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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The American Dream

Where the Suburbs and the Old West Meet

by Sarah Slight, Dramaturg for True West

1980 was this tipping point in culture. America was moving from Carter to Reagan, community to individual, even jock to nerd. Urbanization was at an all-time peak and credit and spending soon would be too—the fashion industry is booming from high to low, leading to the building of many a strip mall. It is the beginning of urban sprawl, the decimation of open space.

Between 1960 and 1990 the major metropolitan areas of the United States grew at an average of 44 percent. Smaller cities more than doubled in size (those at 50,000 to 100,000; 100,000 to 250,000 etc.) “But the most striking revelation of recent population trends is the extent to which we are moving to the fringes of our metropolitan regions” (Once There Were Green Fields by F. Kaid Benfield, Matthew D. Raimi, and Donald D. T. Chen). True West takes place at the advent of this phase. “Starting in 1980 suburban population has grown a staggering ten times faster than central-city population in our largest metro areas.”

Suburbs formed at the start because they could. As the car grew in popularity, people could live further and further away from their jobs. As people move out of town for the “idyllic suburban lifestyle,” so do businesses—shopping malls, movie theatres, restaurants—and industry. Soon, people can live and play in the suburbs and only go to the city for work. Austin lives pretty far north of L.A. but is an aspiring screenwriter. Even when he needs to get to L.A., he stays at his mother’s house in the suburbs. He seems to be on his way to achieving this ideal suburban life.

A graph in Once There Were Green Fields shows percentages of growth in population and land area covered from 1970-1990. Los Angeles leads the group (which includes Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Seattle and L.A.) at 45 percent population and 300 percent developed land area growth. Three-fourths of the population and 89 percent of land considered part of L.A. lies outside the central city. By 2000, L.A. alone occupies space the size of Connecticut. Now, the west coast, from San Diego to San Francisco threatens to become a megalopolis, a phenomenon yet to be seen (though the area from Washington, D.C. to Boston is also close) in which big cities expand far enough and become so populated that they merge together, forming one giant city.

In 1980 the desert is the space into which these L.A. suburbs are expanding. Lee says he’s been living out in the desert, meaning the Mojave, which occupies a large area in southern California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. While the Mojave does have several large cities within it, Las Vegas being the most populated, and some small towns, like Needles which currently has a population of about 5,300, up 1,200 from 1980, it is also home to several ghost towns, old mining and frontier towns that have been abandoned. Many of them lie along the old Route 66. This specific urban decay in the Western United States began as early as the 1920’s and continued through the 1980’s.

In some ways, these ghost towns represent what is left of the ideal American West, in which cowboys roamed the land free from all societal constraints. The American West once existed as a myth; it was an ideal place where anyone could go claim land for themselves and, with hard work and determination, live off of it. Like jazz and baseball, the western movie genre is something genuinely American, whose purpose was to perpetuate that myth of the West. “Westerns are the major defining genre of the American film industry, a nostaligic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier (the borderline between civilization and the wilderness). They are one of the oldest, most enduring and flexible genres, and one of the most characteristically American genres in their mythic origins” (AMC’s genre articles, Westerns).

The idea that the American West ever existed as a free and open space where any American could take a piece of land and live off of it is a myth. “John Wayne wouldn't have been a cowboy, rather he'd be a lawyer or a land surveyor” (Debunking the Myth of the American West, lesson plans by Dina Secchiaroli).Land surveyors went west to divide it up, creating boundaries that they then expected everyone, including the natives, to respect. The people that worked on this newly divided up land were rarely as independent and free as we tend to think; most depended on government funding to help run their farms and ranches.

The suburbs represent freedom in the same way, as a myth that once you live outside the city in a wholesome neighborhood yet work successfully within the city, you are living the American Dream. What both the West and suburbs represent exists as part of the American psyche rather than an achievable ideal. They represent a freedom and success that is unattainable. In True West, Shepard seems to simultaneously mourn the loss of the American West and expose it for the myth it is, while at the same time showing us how the suburbs have created a new, yet similar, myth as they physically take up more and more space.

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