Friday, 25 October 2013

The Authentic West by Phillip Breen

Director of True West, Phillip Breen shares his insights on Sam Shepard, a Cowboy President and the writing of Paris, Texas in his latest blog on True West

Saul: It has the ring of truth Austin.
Austin: (Laughs) Truth?
Saul: Something about the real West.
Austin: Why? Because its got horses? Because its got grown men acting like little boys?
Saul: Nobody's interested in love these days, Austin. Let's face it.
Director Phillip Breen In Rehearsal for True West Photo: Tim Morozzo
True West was written by Sam Shepard in 1980. That year America was going through an identity crisis. Despite its position as a military super-power America seemed for the first time impotent, cautious, inhibited on the world stage. America was in the process of questioning its moral authority to act. It seemed somehow appropriate that in 1980 America turned to a President, Ronald Reagan who used to pretend to be a cowboy for a living (he even referred to the job as "the role of a lifetime"). This President self-consciously used the image of the Wild West in his election campaign in an attempt to restore America's optimism and its self-confidence. 
Ronald Reagan 1980 Presidential Campaign Poster

The Western has long been America’s mode of collective self expression - its the story it likes to tell of itself. The western hero is the apogee of American manliness. In a tough, hostile territory, the American male is self-reliant, macho, heterosexual, plain speaking, he works hard for his family and protects them from mortal danger with deadly force, he's courteous but tough, he's just, and won't rest until justice is served. This is a world of good guys and bad guys, a world where good men sometimes have to do bad things to stop the bad guys – morality is simple. In the Western we see a singular vision of American freedom, free from the oppression of the state, free from kings and despots in old Europe. This was the story America liked to tell itself, and the Western film the forum in which America explored its deepest wishes and fears.  
             By the late 1970s a new generation of artists weaned on the Western were starting to question their role in airbrushing a history which to their mind had seen the genocide of the native people of America, which had seen American consumerism lay waste to the environment, and its militarism kill the flower of its youth in its macho assertion of American power in the world. It saw the absurdity of the American depiction of heroism in the western, the lionising of the individualistic, simple minded killer. This generation of artists had seen how the fictions of 'The West' had allowed America to sleepwalk to the creation of a society of exploitative individualism, it encouraged America to perceive threat in every human interaction, and to live in fear of its neighbours. To artists such as Sam Shepard, by 1980 the gap between the myth and the 'reality' of America was a subject of profound importance.
Sam Shepard - incredibly handsome


Shepard himself had begun to sketch out an idea for a film script which was to become his and Wim Wenders 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas. In his vision of the West a vagrant wearing a tattered business suit wanders aimlessly through a landscape of desert junkyards, of barbed wire fences and rotting advertising hoardings. This was a subtle but brilliant inversion of the classic opening of the Western, where a lone hero strides purposefully through majestic landscape, knowing his destination, in order to save a life. Harry Dean Stanton's Travis does save a life, but the moral impact of the act is ambiguous. But most crucially Shepard's American wilderness rather than being physical is spiritual, internal; psychological. 
Paris, Texas poster 

          In the film's brilliant conclusion Travis says that "he wished he were far away lost in a deep vast country where no-one knew him somewhere without language, streets and he dreamed about this place without knowing its name". He went there in search of himself. For Shepard the vast mysterious plains of the American West were far from the hostile terrain of the earlier Westerns, but the place where America might once more get back in touch with its essential self. Perhaps by reconnecting with the land, and its ancient history and indigenous culture, America could once more find out who it really was. Shepard had perceived that Americans had retreated from their majestic surroundings in to small houses, in to offices, in front of type writers - staring in to television sets. As Austin says in scene 7 of True West "You're right about the lights Lee, everybody is living the life. Indoors. Safe. This is a paradise down here. You know that? We're living in a paradise down here. We've forgotten about that". It's an impulse that wouldn't have been unfamiliar to Wordsworth, Coleridge and Eliot as they watched the straight lines of fences and ownership scar the rugged beauty of the English countryside in the early 19th century.
Eugene O' Hare (Austin) in rehearsal Photo: Tim Morozzo
But Shepard doubted his film. He was being paid a great deal of money to write it, but he couldn't***. This writer's block, this conflict between his imagination and his craft, between the natural man and the social man, this desire to reconnect with the land, this portrait of lost American men searching for their fathers, became the core dramatic tensions of a theatre script that became True West. One can just hear the conversations with potential producers of Paris, Texas and Shepard's own self doubt in some of True West's most blistering dialogue: "No-one's interested in love these days", "Two lame brains chasin' each other across Texas! Are you kidding? Who do you think's going to see a film like that?", "In this business we make movies. American Movies. Leave the films to the French".

There are many motifs of the classic western contained within the action of True West. The standoffs, the loneliness of life on the road, the showdown at dawn, the double cross, the mindless violence and destruction; and the saving of a life. It is in the struggle of the composition of his own unique meditation on the Western film that Shepard wrote his most searching theatrical account of the interior wilderness of the American soul.
But as we will explore in future posts we will see how this play has much to say to an age where the authorship of the self is the most lucrative business on the planet, an age in which we are almost pathologically obsessed with authenticity.

I'm now off to eat my maldon sea salt and balsamic vinegar crisps and drink my latte made with organic milk and fair trade Peruvian coffee. Real coffee. From the bean.

Eugene O'Hare, Barbara Rafferty, Alex Ferns in rehearsal Photo: Tim Morozzo

True West plays at the Citizens Theatre Tue 29 Oct – Sat 16 Nov

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