True West, False West

The play True West was first staged at San Francisco's Magic Theatre in the summer of 1980, and can be read as one of Shepard's most poignant inquiries into the ironic process of working both in the film industry (he had recently appeared in the critically acclaimed film, Days of Heaven) and as a playwright. Shepard here retreats from the spectacular staging of his earlier works and uses a more naturalistic mode to explore the inner workings of the individual. It's as if Shepard grew out of his rock and roll fantasies and began to pursue the question of identity through the grittier emotional universe of the dysfunctional family. The setting here shifts, but the central question of identity remains the same.

Specifically, True West gives us two brothers, Austin and Lee, as they house-sit for their mother. The two brothers seem entirely different-- Lee is a desert drifter and sometime thief who arrives at the house uninvited, while Austin is a Hollywood screenwriter. The ferocity with which they war with one another indicates not only a deep-seated conflict between them but also an equally compelling symbiosis. "I wanted to write a play about double nature," Shepard said later, "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 not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It's something we've got to live with." (qtd. in Shewey, p. 141) Note that this explanation moves from the personal to the collective very quickly: first he implies that he knows what it feels like to be "two-sided," then he declares that it is a universal condition.

While it is debatable whether all of us suffer from some sort of psychic split, it is certain that Shepard does, and the well-known double life of Sam Shepard looms large over any and all productions of True West. As Sheila Rabillard observes, "Certainly Austin and Lee, the opposite and to some extent interchangeable brothers correspond to two sides of the Shepard known to the audience: the photogenic and much described playwright from California ... and the rough-hewn character familiar from the films he had appeared in at this point in his career." (in Wilcox, p.83) In this way the public persona of Sam Shepard is very much present in True West, and the fierce battle between the two characters echoes the struggle between Cavale and Slim in its frankly confessionalist subtext. Like Cowboy Mouth, True West pits characters against one another in exploring the larger issue of the conflicted identity of a single artist.

The setting is "40 miles east of Los Angeles"-- in other words, almost precisely where Shepard spent his teens with his family in Duarte, California. (in Seven Plays, p.3) In The Unseen Hand, Shepard named the setting "Azusa," which he says is also forty miles east of Los Angeles. The playwright's introduction to this play confesses an obsession with the place, described as one that "grew out of nothing and nowhere. ...People who couldn't make it in the big city just drove away from it. They got so far and just quit the road...It was a temporary society that became permanent. Everybody still had the itch to get on to something better for themselves but found themselves stuck. It was a car culture for the young. For the old it was just a dead end. ...[T]hese Southern California towns have stuck with me not so much as a fond memory but as a jumping off place. They hold a kind of junk magic. (Action and The Unseen Hand, pp.43-44) This area "40 miles east of Los Angeles" is not merely an autobiographical font of local color; it is the magic source for the playwright's dramatic tension, his heart's country. It is the real place where Shepard spent his formative years, yet the playwright also condemns its artificiality. It is Shepard's heart's country perhaps because, not in spite, of its dual nature as both authentic and inauthentic.

Clearly present in True West is this sort of tension between the surface appearance of a sort of middle-class-America Eden and its inherent emptiness. Austin, the younger of two brothers house-sitting for their mother, says, ironically, "Indoors. Safe. This is a Paradise down here." (p. 39) Lee, on the other hand, recognizes that this place is truly the dead end to which Shepard earlier referred in saying, "Kinda' place that sorta' kills ya' inside," though he sees the surrounding neighborhood a motherlode for stealing televisions. (p.12)

By scene six, Lee is dazzling Austin's producer, Saul, with a screenplay of his own, and Austin takes to petty larceny and begs to be shown how to live in the desert. The process of concocting Lee's screenplay is especially interesting in that it seems to mock the very idea of depicting life with anything even approaching realism or authenticity. Austin's screenplay concerns the nearly universal experience of love, while Lee's depicts an improbable, and seemingly endless, chase through the panhandle of Texas.

The contentious brothers agree to share with each other their particular gifts. As Austin coaches Lee through the creation of a script, the brothers enact the very conflict dogging Shepard:

LEE: Just help me a little with the characters, all right? You know

how to do it, Austin.

AUSTIN: (on the floor, laughs) The characters!

LEE: Yeah. You know. The way they talk and stuff. I can hear it in

my head but I can't get it down on paper.

AUSTIN: What characters?

LEE: The guys. The guys in the story.

AUSTIN: Those aren't characters.

LEE: Whatever you call 'em then. I need to write somethin' out.

AUSTIN: Those are illusions of characters.

LEE: I don't give a damn what ya' call 'em! You know what I'm talkin'


AUSTIN: Those are fantasies of a long lost boyhood. (p.40)

Likewise, the characters and fundamental concerns of Sam Shepard the adult artist often verge on what some might call the "fantasies of a long lost boyhood"-- rock-and-roll and cowboys, most conspicuously. But this may provide a clue as to the artist's choices: if Shepard's formative artistic influences were Hollywood westerns then it is perhaps only fitting that he would exhibit an affinity for those forms even after he was ushered into the pantheon of serious dramatists. His apparently sincere interest in pop culture "fantasies" may be seen less as an irony or a folly than a return to his own origins.

