In True West, Sam Shepard tells the tale of two brothers. Austin, a "successful" young man with a family and a budding screenwriting career house-sits for his mother who is away on vacation. He has come here for privacy to work on a screenplay, but is quickly interrupted by his brother Lee, an unshaven alcoholic, thief, and "loser" who has also decided to return home. At first, Lee only intends to steal a few items of value from his mother's neighbors, then move on. Although Austin protests, he quickly realizes there is little he can do to change his brother's behavior and simply requests that he be out of the house by the following day when Austin is expecting a visit from a Hollywood producer, Saul Kimmer.
The next day, however, Kimmer is still there when Lee returns with a stolen television set. In front of a horrified Austin, Lee convinces Saul to go golfing with him the next day. On the golf course, Lee pitches his own movie idea to the producer. Lee comes home ecstatic and excitedly informs Austin that Kimmer wants to make his movie. Although a little skeptical, Austin is happy for his brother until he realizes Saul wants him to junk his own screenplay and help Lee write his trashy Western tale. Austin becomes despondent and begins drinking. He refuses to help Lee who insists that it can't be that hard. Lee explains to Austin that his own life of petty crime is much more difficult to navigate. He bets Austin that he couldn't even steal a toaster.
The two brothers gradually undergo a role reversal. As Lee vainly attempts to put his movie idea into script form, Austin goes on a stealing spree. The next morning finds Austin polishing more than thirty toasters he has stolen from neighborhood houses, while Lee, now the frustrated writer, smashes the typewriter with Saul's golf clubs. Soon the two brothers are, quite literally, at each other's throats. As Austin chokes the life out of Lee with a phone cord, their helpless mother, who has returned home, simply announces that she is going to a motel and says: "You'll have to stop fighting in the house. There's plenty of room outside to fight. You've got the whole outdoors to fight in." Finally, Lee lies motionless. Austin believing he has just killed his brother, moves towards the door. As soon as he releases the cord, however, Lee springs to his feet and blocks the exit.
True West was first performed at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where Shepard was the resident playwright. It had its world premiere there on July 10, 1980. It was originally directed by Robert Woodruff and featured Peter Coyote (Austin) and Jim Haynie (Lee).
On December 23, 1980, True West opened at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York City, starring Tommy Lee Jones (Austin) and Peter Boyle (Lee).
In 1982, True West was revived at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago featuring then-unknown actors Gary Sinise (who also directed the production) and John Malkovich. The production later transferred to the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York where it enjoyed a run of 762 performances. After Sinise and Malkovich left the production, the leads roles were played by a variety of actors including Jim Belushi, Erik Estrada, Gary Cole, Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid.
On March 2, 2000, a Broadway revival of True West opened at the Circle on the Square Theatre featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, who alternated playing the lead roles. This critically acclaimed production earned Tony Award nominations for best actor (both Hoffman and Reilly), best director, and best play.
The profound ambivalence of Shepard's writing, his simultaneously romantic and deeply skeptical outlook, is perhaps exhibited most clearly in his periodic tendency to draw on the imagery of traditional myth narratives. In True West, for example, his portrayal of complementary but eternally feuding brothers, a pairing whose genealogy runs all the way back to Cain and Abel, reads as an almost too deliberate quotation of the Jungian scheme of conscious ego and repressed shadow side which such duos supposedly represent.
STEPHEN JAMES BOTTOMS, The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis
True West has ... arguably become Shepard's signature piece, the leanest, most pointed of his full-length works.
DAVID KRASNER, A Companion to Twentieth Century American Drama
Although the mediated image of the mythic West is the one most apparent in Shepard, the lure of the absent "true" West--the pre-meditated mythic dimension--underlies his representations, creating constant semiotic conflict: the West is signified as both absent and hidden, as both irretrievable and an irrationally erupting source. There are moments in Shepard's plays when the West breaks out of its tinsel-town image to return in a flash of "authentic" dust-clogged clothes and double-barreled violence ... but despite this occasional revival, the "true West" figures lack the strength to imagine a whole past and thus to re-create a real world. They always fade and are usually replaced by textualized and unmemoried postmodern images.
JEANETTE R. MALKIN, Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama
Shepard's masterwork.... It tells us a truth, as glimpsed by a 37 year old genius.
True West is built on much starker aesthetic lines than Horse Dreamer or Angel City, but it is a further development of Shepard's treatment of the bifurcation of the artist into imagination and craft, and the danger of commodifying the imagination.
BRENDA MURPHY, "Shepard Writes about Writing"
There's a lot about True West that is explicitly autobiographical. Like Austin, Shepard himself has put in time as a would-be screenwriter, but he's also been known to share in Lee's sticky fingers: in his book Motel Chronicles, he describes an attempt to steal a practically worthless painting from a room in the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. And all the stuff in the play about "the old man" clearly relates to Shepard's father.
It's clear, funny, naturalistic. It's also opaque, terrifying, surrealistic. If that sounds contradictory, you're on to one aspect of Shepard's winning genius; the ability to make you think you're watching one thing while at the same time he's presenting another.
In True West, the opposing brothers effectively act as statement and counterpoint, to be played off against each other with differing degrees of intensity in the play's nine scenes, which thus become akin to nine movements. Indeed, the brothers' "themes," which start off at diametrically opposed extremes, are eventually blended and blurred to the point where they cross over completely, in a role reversal which is as much musical device as it is character development.
STEPHEN JAMES BOTTOMS, The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis
In True West the two brothers, Austin and Lee, represent two sides of the American present: one sophisticated, cultured, ambitious, and successful; the other alienated and outcast, raw, wild, violent. As the play unfolds, the two characters exchange places and reveal that each is the double of the other. Shepard's plays emphasize that, despite the American belief in starting anew, the past is never over but continues to intrude into the present.
MARK BUSBY, Updating the Literary West
Shepard himself thinks True West is "about double nature," and most critics read it as the old true West of Lee versus the new consumer West of Austin, but this is to underestimate Shepard's complexity and his sense of humor. As early as Cowboys (1964) Shepard knew that the wild West was quasi-fiction--it's cowboys and Indians, its heroism and lawlessness, its veneer of male bonding. Even as a teen-ager, he was not naively nostalgic; his stage cowboys tend to be old men, ghosts, or composites. By 1980 Shepard was well aware that cowboy fiction was fostered through rampant Hollywood commercialism, to which he himself was "immune and contaminated at the same time". By 1980 it is impossible to recall the true West, if there ever was one, but the two brothers--the wild man and the domesticated man--might join to concoct a new fiction, or they might destroy one another.
JOHAN CALLENS, Sam Shepard: Between the Margin and the Centre
In its dialectic, True West is simply following the conventions of the western, which many film critics have discussed as being focused on divided images of masculinity with the world of women or the feminine as backdrop.
CARLA J. MACDONOUGH, Staging Masculinity
I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn't be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It's a real thing, double nature. I think we're split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal.
SAM SHEPARD, interview with Robert Coe
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