True West: Dramaturgical Notes

Feb 09, 2006

Fredric Jameson writes that in a consumer-driven, mediatized society such as ours, our perception of the world and of history is a series of sheer images. We are constantly bombarded with images of both current and past events and they have a powerful influence on our perception of the world; but do these images contain the truth, or serve to reinforce myths of history and society? For example, we often think of the 1950s in America as an idyllic time- popular images of that decade and subsequent portrayals of it in Hollywood cinema certainly portray it that way. In some ways, our sense of history has given over to nostalgia for idealized images of the past.
In True West, this often idealized decade is the time of Austin and Lee’s youth, and the nostalgic value they place upon this time has a powerful influence on their actions. They are both looking for something “real,” something “authentic;” ultimately, they are looking to return to the idyllic time of their boyhood. For Austin, it is the promise of suburban life, Hollywood and the American Dream. For Lee, “real” means living off of the land as a cowboy in the romantic world of the Western, an outlaw and criminal out in the desert. Their mother is caught up in the idea of the great artist, Picasso, as a source of truth and beauty. However, Hollywood, suburbia, the American Dream, the life of the cowboy, and the nature of art have all changed and become myth; nice suburban life has become suburban sprawl, the Golden Age of Hollywood has given over to sheer commerce, the West has been paved over, and Picasso is dead.
True West, in some ways, is a period piece: typewriters, phones with cords and human telephone operators are mostly a thing of the past. Even before the age of cell phones, the internet and 24-hour news, Sam Shepard caught on to this growing sense of disillusionment brought on by the technological age and our tendency to turn to the myths of the past as a remedy. We feel this sense of nostalgia for “a simpler time” and the cynicism of living in a world created by images even more deeply now than in 1980. We are desperate for truth and are grasping for something real in an age where we are increasingly disconnected from each other. Popular culture of today attempts to simulate “true stories” through “reality” television just as, in the play, Saul attempts to produce a “true” Western. Austin and Lee’s search for truth in false, nostalgic ideals keeps them from realizing that the only thing authentic in their lives is right in front of them. The one thing that could bring them genuine happiness is ultimately the thing that they tragically cannot achieve: a real connection as brothers.
The irony is that they are each other’s “second self” – there are elements of Austin in Lee, and of Lee in Austin. Lee’s outlaw lifestyle can be traced back to the boys’ absent, alcoholic father; Austin’s buttoned-down lifestyle shows the strong influence of his mother. However, as Lee attempts to become “legitimate” by writing a screenplay and usurping Austin’s profession, Austin gets drunk and essentially becomes his father; the parental influence he has tried to suppress for so long can no longer be stopped. This switch is not just a simple role reversal. The two brothers are always each other and themselves simultaneously, and, as many critics have noted, two sides of Sam Shepard himself: a living contradiction. No matter how much these brothers may attempt to escape from their real past into the world of myth, they cannot.
The unresolved contradictions in the play ultimately lead to violence, which provides yet another contradiction for us as viewers; the violence is simultaneously funny and frightening, tragic and comic. Laughter and pain are tied together for Sam Shepard, and are perhaps the only true aspects of human nature in True West.