SamShepard and Patricia Highsmith both explore the theme of Identity in ‘TrueWest’ and ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley.
‘ ‘True West’ is a play that recounts therivalry of two brothers, Austin, an accomplished writer, and Lee, anuncivilized social misfit. In their heated conflicts, both have an Identitycrisis’ and begin to swap characteristics. ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ is apsychological novel describing the dark deeds the protagonist/antagonist TomRipley commits to steal the Identity of another man, Dickie Greenleaf. Thepublication of this book in 1955 would have captured attention as it was one ofthe first crime novels to reject the conventions of mainstream crime fictionlike those of Sherlock Holmes in the early-twentieth century.SF1 Ripley is built up on the trends of film noir and the literacy movementexistentialism to create his famous criminal protagonist character. Shepard conveysthe theme of Identity by illustrating in-depth character descriptions and usesspecific literacy tools like the motif of ‘the old man’, and the symbolism ofthe ‘house plants’. Similarly, Highsmith advocates this theme by emphasizingRipley’s transformation physically and mentally and by developing the theme ofreality/unreality, which appears in both of the texts as the main charactersstruggle to find who they truly are.
This is enhanced as both authors analysisthe 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 thecracks and negativities of it instead of glamorising it.SF2 Shepardpresents a dramatic shift in characteristics and physical appearances of thebrothers as they swap identities and implies the idea that they become oneperson. From the beginning they are polar opposites, Austin a responsiblewriter and Lee, an anti-social thief who strides in violence and alcoholism.The stage directions depict their divergent appearances, they depict Austinwearing ‘cleanblue 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, heloses the connection with his concept of self.SF4 As he realises his intellect and gift for writing won’t be enough to achievehis dreams, he suffers an identity crisis.
By repeating the personal pronoun “I” he’sclasping onto his old sense of himself and believes “there’s nothin’ real downhere…
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 “maybehe oughta’ go out and try his hand at Lee’s trade, since Lee’s doing sogood at his5”.Physically he changes as he becomes ‘sprawled out on kitchen floor with whiskeybottle, drunk6,’ the word’sprawled’ depicts something childlike and careless portraying his transfiguredappearance to the audience.
Lee changes and attempts to be industrious, at thestart 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, herejects his desert-rat identity and begins to seize a new one, stating “I’m ascreenwriter now! I’m legitimate.7” The word’legitimate’ connotes to something lawful and statutory demonstrating thecharacter exchange and development.SF6 Shepardintroduces the concept of merging characters into one. However, many criticsdisagree like Maurice Bassan who believe the “Brothers Lee and Austin constitute twodialectically opposed aspects of an American Self, Westerner and Easterner8″SF7 and they don’t intertwine at all. But there are indications of themtransitioning into one-another like when Austin says “Saul thinks we are thesame person9,”revealing that even though they seemed different, the two increasingly entwinedinto one. Inthe production starring Hoffman and John C.
Reilly they emphasised the brothersbeing one half of a whole person by switching roles for different performancesand asked the Tony awards committee to consider them as one actor.SF8 This surfaces analogies with Highsmith’s novel as she transfigures thecharacter of Ripley, and as Anthony Minghella says he ‘rebirths as a completely new person10,’ illustrating a thrilling transfer ofcharacteristics by adapting Tom’s physical appearance to Dickie.SF9 Tom states that it ‘seemed to him that he was looking in a mirror when helooked at Dickie’s leg11’ andpoints out they have the ‘same height and…weight12’indicating his urges for a new identity.
Furthermore, in both the novel andplay there is a significant identity struggle and exchange between the maincharacters, although in ‘True West’ Austin and Lee don’t combat with theirphysical identities as much. Highsmithpresents a dramatic identity shift within the main protagonist/antagonist Tomand emphasises this by using the theme of reality and unreality. Tom has anunusual concept of reality, he believes New York is ‘putting on a show just forhim13,’implying an atmosphere of unreality and narcissism. This is ironic because he himself beginsto play an insincere character, pretending to be someone who he’s not, ‘agentleman14’ with class and wealth. SF10 The only truth he presents in New York iswhen he tells Mr Greenfield about his Aunt Dottie.
