True West by Sam Shepard- Literary Analysis

One Old, New, and True Western Man

True West Analysis: Themes and Character Analysis of Austin and Lee

In the play True West, Sam Shepard explores a heated brother rivalry between Austin and Lee, where order and mundane typewriting madly spiral into toaster theft, golf smashing, and chaos. As the brothers clash, their juxtaposing personalities and values of the new West’s tranquility and the old West’s wildness diverge, reverse, and finally fuse. Through the blurred dichotomy of the brothers’ identities, Shepard dynamically examines man’s double nature to suggest that a balanced amalgam of the psyche’s new West order and old West rambunctiousness may ultimately pave way for an enhanced emergence of identity, the discovery of the true West.


American theatre play True West by Sam Shepard: Actors portraying brothers Austin (bottom; drunk) and Lee (standing)

Austin vs Lee in True West

Shepard utilizes the brother’s foiling personalities and dissatisfactions as the play’s dominant sources of tension in order to portray the dissonance of an unbalanced psyche. A well-accomplished screenwriter, Austin has an Ivy-League diploma and wears a “light blue sports shirt…clean blue jeans,” embodying the Apollonian nature of rationality and stability (Shepard 1). Austin’s accomplished and “clean” qualities are synonymous with the new West’s orderly suburban life and the traditional American Dream of success. However, his brother Lee, a skilled drunken thief, continuously wears a “filthy white t-shirt, tattered…two day’s growth of beard,” embodying Austin’s opposite extreme, the Dionysian nature of spontaneityand chaos (1). As Austin continues to studiously work on his script and Lee passionately steals television sets, Shepard highlights both their physical and ideological juxtapositions.

Actors Chad Smith and Bruce Willis at the Library Theatre in 2001: They are performing the characters Austin and Lee respectively in the True West play rendition.

Yet, Shepard also delineates these sharp dichotomies as the source of their identity incompletions. In Scene 7, Lee is seen “struggling to type with one finger,”while Austin “sits sprawled…drunk” (38). Through the comical personality reversal, Shepard exemplifies the unhealthiness of a separation of passion and reason from one another. Lee explodes with passion with his Western story, but “struggle[s]”with the absence of Austin’s diligence. Austin rolls with intelligence, but “sits sprawled,” with the defeat of his own script and lack of creativity. Shepard further examines this dissonance through Lee’s script on two men “ridin’ straight into the night…[who] don’t know where the other one is taking him” (29). The two men “ridin’ straight” closely mirror the brothers themselves and their own“straight”diverged personalities, separate from one another, and by depicting the riders as not knowing “where the other one is taking him,” Shepard additionally parallels their frustrated cluelessness to the siblings’ discordant psyches and dissatisfactions.

“He thinks we’re the same person.” – True West by Sam Shepard

Thematic Analysis of True West’s Ending and Plot Conclusion

Near the end, the brothers’ identities begin to fuse as one entity. Austin “scribble[s] notes desperately with a ballpoint pen,” as Lee speaks, “walking a slow circle around” (53). The brothers harmonize intellect, “pen,” with emotion, “speak,” ultimately catalyzing the emergence of not only their Western script but also their enhanced identities as a balanced one. Through the siblings’ understanding that “we’re the same person” and “just sorta’ echo each other,” Shepard illuminates that their clashing Apollonian and Dionysian personalities are not separate from each other but rather two halves of the same man, the same artist (39, 42). Unlike their parents, with Mom in cold Alaska and Dad in the sweltering desert, the brothers revolve harmoniously in a “ring of truth” (37). The true paradise that Lee discusses is neither the old West nor the new West but the blurred balance between the two, where order and rationality and chaos and creativity are fused together.

Renowned American literary playwriter Sam Shepard and his collection Seven Plays

Thus, through the divergence and convergence of Austin and Lee, Shepard explores the fluid spectrum of identities: the consequences of an unbalance and the enhancements of a blurred balance. Only one man exists, and that is the old, new, and ultimately true Western man.

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7 replies »

    • Thanks Galina for your comment! I really enjoyed True West, and I highly recommend watching the live play one day! It’s heartwarming, hilarious, and everything in between about sibling wars- 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Absolutely! Watching a real live play is something I really miss in my life for very long time and certainly I will when I have chance.

    Liked by 1 person

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