True West | Study Guide

Sam Shepard

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True West | Act 2, Scene 9 | Summary



It's the middle of the day. Yellow light fills the kitchen and alcove, still in the same messy condition as in Scene 8. The rooms look like "a desert junkyard at high noon." Austin is writing frantically in a notebook. Lee paces, drinking beer. Austin's shirt is open, and Lee is shirtless as both brothers are more elemental.

Austin reads Lee's dialogue back to him, including the line "I know this prairie like the back a' my hand." Lee says that the line is a cliché and that it's Austin's job to change it. Austin comes up with "I'm on intimate terms with this prairie." After mulling over the line, Lee agrees to the edit.

As the two continue to work, their Mom joins the play and enters with her luggage. At first, Austin and Lee don't notice her. When they look up, they're surprised to see her back earlier than expected. They ask about her trip to Alaska. She wonders what happened in the house to cause the destruction. Austin says they're celebrating—Lee sold a screenplay, and he's taking Austin out to the desert to live. She asks if they'll be joining their father and says, "you'll probably wind up on the same desert sooner or later." Her sons explain the stolen toasters absurdly by claiming Lee won a contest.

Mom came back early because she missed her houseplants, but now she sees that the plants are dead. Her sons apologize. She tells the boys she's read news of someone important coming to town. Picasso is visiting the art museum, she says, and they should go. Austin reminds her Picasso's dead. Anyway, the brothers don't have time to visit since they're leaving. Lee pauses—now he's not sure Austin's "cut out for the desert." Austin pleads with Lee to honor their deal.

Lee says they'll "postpone" the deal and reminds Austin he thought the story was dumb all along. Lee asks Mom if he can borrow some plates and silverware and starts taking plates from the cupboards. He's been eating off plastic, he explains, and he needs "something authentic."

Austin grabs Lee by the shoulders, saying he can't call off the deal. Lee pushes Austin backwards. Mom tells them to take their fight outside. Lee says he's leaving; he doesn't like what the town does to a person. Meanwhile, Austin's taken the ripped phone cord from the floor. He wraps the cord around Lee's neck, choking Lee until he can't speak. Austin tells Lee he's not going anywhere or taking anything.

As Lee struggles and fails to free himself, Austin demands his car keys back. Mom calmly asks Austin if he's killing Lee. Austin says he's "just stopping him." Lee throws the keys out of his pocket beyond Austin's reach. Still holding onto the cord, Austin asks Mom for the keys. Mom tells him to stop choking his brother. Austin can't; he's afraid Lee will kill him if he frees his hold.

Mom hands Austin the keys, but Austin still won't let Lee go. Mom says Austin can't kill his brother. In response Austin tightens the cord and insists he can kill Lee easily if he wants to, and he's going to the desert by himself. Mom says she's going to check into a motel, and Austin pleads with her to stay.

As Mom prepares to walk out, she reveals she felt desperate in Alaska. Austin tells his mother to stay in her home, but she says she doesn't recognize the house and leaves.

Austin continues to hold the phone cord. He says if Lee gives him a head start and lets him leave, he'll set Lee free. Lee doesn't move or respond. Austin slowly releases the cord and stares at Lee, whispering his name, but Lee appears dead. Austin stands and moves backward slowly. Then Lee gets to his feet—he's still alive after all—and blocks Austin's exit. A coyote howls in the distance as night falls. The brothers "appear to be caught in a vast desert-like landscape" as they stare at each other.


The stage directions in Scene 9 reference conventions of the western genre. The distance between the safe home and the open desert has disappeared. The "desert junkyard" image specified in the directions gives a sense of destruction and hopelessness. "High noon," the title of a western film, is a phrase often used to indicate the time when a decisive confrontation between protagonist and antagonist is set to take place. Lee's shirtlessness reflects a primal, macho quality to his character, and his slow walk is a march of intimidation. The heat and the ambient tension make the scene seem less civilized and more feral, like the desert itself.