Her character is the catalyst in Tom’slife of crime and deception, similarly in ‘True West’ Saul Kimmer can be seento be the catalyst which sparks the heated conflict between the brothers.SF11 When Tom was an adolescent she tauntedhim calling him a ‘sissy just like his father15,’this humiliation is a formative influence on his character and he recalls thisjust before he murders Dickie showing she’s one of the causes to his irrationaltemperament. WhenHighsmith was 12 she also unhappily lived with her grandmother for a year anddescribed it as the “saddest year of her life” as she felt “abandoned” by hermother, indicating an influence on the story of Aunt Dottie.SF12 When Tom consumes Dickie’s identitythere is a sense of reality as he isn’t acting anymore he really is wealthy,successful and socially respected. However, there is still un underlyingfeeling of incorporeality as he’s still a pathological liar and believes ‘hisstories as they were good because he imagined them intensely, so intenselythat he came to believe them.16’ Hisskills of deception and psychopathic nature are highlighted as he’s able to trickthe police and his victim’s friends and family that he’s innocent. Many criticspraise the character of Ripley, like Roger Ebert who describes him as ‘a criminal ofintelligence and cunning who gets away with murder.17’InAnthony Minghella’s movie version he uses mirrors and reflections throughout toillustrate the theme of identity, which creates a constant reality check ashe’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 andunreality emphasises the malleable nature of identity. Tom is able to live ashimself, then exchange physically and mentally to Dickie and then resume to hisoriginal persona but with more superiority and wealth. These transformations happen due to Tom’smanipulation 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’ andsymbolism of the ‘house plants19’, both ofwhich portray the theme of transformation. As the key motif in the play is theirfather it creates irony as he’s offstage for the entire play and is ubiquitousin the brother’s lives. However, he’s a fundamental character which models theadjustment and independence in each of Austin’s and Lee’s charactersSF15 .
This idea elaborated from Shepard’s own childhoodas he lived within a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father who was anarmy officer in WWII so he would have been absent in significant points inShepard’s upbringingSF16 . His personal life provides theconflicted themes in his writing as well as the preoccupation with the idea ofthe vanishing West. As the brothers are searching for theirtrue identities ‘the old man’ plays a part particularly within Lee of being aninspiration for him not to conform to society but to live a free life, which hedoes, stating at the ending of the play he’s ‘clearin’ outa’ here once and forall.20′ Shepardrenders 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 expectedsystematic structure of the community. From the outset one of the first thingsLee asks is if Austin’s ‘keepin’ the plants watered21’suggesting they symbolise the normalcy of everyday suburban life. His mothergives him one task, to water the plants, which suggests he’s fixed in theconventional idea which he feels he must conform to.
Towards the end the plantsare forgotten and become ‘dead and drooping22’indicating the suburban image is demolished but also infers that Austin isbursting out from the metaphorical barrier that has been built up throughouthis life due to society. He breaks free from that image to discover his trueself. The killing of the houseplants and the thematic component of ‘the oldman’ represented their influences of directing the boys to their trueidentities. Bothtexts explore the animalistic side of human nature and study the untamedtemperament 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 hemurders two people. He isn’t able to control his animal instincts of attackinghis prey and in a crazy motion of hate kills. However, many critics like SamJordison acclaimed Ripley as being “both a likable character and acold-blooded killer.23” Inthe play he’s presented as a likeable character as the vicious animal-side ofhim is toned down and the murder of Dickie seems more of an outburst ofemotions, there is a shot of him lying distraught with the dead corpseillustrating Tom’s bewildered mind. However, many critics like Charles L.Pbelieve these disturbing outbursts help depict Tom as a “cultivated anddapper sociopath24” withdeep psychological issues.
