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True West opens at night with both brothers in their mother’s kitchen, where all the action of the play will occur over three days. Crickets and occasional barks of coyotes can be heard. Austin, in charge of the house while their mother is vacationing in Alaska, tries to write at the kitchen table; Lee, having arrived unexpectedly after living for three months in the desert, drinks beer and talks. The brothers are opposites in dress and demeanor: While Austin, dressed in a cardigan and jeans, is the neat suburbanite, Lee, in soiled second-hand remnants, conveys the menace of a desperate loner.
They have not seen each other in five years and are awkward and tense. This tension grows when they discuss their father, a mysterious character who lives in the desert, and is further fueled when Lee mocks Austin for writing television scripts. When Austin asks how long Lee intends to stay at the mother’s house, he says that his stay depends on how successful his burglaries are in the neighborhood. He further frightens Austin by asking for his car in order to case the area. Austin refuses to give Lee the car but tries to help him by offering money and a place with his family up north. Lee attacks Austin for insulting him with such a handout. After a pause, Lee calms down and recounts his success with dogs trained for fighting. He rejects Austin’s offer by saying that the north is too cold and then leaves.
The next morning Lee returns from his nocturnal walk through the neighborhood and tells Austin how the area has changed for the worse with development. Both brothers remember their youthful escapades in the area’s foothills, but Lee breaks their nostalgia with a description of a house that he cased. Austin, apprehensive, asks Lee if he ever grew lonely while living in the desert. He answers mysteriously by saying that Austin never really knew him. Austin changes the subject by announcing that Saul Kimmer, his producer, is coming to visit shortly and that he would appreciate Lee’s absence. Lee bribes Austin into giving him the car keys to leave. Reluctantly, Austin does, and as Lee exits, he announces that he has a story to sell the producer as well.
The next scene opens in the middle of Austin’s conversation with Kimmer, a loudly dressed Hollywood producer. Lee enters with a stolen television and announces his regret at returning too soon. When Austin tells Kimmer that Lee has lived in the desert, Kimmer thinks of Palm Springs and starts to discuss golf. Playing along with the misunderstanding, Lee talks Kimmer into a golf game the next morning at which Lee will relate his idea for a Western. Kimmer, not quite sure what to make of Lee but intimidated by him, agrees to the golf date and leaves. Austin, astounded by Lee’s actions, asks for his car keys back; Lee just smiles.
That night, Lee dictates his story sketch to Austin, who types it perfunctorily. As Lee becomes more serious about the story, Austin becomes more skeptical of its plausibility, finally stopping his typing and dismissing Lee’s tale as contrived. Lee warns Austin that he has his car keys and will return them only after Austin finishes helping him. Austin’s fear of Lee grows, and Lee aggravates it by reminding Austin that most murders occur between family members. Lee then softens, gives the car keys to Austin, and says that selling this story could change his life. He goes on to admit that he envies Austin’s middle-class life; Austin, surprised, confesses his envy for Lee’s independence. With this truth out, the brothers now work together on the story line. When Lee asks again for the car keys, Austin reluctantly gives them to him.
In act 2 the brothers’ situations are reversed. During golf, Lee has successfully sold his story to Kimmer at the expense of Austin’s script. When Kimmer arrives and calls Lee’s story a true Western, Austin argues that there is no West any more, only freeways and Safeways—the subjects of his stories. Austin’s frustration drives him to drink, which makes him not only less frightened of Lee but also, ironically, more like him. That night Lee is writing at the typewriter while Austin taunts him by claiming that he can steal toasters better than Lee can write. By morning, Lee is smashing the typewriter with a golf club while Austin proudly polishes a row of toasters that he has stolen during the night. Lee recognizes that he really needs Austin’s help to write, and angrily pulls out all the kitchen drawers and, finally, the telephone off the wall. Amid the debris, Austin calmly makes a large pile of toast and asks Lee if he could accompany him into the desert. Thinking that Austin is ridiculing him, Lee smashes Austin’s pile of toast. However, Lee soon realizes Austin’s changed attitude and makes a deal with him: Austin will write the script, and Lee will take him into the desert.
