Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Curse of Ancestry
The curse of the family, though not new to American drama, is well represented in True West. Each person is born into a family and as such takes on the burdens of the generations preceding him or her. Although Austin has tried very hard to escape the influence of his family, all of his attempts have failed. He has tried to get a sense of identity from his work and his accomplishments, but in the end they are all meaningless in relation to the identity formed for him in the family. Austin tries to deny that he is part of the family, but in the end cannot. In the end he is exactly like his brother and both of them are like his father—incapable of dealing with life in the regular world.
The Old West vs. the New West
The old West versus the new West is not a topic meant for historical debate, but a no holds barred fight to the death. Austin is the representative of the order created by the suburban new West while Lee is the representative of the desert old West and the chaos it represents. In the end it seems that the chaos is the stronger force. The wild terrain slowly encroaches upon and eventually takes over the kitchen. Indeed, by the end of the play it is hard to imagine a more devastated room. In Shepard's view, however, the order of the suburbs is the faulty ideal in the first place. One cannot form a real identity within its confines; only the freedom represented by the chaos of the desert can allow for that. It is this freedom that the old man has sought, that Lee has experienced, and that Austin now seeks out himself.
Art as a Business vs. Art as an Ideal
To make a living creating art, one must involve oneself in the business of art. Austin a working screenwriter, must get paid, as his art and his livelihood are one and the same. Lee is very contemptuous of this "art" of Austin's. At the beginning of the play, Lee does not think art is a worthwhile way to make a living. Austin, unable to summon the chutzpah to call himself an artist, instead thinks of himself as a laborer. Shepard investigates this tenuous relationship between artist and businessman throughout the play. The question becomes how one can endeavor to create art and then get paid for it. Shepard explores the idea of what has happened to art for art's sake. Art, as it now exists inside the system of commerce we have created for ourselves, is just another commodity that can be bought and sold, as we see in the clueless Hollywood juggernaut Saul represents. Real art is almost impossible to create under the pressures of economic necessity.
The Fallibility of the American Dream
One of Shepard's major ideas in True West is that what most Americans have taught to want and value is all wrong. Indeed, money makes the world go round, but Shepard contends that one does not have to go around with it. In True West he offers a contrary vision to the traditional American Dream that infuses so much of our life and literature. Austin realizes that his entire identity—which, since his youth, has focused solely on achieving this dream—is completely wrong. What is right, instead, is to paint outside the lines and form an identity on one's own terms. For Austin that means giving up everything he has worked for and retreating to the desert.
The desert is a predominant motif in the play, representing the promise of life outside the boundaries. The desert has an almost supernatural attraction for both brothers and their father. It is the representative of the old West and the myth of an uncharted, romantic American frontier where anything is possible, and where one can form a new identity. Going to the desert means officially abandoning the American Dream and the false hope it represents.
The more a character drinks in the play, the more honest he becomes. To begin with, the old man is a terrible drunk. Likewise, Lee begins the play drinking and ends it pouring beer all over his chest. While Austin avoids drinking for a good part of the play, he eventually gets drunk beyond all recognition. Drinking becomes a numbing device all the characters use to forget the pain of their life and the world in which they live.
The Old Man
The old man is an offstage character but functions more like a motif in the sense that he is omnipresent in the lives of the onstage characters. The old man serves as inspiration for the brothers' dispute and for their transformation of character. His influence on Austin and Lee is huge, as he serves as a model for them about how not to live a regular life. In the brothers' continuing quest for identity, their father is the chief model, a compelling force in both their lives.
Austin and Lee
Austin and Lee can be seen as opposite extremes of the creative artist. By himself, neither is able to actually sit down and write a screenplay. Austin is the diligent worker, Lee the visionary. They butt heads throughout the entire play, but through this often-violent relationship are finally able to write a screenplay. For Shepard, this antagonistic relationship is a necessary one. Only through great struggle is art ever created.
The houseplants in Mom's kitchen are symbols of the order and structure that pervade the suburbs of the new West. Austin's only job while he is house-sitting for his mother is to tend the houseplants and make sure they are watered. For a while he does his job, remembering to take care of the plants. But as Austin begins to realize that the ideals he has and the identity he has formed for himself are contrary to what he believes is right and true, he begins to neglect the houseplants. By the end of the play the plants are all dead. When Mom returns from Alaska, she said she has done so because she has missed her houseplants. For her they represent the order upon which she has come to rely so heavily. On seeing the plants dead, Mom leaves the house, unable to cope with the sense of chaos that has invaded her home.
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