Teacher's Manual

2. Sample

Excerpt from: Thematic Unit 1
(Act 1, Scene 1)

Preliminary Considerations

Experience shows that from the point of view of teaching it is usually best to study the opening scene of a play more thoroughly than the following ones. This allows students to become acquainted with those specific elements of the drama introduced in the first scene. These are the characters, the setting (e.g. time, place and the social background in which the characters act) and the basic atmosphere which is generally predominant throughout the whole play.

Introductory Information and Interpretation

The Opening Scene

I. A highly atmospheric scenery

According to the introductory stage direction to this first scene, the spectator is confronted with a very atmospheric scene as soon as the curtain opens. The play starts with a silent stand-off between Austin and his brother Lee. Already their outward appearance – described in the initial stage direction to the drama – make the audience conscious of the duality of the brothers. However, this discrepancy is stressed now by their appearance and behaviour on the stage. Austin has all the equipment typical of a journalist or writer: "writing notebook, pen ... , cigarette burning in ashtray, cup of coffee, typewriter ... stacks of paper, ...". Obviously, he is the conformist, and the one who has made it, whereas his brother Lee seems to be the rebel or drifter. ...
Furthermore, there are a lot of details that determine the atmosphere of the scenery. Austin is working during the night, while sounds of crickets in the dark suggest a warm night. The whole scenery is lit by a candle on the table whose flickering light casts shadows on the walls of the room. Later we hear that Austin chose it for he regards candlelight as "sometimes ... soothing." Finally, "soft moonlight" that illuminates Lee fills the kitchen.

II. A Scene of Pinteresque Threat

In the course of the ensuing conversation between the two brothers we hear that Austin has agreed to housesit for his mother while she is on vacation in Alaska. Instead of finding peace and quiet for the writing of his manuscript in his mother’s home, he finds himself confronted with Lee who pesters him with questions. Being hunched over and absorbed in his work, Austin at first does not really listen to Lee’s questions, which he answers more or less casually and reluctantly with one or a few words. However, this changes soon, for Shepard succeeds in building up a strong Pinteresque sense of menace. By and by Austin becomes aware that his impolite and rude brother not only disturbs his work and disrupts his peace and solitude, but his presence is very threatening. As Lee becomes increasingly confrontational and aggressive, Austin reacts with barely disguised fear. Though Lee seems to have nothing but contempt for his brother’s way of life it soon dawns on Austin that his brother’s remark: “Kinda’ nice for you, huh? Whole place to yourself" contains a touch of envy. ... He envies his brother’s social and economic position and accuses him of arrogance. ... However, he tries to establish himself not only as equal ("I did a little art myself once") but even as superior to his brother. ... As Austin obviously fears his brother’s aggressive behaviour he tries to appease him by changing the subject. ... And for the first time he turns to his brother with a real question about "the old man", probably their father to whom Lee seems to have closer contact. Hardly has he asked his question than he must realize that instead of calming his brother down, he has increased Lee’s anger: "What d’ya’ want, an award? ... You were down there. He told me all about you." All Austin’s attempts to explain what he did are in vain, for his brother squelches them. Shocked by Lee’s growing hostility it dawns on him that he must get rid of this nagging voice as soon as possible. Therefore he asks cautiously: "You going to be down here very long , Lee?". As Lee gives no definite time for his departure Austin offers him to stay at his mother’s as long as he is there. Again he rouses his brother’s jealousy : "I mean she’s my mother, too, right? ... She might’ve just as easily asked me to take care of her place as you."


  True West Teacher's Manual Cover  

Sam Shepard , True West, Teacher's Manual


1. Didactic and Methodical Considerations
2. Sample

Finally, Austin gets to know why his brother has come. As a thief he has chosen Mom’s neighbourhood for burglary for he knows that "This is a great neighbourhood. ... Good class a’ people. Not many dogs." Their further conversations reveals that Lee is the western bandit whose method it is to attack an unsuspecting community by surprise, plunder it and then disappear again. And that’s the reason why he asks for his brother’s car.
However, when being refused his brother`s car his strong resentment against his successful brother flickers up again. ...
The last part of their conversation contains information on the brothers’ lives.
Lee has spent a time on the desert where he had a Pit Bull, a fighting dog, that had helped him to make "real good money"
Austin is a Hollywood writer who lives in northern California. ...
Asking his brother if he wants to sleep, Austin perhaps tries to reach a temporary delivery from this threat. Lee, however, "stares at Austin" and answers that he does not sleep. At that moment, when the dramatic tension has reached its climax, the scene ends leaving the audience in suspense.

III. Dialogue

True West starts with a dialogue between the two brothers. It is decisive for the creation of the Pinteresque sense of menace which is typical of this first scene. ...
The dialogue between Austin and his brother is bound to fail, for their communication is constantly dominated by Lee. Their dialogue also demonstrates that there are many ways of conveying meaning. Thus they use words of different speech levels (register) which vary in tone (volume), voice inflection (intonation), pauses, and pace according to the specific situation. Sometimes their silence (pauses), their facial expressions, and their body language express more than words. In True West Shepard gives proof that these elements of dialogue can express fear and despair on the one hand, as well as offence and hatred on the other hand.

Teaching Suggestions

I. Summing up explicit and implicit information about the characters:

1. What conclusion can be drawn from Lee’s comment on his mother: "She don’t like even a single tea leave in the sink ya`know" (11/15f) ? ...

2. What role does "the old man" play? ...

3. What do we get to know about the two brothers? ...

II. The Atmosphere

1. Describe the atmosphere as depicted in the stage direction (11/1-7) ...

2. Show how the dialogue between the brothers contributes to the creation of a Pinteresque atmosphere of menace.

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