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Theatre / True West

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True West is a 1980 play by Sam Shepard and the third (and final) part of his anthological "Family Trilogy" plays. The play has been performed numerous times, often with great success, and has been broadcast on TV twice: once fully adapted to TV in 1984, based on the 1982 revival and starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise; and once in its stage-play form in 2002 starring Bruce Willis and Chad Smith.


The story concerns two brothers: Lee, the aggressive and manipulative elder brother who has spent years alone in the desert and makes his living through petty thievery; and Austin, a struggling screenwriter who seems to have spent most of his life attempting to reign in his brother. With their mother away in Alaska (and their father having long since abandoned the family), and not having seen each other in five years, the brothers reconnect and attempt to write a script for a western together...all while having to try to avoid killing each other.


This play provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: It may not necessarily cross the line into "abusive" (since all we know for sure is that he ran off to the desert when the brothers were children) but Austin certainly shows hints of regarding his and Lee's father as this.
  • The Alcoholic: Lee is rarely without an alcoholic beverage nearby. He can handle it much better than Austin can, though... Their father is also stated to be this too.
  • Asshole Victim: Lee.
  • Berserk Button: Austin's appears to be broken promises. Lee has too many to count (see Hair-Trigger Temper below).
  • Break the Cutie: The play itself seems to be one long one for Austin.
  • Broken Pedestal: It's very subtle but it's implied that a lot of Austin's resentment and anger towards Lee comes from Lee effectively turning into this.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: "Nice" relative to his brother, at least, but when Austin snaps, he snaps.
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  • The Chessmaster: Lee who spends the vast majority of the time manipulating people, especially Austin. He's surprisingly adept at it too.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: The brothers' mother seems to be a return to normalcy...but then she starts going on about how excited she is to go to the museum with her sons and meet Picasso...
  • Comically Missing the Point: As Austin is strangling Lee with a phone cord and claiming how easy it would be to kill him, their mother merely tells them there's plenty of room outside if they want to fight.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Saul has hints of being this.
  • Deal with the Devil: The metaphorical kind. Lee eventually breaks Austin down enough to get him to agree to write the screenplay with no credit and Lee reaping all the profits in exchange for Lee taking Austin to live in the desert.
  • Downer Ending: The ending itself is up to interpretation but it's fairly safe to assume that at least one of the brothers isn't making it out of that house...
  • Dysfunctional Family: Hoo boy... We have an absentee alcoholic deadbeat dad, a Cloud Cuckoo Lander mother, one son bordering on psychotic and the other constantly on the verge of completely breaking down.
  • Empathic Environment: It's subtle but the heat increases throughout the play both metaphorically and literally.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Lee's only real loving behaviour is strictly reserved for his mother. Even if he does attempt to steal her antiques and trash her home...
  • Faux Symbolism: An in-universe example focused on toast, of all things...
    Lee: What is your deal with the toast?! You're making that toast sound like salvation or something!
    Austin: is like salvation. Sort of.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Subverted. At first it seems fairly straightforward that college graduate Austin is the responsible one and thieving drifter Lee is the foolish one. Then they each reveal their deep-rooted resentment at their respective roles...and then Lee starts trying to write a script while Austin starts getting drunk and stealing toasters.
  • Foreshadowing: Lee's script idea, specifically his speech about two men chasing each other, each secretly afraid, and neither of them knowing where they're headed.
    • Also, Lee tells Austin during an argument that murder is most likely to occur between brothers, brothers-in-law and cousins, "right around this time of year" while Austin claims that they're both better than that. 48 hours later and Austin's strangling Lee to death and it's heavily implied that at least one of them will end up dead after the play ends.
  • Freudian Excuse: Austin considers himself and Lee to have one of these thanks to their father.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Lee. In spades. Pretty much anything can set him off, from crickets chirping to being offered toast, and Austin always ends up being the one in the firing line. This is both Played for Laughs and Played for Drama at various points throughout the play.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Happens to both brothers several times, to the point where most of their worst situations during the play were arguably caused by their own behaviour.
  • Hope Spot: It's not much of one but the brothers seem to be actually genuinely co-operating for the first time...but then Lee starts getting cold feet about the whole thing after their mother returns home.
  • In the Blood: Lee is pretty much a Generation Xerox of his father, and Austin ends up desperate to invoke this trope.
  • Karmic Death: Depending on how you interpret the ending, this could apply to either Lee or Austin - Lee, since he'd die at the hands of his constantly-mistreated brother; and Austin since he'd just actively tried to murder his brother.
  • Let the Past Burn: At one point, Austin starts a fire in a bucket filled with all his attempts at research for his own abandoned project.
  • Mood Whiplash: It depends a lot on the actors and the direction but the tone can jump from comical to serious and vice versa within a split second.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Saul really doesn't understand the family dynamics between the two brothers. Some productions take this Up to Eleven by having Lee "teasingly" hitting Austin with Saul remaining blissfully unaware that anything's wrong.
  • Not Quite Dead: Depending on how you interpret the last few seconds, this could apply to Lee...
  • Only Sane Man: Almost a Deconstructed Trope. Pretty much everyone plays this role at some point throughout the play; in the end, though, none of them quite manage to hold onto it and it's heavily implied that Austin's breakdown is a direct result of having had to be this all his life.
  • Percussive Therapy: Lee's reaction whenever something doesn't work the way he wants it to, whether it be a typewriter, a phone or his brother. It only gets worse once he gets his hands on some golf clubs. Occasionally it crosses over into Percussive Maintenance.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Lee and Austin both get to deliver one to the other.
  • Really Gets Around: Lee - at least he implies it.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Lee threatens this several times with Austin managing to talk him down. Eventually, Austin decides that he wants to do this and makes a deal with Lee to accomplish it. At the end, Lee attempts it for real, backing out on his deal with Austin in the process. It doesn't go Lee's way.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: An in-universe example, Austin tells Lee the story of how their father lost his (real and false) teeth.
  • Small, Secluded World: Invoked by the brothers' mother.
    Mom: Are you going to live with your father?
    Lee: This is a different desert, mom.
    Mom: I expect you'll end up in the same desert sooner or later.
  • The Sociopath: Lee.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: The few times Austin and Lee actually do work together, it's definitely in this manner.
  • The Unseen: The brothers' father, as well as Austin's wife and children, are never seen despite being mentioned several times.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Austin seems to have been this when he was younger and Lee considers him to still be one. Austin doesn't agree.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Austin. As mentioned above, it takes a lot to get to him to snap, but when he eventually does, he really snaps. To the point where he (successfully or not depending on your view) attempts to murder his brother.