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Sam
Shepard and Patricia Highsmith both explore the theme of Identity in ‘True
West’ and ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley.’ ‘True West’ is a play that recounts the
rivalry of two brothers, Austin, an accomplished writer, and Lee, an
uncivilized social misfit. In their heated conflicts, both have an Identity
crisis’ and begin to swap characteristics. ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ is a
psychological novel describing the dark deeds the protagonist/antagonist Tom
Ripley commits to steal the Identity of another man, Dickie Greenleaf. The
publication of this book in 1955 would have captured attention as it was one of
the first crime novels to reject the conventions of mainstream crime fiction
like those of Sherlock Holmes in the early-twentieth century.SF1 
Ripley is built up on the trends of film noir and the literacy movement
existentialism to create his famous criminal protagonist character. Shepard conveys
the theme of Identity by illustrating in-depth character descriptions and uses
specific literacy tools like the motif of ‘the old man’, and the symbolism of
the ‘house plants’. Similarly, Highsmith advocates this theme by emphasizing
Ripley’s transformation physically and mentally and by developing the theme of
reality/unreality, which appears in both of the texts as the main characters
struggle to find who they truly are. This is enhanced as both authors analysis
the duality of human nature and the animalistic side of a character. In addition,
the urge towards the American Dream is conveyed in both and also expose the
cracks and negativities of it instead of glamorising it.SF2 

 

Shepard
presents a dramatic shift in characteristics and physical appearances of the
brothers as they swap identities and implies the idea that they become one
person. From the beginning they are polar opposites, Austin a responsible
writer and Lee, an anti-social thief who strides in violence and alcoholism.

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The stage directions depict their divergent appearances, they depict Austin
wearing ‘clean
blue jeans1,’ whereas Lee wears a ‘filthy white t-shirtSF3 2.’
Austin seems more composed, confidently feeling “in charge3,”
even with Lee’s threatening behaviour. However, by scene 7 Austin is transformed, he
loses the connection with his concept of self.SF4 
As he realises his intellect and gift for writing won’t be enough to achieve
his dreams, he suffers an identity crisis. By repeating the personal pronoun “I” he’s
clasping onto his old sense of himself and believes “there’s nothin’ real down
here…Least of all me!4” showing he believes even himself isn’t
‘real,’ and that he’s a basic copy of what society has createdSF5 .

By losing his sense of superiority he adapts Lee’s identity, stating “maybe
he oughta’ go out and try his hand at Lee’s trade, since Lee’s doing so
good at his5”.

Physically he changes as he becomes ‘sprawled out on kitchen floor with whiskey
bottle, drunk6,’ the word
‘sprawled’ depicts something childlike and careless portraying his transfigured
appearance to the audience. Lee changes and attempts to be industrious, at the
start he’s defensive of his nomad image but also defines his sense of self,
however, after Kimmer tempts him with the chance of becoming sophisticated, he
rejects his desert-rat identity and begins to seize a new one, stating “I’m a
screenwriter now! I’m legitimate.7” The word
‘legitimate’ connotes to something lawful and statutory demonstrating the
character exchange and development.SF6 

 

Shepard
introduces the concept of merging characters into one. However, many critics
disagree like Maurice Bassan who believe the “Brothers Lee and Austin constitute two
dialectically opposed aspects of an American Self, Westerner and Easterner8″SF7 
and they don’t intertwine at all. But there are indications of them
transitioning into one-another like when Austin says “Saul thinks we are the
same person9,”
revealing that even though they seemed different, the two increasingly entwined
into one. In
the production starring Hoffman and John C. Reilly they emphasised the brothers
being one half of a whole person by switching roles for different performances
and asked the Tony awards committee to consider them as one actor.SF8 
This surfaces analogies with Highsmith’s novel as she transfigures the
character of Ripley, and as Anthony Minghella says he ‘rebirths as a completely new person10,’ illustrating a thrilling transfer of
characteristics by adapting Tom’s physical appearance to Dickie.SF9 
Tom states that it ‘seemed to him that he was looking in a mirror when he
looked at Dickie’s leg11’ and
points out they have the ‘same height and…weight12’
indicating his urges for a new identity. Furthermore, in both the novel and
play there is a significant identity struggle and exchange between the main
characters, although in ‘True West’ Austin and Lee don’t combat with their
physical identities as much.

