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True West | Themes


The American West

The western region of the United States, loosely defined as the states west of the Mississippi River, looms large in America's imagination from the start. Cowboys fighting Indians, prospectors striking gold, outlaws running wild, and families bravely settling the frontier contribute to an American ideal of self-reliance and strength through adversity. Set in the West Coast state of California, True West explores the allure and the dangers of the frontier.

It also juxtaposes this image of the American West with suburbia. There the legendary West is reduced to decals of the state of Idaho stuck onto souvenir plates. But at the same time the true West is pressing in at the windows through the chirping of crickets and the yipping of coyotes.

Myth versus Truth

Austin thinks Lee's story about a chase through the Texas Panhandle region is based on outdated, simplistic myths about the West, where heroes always have what they need to defeat villains. The script features "grown men acting like little boys" and "fantasies of a long lost boyhood," says Austin. He implies that Lee's story only exists in the realm of overblown imagination, not in the real world—the same accusation Lee levels at Austin's career. The brothers' childhood games also reflect their desires to be part of the western myth as conquerors and fighters. Austin pretended he was Apache resistance leader Geronimo, while Lee caught snakes. Are they different now? Austin's phrase "long lost boyhood" implies adults who enjoy westerns may have a desire to get back to the carefree pretenses of childhood.

Shepard's references to movie characters like Hopalong Cassidy and films like Lonely Are the Brave show the real West is a Hollywood-concocted fiction. As Austin and Lee both try to reshape their lives into the lives they want for themselves, they realize the damage this fiction can do. They can't achieve honor, vengeance, or freedom in the West no matter how much they try. Nor anywhere else.

Old versus New

Saul Kimmer is fascinated by how Lee's story represents the old West. There men supposedly operated outside of the law, danger waited at every turn, and strength and masculinity were prized. The new West of the 1980s brings urban development, rules, consumerism, and a different kind of competition. Which world is better? Which is more real? Lee wants to gain a foothold in the new West, while Austin thinks he wants to retreat to the old one. The old and new West emerge in the contrast between the desert and the suburbs, and between wild coyotes and the domesticated dogs they kill.

Family, Brotherhood, and Identity

Shepard has said the play is about double nature. Lee and Austin represent two halves of the same psyche. At first Austin appears to have faith he'll achieve success through hard work and the right connections, and Lee seems to take pride in living outside the margins of society. But their identities aren't as straightforward as they appear. As the two switch places, their true identities emerge.

Each brother recognizes some aspect of himself in the other. Each represents the other's deepest hopes and fears. Austin works hard at his career so he won't descend into Lee's poverty. Lee eventually chooses to return to the desert so he won't buckle under the stress and pressure Austin feels in the city. No matter which choice the brothers make, Shepard implies, they'll regret it. There's no way to win no matter which part of this joined self they live.

Family members in True West have a special kind of loyalty and hatred toward one another. Both Austin and Lee are frustrated by their inability to help their father, the unseen family member. They loathe him and fear turning into him yet can't abandon him completely. They seek help from their mother without realizing she's as lost as they are. Lee says family members are the people most likely to murder one another. Only family members can bring out the depths of emotion needed for real brutality.

Art as a Commodity

The best and truest story, according to Hollywood, is whatever people will pay money to see. Saul Kimmer knows Lee's gritty and unusual life experience will be a novelty in Hollywood. His script will sell even if the story is hackneyed and full of western clichés. Austin feels his own art is more in touch with the bleak realities of contemporary America, but Saul says "nobody's interested in love these days." Even Austin, the artist, knows how important financial security is. No matter how genuine or authentic his work may be, he needs money to live. So he needs to package his art as a consumer good.

Shepard uncovers the truth behind the art of Hollywood films. The stories are inauthentic, invented to appeal to audiences as a fantasy. Austin complains about the unbelievability of Lee's "true-to-life" script, though the script is typical of a western film. But unlike other commodities, art contains human desperation and emotion. Both Austin and Lee feel personal connections to their scripts and feel their writing reflects their lives. As artists, the play implies, they're commodities too.

Masculinity and Violence

Westerns traditionally present male characters who embody different ideas of masculinity: strong, courageous, and independent heroes, or brutal and savage villains. There's no room for vulnerability or doubt. Similarly, both brothers attempt to live up to an artificial ideal of manhood. Lee asserts his independence repeatedly in the first act, while Austin struggles to prove his machismo in the second.

Manhood is seen as primal and close to the land, like Lee in the desert. The brothers respond more instinctively and aggressively as the play goes on. Their final fight in Scene 9 has a feral, animalistic quality.

Violence is a staple of Shepard's productions. Fistfights are common, and actors often suffer injuries. They're also frequently required to tear down or physically damage the set. In True West, as their conflict reaches a boiling point, Lee destroys the typewriter and Austin turns to theft. By Scene 9 "the stage is ravaged," reflecting the inner turmoil of the characters. The play approaches catharsis—the release of emotional tension—through physical violence. The two men hurtle inevitably toward a showdown only one of them will survive. Austin takes the tool Lee destroyed—the phone cord ripped from the wall connecting them to the outside —and turns it into an implement to strangle his brother.

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