HUMANISM & THE ARTS | The Terribly Prescient Genius of Sam Shepard’s True West

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” Oscar Wilde professed. What I’m sure of is that artists often see something in life that drives them to try and capture it. They do it in poems, and, in a larger way, they do it in novels. They also do it in plays.

Interestingly, a play is a piece of writing that is not so much captured on the page as it is entombed in it. For a play to realize itself, it must be performed and staged in just the right way. It must leave the hands of the playwright and be put into the hands of producers, directors, actors, and set designers who must adopt a linkage of vision and purpose, all of which can be tenuous at best. It needs to be lit just right as well. And even with all that attention, it might still fail, and fail badly.

Playwrights are like magicians and they have to create both the illusion of reality and a plausible portrayal of it. They need it to be true and be compelling and, like all artists, they need to show us something of ourselves in a different light, on a different stage, yet in a recognizable voice and presence. As if that’s not enough, the work of art should sustain a clear and continuous relevance over time, something that’s not purely temporal. Perhaps the singular greatness of Shakespeare is that he wrote about the human condition and all of its multifarious predicaments with such insight that his plays are still apposite to this very day. The ability to manage that amid all the other demands of succeeding as a playwright is, in a word, daunting.

Among the very few plays that manage to sustain relevance, we see something we refer to as a “revival,” a bringing back to life. In a different vein, big Broadway musicals are revived again and again not because they’re great art or even relevant but because they are munificent cash cows, and they make people forget the larger world for a few hours in a darkened theater. But a play is a different thing. For a play to be brought back again and again, it likely needs to be germane to the present. Producers and directors need to be able to say that, yes, we really need to see that work again, with new actors and maybe on new stages because it seems important to do it and teaches us something we need to know about our present circumstances.

I offer as a case in point Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun. It premiered on Broadway in 1959 with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee in the leading roles and was revived on Broadway twice: once in 2004 with Sean Combs and Audra McDonald and again in 2014 with Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo. The play is about the struggles of a black family living in a hostile white suburb. These vexing and painful issues of our past exist in our present, and the play offers us a mirror in which to view ourselves and life’s attendant complexities and conflicts in ways that inform and provoke conversation.

But the play I am most attentive to at the moment, recently revived in New York City, is a play called True West by one of America’s most important contemporary playwrights. Sam Shepard left behind a very impressive body of work when he died in 2017. His plays were from the heartland, about the heartland, and they carried a kind of cultural resonance for whatever might be the essence of America. Back in 1984 I happened upon a performance of what was a new play by the still-unheralded playwright, and it featured two relatively unknown actors, Gary Sinise and John Malkovich (both actors whose talent and mettle have surely been borne out over all the interceding years).

True West takes place entirely in one room and almost entirely with two characters on stage. If you are so inclined, a somewhat poor-quality video of it can be found on YouTube. Two minutes in, the lack of quality will seem unimportant.

Curiously, True West has been called a comedy, something I’m glad I hadn’t read prior to first seeing it all those years ago. At the time, it was a riveting exploration of madness, something I could not shake. I won’t spoil things by revealing too much of the plot—just to say that it’s about two brothers: Austin, a passive yet diligent and successful Hollywood screenwriter; and Lee, a belligerent, threatening, and largely unhinged sociopath. The story is about their encountering one another after many years at the home of their mother, who has asked Austin to look after her houseplants while she takes a trip. He’s writing a new screenplay and thinks he might take the opportunity of solitude in familiar surroundings to get his work done. His brother Lee shows up unexpectedly, in more desperate straits than the desperate straits he has apparently been living in all his life.

What we wind up being witness to are two people’s worlds turned upside down and worse, spun into that configuration by a literal transposing of personalities that is a cross between being gaslighted and being thrown off a bridge. The writer has become the menace and the menace is now writing the screenplay. In Act Two the mother returns home unexpectedly from her trip because she misses her plants. The room is a shambles (the audience is also now an emotional shambles), there are stolen toasters everywhere, there is the likelihood of fratricide, and, of course, the houseplants are all dead. Maybe I have said too much. Either way, I will say no more. You should really see it for yourself.

In 2000 I was most fortunate to be in the audience to see the Broadway premier of True West featuring two of the best actors of their generation, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I have seen more staged productions in my life than I can count, and this was the only time I’ve ever seen a play conclude and every member of the audience leap to their feet in applause and cheers. What was even more remarkable was that Reilly and Hoffman apparently used to flip a coin each night to see who would be playing which character, a clear indication of the level of emotional understanding and intimacy each possessed for the work. Each needed to comprehend the other entirely.

The recent Broadway revival of True West, starring Ethan Hawke as Lee and Paul Dano as Austin, has made me see us, the United States of 2019, in the drama between the characters of Austin and Lee—how divided we’ve become, how estranged from one another. I reflected on past efforts of society to better itself, to better the planet, to right the wrongs and injustices of our past, to invest in our common humanity in ways that led to the betterment of lives. I thought about how accomplished we have been on so many fronts, how our progress was built day by day through generations of people who were generally pulling in the same direction. Then I realized how fragile it all is put into the hands of a narcissistic bully with seemingly unlimited power.

Donald Trump, like the character of Lee, has defined reality for the rest of us, and he has set into play not only a new set of rules but an entirely new game. One has to wonder how America recovers from this, if ever. It’s hard to consume the news and not feel that very little makes sense any longer. It has made us all wonder about the meaning of civility and human decency, the terrible dangers of pathological narcissism and lying, and just who the hell we are in this America of ours.

Just the other day I read that President Trump, with the stroke of his giant Sharpie, has removed protections for endangered species. He’s torn babies from the arms of their mothers and called Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MA) a racist. The Washington Post reports that Trump has now logged 12,000 distinct and demonstrable lies since becoming president. That number will undoubtedly climb higher as soon as he next speaks or tweets. One might put the blame for all of this on Trump, but what about us? Maybe all of this greed, racism, brewing hatred, and flagrant dishonesty is who we are at the core; Donald Trump has only branded it. Maybe he was inevitable. Maybe, like the character of Austin, we’ll eventually have no choice but to succumb to it, to become the menace.

Sam Shepard’s brilliant and arguably prescient True West has returned to find us and pose these questions. The play ends with the brothers facing off in the ransacked house. Shepard doesn’t tell us how it all turns out; he leaves it for us to ponder. I, for one, am fearful of what will be left of our home when all is said and done. I fear it might be too late. The houseplants might already be dead.