Sam Shepard Essay - Shepard, Sam (Vol. 4)

Shepard, Sam (Vol. 4)

Shepard, Sam 1943–

An American dramatist and screenwriter, Shepard has forged a "theatre of the mythic West" from hillbilly language, late-night TV westerns, country and western music, and legend. Shepard's plays, according to one critic, are "words and sounds, and the lost American idioms."

Operation Sidewinder would be a great deal easier to talk about if I could dismiss it, as some reviewers did, as the self-indulgence of a precocious child or if I could celebrate it as a shattering statement about contemporary America. I can do neither. Sam Shepard has fascinated me ever since I first picked up a copy of Five Plays. He has a bizarre theatrical imagination, an ability to create workable dramatic turns which preclude any desire to dismiss him. Yet his plays seem designed to forestall any cumulative effect. His early one-acters—including the admirable Red Cross—are uneasy combinations of images—verbal and visual—but even after plot invaded his work, in Melodrama Play (1966), his plays remained saltatory, effective bits popping in for quick bows without the traditional justifications of story, character or theme. At Operation Sidewinder, predictably, I was amused, intrigued, interested, occasionally bored, infrequently annoyed, but never shattered….

[The] virtues [of Operation Sidewinder] are all theatrical. There are too many moments when the conscious corn becomes self-defeating, bores in its cuteness, but for the most part it is at the service of a genuine stage imagination. The attenuation of the full-length play and the collector's quaintness in the pop gathering make the Shepard of Operation Sidewinder less interesting than the young man who wrote Red Cross. The new play can be seen with pleasure, perhaps even with self-recognition, as long as the audience understands that it is an artifact not a critique. Reduced to an ideational line it would be as sentimental as it is silly. It deserves better than that.

Gerald Weales, "The Little Shepard," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 8, 1970, pp. 193-94.

Sam Shepard works with an extraordinary freshness and humour and lightness of touch. He is one of the few living playwrights who seem to think directly in theatrical terms: most of them seem to have ideas which they then translate into drama.

Shepard's ideas are at once interesting, funny, moving and capable of organic development which is inseparable from that of the action.

Randall Craig, in Drama, Autumn, 1973, p. 39.

Laden with symbolism—both obvious and subtle—Sam Shepard's Back Bog Beast Bait creates a situation that can be understood on many levels. And it is only the author's own self-indulgence in continuing on long after his point has been made, that keeps the play from measuring up to its promise….

Much to Mr. Shepard's credit, although these people remain archetypal, they are still individuals, acting and reacting consistently within an established reality….

Back Bog Beast Bait is so near to being a significant work that it would be well worth Mr. Shepard's efforts to polish up some of the overwriting and tone down the overstatements.

Debbi Wasserman, in Show Business, January 31, 1974, p. 7.

Best known for his script work on Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, Sam Shepard has written a curious and disturbing first book in Hawk Moon: A Book of Short Stories, Poems and Monologues—full of perverse, often gratuitous bloodlust, moodiness, retribution fantasies, Indians, run-on sentences, pop mysticism, and intensely imagined fragments.

There is a sense in which, one might argue, the obsessive, extreme, arbitrary violence and necrophilia of Hawk Moon dramatizes life in our culture and is therefore somehow "right" for us….

One does not have a sense, [though,] that he is expressing any special or sophisticated aesthetic theory or attitude toward character or characterization as he works, rather that he is freaked out on media tempos and disunities and/or figures he is writing for media freaks. So, he parcels out the intense close-up, the quick cut, the precise sense of rhythm and timing (which he is very good at, by the way), the corny mysticism, or the cheap thrill of blood on the carpet….

If his intent is to take potshots at the culture, he usually fails to strike home, it seems to me, because too frequently his understanding of the culture seems simplistic, or the targets of his animosity seem so stiffly stereotyped, nothing but straw men to mow down…. We have all become "connoisseurs of anti-Americanism"; we have such a lot of it to choose from. Why rig a fictional America that is nothing but a justification for violent destruction?

If the bad guys in Hawk Moon are straw men, the good guys are monsters…. At times, the Shepard of Hawk Moon seems to have embraced the ghoulishness and sadism of media-distorted aspects of the culture he wishes to attack and rationalized it as Indian lore and the wisdom of savagery, a bizarre interpolation. If Charles Manson could write fiction, Hawk Moon is what it might look like—there is so much hate and incredible mixed up voodoo in this book.

Joe David Bellamy, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 2 (Spring, 1974), pp. 314-16.

Sam Shepard … is in the opinion of many, including myself, the most original and artistically disciplined of the Off-Off Broadway playwrights.

