The Nature of Myth

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 die 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 power." Austin placates Lee...

(This entire section contains 1903 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 m 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 m 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, straggles 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 complex 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-1 thought there was only two, Lee1 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 ranch9'' 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 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 or 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.

Cain, Canaanites, and Philistines in Sam Shepard's True West

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

"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 clich6 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, Ms, 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 and 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 m 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 staving 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 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.

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. Clich6d 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 sex 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 clich6d 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 Ugantic 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 incredible17" 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 wanly 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

Reveiw of True West

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Some day, when the Warring parties get around to writing their memoirs, we may actually discover who killed True West, the Sam Shepard play that finally opened at the Public Theater last night. As the press has already reported, this failure is an orphan. Robert Woodruff, the nominal director, left the play in previews and disowned the production. Mr. Shepard has also disowned the production, although he has not ventured from California to see it. The producer Joseph Papp, meanwhile, has been left, holding the bag. New Year's will be, here shortly, and one can only hope that these talented men will forgive and forget.

At least their battle has been fought for a worthwhile cause. True West seems to be a very good Shepard play—which means that it's one of the American theater's most precious natural resources But no play can hold the stage all by itself. Except for odd moments, when Mr. Shepard's fantastic language rips through the theater on its own sinuous strength, the True West at the Public amounts to little more than a stand-up run-through of a text that remains to be explored. This play hasn't been misdirected; it really looks as if it hasn't been directed at all.

You know a play has no director when funny dialogue dies before it reaches the audience. Or when two lead actors step on each other's lines and do "business" rather than create characters. Or when entrances and scene-endings look arbitrary rather than preplanned. Or when big farcical sequences—-an avalanche of Coors beer cans, for instance—clatter about the stage creating confusion rather than mirth. Or when an evening's climax—the mystical death embrace of two fratricidal brothers—is so vaguely choreographed it looks like a polka All these things and more happen at the Public.

It's a terrible shame. 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 promised dream of freedom. If the playwright dramatizes his concerns in fantastic flights of poetic imagery, that imagery always springs directly from the life of the people and drama he has invented. Mr. Shepard doesn't graft symbols onto his plays He's a true artist; his best works are organic creations that cannot be broken down into their constituent parts.

The brothers of True West are both hustlers, or, if you will, modemday cowboys who have lost then-range. Lee (Peter Boyle) is a drifter and petty burglar, and the younger Austin (Tommy Lee Jones) is a screenwriter. The play is about what happens when the two men reunite in their mother's ticky-tacky suburban Los Angeles home. By the end of the evening, they have stolen each other's identities and destroyed the house, and yet they can never completely sever the ties that bind. Like the heroes in the "True life" Hollywood movie western they write during the course of the play, Lee and Austin are "two lamebrains" doomed to chase each other eternally across a desolate, ever-receding frontier.

Mr. Shepard is an awesome writer. When Lee and Austin lament the passing of the West they loved (and that maybe never existed), they launch into respectively loopy, nostalgic monologues about the film Lonely Are the Brave and the now-extinct neighborhood of their youth. Amusing as they are, these comic riffs are also moving because they give such full life to Mr. Shepard's conflict between America's myths and the bitter, plastic reality that actually exists: Lee can no longer distinguish the true West from the copy, he finds in a movie; Austin discovers that his childhood memories are inseparable from the vistas he sees on cheap post cards Looking for roots, Mr Shepard's characters fall into a void.

The playwright also provides motifs involving dogs, crickets, desert topography, cars, household appliances (especially toasters and television sets) and the brothers' unseen, destitute father. As the play progresses, these images keep folding into one another until we are completely transported into the vibrant landscape of Mr. Shepard's imagination. Such is the collective power of this playwright's words that even his wilder conceits seem naturalistic in the context of his play. We never question that Lee would try to destroy a typewriter with a golf club or that the family patriarch would lose his false teeth in a doggie bag full of chop suey.

True West slips only when Mr. Shepard, a master of ellipses, tries to fill in his blanks. Does he really need lines like, "There's nothing real here now, least of all me,'' or,"There's no such thing as the West anymore"? The movie-industry gags, most of which involve a producer in gold chains (Louis Zorich), are jarring as well. Mr. Shepard's witticisms about development deals and agents have been written funnier by Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky, and they bring True West down to earth.

Still, these judgments must be tentative. It's impossible to evaluate a play definitively when it hasn't been brought to life on stage There's nervous energy at the Public, but it leads nowhere. Mr. Boyle, a loping, lllshaven figure in baggy clothes, is engagingly sleazy for a while, but his performance trails off into vagueness and repetition just as it should begin to build. Mr Jones is kinetic and finally frantic as he tries and fails to get a handle on the screenwriter. We never believe that these actors are mirror-image brothers locked into a psychological cat-and-mouse game. Theatergoers who venture to the Public must depend on their own imaginations to supply the crackling timing and the violent tension that are absent. Who's to blame? Please address your inquiries to the Messrs Shepard, Woodruff and Papp. And while you're writing, demand restitution. These men owe New York a true True West.

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


Critical Overview