True West is set in a suburban kitchen east of Los Angeles, although its title evokes myths of the American frontier. According to legend, the West once offered opportunities for freedom and character-building adventure, but now such an environment and such possibilities are elusive. The new West, where coyotes devour cocker spaniels in suburban backyards, retains the menace of the old West but little of its potential for heroic self-discovery.
The protagonists in this paved-over but still savage territory are two brothers reminiscent of Cain and Abel. Austin, the younger brother, attended an Ivy League university and now earns a comfortable living as a scriptwriter for movies and television. Lee, however, is a hobo who spends much of his time in the desert and supports himself by burglary. After a five-year absence, Lee appears at their mother’s home, where Austin is house-sitting. Austin is also attempting to sell his new project to the Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer.
Each brother displays contempt for the other’s lifestyle, but each perceives in the other an element missing from his own life. According to Austin, Saul Kimmer thinks the two brothers are the same person. They represent warring components of a single confused identity. As a child, Austin pretended to be Geronimo, but now his imagination has been tamed and diminished. In collecting his “blood money” from Hollywood, he has become a parasite in a shallow materialistic culture, but he begs Lee to take him back to the wild desert. Despite his crudity, Lee respects Austin’s skill with words and appropriates his mother’s antique bone china so he can remain civilized. When Saul abandons Austin’s romantic script for Lee’s “authentic Western” story, the two brothers actually exchange roles. Austin becomes a drunken thief, and Lee struggles to write a movie script.
In their turbulent quests for identity, Austin and Lee receive no guidance or support from family. Throughout the play parents are either absent or totally ineffectual. The father is a confirmed alcoholic whose whereabouts remain mysterious. In the final scene, the mother returns from Alaska to discover chaos in her home, but she talks distractedly of Picasso and halfheartedly tells Austin not to kill his brother. Left essentially to themselves and provoked by a mixture of loathing and envy, the two siblings continue to goad each other. Austin chokes Lee almost to the point of death, and the play ends with the two brothers poised for even more combat.
Part of a family trilogy, True West differs from Shepard’s other plays in its almost lighthearted bantering dialogue between the two protagonists. Austin, one brother of a pair, is conservative and formal, fitting into society with reasonable comfort. Lee, the other brother, is the cowboy misfit character of the type that Shepard uses in virtually every drama. They are both writing a film scenario about the true West, and their conversation, wildly funny in the beginning of the play, deepening as the action moves forward, is actually a debate about what (if anything) made America great. Shepard is, in a way, having a conversation with himself in this play, taking the two sides in the form of the two brothers.
The kitchen setting is appropriate, especially in the light of the late arrival of the mother, the actual adjudicator between the two brothers and the person whose affection they both seek. The two brothers are central to Shepard’s mythology. The brief appearance of the mother at the end of the play demonstrates what the competition was really about. The kitchen is her domain, despite the fact that the two brothers have temporarily claimed it for their lives and their debate. Again, the family in disarray, the siblings at odds and representing diverging lifestyles, the homage to a lost American tradition represented by the cowboy’s life—all the trademarks of Shepard—are here.
What sets this play apart from the others is the humor with...
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