This central idea of violence and irrationalityfocusses on Highsmith’s aim to display the worst aspect of human conditionsuggesting a violent, animal-like nature lies below the surface of all humanbeings, waiting for certain circumstances to crack the shell of a persona andreveal the horror underneath. Highsmith’s endured cycles of despondencythroughout her life, David Diamond in 1943 described her as a “depressed person25,” whichsuggests these darker themes may have flourished from this. Shepard takes on adifferent approach, as he uses animal-like qualities to describe Lee andAustin’s double sided nature rather than portraying them as cold heartedmurderers. He continuously presents the ‘coyotes26’throughout, they lurk in the background and can be heard ‘yapping27’ whichgives of an imminent feeling of doom throughout. As the brothers start totransform and descend into turmoil, the coyotes depict their characters asbecoming more animalistic. This recurring imagery symbolizes the animal in allof us; which is the message Shepard portrays, that we all have a beastly sideto our characteristics.
In Addition, Shepard’s constant references to animalscould be influenced by his studies in animal husbandry in 1961. As the tensionbetween the brothers exceeds the audience sees more animal-like qualities asLee ‘begins to circle Austin in a slow, predatory way28.’At the end of the play the stage directions state ‘a single coyote heard in thedistance29.’ As thecoyotes symbolize the two brothers and now there is only one it indicates thatthey’re merely animals now and more significantly they are the same singleanimal, therefore they have become one. A dark atmosphere appears as thebrother’s identities have been stripped away and their entire existence isconsumed by the desires of an American Dream. In addition, in an interview in1980 with Robert Coe, Shepard said he “wanted to write a play about doublenature… and wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided as hebelieved it’s a real thing and thought that we’re split in a much moredevastating way than psychology can ever reveal.
. .. It’s something we’ve gotto live with30.’ Finally,in both ‘True West’ and ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ both the main charactersstruggle 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 toany American, allowing the highest goals to be reached.
In the 1980’s whenShepard wrote his play the American Dream was focused on having fun, freedomand wealth. However, during the 1950s when ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ was writtenit was one of the most prosperous economic times in American history, peoplewere focusing more on futurism and opportunity which had come from the post warresilience. This influenced Highsmith to make this a prominent theme andemphasises Tom’s urges for the ‘best life’. Ebert, Roger states “Ripleybelieves that getting his own way is worth whatever price anyone else mighthave to pay, and we all have a little of that in us31,”emphasising the ‘American Dream’ everyone carries subconsciously. Ripley isisolated from his society in New York and the only way he can achieve anythingis by being a fraud, as he’s an outsider he has strong desires for an AmericanDream which stems from his grudge and dissatisfaction towards his low status insociety.
Similarly, Shepard portrays the character of Lee as wanting anAmerican Dream as when he sees an opportunity for respectability by Kimmer, hefights for what he disdained most of his life: a comfortable, middle-classlife. However, Sam Shepard decides to reverse this urge and shows Austin’s truecravings for the old west. He does this by constructing the setting just on theoutskirts of the desert, and as the ‘desert’ represents the old westernAmerican dream it symbolises a free life where a man could create a newidentity. It’s made clear where they are located throughout so it creates asense of longing and urges Austin to want a new existence.
For Lee the idea of an American Dream wasmainly caused by Saul and therefore he can be seen to be a catalyst in hisidentity transformation as he sparks his true desires and also does this toAustin. His character represents the negative aspects of Hollywood. By the1980s Shepherd was a successful actor and screenwriter with many of his worksin Hollywood, and many critics like Cengage Gale think “Shepard’s experience inthe movie industry made him cynical ..
. about what Hollywood represents32″,evidently by displaying Kimmer negatively. Inconclusion Sam Shepard and Patricia Highsmith both intensely explore the themeof Identity throughout ‘True West’ and ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ by emphasizingthe dramatic developments in the main character’s personality and physicalappearances. In ‘True West’ the symbolism and motifs of ‘the old man’ and the’houseplants’ are significant in illustrating this theme.
Both the novel andplay are so different as one describes the events of a psychopathic “monster33” whocommits two murders to get what he desires and the other depicts the events oftwo polar opposite brothers fighting for success. However, the significantsimilarities are hidden deeper, the main causation for the conflicts in bothare 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, whichfinally fractures revealing the animalistic duality of them suggesting allhuman being possess this side to their identity. Word Count with Quotes: 2653Word Count without Quotes: 2245