True West | Study Guide

Sam Shepard

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True West | Act 2, Scene 8 | Summary



It's dawn the next day, and the brothers have been up all night. Lee is smashing the typewriter with a golf club. He's burning pages of his script in a bowl in the middle of the alcove. Austin is polishing several stolen toasters lined up by the sink. Both brothers are drunk, and empty beer cans and whiskey bottles cover the kitchen floor. The houseplants are dead.

Austin remarks the neighborhood will wake up to "a general lack of toast." He asks Lee if a criminal should think of the victims. Lee replies, "Ask a criminal." He thinks Austin was stupid to steal so many toasters instead of other, more valuable household supplies. Austin says Lee only challenged him to toasters. He protests Lee's destruction of the typewriter is insulting to writers who "persisted beyond all odds." Golfers, too, would be insulted by Lee's ruining a good golf club.

Lee wants some physical release and wonders if it's too late to call a "local woman." Austin is surprised Lee can't tell the time by the sky's light since he spends so much time in nature. He offers to make Lee some toast and drops bread in each toaster. Lee considers driving to Bakersfield but won't tell Austin why. Lee then begins to search for a phone number for women from several pieces of paper in his wallet. Austin suggests Lee call the operator and get the number.

As Austin sings and hums to himself, Lee asks the operator for the number of a woman in Bakersfield. After overturning the drawers in the kitchen to find a pen or pencil, Lee returns to the phone, but the operator's hung up. Lee rips the phone from the wall in frustration. Austin urges Lee to forget about the woman and butters his toast, saying the smell of toast at sunrise "makes me feel like anything's possible." Suddenly he asks to go out to the desert with Lee.

Lee insists Austin couldn't survive in the desert. People only learn desert survival skills because they have to, Lee says. And Austin has a good life; why would he give it up? Austin says there's nothing left for him in the city. He's surrounded by "streets I misremember" and "fields that don't even exist anymore." Lee refuses to let Austin come with him, and Austin begins to beg. Lee snaps he's living in the desert "'cause I can't make it here!"

When Austin offers Lee toast again, Lee knocks the plate from his hand. For a moment "it appears Lee might go all the way this time." As Austin begins to pick up the toast, Lee circles him "in a slow, predatory way." Lee says he'll make Austin a deal: Austin writes the screenplay exactly as Lee tells him to, puts Lee's name on it, and gives Lee the profits. Then Lee will take Austin to the desert. Austin agrees. He holds out the plate of toast from the floor, and Lee slowly takes a bite.


The opening of Scene 8 is meant to astonish the audience with how far each man has descended. Their motivations have been established, but their actions are designed to shock. Why is Lee destroying the script after all his work, and why so dramatically? Why did Austin steal every toaster in the neighborhood? The extremes are absurd and comical, but they build towards chaos and complete destruction. Drinking brings out an unusual honesty in the brothers, and their words and actions become truer to who they really are.

Lee's fire recalls the unforgiving nature of the desert, which now intrudes into the house. Austin has stolen the picturesque American family breakfast scene symbolized by the toaster from as many suburban homes as he could, relishing the chance to act outside the law. In fact, Austin's trying to learn how to be a criminal just as Lee tried to learn to be a writer. When asked about "correct criminal psychology," Lee admits he doesn't identify as a criminal. He still can't help criticizing Austin's thieving technique, wondering "how many hundreds of dollars" Austin passed up for toasters instead of the real objects of crime.

Both brothers want an identity change, but neither can escape who he is. Lee has failed to write a satisfactory screenplay, and he's lost his only ticket to a middle-class life. He thus turns to a familiar form of companionship and comfort by searching for a woman's number. Austin tells Lee "a woman isn't the answer." Marriage and companionship haven't solved Austin's problems, and they won't solve Lee's.

As Lee's search for a pen demonstrates, sometimes looking for comfort only makes life more difficult. Lee's phone call and Austin's toast fixation provide absurd comic relief for the audience as the play increases the stakes for the characters in the violence that continues to build.

This scene indicates there's no way out of trouble and failure, regardless of the path chosen—the lone cowboy or the suburbanite. Austin's mentions of imprisoned writers and struggling golfers show how even these seemingly easy professions have dark sides and devastating possibilities. Austin mocks Lee's "determination and guts" and sense of himself as the self-made western hero who's capable of anything. For now, the more real and wild lawless forces continue to tackle tamed domestic life as the coyotes kill "people's cocker spaniels."

Is there any hope for salvation? Austin still thinks there might be. His momentary sense of bliss in morning toast gives way to true longing. The play's been building up to Austin's request, which leads to the brothers' final showdown. Austin wants to live the dream of the old West, a land he said didn't exist anymore in Scene 6.

But Lee now more realistically doesn't believe in salvation. Since the possibility of beginnings is overwhelming, he prefers the finality of endings. Lee tells Austin there's no dream—only desperation and survival tactics. Just as Lee's script recalls a childhood fantasy of horses and cowboys, Austin's dream of the desert comes from the camping tips in "a Boy Scout handbook."

Austin's monologue about the surreal nightmare-like nature of his city life shows the boundaries of fantasy and reality, life and art, have blurred for him. He doesn't know if he lived on certain streets or if he saw them on a postcard. He keeps "thinkin' it's the fifties" or searching for a suburban ideal from the 1950s, lost long ago. He no longer knows what the "true West" is, anywhere.

So Lee strikes a deal with him. If Austin wants to rewrite his narrative, he has to let Lee do the same. Writing the script is Lee's chance at control. Neither brother feels he has been in control of his life, and now both want to script their own futures. The brothers' bargain sets the stage for the climactic final act. How will this building power struggle end?

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