Shepard’s Challenge to the Modernist Myths of Origin and Originality: Angel City and True West

  • Sheila Rabillard


When ‘Picasso’ enters the dialogue of True West the audience is perhaps as startled by this apparent example of staring irrelevance as the two auditors on stage. The mother of Austin and Lee has just returned unexpectedly from her vacation trip to Alaska because, she says, she started missing all her plants. She discovers her kitchen a shambles and mysteriously full of toasters. Her son, Austin, who was supposedly minding the house while he wrote a screenplay in solitude, is taking dictation at his typewriter from his shirtless and beer-soaked ne’er-do-well brother Lee who, she is informed, has improbably sold his own story idea to a producer. The solid citizen Austin announces his intention of scavenging a living with Lee in the desert — not the desert where his derelict father subsists, but another one. And the beloved plants are dead of neglect. At this final discovery Mom remarks, ‘Oh well, one less thing to take care of I guess, (turns toward the brothers) Oh, that reminds me — You boys will probably never guess who’s in town. Try and guess’ (54). Peculiar as this shift of topic may be, ‘Picasso’ isn’t a minor digression merely illustrative of Mom’s mild dottiness. I take him as the point of departure for this paper because Picasso seems to me to serve as a lightly sketched but telling contrast for the challenges to modernist myths of authorial originality presented by True West.


Modern Artist Discursive Construction Vacation Trip Realist Drama Realist Premise 
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    Sam Shepard, True West in Sam Shepard: Seven Plays (New York: Bantam, 1981), pp. 54–55. All quotations are from this edition; page numbers are given in the text.Google Scholar
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    Rosalind Krauss, for one, presents a compelling argument against reading Picasso’s collages as examples of the modernist tendency to objectify the constituents of a medium and make these the formal origins of the object of vision; see her essay ‘In the Name of Picasso’, in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), pp. 23–41.Google Scholar
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    Suggesting that Picasso’s name evokes (even if perhaps undeservedly) a popular paradigm of modernism and its attendant myths of origin risks the censure of a number of critics who have justifiably protested against facile categorizations of modernism and whatever might be considered post-, subsequent, or opposed to it. Among the warnings, Susan Suleiman’s is perhaps most helpful in reminding us that ‘modernism’ conceived of as singular, canonical, and something against which to rebel, is for the most part Anglo-American and largely the product of academic influence. ‘It is only in the Anglo-American context that literary Modernism came to be seen as a solidified, monolithic tradition against which reactions or “renovations” needed to be played off’. Suleiman, ‘Naming and Difference’, in Approaching Postmodernism, ed. Douwe Fokkema and Hans Bertens (Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1986), p. 265.Google Scholar
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1993

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  • Sheila Rabillard

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