Themes of Sam Shepard's Plays

Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders
Catherine McGann / Getty Images

Although the Cain-and-Abel style of sibling rivalry this play focuses on is admirable, "True West" is another Sam Shepard drama that perplexes much more than enlightens. (Although as far as Bible stories goes, perhaps it's more like the prodigal son and a really annoyed younger brother.)

'True West:' Summary

This kitchen sink drama begins with a young, successful brother diligently working on his next screenplay while watching his mother's house. His older brother has encroached upon the place as well. Austin (the screen writer) does want to upset his brother at first. In fact, despite his older brother's dead-beat ways, Austin seems to admire him, though he doesn't trust him. Though Austen appears civilized at the beginning of the play, he will go off the deep end by Act Three, drinking, thieving, and fighting—traits of his wandering, alcoholic father.

Character Development

Lee, the older brother, is oxymoronically a champion loser. He bums around in the desert, following the same life choices as his drunkard father. He drifts from one friend's house to another, crashing wherever he can. He out a living by stealing appliances or gambling in dogfights. He simultaneously disdains and envies his younger brother's successful lifestyle. yet, when he gets the chance, Lee manages to enter the Hollywood elite, golfing with a movie producer and convincing him to conjure up $300,000 for a script synopsis, even though Lee doesn't know the first thing about developing a story. (This, by the way, is yet another stretch away from reality.)

As often happens when erratic characters nearly reach the end of their troubles, catching a glimpse of paradise just around the corner, their own flaws prevent them from attaining happiness. Such is the case with Lee. Instead of writing a script treatment, Lee becomes severely intoxicated and spends the morning smashing the typewriting with a golf club. Austin doesn't fare much better, having spent his evening robbing the neighborhood of its many toasters. If this sounds amusing, it is. But humor never lingers long in Shepard's plays. Things always turn ugly, and most of his family dramas end with a lot of objects being hurled to the floor. Whether its whiskey bottles, China plates, or heads of rotten cabbage, there's always a lot of smashing going on in these households.

Themes in Sam Shepard's Plays

In addition to being a successful playwright, Shepard is also an Oscar-nominated actor. He stole the show from the rest of an incredible ensemble of actors in the historical drama about the Mercury astronauts, "The Right Stuff." In his brilliant portrayal of Chuck Yeager shows that Shepard has a knack for playing brave, stalwart characters that exude integrity. As a playwright, however, he creates many characters that lack integrity—which is precisely the point of many of his plays. Shepard's main message: Humans are not in control of their own emotions, thoughts, personalities. We cannot escape our culture or our family bonds.

In "Curse of the Starving Class," those who try to escape their dismal surrounding are immediately destroyed. (Poor Emma is literally destroyed in a car bomb explosion!) In "Buried Child," the grandchild tried to drive as far away from his dysfunctional home, only to return to become its new supine patriarch. Finally, in "True West" we witness a character (Austin) who has achieved the American Dream of a great career and a family, and yet he is compelled to throw everything away in exchange for a solitary life in the desert, following in the footsteps of his brother and father.

The theme of an inherited, inescapable downfall recurs throughout Shepard's work. However, it does not ring true for me personally. It's understood that some children never escape the influence of their family's dysfunction. But many do. Call us optimistic, but the Vinces of the world don't always take their grandfather's place on the couch, sipping from a whiskey bottle. The Austins of America don't always turn from a family man into a thief in a single night (nor do they attempt to strangle their brother).

Bad, crazy, messed-up stuff happens, in real life and on the stage. But to process the evil that men do, maybe audiences might connect more with realism rather than surrealism. The play doesn't need avant-garde dialogue and monologues; violence, addiction, and psychological abnormality are bizarre enough when they occur in real life.

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Bradford, Wade. "Themes of Sam Shepard's Plays." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bradford, Wade. (2020, August 27). Themes of Sam Shepard's Plays. Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "Themes of Sam Shepard's Plays." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).