 

Highsmith
presents a dramatic identity shift within the main protagonist/antagonist Tom
and emphasises this by using the theme of reality and unreality. Tom has an
unusual concept of reality, he believes New York is ‘putting on a show just for
him13,’
implying an atmosphere of unreality and narcissism. This is ironic because he himself begins
to play an insincere character, pretending to be someone who he’s not, ‘a
gentleman14’ with class and wealth. SF10 The only truth he presents in New York is
when he tells Mr Greenfield about his Aunt Dottie. Her character is the catalyst in Tom’s
life of crime and deception, similarly in ‘True West’ Saul Kimmer can be seen
to be the catalyst which sparks the heated conflict between the brothers.SF11  When Tom was an adolescent she taunted
him calling him a ‘sissy just like his father15,’
this humiliation is a formative influence on his character and he recalls this
just before he murders Dickie showing she’s one of the causes to his irrational
temperament. When
Highsmith was 12 she also unhappily lived with her grandmother for a year and
described it as the “saddest year of her life” as she felt “abandoned” by her
mother, indicating an influence on the story of Aunt Dottie.SF12  When Tom consumes Dickie’s identity
there is a sense of reality as he isn’t acting anymore he really is wealthy,
successful and socially respected. However, there is still un underlying
feeling of incorporeality as he’s still a pathological liar and believes ‘his
stories as they were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely
that he came to believe them.16’ His
skills of deception and psychopathic nature are highlighted as he’s able to trick
the police and his victim’s friends and family that he’s innocent. Many critics
praise the character of Ripley, like Roger Ebert who describes him as ‘a criminal of
intelligence and cunning who gets away with murder.17’
In
Anthony Minghella’s movie version he uses mirrors and reflections throughout to
illustrate the theme of identity, which creates a constant reality check as
he’s appalled by the sight of his true self. At one point the mirrors smash,
ironically during the time Ripley’s identity switch is collapsing.SF13  Furthermore, the theme of reality and
unreality emphasises the malleable nature of identity. Tom is able to live as
himself, then exchange physically and mentally to Dickie and then resume to his
original persona but with more superiority and wealth. These transformations happen due to Tom’s
manipulation of what society defines identity like handwriting, wills, passports,
and signatures, all of which are exposed as unreal.SF14 

 

In
‘True West’ there is a recurring central idea of ‘the old man18’ and
symbolism of the ‘house plants19’, both of
which portray the theme of transformation. As the key motif in the play is their
father it creates irony as he’s offstage for the entire play and is ubiquitous
in the brother’s lives. However, he’s a fundamental character which models the
adjustment and independence in each of Austin’s and Lee’s charactersSF15 . This idea elaborated from Shepard’s own childhood
as he lived within a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father who was an
army officer in WWII so he would have been absent in significant points in
Shepard’s upbringingSF16 . His personal life provides the
conflicted themes in his writing as well as the preoccupation with the idea of
the vanishing West. As the brothers are searching for their
true identities ‘the old man’ plays a part particularly within Lee of being an
inspiration for him not to conform to society but to live a free life, which he
does, stating at the ending of the play he’s ‘clearin’ outa’ here once and for
all.20′ Shepard
renders the necessity to not follow a father’s influence in other plays like
‘The Late Henry Moss’ as he describes the complex violent father-son dynamic.

Shepard uses repetitive imagery of the houseplants to signify the expected
systematic structure of the community. From the outset one of the first things
Lee asks is if Austin’s ‘keepin’ the plants watered21′
suggesting they symbolise the normalcy of everyday suburban life. His mother
gives him one task, to water the plants, which suggests he’s fixed in the
conventional idea which he feels he must conform to. Towards the end the plants
are forgotten and become ‘dead and drooping22’
indicating the suburban image is demolished but also infers that Austin is
bursting out from the metaphorical barrier that has been built up throughout
his life due to society. He breaks free from that image to discover his true
self. The killing of the houseplants and the thematic component of ‘the old
man’ represented their influences of directing the boys to their true
identities.

 

Both
texts explore the animalistic side of human nature and study the untamed
temperament that lies beneath the surface of everyone. In ‘The Talented Mr.

