True West | Study Guide

Sam Shepard

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True West | Act 2, Scene 6 | Summary

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Summary

It's afternoon, and Saul Kimmer is at the house explaining the situation to Austin. Saul says he was impressed by Lee's story and he'll continue Austin's project at the same time. Austin's furious that Saul gambled with his work. Besides, Austin can't write both scripts. Saul explains Austin is the only possible screenwriter for Lee's project since he knows the material as Lee's brother. Austin protests he's not familiar with the story at all—what do terms like "Tornado Country" and "gooseneck" even mean?

Saul informs Austin that Lee told him about their father's poverty. The brothers can use the studio money to give their father a trust fund, which—to Austin's disbelief—Lee has volunteered to manage. Austin refuses to write the script. He's missing out on good money, Saul says. There's heavy studio competition for the outline already, and Lee has "raw talent." Austin insists Lee is conning Saul.

Apologetic, Saul now says he doesn't see how he can continue with Austin's original script. Austin can't believe it. He has everything at stake in his script, and he's been meeting with Saul for months. Saul says he has to follow his "gut reaction," and Austin protests, "You lost! That's your gut reaction." He wonders what inspires Saul about Lee's "phony" story. "The ring of truth," Saul says, "something about the real West." Lee knows nothing about what moviegoers want to see, Austin claims. While Lee camps in the desert, Austin is more "in touch" with the real world of the city. The idea of the West, he says, is "dead" and "dried up." Saul repeats he has to follow his gut instinct, says he'll call Lee the next day, and leaves.

Analysis

Shepard keeps the audience guessing about the sincerity of the characters' stated motivations. Does Lee really want to help his father with the money, or did he spin a sympathetic tale to get money for himself? Saul won't confirm or deny gambling or intimidation on the golf course. Is his story of following his "gut instinct" believable? Has he been conned by the intrigue of Lee's gruff, oddball personality and raw, uncensored speech—a rarity in Hollywood? Or was he really moved by the simple story Lee presented of cowboys and outlaws?

The scene also introduces the possibility Saul is conning Lee, instead of Lee conning Saul. The producer may be exploiting Lee's outsider status and experience with "the land" to get studio money. Saul's interest in Lee recalls films about poor men of the West—men who show grit through suffering and who talk to cactuses. In truth, such films are made by rich executives, and the poor men are played by rich actors. As Lee explains to Austin in Scene 8, he's not a Boy Scout or an actor. There's nothing glamorous about his life. Like Austin's job, Lee's daily life only seems exciting to those who don't have to live it.

Saul himself is at the mercy of larger market forces like the major studios. Like every other character in the play, he's trapped by something. He's unable to make completely independent decisions. Like a character in a western hoping for good fortune, Saul's going to "take the gamble." At the same time, he knows the risk if it doesn't pay off. But for the play, he's in.

Nevertheless, at least to the brothers, Saul sounds genuine and sincere. He wants to help their father. His condescending question to Austin—"We're big enough for that, aren't we?"—indicates he believes Austin will generously support his brother or he will make that happen.

The brothers' competitive drive emerges when Austin can't stand Lee's success coming at his own expense. He waited months and years for an opportunity Lee gets in a night with luck, coercion, and force.

When Austin's attack on his brother's credibility fails, he stands up for the integrity of his art. Real art, Austin believes, is provocative, thoughtful, and unusual. The difference between Austin's script and Lee's raises the question of what audiences really want from art. Do they want to see complex characters in believable situations that reflect their own lives? Or do they want to escape from the "smog" and tedium of daily life and enjoy a wild, impossible fantasy? The longing to escape runs through True West, connecting each member of the family in both their lives and their struggling work.

Devotion to art and principle has helped Austin escape the family curse of his father's and brother's nomadic lives. Austin has wanted more than money: he wants a meaningful legacy. But no matter how hard he works, he can't escape the family trait of loss, dissatisfaction, and being a discontented "ramblin' man." As Austin explains in Scene 8, he feels just as aimless as Lee does. Austin says "there's no such thing as the West anymore." He thinks industrial changes in the landscape and the new urban way of life have made old-West grit and force irrelevant. No one can just escape to the desert. Still, once Austin loses the opportunity he thought would change everything, he sees the seductive possibilities of a new start on the frontier too.

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