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Brotherly love can be such a wonderful thing. As children, two brothers can always have a playmate to play Cowboys and Indians with, or an older brother to reach the cookies on the counter. Grown up, they would have someone to help start their car engine, or guide them into and out of relationships. However, a brother can also be the resident bully. The older can make the younger eat worms, or step into embarrassing situations for personal amusement. A brother can be the best of friends and/or the worst of enemies. Either philos adelphos or fratricide could result. Brothers have been seen throughout history in love/love, love/hate, and hate/hate relationships. Fortunately, all have been left with a set of moral guidelines—the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins, the seven holy virtues, etc.—these guidelines shape people whether they acknowledge it or not. Sam Shepard is a famous playwright who has captured this conflict within families, which projects the overall conflicts of society, through most of his plays. Shepard’s True West captures the struggle between brothers and what could happen when apathy consumes them. Ironically, each of the seven deadly sins—lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride—and the seven holy virtues—chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility—are either lived out or ignored in True West. These sins and virtues, when juxtaposed with the two brothers in the play, reveal an idea that Shepard tries to convey—denial of one’s moral responsibility and isolation of one’s self will lead to destruction and insanity.
The play is set in, and only in, a kitchen of the mother of the two brothers. Lee, the older of the two, is roughly in his early forties, and is more of a nomadic alcoholic like their father. Austin is in his early thirties, and is an ivy-league graduate who writes screenplays. Austin is more temperate in the first half of the play; Lee is a partially to completely drunk mooch throughout. As the play begins, Austin is writing a script as his brother, Lee, is pestering him about different odds and ends to catch up on things since they last met. Lee talks about his life in the desert and the money he could make if he only wanted to. The reader can see Austin, the play’s protagonist, portraying humility, kindness, and diligence as he puts up with his brother’s conversation, and even shows charity when he offers Lee some money.
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Besides pride, another prevalent embodiment of the seven deadly sins is Austin and Lee’s envy for each other. At the very end of act one, Lee confesses that he has “always wondered what’d be like to be [Austin]” and Austin admits that he had done the same, thinking to himself, “ Lee’s got the right idea. He’s out there in the world and here I am. What am I doing?” (32). The point that Shepard is trying to make is that neither should envy the other because they are both in opposite ends of society’s spectrum, and therefore still lost and unbalanced. Neither wealth nor poverty should cause each of the brother’s to strive for what the other possesses but, as the reader sees later, Austin yearns for Lee’s life in the desert and Lee attempts to earn Austin’s wealth and success. This grass-is-always-greener mentality nearly leads both to insanity, which could quite possibly be a reference by Shepard on his view of society’s downfall as well.
Driving Lee’s envy for Austin’s success is his overwhelming greed. In scene four, Austin ambiguously asks Lee what he wants and Lee replies as he “dreams at windows” (which is shown in the italicized stage direction), “ I tell ya’ what I’d do if I still had that dog… Cook up a little match. Lota’ money in dog fightin’. Big money” (31). The reader observes Lee’s obsession with money throughout the entire play. Lee is a thief; he poses as a legitimate man, attempts to sell stories, and grasps at any opportunity to make a buck. Greed is what compels him to force Austin to write his script for him, which eventually leads Austin to the edge of sanity. This underlying conflict in the play could be interpreted as an exposé to the American culture, as well. Not to expose thieves or charlatans, but to show how greed rips families apart at the seams time and time again.
As envy and greed build up within the two brothers, wrath finally becomes the outlet in the last scene. Austin has finally explained that “There’s nothing real down here… least of all [himself]” and Lee retorts revealing that he’s “livin’ out there ‘cause [he] can’t make it here” (59). So when Lee tries to pack up and leave, Austin finally has enough of Lee’s refusals to take him to the desert. In a surreal crescendo of anger and contempt he grabs a stray phone cord, and strangles Lee to the ground. He has Lee’s life literally in his hands. This is the first bit of control on Lee he has had since the start of the play, and possibly his entire life. It’s the constant build up of little tiffs and disagreements between the two brothers throughout the play that have snowballed into one final fit of rage from a lifetime of unresolved envy and pride between the two.
The not so crucial cogs in the play are lust, gluttony, and sloth. Lust makes an appearance in scene eight. At this point, Lee and Austin have abandoned their respective scripts and have resorted to heavy drinking. Seemingly out of nowhere, Lee asks Austin if it’s “too late to call a woman” and assures Austin that he’s only “talkin’ about temporary [women]” (53). After a brief and fruitless conversation with an operator in an attempt to find a vaguely familiar girl in another vaguely remembered town, Lee rips the phone of the wall and sits back in his chair. This is a classic example of aggression spawned from ungratified lust.
Next is sloth embodied in their mother’s houseplants. In only the fifth line in the play, Lee asks Austin if he’s “keepin’ the plants watered,” and they aren’t mentioned after that until the stage direction for scene eight notes that “all of their mother’s house plants are dead and drooping” (7, 51). The only other cameo they make in the play is when Lee and Austin’s mother returns from her trip to Alaska early because she “started missing all [her] plants” and then comments that they’re “just one less thing to take care of” when she realizes that the plants are all dead (65). This is a prime illustration of sloth (opposing diligence). The men didn’t have the discipline or focus to take care of one simple task; they didn’t do one thing their mother asked of them while she was gone. And her indifferent reaction to the untimely death reflects the apathy many feel have strangled the very throat of humanity in American culture. Perhaps Shepard used the plants to show how much day-to-day work is required to keep a family alive, and the void of effort and enthusiasm to do so that seems to be seen more often the not in the American home.
Finally, gluttony (offsetting temperance) is found at the beginning of scene eight, the second-to-last scene. Gluttony is the silent virus that courses through the veins of Austin and Lee at this point, fueled by the alcohol they freely consume. Though both appear somewhat conservative and calm at the beginning of the play, they have slowly but surely reached a point of excess. The stage direction sets up the entire scene stating that “both men are drunk, empty whisky bottles and beer cans litter floor of kitchen” (51). This is where hypothetical thoughts of contempt and retaliation, birthed from unnoticeable neglect of all morality at the beginning of the play, begin to turn actual physical assault. Gluttony suggests apathy for one’s own body and mind. And the gluttonous abuse of alcohol acts as a catalyst for the fire that explodes between the two brothers in the last scene. What gives these last two scenes such an ominous feel is the reality that two brothers, so isolated and so inebriated, could actually reach the point of one nearly or entirely killing the other. The last two scenes really aren’t so far fetched.
The seven deadly sins do not dictate the actions of society day to day. They are not based on any solid scripture in the Bible either, but are loosely based on biblical truths. The seven sins and virtues were merely created as a guideline for sinners in the Christian faith. They work so well to point out the flaws of the two men in Shepard’s True West that one may wonder how coincidental these similarities actually were on Shepard’s part. When experiencing this play, it is important to note the gradual progression of Lee and Austin’s attitudes toward each other. They grow from two brothers almost playfully biting at each other’s heels to an accumulation of rivalry and disdain that was always molten just below the surface. Eruption occurred after both brothers neglected to solve the problems when each of the signs was initially seen. Both brothers, like many of the men and women that run this society, begin with good intentions, but fail to achieve any tangible goals because they neglect to think of the consequences of each action, and what one consequences will lead to from the other. Whether Shepard attempted to write a satire on society, the conflict between brothers, or even just the frailty of the American way of life, he surely succeeded to write a play that makes the audience check their own lives.