Sam Shepard, True West, and the Eblana

Credit: Relativity Media (A.F. Archive)

The death of the playwright Sam Shepard represents a huge loss to American theatre. Some of his best work shows a gift for exposing patterns of connection and disconnection in family and personal relationships, registered in moments of loss, violence and even lyricism. True West (1980) demonstrates the – at times – comic potential of these conflicts. The play tells the story of two brothers, one making a living as a screenwriter (Austin), the other (Lee) a drifter and thief, who come together in their mother’s house outside Los Angeles while she is off in Alaska. Lee spontaneously pitches a script idea to his brother’s producer when he comes by for a meeting, and the question becomes whether Lee has the ability to pull it off himself when he gets a commission or will lean on his brother to do it for him.

The play had a Dublin production in 1983 at the Eblana Theatre in the basement of Busáras which I was fortunate to see. The production resulted in a forgotten moment of Irish theatre history, unique to the circumstances of the Eblana. After a chaotic night of struggle between the brothers, they recommence their collaboration, with Austin pen in hand as his brother attempts to spit out the story. At one point, Lee struggles for a word: “What do you call that, something that has been said a thousand times before? Now what do you call that?” The Eblana, situated on a concourse that also contained the bus station bathrooms, occasionally experienced incidents when a visitor would end up backstage looking for the toilet. As The Irish Times reported,[1] during one night of the run of True West, a tourist with a backpack actually showed up on stage at the very moment Lee asks his question and promptly replied, “A cliché,” before heading off for the loo.

The play has a sufficiently peculiar feel that it might well have seemed part of the script. After all, the mother appears in due course with her suitcases, fresh from her Alaskan sojourn. Who knows if Sam Shepard ever got wind of the story. The dislocated scenario might well have appealed to him.


[1] The Irish Times, 4 June 1983, p. 14.

Photo Credit: Relativity Media (A.F. Archive). Sam Shepard as ‘Red’ in ‘Out of the Furnace’, dir. Scott Cooper (2013). Used under license.

Daniel Carey

Daniel Carey, MRIA, is Director of the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Studies at NUI Galway and Professor of English in the School of Humanities. He was Chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance 2014-16.