The supposed gift Lee possesses for writing for the screen is what Saul calls "raw talent" (p. 34), and closely resembles Shepard's own often mythologized untutored approach to writing. Furthermore, Lee is portrayed as the meticulous artist, one who is "in touch" (p. 41) with mainstream society and media, as opposed to Lee's "speaking from experience" (Ibid), specifically the experience of a marginalized existence in the desert. Questioning Saul about what he sees in Lee's writing, he leads the dialogue into a discussion of authenticity:

AUSTIN: What do you see in it? I'm curious.

SAUL: It has the ring of truth, Austin.

AUSTIN: (laughs) Truth?

LEE: It is true.

SAUL: Something about the real West.

AUSTIN: Why? Because it's got horses? Because it's got grown men

acting like boys?

SAUL: Something about the land. Your brother is speaking from


AUSTIN: So am I! (p.34)

Lee has not experienced the bizarre episode he describes in his screenplay, but Saul picks up on the idea that there is a mythical quality to it as it relates to the land, which suggests a primal experience-- Lee is a romantic. Austin, on the other hand, asserts his own authenticity in writing about more common occurrences, like love. And though Saul chooses Lee's work over Austin's, both artists have a point in that they are equally authentic in many ways. The dichotomy between the two brothers then breaks down entirely as the brothers live too closely for several days and become fascinated and involved with the other's life. The result is violence, and the final image on stage is that of Lee blocking Austin's escape from the room, as lights fade to black and a lone coyote calls in the distance (p. 59). Lee has the upper hand, however, and the implication is that the demonic older brother, having served as the catalyst for most of the play's action and brought his unusual insight to the dialogue, has transformed and trapped Austin. Meanwhile, Austin has merely provided his brother with a constructive, yet highly problematic, outlet for his creativity. One can assume that Shepard's own romanticism, perpetually battling with the demands of our highly structured commercial world, is the more forceful component of his psyche.

The authorial imagination seems superficially concerned with the authenticity, or the "True"-ness, of art, and in particular when fed into the commercial machine that is Hollywood. Most deeply, however, the play enacts a profound psychic split. Nowhere does Shepard address the broader concerns of "humanity's" split, let alone offer resolution or hope. True West is a drama set within the inner landscape of the author, his characters playing out his most violent and contradictory compulsions. The final is one of claustrophobic tension, and it is the work of a deeply frustrated and extraordinarily ambivalent artist.

The frustration, though, finds release in the creation of art (as seen earlier as Slim brutalizes the drums and attacks the guitar in Cowboy Mouth or later when the actor in "Winging It" knocks the radio to the floor), yet the ambivalence between the purity and passion of the artist (Lee) and the dazzling artificiality of Hollywood, in general (Austin and Saul), is ever-present. The conflict between Lee and Austin finds them returning again and again to the typewriter, their figurative battlefield.

Though the final image of the two brothers locked indefinitely in an insoluble conflict forms the visual conclusion to True West, there is another moment, earlier on, which is equally important. At the end of Act One's fourth scene, Lee dictates his "true" western to Austin at the typewriter as the lights fade, and it is a startlingly insightful soliloquy:

So they take off after each other straight into an endless black prairie. The sun is just comin' down and they can feel the night on their backs. What they don't know is that each of 'em is afraid, see. Each one of separately thinks that he's the only one that's afraid. And they keep ridin' like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who's chasin' doesn't know where the other one is taking him. And the one who's being chased doesn't know where he's going." (p.27)

The typing then stops as the lights go to black, and the sound of the crickets fades (Ibid). The struggle in this passage is recast as a quest. There is motion forward, but it is a blind chase choreographed by two unwitting collaborators. The final scene echoes this poetic monologue in its implication that the clash of the two characters represents an open-ended struggle towards an unidentifiable goal. However, the mere possibility of conclusion, as the two "fictional" characters race across "tornado country" swapping trucks for horses, questing endlessly, urges them on indefinitely. They, like Lee and Austin and, indeed, like the disparate forces that drive Sam Shepard as an artist and as a man, must remain suspended in eternal pursuit. For the central problem for any romantic, Hough rightly contends, is "insoluble." (xix) The search for identity necessitates, for Shepard, such a journey of continual motion in which roles are taken, then escaped. And the authenticity of such a quest comes from its very impossibility: to reach its destination would not ring true. The quest must continue-- if the truck runs out of gas, hop on the horse-- through the endless cycle of adoption, critique, and abandonment of roles, because no one role ever seems to get the author where he wants to go.

In his appraisal of Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Logbook, Shepard concludes, similarly, in "If a Mystery is Solved":

If a mystery is solved, the case is dropped. In this case, in the case of Dylan, the mystery is never solved, so the case keeps on. It keeps coming up again. Over and over the years. Who is this character anyway? (p.73)

Ironically, just three years after the first production of this play, Sam Shepard would become famous beyond his wildest dreams and find himself nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Two years after that, in 1985, his face, partially concealed by a large cowboy hat and sunglasses, would appear on the cover of Newsweek magazine (Nov. 11, 1985) under the banner headline, "TRUE WEST," begging the question, "Who is this character anyway?"

Next: Fool for Fame

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