at Cassidy’s Pub
If Sam Shepard has told you once, he’s told you a hundred times — the old west is dead. Or almost dead. You see, it dies hard. It’s stubborn. Shepard’s human vestiges of the old west must face a high noon against our bleak, dehumanized modern world. This showdown may be archetypal (The Unseen Hand), metaphorical (Tooth of Crime), incestual (Fool for Love), or fraternal (True West). It’s as if Shepard, as a playwright, were trapped by some purgatorial obsession, or, better yet, conducting some ancient burial ritual that he has to perform over and over until he gets it right.
I think True West is Shepard’s best shot — so far, anyway. The scene is a southern California suburban house where Austin has holed up to draft a screenplay treatment while his mother is on vacation. Returning unexpectedly to the family roost is Austin’s older brother, Lee, a small-time burglar and high plains drifter. The situation becomes intensely competitive.
Lee talks Austin’s producer into an idea he has for a modern western. But Lee can’t write, and Austin is coaxed to shelve his own script in order to write Lee’s. Austin consents only when Lee promises to take him out on the desert and show him how to survive. To prove himself to his brother, Austin forages out one night to steal the neighborhood’s toasters. So, the bottom line is: each brother wants what the other one has in the worst way. Lee symbolizes the old west, a free yet endangered way of life; and Austin is the modern west, soulless, insecure, but financially resourceful.
Of course, the two brothers wind up trying to kill each other. In one form or another, you can find this love/hate theme in any number of Shepard’s dramas. But in True West it’s best expressed in terms of a chase scene on horseback — part of Lee’s modern western. “Each one separately thinks that he’s the only one that’s afraid. And they keep ridin’ like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.”
If that passage sounds slightly enigmatic, it becomes clearer once you’ve seen a half dozen or more of Shepard’s plays. What’s so eloquent here is that this chase scene not only describes the tension between the two brothers, but also appears to be a definitive statement of Shepard’s dilemma as a playwright. That’s what Shepard’s plays do: they ride into the night. Shepard the writer chases Shepard the would-be cowboy until the destination itself — the new west — is lost in the darkness. The point, therefore, becomes the chase itself, the pursuit, the attempt to ride down and capture in drama what remains elusive in life itself.
The remarkable thing about this generally unremarkable production of True West is the elliptical manner in which the actors arrive at a measure of truth. The key is in the casting. Michael Minter (as Austin) is the more technically competent of the two lead actors. His performance is controlled but uninspired, signifying what Austin thinks and feels more than actually thinking and feeling. Don Hall’s performance is stiff but oddly intense, as if the core of Lee’s character lurks just beneath Hall’s portrayal, but doesn’t know how to come out. So Minter, as the technically competent actor, reflects the hollow functionality of Austin, the screenwriter. And Hall, just like Lee, has more instinct than knowhow, looking like he’d be more comfortable on the open prairie than in the world of show biz.
Sure, it’s ironic, but it’s not a viable approach to production. The evening progressed slowly since the acting was at sixes and sevens. At one moment, though, it came strangely together. Austin told the story of the last time he saw their alcoholic father, during a night of bar-crawling when the father misplaced his dentures. When this serious but absurd story came to an end, Hall (as Lee) misplaced his line. There was a long pause while Hall seemed genuinely dumbfounded by the story itself, and then narrowly restrained himself from cracking up when he realized it was his turn to say something. Hall’s response was so natural that it created one of those wild and rare moments of truth, when theater and reality merge, and both actors and audience confront the play on their own terms.
But let’s go back to Shepard’s point of view. What is Sam Shepard — playwright, director, film star, celebrity in his own right — trying to tell us here? Why does Shepard dramatize, here and in other plays, the death struggle of the old west? Why is it so important to him that the old west survive? Why does he measure what we’ve lost against what we’ve gained? I’m thrown back on the realization that Shepard’s own life is as glazed in myth as his plays. Shepard once said that he originally wanted to be a rock star, but he couldn’t make it so he started writing plays. Indeed, Shepard is so much a part of the postwar boom generation that had he not existed it would have been necessary for us to create him.
Now, with all that 60s New York/San Francisco scene behind him, Shepard has come of age. His plays have become immensely popular. Things have started to pay off. Why? Certainly we have to consider the possibility that, since Shepard is both symbol and spokesman for us baby-boomers, our common culture has come of age. Now, we must ask ourselves, are we successful? How much have we compromised? Are we a graven image of our ambitions, or a ragged remnant of half-remembered dreams? Sometimes, when our past catches up with us, don’t we all seem a little phony?
I see all these questions, both explicit and inchoate, being asked in True West. There’s Lee: the raunchy, unintegrated side of us, the old west, still out there in the desert. And there’s Austin: the yuppie, the college-educated hack, closing a deal with a hearty handshake. But something from our past, in the shape of the old west, has come back to haunt us. And we’ll either succeed in killing it, or we’ll kill ourselves. Most of the damage is already done. In the final tableau of True West — a standoff, with both brothers poised to attack but waiting, watchful — is the very image of where we stand now. The situation teeters, and will continue to teeter, until we come to some sort of resolution. Shepard can’t simplify things by doing it for us, this coming to terms with our past. He just writes it down the way he sees it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.