In his early plays like Chicago and Red Cross Shepard attracted attention by the startling way in which he juxtaposed powerful visual and verbal images producing an immediate and often disconcerting impact on the spectator's mind. He has in his more recent plays developed and refined this technique of dramatic collage and has employed it increasingly to create complex and unexpected combinations of cultural elements. In Operation Sidewinder Shepard shows a world of mad scientists and military men that recalls the film Dr. Strangelove, uses (in the first version of the play) excerpts from a speech by Stokely Carmichael, and recreates a Hopi snake ceremony. In The Unseen Hand he presents a cowboy gang styled on Western movies, confronts them with a science fiction character from another planet, and ends by introducing a "typical" all-American boy cheerleader. Finally, in … The Tooth of Crime, which describes how one rock singer and life style is replaced by another, he forges a new language by drawing on the dissimilar vocabularies and speech patterns of joke books, sportscasters, disk jockeys, rock musicians, hunters, and gangsters.

Mad Dog Blues, produced in 1971, is Shepard's third full length play, written after La Turista and Operation Sidewinder and before The Tooth of Crime. In it he again demonstrates his mastery of dramatic collage and treats many of the same themes found in his other plays—the search for innocence, the loss of identity, the tensions and fragility of human relations, and the obsessive presence of death. Mad Dog Blues differs from Shepard's other works in that the cultural elements he utilizes to develop these themes are more directly the center of interest. The play is in fact an intricate dramatization of the value and limits of popular culture, our attitudes toward it, and its effects on us….

Mad Dog Blues is clearly an American play, and only an imagination that has grown on American movies, radio shows, pulp magazines, and music could have conceived it. Shepard's presentation emphasizes this fact, for each character in his costume, language, gestures, and songs appears as the pure expression of his own image, and each, like saints in a cathedral of American popular culture, carries his identifying attributes….

Shepard's collage includes more than just the characters and costumes…. Even the sound effects are drawn from our cultural memories…. Shepard like Kerouac, a writer he admires, describes the rootlessness of American life, an existence of scattered friends, short-term affairs, and separations. Kosmo and Yahoodi [Shephard's protagonists] support each other's "inability to function," a condition which is true of most of the couples in Shepard's plays….

For the spectator the presence of all these cultural figures, images, and allusions produces a definite, if limited, comic effect—an effect that is not, however, based on anything that could accurately be called parody, satire, or camp. Compared to the plays of many of his contemporaries, and especially to the wild dramatic exercises of Tavel or Charles Ludlam, Shepard's presentation is remarkably straight. The spectator of Mad Dog Blues laughs or smiles for the simple reason that the figures he sees on stage, by their very recurrence in yet another work, reaffirm their existence as clichés. He also takes obvious delight in an imagination that is able to draw on such a variety of sources. This delight comes easily because none of the cultural allusions, despite their relative complexity, are hidden or in any way obscure. On the contrary, they are immediately recognizable, if not blatant. The problem Shepard is posing for Kosmo and for the spectator is not that of identifying images and figures already known to everyone, but of finding a way to live and to deal with them. Shepard's own technique of dealing with popular culture is the key to the play's significance. While Mad Dog Blues does have a dazzling and often slick surface that directly strikes the senses, it also forces the spectator to view the surface, so to speak, from behind, from within the imagination that conceived it. In other words, the play is at once a pop-like display and a psychodrama. Also, the surface itself is not uniform, but is broken repeatedly by the characters who momentarily step out of the plot or adventure in order to comment on it and on their own lives. In this way Shepard's collage is not just a combination of different cultural elements but also of different dramatic tones and points of view….

In his plays Shepard is in fact showing to what extent the mind, and particularly the modern American mind, can become and has become entrapped by its own verbal and imaginative creations…. The impression produced by the play is that the mind is so saturated by popular culture that almost any idea introduced into it acts as a catalyst around which an endless series of other ideas and images immediately crystallize….

Shepard has a real love for the popular myths of our culture and a genuine nostalgia for some lost age of innocence when life was simpler in America. He also knows that this world may never have existed, that even at the time things were not the way the media represented them, and that our memory and imagination may well be based on lies…. Indeed, Mad Dog Blues suggests that all America is a society of ghosts, and that modern American civilization in general has taken on the attributes of its popular culture, has become a country where nothing lasts, where people pursue visions that lead nowhere, and where all relationships are transitory. America, too, carries the taint of mortality….

It is not Shepard's purpose … to arrive at any kind of pat conclusion…. The value of Mad Dog Blues is in its ambiguity, or rather in the multiplicity of points of view it offers…. The quality of [Shepard's] performance can be judged by his ability to give a voice to the cultural confusion without succumbing to it as a playwright. There is nothing self-indulgent or contrived about his art in Mad Dog Blues. On the contrary, the play reveals his total commitment to the problems he is treating, as if he himself were attempting to discover his own identity in the cultural material inherited from the past.