Ripley’, Tom is driven into violence as the beast inside him is released as he
murders two people. He isn’t able to control his animal instincts of attacking
his prey and in a crazy motion of hate kills. However, many critics like Sam
Jordison acclaimed Ripley as being “both a likable character and a
cold-blooded killer.23” In
the play he’s presented as a likeable character as the vicious animal-side of
him is toned down and the murder of Dickie seems more of an outburst of
emotions, there is a shot of him lying distraught with the dead corpse
illustrating Tom’s bewildered mind. However, many critics like Charles L.P
believe these disturbing outbursts help depict Tom as a “cultivated and
dapper sociopath24” with
deep psychological issues. This central idea of violence and irrationality
focusses on Highsmith’s aim to display the worst aspect of human condition
suggesting a violent, animal-like nature lies below the surface of all human
beings, waiting for certain circumstances to crack the shell of a persona and
reveal the horror underneath. Highsmith’s endured cycles of despondency
throughout her life, David Diamond in 1943 described her as a “depressed person25,” which
suggests these darker themes may have flourished from this. Shepard takes on a
different approach, as he uses animal-like qualities to describe Lee and
Austin’s double sided nature rather than portraying them as cold hearted
murderers. He continuously presents the ‘coyotes26’
throughout, they lurk in the background and can be heard ‘yapping27’ which
gives of an imminent feeling of doom throughout. As the brothers start to
transform and descend into turmoil, the coyotes depict their characters as
becoming more animalistic. This recurring imagery symbolizes the animal in all
of us; which is the message Shepard portrays, that we all have a beastly side
to our characteristics. In Addition, Shepard’s constant references to animals
could be influenced by his studies in animal husbandry in 1961. As the tension
between the brothers exceeds the audience sees more animal-like qualities as
Lee ‘begins to circle Austin in a slow, predatory way28.’
At the end of the play the stage directions state ‘a single coyote heard in the
distance29.’ As the
coyotes symbolize the two brothers and now there is only one it indicates that
they’re merely animals now and more significantly they are the same single
animal, therefore they have become one. A dark atmosphere appears as the
brother’s identities have been stripped away and their entire existence is
consumed by the desires of an American Dream. In addition, in an interview in
1980 with Robert Coe, Shepard said he “wanted to write a play about double
nature… and wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided as he
believed it’s a real thing and thought that we’re split in a much more
devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. . .. It’s something we’ve got
to live with30.’

 

Finally,
in both ‘True West’ and ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ both the main characters
struggle with identity and their deranged behaviour is driven by a desire of an
‘American Dream’, to gain the ideal life of equal of opportunities available to
any American, allowing the highest goals to be reached. In the 1980’s when
Shepard wrote his play the American Dream was focused on having fun, freedom
and wealth. However, during the 1950s when ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ was written
it was one of the most prosperous economic times in American history, people
were focusing more on futurism and opportunity which had come from the post war
resilience. This influenced Highsmith to make this a prominent theme and
emphasises Tom’s urges for the ‘best life’. Ebert, Roger states “Ripley
believes that getting his own way is worth whatever price anyone else might
have to pay, and we all have a little of that in us31,”
emphasising the ‘American Dream’ everyone carries subconsciously. Ripley is
isolated from his society in New York and the only way he can achieve anything
is by being a fraud, as he’s an outsider he has strong desires for an American
Dream which stems from his grudge and dissatisfaction towards his low status in
society. Similarly, Shepard portrays the character of Lee as wanting an
American Dream as when he sees an opportunity for respectability by Kimmer, he
fights for what he disdained most of his life: a comfortable, middle-class
life. However, Sam Shepard decides to reverse this urge and shows Austin’s true
cravings for the old west. He does this by constructing the setting just on the
outskirts of the desert, and as the ‘desert’ represents the old western
American dream it symbolises a free life where a man could create a new
identity. It’s made clear where they are located throughout so it creates a
sense of longing and urges Austin to want a new existence.  For Lee the idea of an American Dream was
mainly caused by Saul and therefore he can be seen to be a catalyst in his
identity transformation as he sparks his true desires and also does this to
Austin. His character represents the negative aspects of Hollywood. By the
1980s Shepherd was a successful actor and screenwriter with many of his works
in Hollywood, and many critics like Cengage Gale think “Shepard’s experience in
the movie industry made him cynical … about what Hollywood represents32”,
evidently by displaying Kimmer negatively.

 

In
conclusion Sam Shepard and Patricia Highsmith both intensely explore the theme
of Identity throughout ‘True West’ and ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ by emphasizing
the dramatic developments in the main character’s personality and physical
appearances. In ‘True West’ the symbolism and motifs of ‘the old man’ and the
‘houseplants’ are significant in illustrating this theme. Both the novel and
play are so different as one describes the events of a psychopathic “monster33” who
commits two murders to get what he desires and the other depicts the events of
two polar opposite brothers fighting for success. However, the significant
similarities are hidden deeper, the main causation for the conflicts in both
are due to side catalyst characters and the desires of the ‘American Dream.’
The main characters appear to have a built up facade made by society, which
finally fractures revealing the animalistic duality of them suggesting all
human being possess this side to their identity.

 

Word Count with Quotes: 2653

Word Count without Quotes: 2245

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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