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True West | Context


Shepard's "Double Nature"

Austin and Lee, the brothers and main characters in True West, are often considered one another's "doubles," or two sides of the same person. "I wanted to write a play about double nature," Shepard said about the writing of True West. He continued, "I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided." As the play progresses, the brothers switch personality traits in a gradual role reversal, emphasizing the idea that they are in fact different manifestations of the same person. Shepard was fascinated by the psychology of human behavior, and he approached his characters by considering the multiple personalities within an individual. Describing how he created characters, Shepard said, "There are these territories inside all of us, like a child or a father or the whole man." Many of Shepard's plays are considered "identity showdowns," in which characters struggle to prove themselves.

True West is partly an exploration of different territories in Shepard's own life, as well. The main characters—the brothers Austin and Lee—reveal two distinct sides of Shepard's personality. Like Austin, Shepard experienced screenwriting, selling scripts, and pitching stories to agents. Like Lee, Shepard, who once confessed he attempted to steal a hotel painting, was involved with various petty crimes, though not with much skill. American actor John Malkovich, who starred in a famous performance of True West, pointed out that Shepard and Lee both achieved screenwriting success despite "[defying] all the things we're told we have to do to be successful." Lee, a homeless thief, has no education or background in screenwriting but talks a producer into using his script idea. Shepard similarly skipped the route of formal education. He dropped out of college, moved to Manhattan, and experimented with drugs. He described his first playwriting success as "a great coincidence." Malkovich describes Lee as "the side of Shepard that's always being strangled but never quite killed." Shepard married in 1969, had a child, and wanted to be a family man. But in letters to a family member he describes an impulse to wander. Shepard felt he had "an adversary of my imagined self ... This greedy one, never satisfied, always hungry for something 'more,' something different, something else, something elsewhere." Shepard struggled to accept this "greedy" part of himself and longed to battle it. Lee's nomadic lifestyle reflects this side of Shepard's character.

Finally, Austin and Lee represent two different generational archetypes—the well-behaved family man and the alcoholic drifter. Shepard's work often deals with "violent and unknowable men" like the brothers' absent father and the effect of this absence on the alcoholic and aggressive Lee. The mystery and violence surrounding Lee and Austin's absent father reflects Shepard's long-term view of his own father. Shepard called his father "an outsider" whose alcoholism pulled him further from societal obligations as the years went on. Alcoholism ran in Shepard's father's side of the family. "You can't remember when there was a sober grandfather," Shepard said in an interview. Shepard himself fought alcoholism for years before going into treatment. He realized he was imitating the patterns of his father, "who I swore I would never resemble."

The Old West, Hollywood, and the American Dream

The regions of the United States west of the Mississippi River, especially the Great Plains and Southwestern states, have long held the American imagination. There's hope and promise on the frontier, but there's violence too. In True West the genre of American films known as the western that dominated the first half of the 20th century inspires the script the character Lee pitches to shallow Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer, who is driven by the glittering promise of a popular story and even greater fame. Westerns, such as My Darling Clementine (1946) or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), provide the setting for moral dramas featuring clear heroes and villains and frequently dramatize quests for vengeance. These films are characterized by scholars as "revenge seeking, rough violence, bandits, [and] bounty hunters." The absence of law or structure in the so-called Wild West forces heroes to succeed against such bandits "by the use of violence and the exercise of physical courage."

While Lee's script follows the conventions of this type of western, the playwright Shepard knew, according to critic Johan Callens, "the wild West was quasi-fiction—its cowboys and Indians, its heroism and lawlessness, its veneer of male bonding." There was a stark difference between the adventurous West in the movies and the dangerous true West of reality. In Shepard's play, the real West is darkly revealed, in part, through Lee's poverty and the violence he and his brother Austin display toward one another.

By the time True West was performed in the early 1980s, the classic western genre was in decline. After the 1950s filmmakers began to gravitate toward more sophisticated narratives. Scholars note that in westerns, "the figure of the cowboy grew darker and more complicated." Several westerns after the 1950s fall into the category of "revisionist westerns," such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Unforgiven (1992), and The Hateful Eight (2015). These feature a traditional western setting, but the characters become fallible, morally complex, and inwardly tortured—no longer simply good lawmakers or evil outlaws.

These films often "reinvented, redefined, ridiculed, and questioned" genre conventions as noted by scholars. Some westerns, for instance, adopted the colonized Native Americans' point of view. The genre's new twist came at an opportune time. Many Americans, still recovering from the atrocities of World War II (1939–45), felt disillusioned with the American dream of conventional material success. They engaged in the countercultural rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s. Like these revisionist westerns, True West skewers the older, simpler westerns and the suburban American dream. Shepard showcases these mythic American images for the purpose of dissolving them in dramatic conflict.

The play presents a drama where neither of the two main characters is a clear hero and neither is a clear villain as they morph into each other and back again.

Movies, like the frontier, provide the promise of escapism. But, by the end of the play, neither brother gets what he wants. When Lee's melodramatic script emphasizes a "chase scene," Shepard reveals the elusive quality of escape and the consuming quality of such dreams for those who chase them. The storytellers of Hollywood—people like Shepard himself—don't avoid the play's critique, either. Lee and Austin eventually destroy the entire house, including the typewriter that manufactures their narratives.

The dark fate of both main characters demonstrates how neither the fictions of Hollywood nor the adventure of the frontier offers real escape. Writer Don Shewey wrote of the play, "In the new West they 'swallow the smog'; in the true West, real men bite the dust."

True West Performances

The play premiered in 1980 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where Shepard held a playwriting residency. It starred local actors Peter Coyote as Austin and Jim Haynie as Lee. Local audiences loved the show. By the time the play opened in New York later the same year, critics were calling Shepard "the hottest young playwright in America."

The New York version, however, disappointed both audiences and Shepard. Shepard never saw the New York True West. But he was angry the production abandoned the original actors for better-known movie stars Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle. After Shepard publicly denounced the production in New York's newspapers and director Robert Woodruff quit, the play's first New York run ended quickly.

A 1982 a Chicago revival had much greater success. Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company produced True West with two actors who would launch big careers after the play, Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. This production, which later transferred to New York's Cherry Lane Theatre, was praised by reviewers for its comic quality. The play continued with actors such as Jim Belushi, Erik Estrada, and Dennis Quaid stepping into the lead roles.

When True West returned to Broadway in 2000, stellar actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternated playing Austin and Lee. They'd switch roles after each performance. According to Reilly, actors in old English theater would frequently switch roles in a production. Hoffman believed role-swapping was ideal for a play like True West, where the two main characters start as opposites and later reveal their similarities. One reviewer thought switching roles embodied "True West's most vital idea": "Austin and Lee begin to resemble each other in ways both predictable ... and surprising." Both actors uniquely earned Tony Award nominations, and the production garnered Tony nominations for best play and best director.

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