True West | Study Guide

Sam Shepard

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True West | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary



That night after the meeting with Saul, Austin types as Lee dictates the plot of his movie. They disagree on whether the protagonist is at the Texas border or 50 miles from the border. Lee says "A lot can happen in fifty miles" and insists every detail needs to be correct even though Austin reminds him they're only writing an outline. Lee continues the story. As the protagonist drives his truck towards the border, with his horse trailer and his horse, a man driving a cattle trailer begins following him. Lee's protagonist realizes two things at once. The man behind him is the husband of the woman he's sleeping with, and he's in "Tornado Country," or the Panhandle. And, Lee adds, he has a third realization. He's low on gas.

Austin gets up, frustrated. The plot's too contrived, he tells Lee. No one runs out of gas with "horses conveniently along with them," and no one gets chased through "Tornado Country." He thinks Lee has just come up with an excuse to get the two men chasing each other on horseback. An angry Lee flings a beer can at the noisy crickets in the alcove windows. Austin suggests they take a break, but Lee wants to get it done. It's his last chance, he says. He'll be leaving the house soon. Unlike Austin, he doesn't want to be "a parasite offa' other fools." Austin protests. He's not a parasite; Lee's the thief! Austin demands his car keys back, but Lee, more and more in charge of the dynamic, says he'll keep the keys until Austin writes the script outline. Reluctantly Austin sits back down at the typewriter.

Lee asks Austin if he even plans to show the outline to Saul. Austin replies Lee can show Saul the outline himself the next day when they play golf. Austin's just writing the script to get his keys back. Lee tosses the car keys to Austin, who pockets them slowly. Now Lee wonders aloud what Austin will do. Call the police? Kick him out? Family members kill each other the most, Lee says, especially in the heat.

Austin says, "We're not driven to acts of violence like that." He tells Lee to sit down so they can finish the script. After considering his options, Lee sits back down at the table but tells Austin he'll find "easier money" elsewhere. Austin encourages Lee to stick with his movie idea. If the film script sells, Austin adds, Lee could improve his life. Lee asks if he could earn enough to get their father out of debt. Austin says no; their father won't change.

"He's not gonna' change but I will," Lee replies. He imagines his leisurely life "gettin' paid to dream." After a pause, Austin asks Lee what he wants to do. Again he pushes Lee to finish the story. Lee agrees—after all, he's always wondered what life would be like in Austin's shoes. Austin admits he's envied Lee's adventurous life. After the two commit to finishing the script, Lee reminds Austin he offered the car if Lee wanted it so Austin returns the keys.

As the scene ends, Lee describes the next turn in the script's plot to Austin. The two men are chasing each other, both afraid and both unsure where they're going.


Shepard uses the brothers' scriptwriting process to expose and mock audience expectations of stories on the screen. Do filmgoers want to see a nuanced, surprising conflict like the one Austin wants to write? Or do filmgoers enjoy exaggerated dramatic stories like Lee's, where coincidences move the story along in a way they never could in real life? Should art reflect reality or offer an escape from reality? Does true art offer emotional truth or gritty realism? These are major questions about the nature of art in general and writing specifically.

The word true provides some verbal irony. As Lee pointed out in the first two scenes, Austin loves using his imagination. His stories aren't truth at all. But while Lee pitched Saul a "true-to-life" western, his story is also unrealistic and anything but true. Austin is right; events probably wouldn't happen the way Lee describes them. Moviegoers might feel cheated, and they wouldn't be able to suspend their disbelief. They'll expect realism and get fantasy instead.

But Lee's travels have given him access to details Austin doesn't know. Details like the geography of the Texas Panhandle or the purpose of a gooseneck trailer for livestock make Lee's version true even if the plot is contrived. Even if writers make up a story, Lee implies, they can never escape the real world. Lee also knows the conventions of a movie plot require accelerated conflict and higher-than-usual stakes to keep viewers excited. The "chase scene" makes viewers tense, and the tension makes them care about the outcome.

The scene also goes deeper into the brothers' expectations of themselves and of each other, upending what the audience has learned about them so far. When Lee says the script is his "last chance," his desperation is clear. He may not get an audience with a member of Austin's world again. He has one shot at earning an honest income and not turning into his father. For the first time the audience senses Lee wants more from life. While Austin has been the more sympathetic character so far, now Lee starts to become relatable too.

At the same time, Austin also gets more complicated. Lee, who steals from other people for a living, calls Austin a "parasite offa' other fools," implying Austin's career isn't much different. Austin manufactures fictions, sells them to the public, and takes studio money—more money, Lee believes, than his labor-light desk job has earned him. And Austin may be the brother who's truly "stuck." He's bound to a home and family, at the mercy of studio executives, and unable to make his own fortune the fabled American way.

When Austin realizes how desperate Lee truly is, he sees Lee may not really want a life on the margins. Lee still thinks Austin's help is patronizing. Lee's a man of the old West, and he can fend for himself. But his reserves are starting to break down. When Lee brags about how much money he could make stealing a car in Sacramento, he's trying to convince himself he made the right choice.

The brothers openly admit each wants a taste of what the other has. Lee envies Austin's Ivy League education and Hollywood connections—Austin has earned respect. Austin envies Lee's outdoorsman experience—Lee has tasted adventure. But for everything the brothers get, they give up something else. Lee has surrendered financial security. Austin has relinquished his own freedom to travel. Is it possible for both brothers to get what they want and work together, or will they be pitted against each other?

By saying family members murder each other more frequently than anyone else, Lee references the fierce loyalty and viciousness only families are capable of. As much as Austin may want to kick him out, Lee knows he won't. They're family, after all, and they're loyal. The play will show how this theme is to be questioned.

Lee specifies the most common murderers are "real American-type people"—upstanding people who follow social conventions and whom no one would expect to be killers. But Austin misses the implication. Normal people aren't "driven to acts of violence," he reassures himself. The interchange foreshadows the brothers' escalating conflict in Act 2. For now the family violence is simmering under the surface. The heat and the sound of the crickets contribute to the pressure-cooker environment, in which each brother will buckle under the stress together and separately, and possibly reinvent himself.

As Austin presses Lee to finish the script, the audience wonders how much Austin really wants or expects his brother to succeed. Up to now Austin has been the successful one in the family—the good one—and this position comes with power and privilege. When he warms toward his brother, promising him change, is he really sincere or is something else going on?

The brothers' attitudes toward the "old man" show their hopes and fears for themselves and each other. Lee thinks his father's capable of change. It's America, where anyone with ingenuity, gumption, a little money, and a little luck can pull himself up by his bootstraps and succeed. This is the tradition of the Western settlers. Part of Lee still wants the American dream. And if their father has hope, he won't pass a legacy solely of failure on to Lee.

Austin sees something different in his father—the impossibility of salvation. Success isn't available to just anyone who gets lucky, Austin believes. He emphasizes "there's a lot of work involved" in his career. Each brother at heart believes the other's success came with a certain amount of luck and each thinks he's the one who truly deserves what the other has. It's complicated and going to get more so.

The final scene Lee describes, with the unknown danger of the "endless black prairie," parallels the situation of the two brothers. Neither knows where he's going. Both are hiding their fear. But who's chasing, and who's being chased? The audience isn't sure. The brothers will soon become part of the story they're telling, in unexpected ways the playwright will reveal.

The song between acts, "Ramblin' Man" by Hank Williams, is in the voice of a traveler who abandons his family for the open road. The song evokes a mythology right out of westerns, a hero rambling or wandering in search—like Austin and Lee—of something new.

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