The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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,...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Persistence of Frontier Ideals in American Culture
The title of Shepard's play, True West, is significant in many...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Shepard's story of two brothers contending for superiority as screenwriters begins in a realistic style, a style that...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1980: Double Fantasy, an album by former Beatles member John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, is released in 1980, and on December 8...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the importance of music in Shepard's life and the way this interest gets reflected in his plays, especially his early work.


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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Steppenwolf production of True West at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City with John Malkovich as Lee and Gary Sinise as...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Rock Garden (1964) is a one-act play that, along with Cowboys, launched Shepard's playwriting career. A series of strange...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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


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(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 159 words.)