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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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 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.
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to True West!