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True West

Sam Shepard

Study Questions and Essay Topics

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Quiz

Study Questions

Discuss how Austin and Lee are archetypes for the nature of the creative process.

While lying on the kitchen floor, Austin tells Lee that Saul Kimmer "thinks we're the same person." But the brothers look absolutely nothing alike. It would be impossible to mistake preppy Austin for disheveled Lee. Saul's mistake may not have been in the physical appearance, as it can be argued that the two brothers indeed represent one half of the creative artist. Austin is all diligence, no inspiration, while Lee is all inspiration, no diligence. Only together are they able to begin to write a screenplay. Austin by himself merely plugs away at some notes, while Lee is completely helpless at the typewriter, picking away at the keys with one finger and begging his brother for help. When the brothers begin to collaborate, however, things start to cook. The physical war between the brothers then becomes the struggle of creation. Shepard seems to be making the point that this struggle is a necessary one. Without the other, each brother is feckless and unable to create art. Together, however stormy the process might be, is the only way that they can create art.

Why is the pull of the desert so compelling for both brothers?

The suburbs are what the Western part of the United States has evolved to become. They are safe, well lit, and completely devoid of any romance or myth. The desert is where the real West exists, the West as imagined by the American consciousness. The desert is where all the legends live, where all the mythic stories we have written for ourselves have been played out. The suburbs afford safety, but a very antiseptic one. The desert, on the other hand, offers danger and chaos. By the end of the play, the brothers battle almost to the death because Lee tries to go to the desert without taking Austin with him. The brothers fight so hard because neither can stand to remain in the new West, their mother's suburban enclave. They both need the instability that only the desert and their vision of the old West can provide. In addition, the old West and the desert are where their father, the old man, still lives. He has escaped from the prison of civilization into the sunset that exists only in old western movies. In this sense, the brothers' need to go to the desert represents a need to return to the lost state of the mythic. All three men of this family realize that nothing mythic can exist in the suburbs, and all three men try to escape into the desert to find what has been lacking

Although he never appears on stage, how does the old man influence the action of the play?

The old man is arguably the most important character in the entire play, despite the fact that he does not once appear on stage and does not utter one line. The mythic power of the father over the son is no news in literature. Generations of characters in plays and novels have seen sons desperately trying to escape the influence of their fathers or to win this earlier generation's approval. No one, however, seems to end up succeeding. That is the curse of the family that Shepard describes: there is no way out. Although Austin has gotten an education and has seemed to escape the cycle created by his father, by the end of the play he is clawing his way out to the desert just like the broken old man has done before him. Lee, similarly, seems to be made exactly in his father's image. He does not put up much of a fight to escape the influence of his father. Furthermore, most of the brothers' violence in the play comes as a result of talking about their father. Austin regards the old man as an inferior, which makes Lee gets very angry. Without their father hanging over their heads the brothers might have been a happy screenwriting team. The old man's formative influence, however, proves inescapable, and drives the brothers to battle each other almost to the death.

Suggested Essay Topics

Delineate how the brothers change roles over the course of the play. Use specific lines and actions as proof.

Discuss the significance and meaning of the title True West.

Discuss the distinction between "art" and "business" Shepard makes in the play.

Do you think True West is a naturalistic work of drama? Give evidence of the absurd and hyper-real in the play.

Why does Shepard warn directors against implanting a "concept" onto the play?

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