Decline of the West

Decline of the West

“I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided,” said Sam Shepard, explaining his motivation for writing True West. “It’s a real thing, double nature.


“I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided,” said Sam Shepard, explaining his motivation for writing True West. “It’s a real thing, double nature. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can reveal. It’s not some little thing we can get over. It’s something we’ve got to live with.” Shepard has been living with his dual nature for quite some time. A reclusive, cryptic writer and Oscar-nominated movie star, he has mastered the art of dodging the limelight while soaking up just enough of it for fame and fortune. True West (1980) presents dual nature in the characters of Lee, a burglar living off the land in the Mojave Desert, and his brother, Austin, an Ivy League-educated screenwriter. Lee cons a Hollywood producer into making his seemingly ridiculous idea for a “true life western.” Austin, retaliating, steals his brother’s trade by shoplifting twenty-six toasters. The producer “thinks [they’re] the same person,” so they attempt to collaborate on Lee’s story but end up in a beer-drenched re-enactment of Cain and Abel. Battling over authorial identity and aesthetic authenticity, the two brothers attempt to reclaim the American western in a Southern California suburban kitchen.

It would be all too easy to read the play as autobiography, with the two brothers symbolizing the playwright’s bifurcated self. The facts are somewhat different: Shepard, a native of Illinois, dropped out of Mount San Antonio Junior College to embark on a frontier known as East Village experimental theater. With the cheap rents and newly broadened sensibilities of the 1960s on his side, venues like La MaMa and Theatre Genesis allowed Shepard to learn on the job. The Rock Garden (1964), which consists of Beckettian non sequiturs that inexplicably lead to a boy’s gratuitous monologue explaining his preference for “short” vaginas, is representative of the journeyman Shepard of the period. After about a decade of such excursions (later characterized by the playwright as “impulsive chronicles representing a chaotic, subjective world”), Shepard realized that there was actually nothing more absurd than pondering the hermeneutics of the American family. With a newfound Ibsenian naturalism, Shepard told tales of incest, drunkenness and secrets that were as plausible as they were outrageous. Almost a decade before Oprah went on the air, Buried Child (1978) literally excavated family skeletons with chilling pathos and unsettling humor.

True West, the third play of Shepard’s so-called family trilogy (following Curse of the Starving Class), is also about family secrets and the impossibility of fleeing one’s origins. Lee essentially states Shepard’s point about naturalist unnatural acts when he informs Austin about the plausibility of fratricide: “You go down to the L.A. Police Department there and ask them what kinda’ people kill each other the most. What do you think they’d say?” The answer is, of course, “family people,” and, as the play unfolds, we are shown American domesticity giving way to barbarism. As if calling Shepard at his bluff, director Matthew Warchus, in the current Broadway revival at Circle in the Square, puts Shepard’s “two-sided” proclamation to work by casting actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in both roles, with the two actors alternating the parts every three performances.

Hoffman has none of the qualities–good looks, a dynamic voice or physical prowess–that tend to make stars but is on his way to be becoming one anyway. As a pathetic obscene phone caller in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, a lovesick techie in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights or an obsessively loyal caretaker in Anderson’s Magnolia, the doughy, pasty-faced Hoffman humanizes his roles and somehow makes his un-charisma oddly compelling. The night I went he was typecast as Austin, and he made poetry out of his awkward whining, evoking embarrassed, slightly frightened laughter. Ridiculing his brother’s idea of “the real West,” which has seduced his producer (and placed his own love-story pitch in jeopardy), Hoffman gleefully mocks the producer’s preference for a script about “grown men acting like little boys,” turning the phrase into a maniacal singsong. Reilly, who played a well-meaning but hapless cop in Magnolia, had the more daunting task of following up John Malkovich’s breakthrough performance in the 1982 Cherry Lane production, in which Malkovich burned up the stage simply by, well, being John Malkovich. With his gut arrogantly protruding over his belt, Reilly comes on with Gregory Peck affectations and over-the-top outbursts that rankle at first. What made Malkovich’s performance great was its unexpectedness–a mixture of effeminate swishes, atavistic flashes of homicidal machismo and signs of ADD. Reilly’s Lee is more of a stock beer-swilling shit-kicker.

Reilly’s Lee seems at first like a sham, but then we find that, however entranced Shepard has been by the American West, he thinks it’s a sham, too. In “Brownsville Girl,” a song Shepard co-wrote with Bob Dylan, Dylan attempts to remember a scene from John Ford’s The Gunslinger, fetishizing “something about Gregory Peck and the way people moved,” and elegizing that it “was a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.” When the scenery is actually torn down in True West, the American home, brotherhood and the idea of masculinity are eviscerated: “I keep finding myself getting off the freeway at familiar landmarks that turn out to be unfamiliar,” says Austin, who wonders if his memories are mere artifice.

It’s a difficult balancing act to stage a play that is about unreal perceptions that still feel real to the characters. The play’s metafictional aspect–it is, after all, about writing a contrived western–only magnifies these “illusions of characters” (a critical term of Austin’s) until you are not sure whether you don’t buy it or whether that isn’t the whole point. Surely one of the evening’s greatest disappointments came with a Euripides-worthy recognition scene in which Mom, walking in on a kitchen littered with stolen toasters, dead plants and scattered debris, informs the fratricidal brothers that “Picasso’s in town.” As written, the line sends up artistic commodification, sibling rivalry and cultural literacy in one fell swoop. Played with maternal blandness by Celia Weston, the joke nearly nose-dives, saved only by its textual ingenuity. The handful of other flat spots (most notably Reilly’s reliance on drawling cliché) are likewise saved by the play’s near-indestructibility. The standing ovation was justified: Two men knocked themselves (and nearly each other) out, and Hoffman went to impressive lengths to flesh out a character usually relegated to the sidelines–which is, after all, his claim to near-fame. Sitting in the audience, dodging flying toast and sputtered beer, we were reminded that Shepard’s true persona was neither the collegiate Austin nor the swaggering Lee but that of the spectator, wondering why that John Ford film had come unspooled. It’s hard to skewer one’s own childhood myth-making, but Shepard rises to the occasion. Seldom has fraudulence been expressed with such truth.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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