While at its heart True West portrays the classic philosophical problem of distinguishing illusion from reality, it extends this theme to the dilemma the artist encounters in creating art that is true to life. Both thematic concerns are centered on the brothers’ struggle to write a real Western story.
The play opens with the brothers’ disagreeing on where the real West is. In essence, they are arguing over reality and illusion. Lee, the idealist, maintains that the West has been “wiped out” by development, while Austin, the pragmatist, accepts the West as the land of freeways and Safeways. However, both brothers fail to recognize the inevitable change occurring in their idealized childhood West and in themselves as well even as it occurs in the play. While Lee wishes for Austin’s pragmatic world, Austin begins to idealize Lee’s desert life. He says to Lee that “there’s nothing real down here” for him, but Lee punctures Austin’s ideal West: “Do you actually think I chose to live out in the middle a’ nowhere? Do ya’? Ya’ think it’s some kinda philosophical decision I took or somethin’?” The brothers’ conflict suggests a paradoxical definition of reality as an uneasy combination of illusion and experience, producing the myths which are necessary for psychic survival.
The brothers’ reversal of roles in act 2 reflects the inner conflict of the artist as a divided self. Each brother represents one requisite side of the artist’s creativity: Lee, emotive, Dionysian; Austin, rational, Apollonian. As Kimmer says, each brother needs the other to create. However, each brother sees the other’s strengths not as complementing but as replacing his own. Their struggle delineates the difficult, if not impossible task of harmonizing emotion and intellect in the creation of art, since by nature each side seeks to dominate the other. Only after the brothers exchange roles, climaxing in the humorous scene with the stolen toasters, do they recognize their need for this union.
The image of the brothers circling in the devastated kitchen offers a provocative but inconclusive ending. Some critics have suggested that this disturbing final scene reflects Sam Shepard’s view of life as an endless struggle between illusion and reality, passion and reason; to be true, art must portray this struggle without a neat resolution.