Study Guide

True West

By Sam Shepard

True West Introduction

Sometimes your little brother just drives you absolutely insane, right? Or, if you don't have a little brother, you have that friend who is great and everything, but can totally make you want to throw things at him on occasion. Well, imagine that kind of relationship built up over 30 years or so, and imagine that both parties involved are a little bit crazy, and now imagine that they're stuck in a room with nothing other than booze, burnt toast, and the sound of yapping coyotes to occupy their time. Chances are, things are going to get ugly. That's the situation at hand in Sam Shepard's True West, and "ugly" doesn't even begin to cover the events of this play.

True West first hit the stage at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 1980. From there, it moved on to the Public in New York, and then eventually found its way to the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago where two then unknown actors named Gary Sinise and John Malkovich took on the lead roles of Austin and Lee, two estranged brothers who hash out their differences while writing a movie script in their mom's house outside of Los Angeles. That production moved back to New York and was recorded for a filmed version of the play, and for many it still defines what the play is all about.

True West was originally published in 1981, and since then it has been performed in theaters all over the world (in English and other languages). It has won awards on the regional and national level (the most recent Broadway revival garnered Tony Award nominations for John C. Reilly and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who traded off playing Austin and Lee. Look for more on that later).

Shepard remains one of the most respected contemporary American playwrights, and True West is often cited as one of his most important works. It delves into that dark side that just might reside in all of us. While most of us can brush the darkness away, Shepard's characters can't. As the play unfolds, you get to see a mild-mannered, successful family man slowly fall under the sway of his big brother and his past. In a relatively short time, Shepard shows us that even the most respectable people in life are still wild animals at heart. It's tough to admit, but lucky for audiences, it's really exciting to watch.

What is True West About and Why Should I Care?

It's easy to go to the movies and get drawn in and carried away by the explosions, the car chases, or the superheroes on the big screen. It's just as easy to get sucked into a TV show that makes you laugh and/or cry week after week. But there is nothing quite like a live performance of a play to generate the kind of electricity that True West generates when it's performed well.

This play throws you into the madness and anger and frustration and loyalty and love that come with being part of a family. At its core, it is sibling rivalry gone horribly wrong, but there's so much more to it than that. Unlike a lot of movies and TV shows these days, this play doesn't gloss over the dark side of human nature. In fact, it revels in it. While we all like to think that we're better people than the characters in True West (and you most certainly are), there's still the capacity for all of us to lash out at the people we love, and we still all have to fight feelings of envy, betrayal, and straight-up anger.

When put into the hands of talented actors and directors, this play can really just blow an audience away. On top of all the madness, it's extremely funny and touching in parts, and at times it's just plain crazy. Reading and delving into the play only makes the experience of seeing it live that much more impressive, because you know what a tricky beast it is.

If you ever feel like those old cartoons where an angel is on one of your shoulders and the devil is on the other¸ this is the play for you.

True West Resources

WEBSITES

The Good Shepard
Some of the best info on the play and its playwright can be found right on Shepard's own website.

The Critics Have Spoken
Get a solid overview of what critics and scholars have said about True West on the Theatre Database.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Best of the Best
For many fans of the play, it doesn't get any better than the Sinise/Malkovich version. Check out the video version of that production here.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Observe and Report
This New York Observer review breaks down why sometimes it's best to check out True West twice.

VIDEO

True West in Brazil
Even if you can't follow the language, this is a great look at a very different visual take on the play from a production in Brazil.

Live at the Athena
The team behind a production of True West at the Athena Theatre talks about the challenges and joys of the producing the play.

Budget? We don't need no stinking budget.
Check out the Bare Bones Rep's production of True West.

Malkovich!
It's got nothing to do with True West, but it's a crazy awesome movie. Here is Being John Malkovich.

AUDIO

From the Shepard's Mouth
Sam Shepard talks about his life in theater and film with NPR. This guy sounds as cool as he writes.

IMAGES

My, What Big Teeth You Have
The Southern California Coyote is not to be trifled with.

Highway to the Danger Zone
Here is Shepard as Chuck Yeager from The Right Stuff.

How Many Plays?
The cover of Sam Shepard's Seven Plays. A must-have for any theatre kid.