Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412
True West is set in a suburban kitchen east of Los Angeles, although its title evokes myths of the American frontier. According to legend, the West once offered opportunities for freedom and character-building adventure, but now such an environment and such possibilities are elusive. The new West, where coyotes devour cocker spaniels in suburban backyards, retains the menace of the old West but little of its potential for heroic self-discovery.
The protagonists in this paved-over but still savage territory are two brothers reminiscent of Cain and Abel. Austin, the younger brother, attended an Ivy League university and now earns a comfortable living as a scriptwriter for movies and television. Lee, however, is a hobo who spends much of his time in the desert and supports himself by burglary. After a five-year absence, Lee appears at their mother’s home, where Austin is house-sitting. Austin is also attempting to sell his new project to the Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer.
Each brother displays contempt for the other’s lifestyle, but each perceives in the other an element missing from his own life. According to Austin, Saul Kimmer thinks the two brothers are the same person. They represent warring components of a single confused identity. As a child, Austin pretended to be Geronimo, but now his imagination has been tamed and diminished. In collecting his “blood money” from Hollywood, he has become a parasite in a shallow materialistic culture, but he begs Lee to take him back to the wild desert. Despite his crudity, Lee respects Austin’s skill with words and appropriates his mother’s antique bone china so he can remain civilized. When Saul abandons Austin’s romantic script for Lee’s “authentic Western” story, the two brothers actually exchange roles. Austin becomes a drunken thief, and Lee struggles to write a movie script.
In their turbulent quests for identity, Austin and Lee receive no guidance or support from family. Throughout the play parents are either absent or totally ineffectual. The father is a confirmed alcoholic whose whereabouts remain mysterious. In the final scene, the mother returns from Alaska to discover chaos in her home, but she talks distractedly of Picasso and halfheartedly tells Austin not to kill his brother. Left essentially to themselves and provoked by a mixture of loathing and envy, the two siblings continue to goad each other. Austin chokes Lee almost to the point of death, and the play ends with the two brothers poised for even more combat.