Like many of his fellow playwrights Shepard knows that the old frontier myths of America's youth are no longer a valid expression of our modern anxieties, even though they continue to influence our thoughts…. [It] is clear that Shepard is searching for a new mythology that will encompass all the diverse figures of our cultural history together with the psychological and social conditions they represent…. Shepard's greatest contribution to a new American mythology may well be his elaboration of a new myth of the modern artist. Whatever judgment is finally made on his work, it is certain that in a society drifting rapidly into the escapism of a permanent, and often instant, nostalgia, Shepard's plays are a sign of artistic health and awareness, and are, therefore, worthy of our attention.

George Stambolian, "Shepard's 'Mad Dog Blues': A Trip Through Popular Culture," in Journal of Popular Culture, Spring, 1974, pp. 776-86.

[Shepard's] plays are not about America. In fact, it's hard to say what his plays are about. Sam himself says, 'I never know what to say when somebody says what are the plays about. They're about the moment of writing.' No, instead of trying to say what the plays are about, I'll simply call them American graffiti—images of America with a language pounding with the pulse beat of America. Take a play like The Tooth of Crime. Ostensibly set in the future. Yet it contains more of the feel of the modern American nightmare than any other American play written in the past few years….

Sam is Indians, cowboys, rockers and greyhounds. He is also Wakan, cars, Cody, Wyoming and the Coasters with a fullblown vet underneath. But Sam is not just these things alone. He's far too unique to be ever captured in print….

Sam is very aware of the problems involved in an art in which his vision must be transmuted and made three-dimensional through the agency of others. Like Genet, the uniqueness of this vision and the very way it is expressed confounds you. No two directors can agree on which is the best way of communicating Sam's vision, of making his words flesh. This vision has been seen, heard and felt so clearly by Sam, but its physical expression on the stage remains elusive.

Walter Donahue, in Plays and Players, April, 1974, pp. 14-18.

America is the only society that defines itself by a dream. Its stage legends and literature are cluttered with desperate dreamwalkers—men staggering through life in a state of perpetual anticipation or dazed acceptance….

Usually, these dreamwalkers don't understand their condition; and that's where Sam Shepard's newest hero, Cody, in The Geography Of A Horsedreamer … differs from his theatrical ancestors. Cody has a genius for tipping the horses, a gift which puts him, and the two thugs that guard him, for the syndicate in fat city. But then his dreaming goes stale. When the curtain comes up, Cody is manacled to a hotel bed. He's predicting old winners. Cody tries to explain the problem to his bodyguards who wait, terrified, for Cody's dreaming to pay-off. 'It's very delicate work, dreaming a winner…. It takes certain special conditions. A certain internal environment.'

Cody is talking creativity. The thugs are talking cash. They refer to him as 'Mr Sensitive', 'Mr Artistic Cowboy', 'Beethoven'. Like any voracious audience living off somebody else's energy and insight, the thugs only want the result not the process. They need Cody's winners, not his nonstarters. Uncreative themselves, their impatience is magnified by their impotence. The thugs won't let Cody out of his hotel room. He doesn't know where he is or what time of day it is. He's caged and adrift. Cody has the expatriate shivers which Shepard, now living in London, knows all too well….

No Sam Shepard play is ever naturalistic. Every freak or cowboy who takes centre stage in his fantasy life has a sharp line of hip metaphysical chat. Since Shepard's plays are meditations, his characters are often plagued by inconcreteness, leaving the actors to struggle with ideas to play rather than character. But The Geography Of A Horsedreamer, which suffers from this disease, doesn't succumb to it….

Shepard has subtitled The Geography Of A Horsedreamer a 'mystery play'. Certainly, it's a work whose characters and debate emerge out of the continual reassessment about America that goes on in the unconscious when you leave the States. As Cody is led away and back to his homeland, he speaks about dreaming and coming to terms with being a perpetual exile from the world. Dreaming is no longer an escape from an oppressive world but a creative source for survival. 'In a sacred way. This day. Sacred. I was walking in my dreams. A great circle. I was walking and I stopped. Even after the smoke cleared I couldn't see my home. Not even a familiar rock. You could tell me it was anywhere and I'd believe ya. You could tell me it was any old where …'.

Shepard, who has put himself outside the killing commercial climate of American life and theatre for the last few years, seems to be saying in this beautiful speech that the only real geography is internal. The world of keepers and the kept, the debased dreamers and the prophets, remains in every society. But once you've conquered the inner landscape, knowing how to use the visionary power and protect it, then it doesn't matter where you do your dreaming.

John Lahr, in Plays and Players, April, 1974, pp. 46-7.