The last scene of the play opens at midday with the brothers working well together on the script. Mom’s unexpected return from Alaska disrupts them. She has returned because she misses her plants, now thoroughly wilted and dead; she shows little concern over the destroyed kitchen or even for her sons. Lee realizes that his wish to join this middle-class world is insane and decides to go back to the desert alone. Austin, angry that Lee will not take him, grabs the telephone cord and throttles Lee with it. As they struggle, the mother claims not to recognize anything and leaves. When Lee appears to be dead, Austin releases the cord and tries to get to the door. Lee, however, springs up and blocks his exit. The lights fade to moonlight as the two brothers “square off to each other, keeping a distance between them.”
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The setting allows the audience to accept True West as a realistic drama as well as a fable about art. Located forty miles east of Los Angeles, the setting is a meeting point for the modern West and the primitive one, represented by the desert, foothills, and the constant background sounds of crickets and coyotes. For Shepard, the coyotes become metaphors for the conflict between illusions and reality. Lee tells Austin that coyotes, icons of the mythic Wild West, have, in fact, become suburban pests. The desert also symbolizes the disparity between reality and illusion. Lee calls it empty; Austin sees it as more real than his urban environment. In the climactic fight scene myths and reality merge: The coyotes bark loudly, and the kitchen set dissolves into “a vast desertlike landscape” to reflect the brothers’ confusion.
The kitchen represents this blend of reality and illusion. While it resembles the usual set of realistic “kitchen” dramas that deal with domestic conflicts, the kitchen—with its plastic grass carpet and potted plants—also emblematizes the artificiality created by the mother’s attempts to make her ideal West real. Lee’s description of another kitchen he spied, in an ersatz hacienda, underscores this symbolism. The domestic conflict occurring in the brothers’ kitchen is more mythic than realistic, recalling the archetypal contest between Cain and Abel. In Shepard’s fable, however, the father embodies a West idealized in films and pulp novels that attracts because of its escapism. Both parents, their namelessness befitting their mythic status, represent the allure and danger of accepting myths as reality. At the end, Mom ignores the vivid reality of the brothers’ struggle to declare that she can find nothing real in the house anymore.
More symbolically, the brothers’ film stories portray the artist’s divided self. Lee’s ideal Western, the film Lonely Are the Brave, identifies him with the artist’s emotional side that wants to create illusion and myth; Austin’s story of his father’s teeth makes him the artist’s rational half that wants realism. Each story is incomplete in depicting reality, however; one is too maudlin and the other too rationally cool.
The play’s role as a fable on art is most obviously revealed in its title, which Shepard borrowed from the defunct magazine True West. The magazine supposedly told true stories of the West, but was also inadvertently creating myths for its readers. So too, the brothers’ fight over whose story is more true cannot be resolved, since both stories abstract reality and create myths that are partially true. The closing scene with the brothers forever frozen in struggle not too subtly hints that the only true story of the West is the play itself.
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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 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 Khomeim 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 1981, 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 "whatkinda' stuff do ya' goin’ 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 otherwise, 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 cowboys 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 m 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. Given 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.
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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 m 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 and 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 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
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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.
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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.
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Beaufort, John, Review of True West in 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 m 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, Canaamtes, and Philistines in Sam Shepard's True West" in Modem 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 Cam 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, Holstem 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. Kolm 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. 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.
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Sources for Further Study
Demastes, W. W. “Understanding Sam Shepard’s Realism.” Contemporary Drama 21 (Fall, 1987): 229-248.
DeRose, David J. Sam Shepard. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Graham, Laura K. Sam Shepard: Theme, Image, and the Director. New York: Lang, 1995.
Hart, Lynda. Sam Shepard’s Metaphorical Stages. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Marranca, Bonnie, ed. American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1981.
Mottram, Ron. Inner Landscapes: The Theater of Sam Shepard. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.
Orbison, T. “Mythic Levels in Shepard’s True West.” Modern Drama 27 (December, 1984): 506-519.
Oumano, Ellen. Sam Shepard: The Life and Work of an American Dreamer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
Patraka, Vivian M., and Mark Siegel. Sam Shepard. Boise State University Western Writers Series 69. Boise: Boise State University Press, 1985.
Wade, Leslie A. Sam Shepard and the American Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Wilcox, Leonard, ed. Rereading Shepard. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1993.
Zinman, T. S. “Sam Shepard and Super-Realism.” Modern Drama 29 (September, 1986): 423-430.
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