Shepard, Sam. True West. New York: Samuel French, Inc. 1981.
True West is quintessentially American theater, not only because of the themes in the play, but also the structure of the narrative and consequently, the way in which the protagonists relate with the world, which gives off a distinctly American mindset. The characters feel trapped in a conventional lifestyle that seems deficient. The lack in the culture they inhabit becomes evident in their desperations.
“Some commentators refer to Shepard’s later plays as examples of "magical realism" (a literary genre denned by the works of such writers as Jorge Luis Borges and Federico Garcia Lorca) ” . I find this claim ludicrous. The characters in True West lack any possibility of connecting with magic moments that would break away from the narrative and their earthly life. The author himself makes a point in a note at the beginning of the play that the set, costumes and props should be realistic – even the sound effects (coyotes, grasshoppers) have specific, realistic instructions.
On the other hand Carla J. Macdonough in her book Staging Masculinity states: “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.” This statement is more accurate, the play is totally focused on the two men—the women, and I would add, the world in general, remains far in the background – reduced to some echoes in the distance.
The two brothers: Austin, who attended an Ivy League school, and Lee, the one who didn’t, belong to a different class now (already their names evoke two essential American ‘legends’). These two characters are extreme and stereotypical, the educated screenwriter and a drunk outcast. Then they reverse roles. The Hollywood producer likes outcast’s movie idea, dropping the script of the screenwriter, so the outcast becomes the writer and the writer starts drinking. The good son is out there stealing now, and the thief is writing on the typewriter. Voila.
In this kind of domestic drama, the alcohol is the overused stylistic resource to unleash catharsis, causing a sudden awakening or realization on the part of the characters. What comes out of that realization is mostly bitterness and frustration. This kind of play seems to be departing from the premise that everybody is frustrated and unhappy with his life, and it takes a good amount of alcohol to let the anger out. Most likely, the next day things will continue as normal, or as they were before.
During his catharsis, Austin realizes that he wants to leave everything and go to the desert. Lee, reminds him: “What are you crazy or somethin’? You went to college. Here, you are down here, rollin’in bucks. Floatin’up and down in elevators. And you wanna’ learn how to live on the desert!. And Austin replies - I do, Lee. I really do. There’s nothin’ down here for me. There never was.” (58).
The emptiness and disintegration of the characters has been associated with the consumer culture and the vacuity of the American dream. Austin is a successful man, he has a family but he is empty and lonely. Lee, the free single man, who lived many adventures, feels lonely too. Each one wants the others’ life. The play shows us the characters trapped in a life that they don’t like, but apparently there’s nothing better out there, except exchanging miserable roles.
The archetypical characterization of American culture is very much concerned with family life and professional success. Austin represents that kind of success. The opposite side in this dialectic model is Lee, the free man living in the wild with nature.
True West exposes a shallow and selfish culture that seems to be completely unaware of the rest of the world and lacks essential elements that the characters could reach out in their search for meaning and happiness.
The only people we hear about in the play are the family members: the mother, who left for a trip; the father, who is an alcoholic living alone in the desert; and the two brothers. The Hollywood producer embodies the outside world, he can change their destiny with a snap of his fingers. They mention Ausitn’s family, but we don know their names, and they don’t seem to be relevant. And then there' s the women, or names of women that Lee keeps in little pieces of paper, with the intention to call them one day.
The author and the characters seem to be walking blind in a world that doesn’t penetrate their reality. They recognize their misery, but they believe there’s nothing else out there anyway.
Juan A. Tarancón. Visions of the True West: Sam Shepard. Identity and Myth
Revista Alicantina de estudios Ingleses.