True West | Study Guide

Sam Shepard

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True West | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



It's night in a Southern California suburb. The sound of crickets fills the air. Adult brothers Austin and Lee, together for the first time in five years, sit in the alcove of their mother's home. Austin, a playwright, is writing on a typewriter by candlelight. Lee stands leaning against the sink, drinking from a six-pack of beer.

The two discuss their mother's Alaska vacation. Austin says he's house-sitting for their mother and watering her plants. Lee asks if Austin has groceries and coffee, and Austin tentatively offers Lee some coffee, which Lee declines. Curious about Austin's work, Lee asks if his brother's always written by candlelight. Lee says "I did a little art myself once" but refuses to answer Austin's questions about his art, saying only, "It was ahead of its time." The brothers briefly discuss their recent, separate visits to see their father.

Austin asks Lee how long he plans to stay, and Lee says his stay "depends mostly on houses." Austin suggests Lee go to a different neighborhood. Their dialogue reveals Lee is canvassing the neighborhood with plans to steal valuable items. Austin worries Lee will "get picked up," and Lee angrily tells Austin he's been doing fine on his own for five years. Then Lee asks if he can borrow Austin's car for a day. When Austin refuses, Lee says he'll steal the car. Austin offers to give Lee money. Enraged, Lee grabs and shakes Austin violently. He says their father might take Austin's "Hollywood blood money" to buy alcohol, but Lee can make money himself.

The two men separate. Lee complains about the crickets and mentions a female botanist told him cricket pulses reveal the temperature of the air. Lee met the botanist in the desert where he was training a pit bull to be a fighting dog. Austin invites Lee to stay in his family's home "up north", but Lee says it's "too cold up there." Austin asks if Lee wants to go to sleep. Lee replies he doesn't sleep, with no further explanation.


The entire play is set in the kitchen and alcove of Mom's house. The domestic scenery and the small space can give a sense of claustrophobia. As both brothers start to feel increasingly trapped, the setting reflects their feelings.

Crickets and coyotes are constantly in the background, and they're especially loud at night. The constant noise reflects the menace of nature and the wild danger of the West. As the play explains later, coyotes kill domestic animals leashed to houses like theirs.

Mom is infrequently mentioned until Scene 9, but her location is significant. Alaska is as far West as an American traveler can get—the last frontier. Each member of the family has tried to escape to the "true" West, now even Mom.

The brothers, who at first appear to be complete opposites, demonstrate the tension between the domesticated indoors and the unruly outdoors. Austin speaks casually but formally while Lee uses contractions and repetitions, frequently changing topics. He seems unable to focus. Austin is educated and reserved, while Lee at this point already is irresponsible and aggressive.

Shepard's notes on the set and the costumes say "the evolution of the characters' situation" is the play's main focus. Every object onstage relates somehow to the two main characters' transformation. For instance, Austin's typewriter and candle show he has a certain image of himself as a writer—devoted, earnest, and wise. Lee connects the candle to the mythic image of "Forefathers" writing in "cabins in the wilderness." Lee in his own mind believes Austin's career is as much about myth and image as it is about true accomplishment.

The dialogue reveals the power dynamic between the brothers. Lee at first appears to be tentative and polite towards Austin, inquiring about groceries and asking if he's interrupting. But Lee quickly shows he resents Austin's position of power: Austin is in charge of the house; he has the car and money to spend. Since money is linked to stability, manhood, and independence, Austin's offer of money emasculates Lee. Since money implies dominance, it is an attempt to assert power. As the scenes with Saul Kimmer, the producer, will reveal in greater depth, wealthy people call the shots.

Austin also holds the keys to the car. In the spread-out American West, especially highway-thick Southern California, a car means freedom and mobility. As more communities developed in the western United States, having the independence of automobile travel became central to American life as it had never been before. In the expansive American west, a car was essential in most areas outside large cities. Without car keys each brother will be physically trapped. The brothers' fights over the keys are fights over which of them will achieve freedom in life. At first Austin, the car owner, appears to have vastly more options. Lee notices how Austin has gained all the trappings of American material success or the American dream. He has "the wife and kiddies ... the house, the car, the whole slam."

As early as Scene 1 Lee shows his complicated envy of Austin's career. Lee alludes vaguely to "art" he's done in the past, implying his art was visionary and misunderstood—"ahead of its time." The process of creating a supposed movie script in True West can be seen in the play as similar to the process of writing and controlling the narrative of one's own life. Each brother is each scripting his own story, and each critiques the other's script—and life—extensively. When Austin says "I don't want any trouble," Lee counters, "That's a dumb line." Lee wants to control his story. He doesn't want it dictated by his father's actions or by Austin's pity. Lee embodies the dogged self-reliance of the old West of legend.

But is Lee really self-reliant or independent? His time in the desert seems purposeless. He gets money through stealing others' possessions and gambling on a fighting dog. He lives on the margins of society. There's something mythical and surreal about Lee's life. He doesn't even sleep.

Is Austin, who's taken the more conventional path, responsible for Lee in any way? Are the two of them responsible for their father? How should family members take care of one another? The "old man" is a touchy topic, inciting Lee's rage early in the play. The audience never meets the brothers' father, but they learn his situation is dismal and possibly hopeless. While Austin fears failing his father, Lee fears becoming him. As the play proceeds, Lee will in fact prove more invested in the idea of helping their father than Austin does.

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