, Kenneth. Interview with Sam Shepard in Theatre Quarterly, Vol. IV, no. 15, August-October, 1974, pp. 3-16.

Coe, Robert. Interview with Sam Shepard in the New York Times Magazine, November 23, 1980.

Gussow, Mel. “Brothers and Rivals” in the New York Times, October 17, 1982.

Kalem, T. E. “City Coyotes Prowling the Brain” in Time, January 5, 1981.

Kerr, Walter. “Of Shepard’s Myths and Ibsen’s Man” in the New York Times, Vol. 50, no. 3, January 11, 1981.

Kroll, Jack. “California Dreaming” in Newsweek, January 5, 1981.

Rich, Frank. “Shepard’s True West’ in the New York Times, December 24, 1980.

Watt, Douglas. “True West Moves Shepard in the Right Direction” in the Daily News, December 24, 1980.


Grant, Gary. “Shifting the Paradigm: Shepard, Myth, and the Transformation of Consciousness” in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, no. 1, March, 1993, pp. 120-30.

One of several valuable essays in this special issue devoted in large part to Shepard, Grant asserts that Shepard’s dramatic style is a “new way of seeing” that is similar to the experience of listening to jazz or rock and roll music.

Hart, Lynda. Sam Shepard’s Metaphorical Stages, Greenwood Press, 1987.

In addition to a valuable section on True West, Hart’s book contains an interesting descriptive essay of Shepard’s film career and an excellent biographical sketch of the playwright’s life.

Hoeper, Jeffrey D. “Cain, Canaanites, and Philistines in Sam Shepard’s True West” in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, no. 1, March, 1993, pp. 76-82.

Examines True West as a biblical allegory. Hoeper compares Austin and Lee to the biblical figures of Cain and Abel, the combative sons of Adam and Eve.

Holstein, Suzy Clarkson. “‘All Growed Up’ in the True West, or Huck and Tom Meet Sam Shepard” in Western American Literature, Vol. 29, no. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 41-50.

Citing similarities between Mark Twain’s character Huck Finn and Lee and Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Austin, Holstein suggests that Shepard’s brothers could be understood as adult versions of these young literary characters.

Kleb, William. “Sam Shepard” in American Playwrights since 1945, edited by Philip C. Kolin. Greenwood Press, 1989.

Kleb’s long essay in this valuable reference guide to American theatre provides an assessment of Shepard’s reputation and a detailed and fascinating summary of the production histories of Shepard’s plays, including the controversial production history of True West. The essay includes several very useful bibliographies.

Kleb, William. “Theatre in San Francisco: Sam Shepard’s True West” in Theatre, Vol. 12, no. 1, Fall-Winter, 1980, pp. 65-71.

This review essay of the original production of the play in San Francisco suggests in its conclusion that True West may be Shepard’s self-dramatization of divided identity and his most subjective and personal play.

Orbison, Tucker. “Mythic Levels in Shepard’s True West in Modern Drama, Vol. 27, no. 4, December, 1984, pp. 506-19.

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A thorough and detailed examination of what is meant when critics and scholars say that Shepard writes “mythic” drama.

Rosen, Carol. “‘Emotional Territory’: An Interview with Sam Shepard” in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, no. 1, March, 1993, pp. 1-11.

In his first extensive interview in a decade, Shepard discusses his themes, his methods of working, and many other interesting topics.

Schvey, Henry I. “A Worm in the Wood: The Father-Son Relationship in the Plays of Sam Shepard” in Modern Drama, Vol. 36, no. 1, March, 1993, pp 12- 26.

The fathers in Shepard’s plays, including the father in True West, are based on the relationship Shepard had with his own father. The presence of the father lingers in the son “like a worm in the wood.”

Shewey, Don. “The True Story of ‘True West’” in the Village Voice, November 30, 1982, p. 115.

A review of the 1982 Cherry Lane Theatre production by Gary Sinise’s Steppenwolf company. In addition to providing a review of the performance, this piece offers an analysis of the controversy that surrounded the original production two years earlier at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692800027