The Authorship of the Self by Phillip Breen

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014 by Tricycle

'True West' Citizens Theatre  Photo by Pete Le May

Today we welcome Phillip Breen, the director of True West, to the Tricycle blog. Phil gives us his insight into Sam Shepard’s ‘Great American Play’.


Austin: There’s nothin’ real down here, Lee! Least of all me.
Lee: Well I can’t save you from that.
The authorship of the self is the biggest business on the planet.

Facebook homepages and Twitter profiles communicate to the world who we think we are. Is this an example of people sharing their thought-through integral selves with one another? Or evidence that in a digital age, as our virtual networks supercede our immediate geographical ones, we have never been less sure about who we are; and the extraordinary energy expended on daily acts of digital self-definition desperate attempts to find out?
I’m not sure I organically know who I am. I guess if I did I wouldn’t need pictures of posters of previous shows, books, trinkets, old tickets to football matches and other fragments of memories all over my walls. I wouldn’t carry photographs of my loved ones on my phone, I wouldn’t tell so many God damn stories about myself to people. Surely if we take away all that, the stories and the photos and whatnot; what will be left will be the ‘real’ me. The ‘true’ self. Yes? Perhaps beyond the ‘fictions’ that that shape our ‘reality’, there is nothing. An abyss. An unknowable and untamable self.
At the opening of True West, Austin, bespectacled, sits at a type-writer with piles of paper nearby, steam rising from a freshly poured cup of black coffee and a cigarette burning in an ashtray. It’s night. He looks like a writer. He acts like a writer. So he must be a writer, yes? Lee standing on the other side of the stage looks like a drunken hobo – so he must be a drunken hobo. We learn instantly that they’re brothers. One all self definition, the other elusive, ambiguous, contradictory.
Much is written about True West as The Great American Play. Lee and Austin representing the schism in the psyche of the American male, between urban sophistication, society, money and the wild frontier spirit; nature. That Lee and Austin (L and A, LA) are the dialectic at the heart of American culture, the struggle that gave birth to the Western. While all that may be true, I am not American.

For me this dramatic poem has a lot to say to an age obsessed with the idea of authenticity, but somehow unable to be authentic. ‘What does it mean to male these days?’, I ask myself. I type this listening to Mumford and Sons, after finishing my Maldon sea salt and balsamic vinegar crisps, my dry cured organic Wiltshire Ham and Wensleydale on freshly baked focaccia, washed down with fair-trade Peruvian Coffee. Real Coffee. From the bean.

Photo by Pete Le May  Photo by Pete Le May

Actors Eugene O’Hare (left) as Austin and Alex Ferns (right) as Lee

Sam Shepard’s written a Western. A man turns up out of the blue, a life is saved, there’s a double cross, a showdown and lots and lots of violence. But the bleak, harsh, unknowable wilderness is in the souls of two boys coming to terms with their father’s mysterious abandonment of them. When the boys ‘realities’ are destroyed, when they understand their father is unknowable and unsavable, and they stare the wilderness square in the maw – they desperately attempt to recover something of who they are. They do this by connecting with the land,  their past, to each other – they are hopeless at being each other. They contrive to render their domestic situation literally and figuratively absurd.

Beyond the flimsy fictions that shape our subjective reality, they ask, “who are we?”. It’s important that they want to know. They seem to understand that the greatest tragedy, as Kirkegaard tells us, is “to lose oneself”.

The knotty opposites that play out in True West – craft / inspiration, male female, mind / body, chaos / order, thinking / instinct, reality / fantasy, urban / rural, rich / poor say much about contemporary American life. But it’s in exploring the penumbra between all of them that Shepard offers us a play that is universal with much to say about life in 2014. A reminder that among all the noisy self definition, the quiet, wounded, anxious, delicate human soul can never be wholly known.

True West plays at the Tricycle Theatre from 4 September – 4 October. Click here to watch the trailer, for more information and to book. #TrueWest

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