Sam Shepard

True West

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True West Summary

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“True West” by Sam Shepard tells the story of two brothers living very different lives. As the play progresses, the upstanding screenplay writer and the nomadic thief attempt to live the other’s life. The play premiered at Magic Theatre in San Francisco, California in 1980.

As the play opens, brothers Austin and Lee are at their mother’s house. The entire play will take place here. Austin, a well-dressed man in his early 30s, is house-sitting while his mother is on vacation. Lee is in his early 40s and has a disheveled appearance.

Austin is writing a screenplay in a notebook. Lee appears to be drunk, and he asks Austin a series of inane questions. They talk about their father and say they’ve both been to visit him. It’s the first time the brothers have interacted in five years.

Lee asks to borrow Austin’s car, but Austin refuses, knowing that he will use it to steal something. Lee says he’s been spending a lot of time in the desert. He makes rude comments about Austin’s fancy life and prominent friends.

Austin is meeting with a producer today, and he asks Lee to leave for a bit. Lee agrees to go if he can take Austin’s car.

In the next scene, Saul Kimmer is meeting with Austin. He likes the script and wants to produce it. Lee comes into the kitchen carrying a stolen tv. He apologizes for interrupting the meeting but quickly engages Saul in a conversation about golf. He sets a date to play with him early the next morning.

Lee mentions that he has a story idea for Saul. Saul tells him to have Austin write it out for him. In the next scene, Lee is dictating his screenplay, and Austin is writing an outline. In Lee’s story, the hero is in a truck with his horse in an attached trailer. He’s 50 miles from the border. Another truck approaches, also with a horse and trailer. The man in the first truck realizes that the other driver is the husband of the woman he’s been having an affair with and that he’s now in the middle of nowhere and running out of gas.

Austin says the story is unrealistic and it’s clearly a setup to have the men chase each other on their horses. Lee gets angry. He tells Austin to finish the outline, or he’s going to steal his car.

Lee gives him back his keys and discusses Austin’s options. He could go to the police, but Austin says, “You’re my brother.” Lee points out that most murders happen within families.

Austin offers again to write the script. He says that if the screenplay is successful, Lee could turn his life around. They couldn’t help their father, though, as Austin says he’s not going to change.

Lee reminisces on the easy money to be had in illegal things, specifically stealing diesel trucks and dogfighting. The men describe how they used to picture each other in their youth. Each man was envious of the other’s lifestyle.

The next scene takes place after Lee has had his game of golf with Saul. Lee says that Saul liked the screenplay and gave him some of his golf clubs as part of an advance. He tells Austin that Saul wants to drop Austin’s script and do Lee’s instead. Austin calls Saul, but can’t reach him.

Austin is upset. He’s shocked that Saul would drop his screenplay and says that Lee’s story is the “dumbest story I’ve ever heard in my life.” He thinks Lee must’ve threatened Saul. Lee lunges at Austin with a golf club, saying he only “convinced” Saul. Meanwhile, Lee has taken Austin’s keys again.

In the next scene, Saul is in the kitchen with Lee and Austin. Saul is enthusiastic about Lee’s material and says it’s a hot and easy 300 grand for Austin. Austin assumes Saul simply lost a bet. He claims he can’t write both scripts, so Saul decides to drop Austin’s script.

The next scene finds Austin drunk on the floor while Lee works on his screenplay. Austin toys with the idea of stealing things. Lee offers half the money and promises to disappear if Austin will help him with the writing.

Austin tells a story about their father. Father walked for eight days to the border to have a Mexican pull out all of his rotting teeth. He later lost his false teeth. Austin gave him money, but he drank it away.

The next morning, Lee is beating the typewriter with a golf club and setting his script on fire. Austin has managed to steal several toasters. No one has watered the house plants.
Austin makes a deal with Lee. Lee will take him to the desert with him if Austin agrees to write the screenplay without credit or pay.

In the next scene, Lee is dictating, and Austin is writing in his notebook. Mom returns home to her wrecked house. She asked what happened, and Austin explains that they were celebrating Lee’s screenplay.

Mom and Lee are both doubtful that Austin can survive in the desert. Lee says they should postpone the deal. He rummages through Mom’s cabinets to “borrow” her antique china. Lee says he’s leaving town before he goes crazy like Austin. Austin begins strangling Lee with the phone cord and tells him he’s not going anywhere or taking anything. He asks for his keys back, and Lee throws them out.

Mom is leaving for a motel, but Austin stops her. He releases Lee, asking for a headstart. As the play ends, Lee runs for the door, trapping Austin inside with him.

The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983. Some critics believe that the play was a part of a “Family Trilogy” from Shepard, which included the plays Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child.