This scene continues Scene 4's work of satirizing the process of creation and scriptwriting. The brothers mull over clichéd, exaggerated dialogue. They're writing a version of the showdown they're about to mirror in their own actions. This time Lee's taking charge, with Austin feverishly working toward his goal of getting to the desert. The brothers appear to be making some progress when the outside world interrupts and a parental authority figure appears, but in a passive role.

With Mom's unexpected entrance, the room becomes a small room again. Real-life responsibilities come flooding back into the brothers' minds. They didn't keep the houseplants alive. They explain their chaotic few days in the simplest terms possible. They had a contest, and Lee won. The old family dynamic is back; they can never transcend it. The boys return to the role of dutiful sons. Mom's surprised to hear Lee the itinerant sold a screenplay—instead of Austin the achiever. And she relegates Lee to the desert with his father. What's more, their mother went west to the frontier of Alaska and didn't find what she was looking for. She couldn't escape either.

Mom is entranced by the idea of seeing a famous artist. She refuses to believe Picasso is dead. Like Austin, she has hope in the salvation art can bring. Like Lee, she would use art to seize a rare opportunity and hopefully find the something that is missing from her life.

Mom's presence as a spectator to the final showdown may prevent Austin from ultimately killing Lee. She reflects the distance and insulation of suburban life, observing events at a peculiar remove. As her sons attack each other, she reminds them not to fight in the house as if they're children. She doesn't physically move to save Lee. Her appeal to the brothers' relationship—"He won't kill you. He's your brother"—shows she still believes being family offers immunity from acts of violence. But the play has proven rather the opposite.

Meanwhile, in one of the final, wrenching twists of the plot, Lee revokes his offer. The audience isn't sure why. Has he truly had second, wiser thoughts about what's in Austin's best interests? Is he using his advantage to manipulate his brother? Did he ever intend to take Austin to the desert in the first place? Lee's western is a "dumb story," he reminds Austin. The heroic cowboy can't succeed by his own ingenuity. There's no hope in the West, no more than in any location in these lives and in these times.

Lee surprises the audience again by taking the plates he so openly mocked in Scene 2. The nice silverware is "authentic," and he's choosing authenticity or truth over illusion. He realizes the stable life he's dreamed of is just as much a fraud as the cinematic, western-style showdown. The brothers have come full circle, and they're both stuck where they were at the beginning. The anxiety onstage escalates. As Lee renews his commitment to a nomadic life, he can't yet see what the audience sees—Austin approaching him from behind with a weapon.

Austin has now become the scorned tragic hero seeking revenge. If he can't escape and have his freedom, Lee can't either. The brothers turn to primal instincts. Lee fights for his life like an "enraged bull." Murder may be "a savage thing to do," as Mom says. But Austin wants to prove he can be as savage as any outlaw in the West and survive alone without Lee's help.

The transfer of power and dominance between the brothers has been represented throughout the play by the car keys. The brother with the keys has independence and mobility—and a bargaining chip. When Austin demands the keys from Lee, he's seizing power again.

But when Mom moves to leave, he tries to stop her. Mom's presence is the last thread connecting him to a normal life, in which civilization rules over animal instinct. He's not as ready to leave as he thought.

Then Mom reveals her own sojourn on the Western frontier has only increased her despair. She tried to find fulfillment in nature, but instead the glaciers out the window made her feel "desperate." She longed to return to the artificial world represented by the museum exhibit. Her dilemma represents art's power over viewers: They need manufactured worlds to escape the pain of the real world. But she couldn't even return home. The house was unrecognizable—perhaps for reasons beyond its now chaotic physical state.

The play ends with the characters suspended in a state of tension. The chase is in full effect. Austin begs Lee for "a little headstart." He returns to the western language of gambling and betting, saying, "I'll make ya' a deal." Like the characters in Lee's drama at the end of Scene 4, the one being chased—Austin—isn't sure where he's going. He just knows he's afraid. The stage directions recreate a still scene meant to mimic two enemies—a cowboy and an outlaw—staring each other down in the wild West. One will shoot first, but which one? And when? The brothers have stepped into their own story, and life and art are inextricably mixed. In a final touch of drama, Shepard emphasizes the howl of "a single coyote" and the slow fade of the lights as the tableau lingers in the audience's minds.

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