The Art of Theatre: 18 Brothers: Nicholas Wright's Masterclass

AUSTIN is a mild-mannered young screenwriter, the kind who listens attentively in script conferences and never misses a deadline. His brother Lee is a wild original: he steals for a living, makes 'good money' out of his pit bull terrier, roams the desert. Doing what?

LEE: (pause, stares into space) I forgit. Their mother is on holiday: the fact that she's chosen Alaska lends her absence an unmaternal chill. In the kitchen of her suburban Californian bungalow, her two sons huddle together as though for warmth. Austin's there to water the plants. Lee has staged a homeward foray from the place where he really belongs: the American West. He describes this mythical territory just as - in play after play - it's evoked by Shepard himself. It's lawless, innocent and weirdly beautiful. Even the most everyday actions are shot through with flashes of transcendental insight. And it stands on the brink of corruption and loss: it's like childhood.

Austin and Lee play out the appalling childhood discovery that the person you take your baths with is not only completely different from you, but a rival, perhaps even an enemy. Anxiety enters the frame. The tough brother muses enviously on the sensitive one, and vice versa. Each longs to become the other: neither can. They're opposites, doomed to remain that way. Austin tries thieving, but all he can find to steal is a vast and useless collection of domestic toasters. Lee tries writing a screenplay - but the next time we see him, he's bashing the typewriter to bits with a golf-club like a frustrated five-year-old.

What else could he do? People like Lee don't write: they get written about by people like Austin, or Shepard himself. True West is a comedy about writing: about a playwright struggling to be as authentic as his subject. And about his subject - as subjects do - insisting on a fierce and resentful life of its own.

Every play is poised between opposites of one kind or another, the difference between them being what the play is 'about'. Sibling rivalry gives the difference an edge. And there's a technical advantage too: when the 'opposites' have so much in common - parents, background, childhood experience - what they don't have in common is thrown into sharper relief. So, in The School for Scandal, the brother everyone badmouths as a drunken layabout turns out to be a thoroughly decent sort, while the prim and studious Joseph is exposed as a hypocrite. The thematic implications are vast, as was pointed out by no less an authority than Shelley: 'I see the purpose of this comedy. It is to associate virtue with bottles and glasses, and villainy with books.'

Why so many brothers and so few sisters? Because same- sex siblings stand for opposing drives within the playwright, and most playwrights are male. For polarised sisters, see Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, April de Angelis's Hush or Wendy Kesselman's My Sister in this House.

Next week: PAUSES

SIR OLIVIER: Well, so one of my nephews is a wild rogue, eh?

SIR PETER: Wild] My old friend, I grieve for your disappointment there; he's a lost young man, indeed. However, his brother will make you amends; Joseph is indeed what a youth should be - everyone in the world speaks well of him.


by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Act 2, Scene 3

LEE: Just help me a little with the characters, all right? You know how to do it, Austin.

AUSTIN: (on floor, laughs) The characters]

LEE: Yeah. You know. The way they talk and stuff. I can hear it in my head but I can't get it down on paper.

AUSTIN: What characters?

LEE: The guys. The guys in the story.

AUSTIN: Those aren't characters.

LEE: Whatever you call 'em then. I need to write somethin' out.

AUSTIN: Those are illusions of characters.

LEE: I don't give a damn what ya' call 'em] You know what I'm

talkin' about]

AUSTIN: Those are illusions of a long lost boyhood.

TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard

Act 2, Scene 7