Themes and Meanings

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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.


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Change and Transformation
Central to a thematic analysis of True West is the exchange of personality traits between brothers Austin and Lee as their conflict over screenplays develops. In the beginning, they are polar opposites, as the clean-cut and conventional Austin confidently prepares his script for the Hollywood producer, Saul Kimmer, and the ill-kept and anti-social Lee announces his plans to burglarize the neighborhood. By the end of the play, however, Lee and his movie idea have won Kimmer's favor, and Lee is attempting to be industrious while Austin has assumed Lee's habits of heavy drinking and petty crime.

The catalyst for this transformation is the Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer and the opportunities he represents for each of the brothers. In the beginning, Austin seems to be relatively accomplished and confident as a writer, but Kimmer is offering Austin his “big break,'' his opportunity for fame and fortune within the framework of his conventional life. Austin seems to be a steady, middle-class family man. He has a wife and children "up north," an Ivy League education, and a determination to gain fame and fortune through hard work in the highly competitive entertainment industry. But when Kimmer rejects Austin's movie idea in favor of his crass brother's script proposal, Austin loses his sense of superiority. He is transformed...

(This entire section contains 1315 words.)

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as he loses the connection with his familiar concept of self. Confronted with the possibility that his intelligence, drive, and talent may not be enough to attain his dreams, Austin suffers an identity crisis. He is left a hollow shell (as he says in the play "there's nothing real down here, Lee! Least of all me!"). In this state of mind, Austin tries out Lee's identity to see how it suits him; he adopts an irresponsible attitude, steals toasters, and talks of ditching his conventional existence for an adventurous life of crime and travel.

For Lee, Kimmer represents more than a chance for fame and fortune; he represents an opportunity for parity with—or even genuine superiority over—Austin as well as legitimacy in the eyes of the conventional world. Initially, Lee approaches Kimmer as a con artist, just as he has approached so many other people in his life, but when Lee sees an opportunity for respectability, he is transformed into a comically desperate man struggling to gain what he has disdained most of his life: a comfortable, middle-class existence.

The simplest explanation for putting his characters through these reversals is that Shepard is demonstrating that things are often not as they seem. Reality is complex and slippery, maybe even hopelessly elusive, and the man who seems to be a steady middle-class provider for his family might not be quite as stable as he appears. Shepard is also suggesting that a violent, animal-like nature might He just below the surface of all human beings, waiting only sufficiently trying circumstances to crack the shell of a public persona and reveal the capacity for horror underneath.

Ultimately, Shepard is suggesting that what is attributed as personality, character, and a sense of identity might be little more than public role playing that, upon close inspection, does not come close to revealing the true nature of the person. This can be extrapolated to infer that a person engaged in this role playing may even convince themselves that their identity is what they have created. When confronted with the possibility that this role may not be their true self, the realization can often be traumatic—as it is for Austin.

In Lee's case, the persona he exhibits at the beginning of the play is most likely his true self. He has learned not to care what others think of his behavior and, as a result, has become free to act on any impulse that occurs to him. When his idea for a film receives serious consideration from Kimmer, however, Lee begins to understand the benefits that can be reaped from playing a role. As Austin did at the play's outset, he learns to control his baser instincts in the service of attaining respect and wealth.

Identity: the Search for Self
At the beginning of the play, Austin and Lee, like most human beings, take their identities for granted and would consider those identities stable and unchanging if they thought of them at all. Austin is a little more self-assured about himself, confidently feeling "in charge,'' even in the face of Lee's threatening behavior. But after Kimmer rejects his movie idea in Scene 6, Austin's sense of identity is shattered He repeats the personal pronoun ' T' as a way of trying to hold on to his old sense of himself—"I drive on the freeway every day. I swallow the smog. I watch the news in color. I shop in the Safeway. I'm the one who's m touch! Not him!"

But in the next scene, Austin is only in touch with the alcohol he consumes as his hazy mind gropes for a new sense of identity. Set adrift from his old persona, he tries Lee's on for size: "well, maybe I oughta' go out and try my hand at your trade. Since you're doing so good at mine." He also decides that he's going to live in the desert, like Lee, because he's now decided "there's nothin' down here for me. There never was.... I keep finding myself getting off the freeway at familiar landmarks that turn out to be unfamiliar." Perhaps most significantly, he even begins to taunt Lee physically, testing the idea that he might be able to hold his own with Lee in terms of brute strength. This idea gets evaluated at the end of the play when he seems to have overcome and strangled Lee.

At the beginning of the play, Lee is much more defensive about his self-image. To some extent convinced that Austin's sophistication is enviable, Lee fakes sophistication of his own: "you got coffee?... Real coffee? From the bean?" Stung by his mother's preference for Austin as a house-sitter, Lee asserts his competence in domestic matters: "she might’ve just as easily asked me to take care of her place as you.... I mean I know how to water plants." However, it is as a natural man, as a desert survivor, that Lee most confidently defines his sense of self. But after Kimmer tempts Lee with the hope of becoming more conventional and sophisticated, Lee temporarily discards his desert-rat identity and tries to assume a new one: "I'm a screenwriter now! I'm legitimate." But when this new identity fails, Lee shouts, "here I am again in a desperate situation! This would never happen out on the desert. I would never be in this kinda' situation out on the desert."

The resolution of these two identity crises comes at the very end of the play when Lee rises from the floor with the phone cord around his neck and it's clear that Austin has not defeated Lee physically. Lee is still the physically stronger of the two, as well as the more cunning. Lee has given up his attempt to adjust his sense of self and is going back to the desert, though he plans to bring with him "something authentic" so he can feel more "civilized." As for Austin, the future is less clear, but he will also probably carry with him a more complex sense of self than he had before.

In a 1980 interview with Robert Coe in the New York Times Magazine, Shepard said that in True West he "wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn't be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It's a real thing, double nature. I think we're split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal.... It's something we've got to live with."